The Very Beginning
Vin Diesel was born Mark Sinclair (you didn’t think that was his real name, did you?), and he grew up in New York City with his mother, Delora, and his step-father, Irving. Irving was an acting instructor, which undoubtedly has something to do with Diesel’s passion for the craft.
His first foray into the world of acting was a complete accident. At the age of 7, he and his friends broke into a local theater with plans to do a little vandalism. They were caught in the act, but instead of being punished, artistic director Crystal Field struck a deal with the boys: if they came to act and work with the theater, she wouldn’t turn them in. Diesel started coming in every night, and soon appeared in their production of Dinosaur Door.
He went on to attend Hunter College to study English, turning his talents to screenwriting (and bouncing in the evenings, which is where he decided to change his name). He also spent a brief moment as a breakdancer, with a haircut that will make your day!
Never Give Up
After dropping out of Hunter to focus on his acting career, Diesel struggled to find work (like many aspiring actors). He found that his ambiguous ethnicity didn’t make his life any easier when it came to casting and dealt with rejection and uncredited bit parts. Instead of giving up, Diesel decided that he would write, produce, and star in his own films.
His first short film was Multi-Facial (1995), a semi-autobiographical story of a struggling actor dealing with issues of race in the casting world. The film was accepted by the Cannes film festival, despite its tiny budget of $3,000. Following Multi-Facial, Diesel made his first full-length film: Strays(1997). The film is another semi-autobiographical drama, this time dealing with growing up in NYC, and looking at gang culture. Like Multi-Facial, he raised the money to make it on his own, and it made it into film festivals — this time, the 1997 Sundance Festival.
The Big Break: Saving Private Ryan(1998)
Diesel was launched to fame in 1998, when he was cast in the Oscar-winning film Saving Private Ryan. The tale of World War II soldiers going behind enemy lines to rescue a comrade was one of the biggest films of the decade, and although Diesel’s character (Private Caparzo) is killed off toward the beginning of the mission, the role was big enough to have everyone talking about him. Interestingly, this is a character type that Vin Diesel plays again and again: the strong man with a heart of gold.
Amazingly enough, Saving Private Ryan was his first credited role as an actor in something he didn’t fund, write, and produce. This amazing leap was due to the incredible work he did in Multi-Facial, which inspired Spielberg to cast him in the war epic.
A Fast (and Furious) Rising Star
Diesel has been part of a whole range of action movies, from Boiler Room to xXx to A Man Apart to Knockaround Guys. He routinely plays the action hero—a gangster and a brawler, often going up against the law. However, his roles are rarely just one-dimensional, beat-em-up characters — with Diesel always managing to bring a depth of heart and emotion to his work.
Possibly his most famous character, Dominic Toretto, was also one of the first ones he played, when he was cast in The Fast and The Furious in 2001. Only his sixth ever role in a big-budget production, the incredible success of the film spawned a franchise that is still going. It seems that, like the cars Toretto loves, his career went from 0-60 in mere seconds!
The Fast and the Furious was a breakthrough role for another incredible actor, the late Paul Walker. The two struck up an immediate friendship that brought them as close as brothers over the years, and Paul’s tragic passing was a heartbreaking loss for Diesel.
The Real-Life Chronicles of Riddick
Probably Diesel’s second best-known role is that of sci-fi mercenary, Riddick. Pitch Black, the film that launched the franchise, was released in 2000, and was nominated for a Saturn Award. While not the overwhelming success that some of this other roles were, the story of Riddick was one that spoke to Diesel on a deeper level. Despite being routinely typecast as a gangster-figure, Diesel is, in fact, something of a nerd! The actor is a huge fan of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons and a lover of all things sci-fi. He has also talked about a deep affinity with the underdog character and is clearly very emotionally invested. He reveled in the role of Riddick, and returned to play him again and again, even lending his voice him to the video games based on the films.
In fact, he loved the sci-fi series so much that after the follow up (The Chronicles of Riddick) didn’t do as well as the studio hoped, he decided that he wanted to take over the franchise himself. When Universal Studios asked Diesel to cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift(and return to center stage for the fourth installment), he decided to do a little bargaining. In the end, he did the cameo not for a fee, but in exchange for the rights to the Riddick franchise. Rights in hand, he leveraged his own home in order to fund the next film in the series, simply titled Riddick. In terms of passion projects, this one goes in the record books!
Voice Acting and the Marvel Cinematic Universe
With a distinctive voice that is somehow both gravelly and spine-tinglingly soft, it’s surprising that Diesel hasn’t done more voice acting over the years — clearly he is simply too busy making incredible live-actions!
However, he has two very famous voice acting roles under his belt: the title character in The Iron Giant (1999) and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Many don’t realize that Diesel was the soft-hearted robot from outer space, but now that a sequel to the hit children’s movie is being hinted, he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves for the role.
As Groot in the comic book blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, Diesel manages to infuse an incredible level of depth and emotion to only five words. Fans can’t wait to see him reprise the role for Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017), and it seems that Marvel is so happy with him that he may even get a second part in the MCU as Black Bolt in the upcomingInhumans movie!
The Last Witch Hunter—His Next Standout Role?
Diesel has an impressive number of projects in the pipeline; as well as the above-mentioned Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Furious 8, the potential follow up to The Iron Giant and the rumors of an Inhumans role, he is revisiting the xXx franchise with upcoming xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. It’s been over a decade since the first film came out, but it’s obvious that this is another role that Diesel is thrilled about and that his super stardom will bring in the crowds for. Another war film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is also due for release next year.
We don’t have to wait that long to see him, though. His latest offering,The Last Witch Hunter, hits theaters this week, and it’s sure to be a doozy! Telling the story of an immortal warrior with a tragic past (and a flaming sword!), Vin Diesel stars as Kaulder, another role that is sure to involve lots of his trademark fight scenes. It’s one that also appeals to the fantasy-lover and RPG player in him, with plenty of mystic forces and ancient weapons to keep the nerdiest heart happy.
The trailer for this fantasy epic looks absolutely stunning, and Diesel’s incredible popularity is bound to be a draw for crowds on top of that. Could this be the perfect combination for the next huge fantasy blockbuster? I truly hope so, but even if it doesn’t make mainstream success, it seems that Diesel is more than willing to put his passion behind the projects that speak to him, so fans may not have to rely on box office numbers to be granted a sequel in the future.
The Last Witch Hunter hits theaters tomorrow!