Vin Diesel arrives at the end of a long day of interviews looking as if he had been literally hit by a truck. Collapsing on the floor, he apologises in advance if he appears somewhat drunk. Whatever one’s opinion of Diesel, and opinions certainly do vary, it is easy enough to be smitten by the man’s ease of charm, and vibrant sense of humour.
Weaning a bold, shiny blue shirt with painted elephants emblazoned on it in all their glory and an elephant bracelet [the purpose of which becomes clarified as we speak], one is trying to ascertain what repetitive questions not to ask, given his look of anguish at the end of the day. “At some press junkets, you get questions that you don’t want to be asked, but for some reason, at this press junket, I have been asked wonderful, incredible, intelligent, insightful questions.” Perhaps that will change, we both agree laughingly, as we sit around about to begin to add insight into his latest film, The Chronicles of Riddick.
Diesel is that rare breed of Hollywood star, one that tries not to take himself too seriously as a star, but as an actor, well that is a horse of an entirely different colour. This is a man who was brought up on a world of fantasy, and, like a grown-up child, sparkles at the very mention of one of his primary influences: Dungeons and Dragons. Or perhaps, one questions, it was just a rumour that Dungeons has spoken to the child within for some two decades. He rolls back on his chair and merely smiles. “I never play D&D,” he begins with mock seriousness. “For some reason, they thought that I played D&D for 20 years. They thought that I spent years playing Barbarians, Witchunters the Arcanum. They thought I still played D&D back in the ’70s when it’s just the basic D&D set. They thought I continued to play D&D when it became Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. They thought I played D&D when there were only three books – the Player’s Handbook, and the DM’s Guide. They thought I played D&D as it continued onto the Unearthed Arcanum, Oriental Adventures, Sea Adventures, and Wilderness Adventures. They thought I played D&D at the time when Deities and Demigods was the brand new book. They thought I played D&D when I used to get up to a place called The Complete Strategist in New York.” We get the point as he smilingly mouths: I’m into D&D a lot. “It was a training ground for a lot of my adventures.”
These adventures initiated as childhood games, but have since morphed into the world of Riddick, about to unfold in a movie multiplex near you, or “the concept of creating a world of neutrality.” Before Hollywood set about creating Vin Diesel and his unique persona, Diesel was on his way either Saving Private Ryan or entering the futuristic world of Pitch Black. Diesel knew, after playing Riddick in the latter, that he would eventually re-visit that character. Why? “‘Cause he’s the coolest fucking character I’ve ever come across,” Diesel laughingly enthuses.
“Cool,” he says, because “he’s the quintessential antihero and we all know how much I love antiheroes. It takes you 45 minutes in the movie just for Riddick to understand the word ‘heroism’, let alone for anyone to hope that he can be heroic. That’s cool and real, so you can invest in this guy’s spiritual growth. He’s a guy that embraces that indifference and doesn’t care what anybody thinks about it, who wants to be left alone.” This is also a character with whom Diesel can identify. “I relate to his defiance. You know it’s no secret that I had a problem with authority.” The loner aspect of Riddick comes across in Diesel, rarely seen in public with a partner, for instance, arriving solo to the premieres of his films. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even go and no one would even see me before the movie, because I want you to enjoy the experience and for you to buy into the character as much as possible. I don’t want to bring any of my personal stuff and crowd anyone’s mind before they sit down and get into the experience. I feel like it would only cheat so I’ve tried to stay away from that.”
Perhaps for that reason, Diesel has managed to deflect the public away from his personal life. It’s all about the work and the actor remains a self-admitted workaholic. Yet, despite recent failures at the box office post-XXX, Diesel denies any pressure to turn the potential Riddick franchise into a major success. He produced the movie and fulfilled a personal ambition. Anything else is pure gravy. “For some reason, I was more nervous last night [at the premiere] than I have ever been at any premiere, because it was something that I had been working on for five years that is so close, been such a labour of love and that made me anxious for some reason. Having said that, the second I finished my first day of shooting with Judi Dench, I won, because I had accomplished a real goal. The second the studio green lit this epic that didn’t spawn from a book or hadn’t been in existence for 50 years, or didn’t come from a comic book character, I was satisfied.”
From the earliest moments I first met Diesel, back when he was shooting Pitch Black in Australia, there was always a sense of passionate ambition within him. He had written and directed his short film Multi Facial, which led him to Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan. Reflecting on his journey from Multi Facial to Riddick, Diesel is quietly reflective. “I started acting at seven years old but it took me 20 years to understand that if I was going to make my dreams a reality. I had to take the reign and learn something about being productive and self-sufficient. I had to be productive at all costs and I HAD to make product, because I was going around, telling everyone I was an actor and unless you were coming to a theatrical play I was in, you would never know.”
He says “it’s debatable” that the man sitting in this Beverly Hills hotel room is all that different to the man that made Multi Facial. Yet at the time of XXX, Hollywood was preparing to build Diesel and turn him into the next Hollywood superstar. One recalls throughout that press junket, how nervous and apprehensive Diesel was about impending fame. These days, he is more circumspect on that subject. “It’s a double edged sword, in that the more successful your film is, the more famous you become. We all think of fame as being great. The wonderful thing about it is the bankability that comes with it, the ability to do things like The Chronicles of Riddick and to tell somebody: ‘Hey, man, there’s this cool idea, that can incorporate all these fantasy and sci-fi elements’ The tricky part is that your private life is that much more threatened.” So to deal with that threat, Diesel has always immersed himself into his work. “Every time you’ve talked to me, I’m always talking about some project I want to do. You remember years ago when you sat down and talked to me, I was talking about The Chronicles of Riddick? Before Universal knew The Chronicles of Riddick, you knew I was talking about it.”
Some may argue that he should not have passed on both The Fast and the Furious or XXX sequels, especially given the huge success of the former. “I never do sequels in a reactionary way.” Yet he won’t be drawn as to whether or not he can be persuaded to the third Fast and the Furious. “I haven’t seen a script, so it would be unfair for me to say that I would rule something out without seeing one,” he says smilingly.
Diesel still yearns to star in a remake of the musical Guys and Dolls, and elephant bracelet that he is wearing relates, of course, to the actor’s other pet project: Hannibal, which he has also been talking about in several press junkets. “David Franzoni, who has written Gladiator and Amistad, has handed in an incredible script and Sylvaine Dupris, who is Ridley Scott’s storyboard artist and storyboarded Gladiator, has been working with me for the last month.” And with the recent success of Passion of the Christ, Diesel hopes to shoot a “multi-lingual version of Hannibal the Conqueror.”
When, one finally asks, does Diesel have time for a life. “That’s a good question,” he concludes smilingly.