Vin Diesel on 'Fate of the Furious' and his feud with The Rock: 'I'm a good scapegoat'

Vin Diesel is a tough guy tender enough to remember the last time he cried. Sitting in an exquisitely upholstered chair of a Beverly Hills hotel suite discussing his “dark” turn in the latest “Fast & Furious” film, he describes an emotional episode that transpired two days before, a familiar glint of mischief flashing in his eyes.

Like many of Diesel’s larger-than-life stories, including those he’s been telling on-screen as the star of the $3.9 billion “Fast and Furious” franchise since 2001, this one involves family and new frontiers for the global action hero — as well as the goofy side he shares with his 101 million fans on Facebook, or “Vinbook,” where he’s known to post sentimental tributes to his late friend and costar Paul Walker along with videos of himself belting out Katy Perry and Rihanna karaoke jams.

And like just about all of the stories he shares as you spend time in his orbit, the showman in Diesel can’t help but draw out the drama. Even if it means interrupting our chat about “The Fate of the Furious,” the eighth installment of the Universal Pictures franchise, which is already hurtling toward a massive opening weekend that analysts say could top $400 million worldwide in the same frame that “Furious 7” scored a stunning $147 million domestic and $384 million global debut two years ago.

So, about that time he cried. Diesel pulls out his phone and FaceTimes a friend to help with the story. Celebrity DJ Steve Aoki picks up with a grin: “Vin!”

They describe a monster track they recorded earlier that week in Las Vegas with Diesel on vocals, a secret project few know about. And when the “Fast & Furious” megastar played the track for his girlfriend — and mother of his three children — Paloma Jimenez the next day, it brought Diesel to tears.

Neither Aoki nor Diesel will play the song or even reveal what it’s called. But, raves Aoki from Mexico before the video chat cuts out, “What Vin brought to the table, I’ve never experienced before. I think it’s going to blow people’s minds.” Diesel’s eyes widen, overjoyed.

He turns to me, smiling ear to ear. “You just got gold. You. Just. Got. GOLD!” Later, he grins to an assistant whose job is to film Diesel’s every move. “I’m gonna get a Grammy before I get an Oscar!”

At 49, Diesel is a unicorn in Hollywood: A multicultural, multi-franchise star (“Fast & Furious,” “xXx,” “Riddick”) with international box office draw who, thanks to a producing deal that sprang from an eleventh-hour cameo tacked onto the back of the third “Fast” movie, also enjoys nearly unrivaled creative control over his own fate in one of the biggest blockbuster properties in the world.

Tom Cruise might have similar pull over the “Mission: Impossible” series. But Cruise’s power comes in part from the three Oscar nominations under his belt, accolades that have evaded Diesel.

Two years ago while promoting “Furious 7,” the emotional James Wan-directed series farewell to costar Paul Walker, who died during the making of the film, Diesel predicted it should win best picture at the Oscars. (Despite the overwhelming positive reviews, the film academy did not agree.) That longing still seems to be on Diesel’s mind with “Fate of the Furious,” which packs more Oscar-caliber talent into its cast than any of its predecessors.

Earlier in the day, during an interview with “Fate” and “Straight Outta Compton” director F. Gary Gray, Diesel bursts into the room, chased by an entourage of frantic wranglers, to wax ecstatic about his old friend. The star points to Gray and roars: “You’re gonna see a lot of people talking about this guy during award season!”

During the challenging “Fate” shoot they discovered their July birthdays were a day apart, under the same zodiac sign. “The shorthand was even shorter,” says Gray, who was recruited to the franchise 16 years after working with Diesel on the vigilante drama “A Man Apart.” “I’d walk onto set and say, ‘Don’t Cancer up on me now!’”

“We had each other’s back more than anybody in the whole 5,000 team production,” Diesel adds. “I wish all films had that … because it doesn’t exist all the time.”

Born Mark Sinclair in Northern California, Diesel grew up a theater kid on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, a world away from flying sports cars out of skyscrapers in Dubai and outracing submarines on frozen plains in Iceland. His career began in typical indie film fashion when he wrote, directed and starred in “Multi-Facial,” a 1995 short film about a multiracial actor struggling to get hired in Hollywood.

Steven Spielberg saw the film and cast Diesel in “Saving Private Ryan,” his first bona fide studio acting gig. Within a few years Diesel was carrying back-to-back hits in films that would eventually turn into full-fledged action franchises: “Pitch Black,” “The Fast and the Furious” and “xXx.”

He shrugs remembering how he walked away from the first “Fast” sequel leaving millions on the table, dissatisfied with the direction of his character. But “Tokyo Drift” director Justin Lin tempted him back for a cameo that would link the third movie to the first two, and by 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” Diesel was back — as star and producer.

Since then, Diesel has helped the franchise evolve from its bromantic Los Angeles-set street racing origins into a global blockbuster series whose fans keep coming back for Toretto’s brooding heroism, those fast cars, a charismatic cast of international costars, bombastic set pieces and one crucial central concept: “Family.”

Michelle Rodriguez, who plays Diesel’s longtime love and right hand wheelwoman Letty Ortiz, has been a pivotal member of the franchise since the first “Fast & Furious” movie. She credits Diesel for championing the “family” theme that has become emblematic of the series.

“It’s something that came out of Vin’s mouth when he didn’t like the line that was there, and I love how it caught wildfire,” she says over the phone from New York. “At the end of the day the movie is all about that. If you’ve got no heart to keep together all the blowing up and explosions, nobody really cares.”

The “Fast & Furious” movies, to date, have raced to more than $3.9 billion at the box office. Diesel is proud that the franchise and its post-racial heroes have proved that diversity can sell tickets both at home and overseas, something he argued to studio execs long before #OscarsSoWhite.

But, he asks playfully, but maybe kind of seriously too, “When’s it going to be ‘Oscars So Vin?’”

“Fate” ostensibly gives Diesel more of what his inner artist craves: Intense character drama to mine as Dom Toretto, happily honeymooning in Havana, is blackmailed to the dark side by a cyberhacker named Cipher (Charlize Theron, in long blond dreadlocks). She’s got leverage against him he can’t ignore, directly involving his — you guessed it — family.

The pitch: “Dom goes dark.”

And so Toretto betrays his family, creating space for returning franchise stars Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham to bruise their way through their own beefed-up story arcs. They’re joined by veterans Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell and Nathalie Emmanuel plus newcomers Helen Mirren and Scott Eastwood, who muscle into the “Fast” family as it zooms from Cuba to New York City to Iceland, setting up the next two sequels in the process.

“I’ve been able to satisfy a lot of my director urge by being a producer,” says Diesel, who’s attached to a “Kojak” movie he says Universal also wants him to direct, although he’s loathe to tie himself up for the length of time it would take to helm as well as star.

One of Diesel’s last directing credits is “Los Bandoleros,” a 2009 “Fast & Furious” short film leading into the events of the fourth film. He says the “Fast” movies give him space to stretch his filmmaker yearnings, to some degree. “I’m the one that dreams up all these stories, I’m the one that hires the directors — I greenlight the damn thing!” he exclaims.

“I’m the only on-set producer — for real,” he adds. (Series producer Neal Moritz, screenwriter Chris Morgan and Michael Fottrell are also producers on “Fate.”) “I go to set on days I’m not filming to put out fires, to make sure this person doesn’t argue with this person. I’m the person they all come to.”

But not all fires on the “Fate” set could be contained. He doesn’t deny rumors of an on-set beef with Johnson, who publicly called out his male costars toward the end of the “Fate” shoot in an expletive-filled Instagram post, reportedly aimed at Diesel, that’s been viewed over 4 million times.

“You can’t really feud with me too much if I’m hiring you, right?” Diesel smiles enigmatically. He confirms that following Johnson’s post, he paid a visit to Johnson’s trailer the next day to squash the drama. “People are all human. I think it was a hard shoot. I’m a good scapegoat, like if someone messes up on scheduling.…”

Tyrese Gibson, who’s been with the franchise since his character Roman Pearce revved around Miami with Walker’s Brian O’Conner in the Diesel-less “2 Fast 2 Furious,” downplays the beef.

“It is literally impossible to think that you can have any work environment where you have to be around people every day all day, and it’s never going to come down to egos and people trying to outdo and upstage each other,” he says.

Rodriguez concurs. “There’s no family that’s never had a disagreement — and if you have that kind of family, I give kudos to you, and I think you’re in some ‘Stepford Wives’-type of weird middle American suburb somewhere that’s full of A.I., because in real life I’ve never had a family that didn’t have some type of conflict,” she said with a laugh. (Johnson, who stood by his post in an interview last fall with The Times, was not available to comment.)

“I think his post came out of a frustration, and he’s human,” Diesel says of Johnson, who was absent from the film’s CinemaCon presentation this month (as was Rodriguez). “I protect all of my actors, and I protect him. I take pride in having him in the franchise. I take pride in how his character goes.”

Diesel dismisses persistent media speculation over their ongoing friction as “clown stuff.” “I’m proud of Dwayne. He’s my little brother, and I’m going to make sure he shines.”

He dials his signature Diesel charm back up and jokes that even Universal uses him as a scapegoat — like when he made the announcement last year on social media that “Fast 9” and “Fast 10” were already dated for release in April 2019 and April 2021, respectively.

“I think they do that to bind me to them. ‘Let’s just say Vin did it!’” he roars, mock-recoiling at the thought of doing eight, nine, or 10 more of these movies.

Hollywood watchers wouldn’t be shocked to see the studio extend the profitable franchise’s planned “Fast 10” conclusion by sending Dom Toretto and his team of turbocharged misfit heroes into countless more adventures — with Diesel, whose real life and screen life families have become so intertwined, at the center of it all.

“When you’re the heart and soul of a franchise,” shrugs Diesel, “you get blamed for the good and the bad.”

jen.yamato@latimes.com

@jenyamato

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