Vin Diesel, jaw clenched and brow knitted, was pacing the commissary patio of NBC’s Burbank studios in a state of coiled discontent. He had taken issue with a notion about him that has been floating around Hollywood for the last few years. Namely, that the actor’s ego is even more outsized and buffed up than his muscle-bound physique. And that Diesel had turned his back on sequels to “The Fast and the Furious” -- the cinematic thrill ride that made him a household name -- out of some overly inflated sense of self.
“If somebody wanted to say my ego prevented the second one from being a real sequel, that’s cool,” said Diesel, wearing wrap-around sunglasses and a T-shirt that emphasized his grapefruit-sized biceps. “I turned down $25 million for my ego? If my ego is healthy enough to say, ‘I’m not going to do a . . . rehash of the same film just because you want me to do it quickly’ ” -- he slapped his palm with the back of his hand impatiently -- “that’s my ego! My ego is that big!”
In 2001, the chrome-domed actor cruised onto the A-list as the star of “The Fast and the Furious,” which followed a multiculti band of Angeleno street racers (and the women who love them). The movie was a surprise hit and surpassed all expectations, grossing $207 million worldwide. But then, Diesel declined to re-up for its sequel “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003) and seemingly bailed on the franchise except for an unpublicized cameo in 2006’s “The Fast and Furious 3: Tokyo Drift.” The intervening films found some success at the box office, but no true sequel reuniting all of the original cast members (Jordana Brewster, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez) has reached the screen until now, with Diesel headlining the economically titled fourth installment, “Fast & Furious,” which reaches theaters tomorrow.
Diesel had just appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” but the actor -- who broke character type by working with director Sidney Lumet on 2006’s modestly budgeted “Find Me Guilty” -- was only getting started on the E-word.
“If someone defines my ego as being the last arbiter on quality on a script, then so be it. My ego is so big that I’m going to say, ‘Whoa, kemosabe!’ My ego is big enough that I’m going to say: ‘Not interested. I’d rather not have this wonderful opportunity. I’d rather not have the money and work for free with Sidney Lumet.’ Because of my damn ego.”
And yet here is Diesel reprising his role of Dominic Toretto -- a wheelman with a heavy right foot and antifreeze in his veins -- whose motto in the first “Fast” film is: “I live my life one quarter mile at a time.” In “Fast & Furious” his character, now an international fugitive, returns to Los Angeles after being wronged by a ruthless drug cartel. Abetted by the undercover cop (Walker) who nearly brought him down in “The Fast and the Furious,” Toretto infiltrates a cadre of drug runners -- who race the product in from Mexico in the trunks of souped-up hot rods -- in order to exact his revenge on their kingpin.
The actor says his decision to pass on the second “Fast” film -- not to mention turning down “xXx2,” the sequel to his 2002 hit “xXx” -- was dictated by the quality of the material as well as a fear of getting stuck in a certain character type.
“I always get afraid of being pigeonholed,” Diesel said. “Which is why it takes me so long to return to characters. Probably longer than most people would like. But the real reason why I didn’t return to the characters is the scripts hadn’t been right. The characters haven’t been right. It’s not like I ever said I wouldn’t be there.”
To wit: When the director of “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” Justin Lin, approached Diesel about making a cameo appearance in that film, the actor ignored his representatives’ advice. “All my reps, including my agent, said, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Diesel recalled. “They felt it could be me misleading the audience and was too risky. They said, ‘You could run the risk of having your audience feel you were part of a bait-and-switch.’ ”
Ultimately, however, that cameo brought him back into the fold. It opened negotiations that led to Universal, the studio distributing “Fast & Furious,” making Diesel an offer he couldn’t refuse. “We started talking to him about developing a Dominic Toretto movie,” said Neil Moritz, who produced all four “Fast and the Furious” movies. “We were calling it ‘Toretto.’ It wasn’t going to bring the whole cast back. But that was the jumping-off point for the new movie.”
“Toretto” was eventually back-burnered in favor of reassembling the original cast. Diesel exercised creative control in updating the characters’ motivations -- such as Walker’s police detective character coming to terms with his conflicted code of honor amid skid-outs, gun blasts and car crashes -- and “redefining their existence in weird ways.” And he shot a 20-minute prequel to “Fast & Furious” called “Los Bandoleros” that Diesel says will explain what the “Fast” characters have been doing in the years since viewers last saw Toretto. (The short will be included on the movie’s DVD release.)
“It’s Dom in the Dominican Republic. How I reconnect with Michelle [Rodriguez’s character],” he said. “There’s no car chases, no car scenes. It’s all character. Justin always calls it the ‘Anti-Fast.’ ”
Lin recalls spending hours discussing half a page of dialogue with Diesel, whom he describes as “meticulous.” But the director also bonded with the actor whose early experience as a director (Diesel’s feature directorial debut “Strays” premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival) caught the attention of Steven Spielberg and led to Diesel getting cast in his breakthrough role as a World War II grunt in “Saving Private Ryan.”
“Vin doesn’t make things easy,” Lin said. “If I didn’t come into the film with clear ideas of what I wanted to accomplish, there would have been big trouble.”
Moritz said: “It’s not about ego. Vin just wants what’s best for the movie.”
His own path
In the years since Diesel gained entrance to the celebrity firmament, the actor says he passed up several high-profile movies (though he declines to mention specific titles) to chart his own course. He’s had some hits -- 2006’s kid flick “The Pacifier” chief among them -- but more flops, such as the sci-fi failures “The Chronicles of Riddick” and “Babylon A.D.”
Packing on 30 pounds to portray real-life mobster Giacomo “Jackie” DiNorscio in Oscar-winner Lumet’s little-seen comedy drama “Find Me Guilty” proved to be a career turning point. Diesel won critical praise for the role, but more important, and in his own mind perhaps more than any critic’s, established his bona fides as a Serious Actor.
“He really gave me a forum to break type,” Diesel said of Lumet. “That absolved me from being pigeonholed. It’s on record.”
And for the last six years, Diesel has remained relentlessly dedicated to bringing a biopic about the Carthaginian military commander Hannibal to the screen. Over that time, producers have balked at its initial price tag of $230 million as well as Diesel’s insistence on directing. Still, the ambiguously ethnic actor has gone as far as hiring a screenwriter to translate the script he and other writers have been working on into Punic -- an ancient language that has been extinct for more than 2,000 years.
Diesel said he identified with Hannibal on several levels.
“It’s about overcoming insurmountable odds. But nothing speaks more to me than the fact that this was the first champion of multiculturalism,” he said. “Rome’s empire flourished because they were able to adopt the idea that many nationalities could coexist together. They learned that from Hannibal.”
He weighed the consequences of pursuing his dream project.
“It takes someone with enough of an ego to believe they can tell this story better than anybody else. That’s where I’m at,” Diesel said, breaking into a wide grin. “They can’t stop me. They can stomp me. Kick me when I’m down. But they won’t stop me. Cross your fingers for me, brother!”