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Vin Diesel - Biography

Vin Diesel

Personal details

Name: Vin Diesel
Born: 18 July 1967 (Age: 46)
Where: New York City, New York USA
Height: 6' 3"
Awards: No major awards

All about this star

Biography:

Every new generation demands its own action heroes. The Seventies had Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood: the Eighties brought Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson: the Nineties gave us Costner and Cruise. Then came the Noughties, complete with computer-generated super-SFX and anti-establishment, skateboard-slacker attitudes. A new kind of hero was called for, a man with the physique for the new extremes of stunt-filled action. He must have a true heart but have his morals warped and emotions hammered by the soul-destroying deceit of what passes for civilisation today. And he must, in a Western society gradually driving racism to the peripheries, be multi-ethnic. Step forward Vin Diesel: muscle-man thespian of no distinct ethnic origin- the first new cinematic superstar of the new Millennium.

He was born Mark Vincent on the 18th of July, 1967, in New York City. Never knowing his biological father, he was told by his astrologer mother Delora (holder of a master's degree in psychology) that he had many different cultural roots - African-American, Italian and possibly Cuban, amongst others. "I've always had less information than I would like to have had", he said later. Matters of identity were further confused by his twin brother, Paul, now a film editor, being blonde with blue eyes.

Young Mark was raised, along with Paul and two younger siblings, in the Westbeth project in Greenwich Village, a government-funded block peopled only by artists. Here he received a major grounding in the imaginative arts, not least from his adoptive father, Irving, an actor and drama teacher.

The kids would go swimming down at the Carmine Street pool, and play hide and seek on the broken-down piers on the Hudson River. And they'd get involved in the project's various projects. Mark made his starring debut onstage when only 5. He wasn't supposed to be the star, he was supposed to be a horse in a kids' production of Cinderella. But Paul, cast as Prince Charming, suffered stage fright after the first act and Mark, never slow in coming forward, stepped into the lead role.

Financially, times were usually hard. "Nobody had money", recalls Vin "so there was this underlying resentment towards money". Consequently, people would make their own entertainment. At 12, Mark became involved in a Sunday night game of Dungeons & Dragons organised by a friend's mother. He became heavily involved in the game and was still buying paraphernalia over 20 years later, when role-playing had become his career as well as his hobby.

At school, Mark was troubled by an ongoing identity crisis, not fitting into any particular group. He'd find some relief, by fluke, at age 7. With friends, he'd broken into Manhattan's Theatre for the New City, intent upon vandalism and a few laughs. After busting and scrawling a little, they were messing around in the mezzanine when, suddenly, a heavyset woman appeared onstage, under a spotlight. Convinced she'd call the cops, the kids froze in horror. But, instead, she handed each of them a script and some money, with the words "If you guys want to play here, come every day at 4 o'clock. Here's $20 a week. Know your lines".

The woman was Crystal Field, artistic director of the theatre, and dedicated to developing artists from low income groups and minority communities. It was she who'd be directly responsible for Mark's future development. He did turn up every day at 4, and took to stage-life with glee. "That was the first time I was ever able to make a whole audience laugh", he later recalled "without getting sent to the Dean's office". Perhaps more importantly, he enjoyed slipping into character. "I found there was something refreshing about having my identity be crystal clear".

In the meantime, Mark picked up a penchant for extreme sports that would also serve him well later. Along with the other kids, he'd strap on his rollerblades and hang on to the fenders of the city's notorious taxi-cabs, often achieving speeds of over 50mph.

Like many men with a confused sense of self, Mark looked for confidence in body-building. Up until the age of 15, he was just a tall kid with a big Afro and a bigger mouth, seeking attention wherever he could find it. At 15, though, he began lifting weights and hanging with an older crew. "I've worked out for years", he explained later "For a long time it was my only sense of gratification". He began to go out clubbing, attending Studio 54 and, later, the Danceteria. And it was clubbing that gave him the connections to get his first job - at 17, as a bouncer. This would provide cash while he acted with Irving's repertory company and in off-Off-Broadway productions. It would also give him his stage name. It was traditional for bouncers to choose rock-hard monikers for themselves. Vin Diesel was as good as any.

Hoping to make his acting education official, Vin now applied for an elite drama course at the State University of New York at New Paltz, north of the metropolis, near Poughkeepsie (the town immortalised by Gene Hackman's feet-picking line in The French Connection). He was turned down, the first of many set-backs. Instead, he enrolled at Hunter College in New York City, majoring in English, but he wouldn't see out the full course, preferring to spend his days acting on stage and on local TV, and his nights bouncing at the hip likes of Mars and The Tunnel. By the late Eighties, though, times had changed on the door. Gangsta culture had sprung up and now it was necessary for bouncers to wear bullet-proof vests.

Where before his peers had been college guys, keen and able to talk art and philosophy, now Vin's bouncer-brothers were less intellectually inclined. After 9 years on the job, having seen one friend shot and another have his throat cut with a razor (he survived, thankfully), Vin would jack it in for good.

. Ever ambitious, he decided that his future lay in Hollywood, so he took off for LA, telling everyone he'd return a star. It wouldn't be that easy. For a start, he later explained, his years as a bouncer had given him a measured confidence that worked against him at interviews and auditions. Physically intimidating, focused and intense, he inadvertently gave people the impression that, if he didn't get the part, someone was going to get hurt. No one reacted well to THAT.

Beyond this, that question of race was raised again. Vin was deemed too black to play Italian, too white to be a homeboy. Supporting himself by using his natural charm to sell light-bulbs and gardening implements over the phone, he struggled on for a while. But it proved to be no good. He returned to New York, not a star at all.

Back home, he lived with his mum and dad, building himself what he called "a hobbit hole" on the landing between the first and second floors. Realising that he would have launch himself, rather than rely on some lucky break, he spent his days immersing himself in cinema, studying the work of Clark Gable (he loves It Happened One Night), Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier. He devoured all the new art movies, all the independents, too, gaining new confidence all the while. "If a Henry Jaglom film doesn't make you feel confident enough to make films", he joked later "I don't know what will".

Eventually, his mother stepped in with a little common-sense help. Presenting him with a copy of Rick Schmidt's book Feature Films At Used Car Prices, she set him on the path to self-help. With an idea for a short screenplay, he bought a word processor, wrote the piece inside 30 days, and took the WP back to the shop, it still being within the guaranteed return period. On a budget of $3000, Multi-Facial was shot in 3 days. In it, Vin starred as, well, as himself, really, playing a multi-ethnic actor who, deemed suitable for neither black nor white roles, tries a different ethnicity for each audition and fails every time.

Released in 1994, Multi-Facial was shown the next year at the Cannes Film Festival, causing something of a stir. On the strength of this, Vin returned to LA and, telemarketing once more, managed to raise $50,000 for his next effort, a study in misogyny called Strays, once more starring and directed by Vin himself. The movie was accepted by and shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, but did not sell well. Vin returned to New York once more, wondering what the hell he had to do to make it.

Then, out of the blue, a call came through, a dream call from Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg, impressed by a viewing of Multi-Facial, said he was writing a part for Vin in his next epic, to be titled Saving Private Ryan. Thus 1998 saw Vin employed in Tom Hanks' band of brothers (alongside fellow newcomers Barry Pepper and Giovanni Ribisi) as they crossed war-torn France in search of Matt Damon. It was a brief part, Private Adrian Caparzo being the first of the platoon to die, but it was an absurdly impressive big feature debut. Vin's second major role, too, was Multi-Facial-inspired. Director Brad Bird was also taken by Vin's performance and had him provide the voice for the titular monster in The Iron Giant, an animation based on a story by Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, co-starring Jennifer Aniston.

. And it wasn't just Multi-Facial that was catching the eye of the industry's prime movers. Strays, too, had had an effect. Producer Ted Field had seen the movie at Sundance and made contact with Vin. He was particularly keen on Vin writing a screenplay based on his experiences as a bouncer. Vin, in turn, was interested in a movie Field was developing, a sci-fi thriller called Pitch Black. He hounded Field till allowed to audition - and thus won the part that would make his name.

Having been turned down by Joel Schumacher for the part of Robert De Niro's transvestite voice coach in Flawless due to his physique (as he said himself: "I have obviously spent my life celebrating masculinity"), having turned down a villain-role in Shaft, and having walked off the Ben Affleck-starring Reindeer Games due to his part not being enlarged as promised, Pitch Black more than made up for the disappointment. Here he was Richard B. Riddick, a condemned murderer being transported between planets and jails. Unfortunately, the space-craft is hit by a meteor storm and forced to crash-land on a planet previously colonised, but where all the inhabitants mysteriously disappeared during an eclipse. Another eclipse is coming and, being as they last for years, things are not looking good, especially when the survivors realise there are creatures here that live and feed in the dark.

It was a superior thriller, interesting in that it deliberately blurred the edges between good and evil, with none of the characters being obviously likeable. And Vin stood out, so much so that the script, which originally had him die in the finale, was changed to allow Riddick to appear in a sequel. This made all the pain of the shoot worthwhile. With Riddick having had his eyes polished and lasered in jail, Vin had to wear contact lenses that gave off a weird metallic glow. After the first day's shoot, lasting 14 hours, the lenses fused to his eyes, forcing the producers to fly in a specialist from a town three hours away - the shoot taking place in the Australian outback, where Mad Max had been filmed two decades before.

Despite the Reindeer Games fiasco, Vin now found himself starring alongside Ben Affleck (and Ribisi) in Boiler Room. Here Ribisi played a young hustler who gets drawn into a shady world of illegal brokers, led by Affleck, who's playing much the same character as Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross. Diesel shone once more as one of the young stars of the firm. Drunk, violent and a bad, bad lad, he's nevertheless the only one with any honour. A complicated character, as all Diesel's characters would henceforth be.

Pitch Black and Boiler Room were released on the same day in 2000, immediately marking Vin as one to watch. Critic Roger Ebert noted his potential in his review of Boiler Room, saying "Diesel is interesting. Something will come of him".

How right he was. For a start, New Line, noticing the inroads made by Vin and by his Private Ryan co-star Barry Pepper with We Were Soldiers, released Knockaround Guys, a movie completed in 1999 and then shelved. Here several sons of Brooklyn mafia bosses attempt to recover a bag of money lost in a small Montana town. Vin put in another unusual performance. Though a tough guy and a fighter, his Taylor Reese also possesses a "wise sadness about human nature".

Knockaround Guys wasn't a hit, but it didn't need to be. By the time New Line released it, Vin had already carried his first mega-hit, The Fast And The Furious. Here Paul Walker played an undercover cop who infiltrates a street gang prone to stealing and racing flash cars at improbable speeds, trying to out-do rival gangs. Vin was Dominic Toretto, gang leader, who befriends Walker, thinking him to be a new kid on the block. Packed with super-stunts and concerning love and loyalty, it was like Point Break with cool motors.

And it was a monster. Taking $41 million in its first weekend, surpassing its $38 million budget immediately, it crushed the challenge of Dr Dolittle 2 to take the US Number One spot. Director Rob Cohen was quick to praise Diesel's input, telling the Toronto Sun: "He has the power and physicality but what I didn't know, when I cast him in The Fast And The Furious, (was) how deep he could take things and how a kind of charm emerges. In the past, action heroes have basically been killing machines who can make a joke. Vinny, on the other hand, has the courage to be overwhelmed and uncertain and sometimes to be almost nakedly needy". High praise for a guy who wasn't even in the lead role.

Now Vin was in the big league, and he knew it. Approached to play the lead in another SFX-fest, he went on holiday, telling his agents not to call him unless the producers offered $10 million. They did, and so he came to star in xXx. Here he was Xander Cage, a charismatic extreme sports obsessive who sells videos of himself performing outrageous stunts - one being where he steals a Corvette from a right-wing senator, and drives it off a cliff, making his escape by parachute. Recruited by government agent Samuel L.
Jackson (who he might earlier have encountered in Shaft), he's ordered to gather information on a nihilist cell possibly plotting the downfall of everything. Of course, he hates the government, but loves the danger, and rather fancies his boss's girlfriend, played by the excellent Asia Argento. Again, he was a hero far more complicated than the norm.

. It was a rough shoot, made rougher by the death of stunt-man Harry O'Connor, killed when he hit the pillar of a bridge in Prague. But xXx was another major hit and, with his name first above the credits for the first time, Diesel was made, his reputation boosted still further when xXx sold 5 million DVDs in its first week alone. He followed it with A Man Apart where he played a DEA agent who, having busted a cartel kingpin, finds his home attacked and his beloved wife killed, forcing him into a personal mission of revenge. It was mostly action, but the plotline did allow Diesel to exhibit grief for his lost spouse, an ooportunity he took with some aplomb, much as Mel Gibson had in Lethal Weapon.

As long suspected, his excellent performance in Pitch Black now led to a spin-off franchise, beginning with The Chronicles Of Riddick. Here he reprised his character - still cynical, still ambiguously heroic - now being chased by interstellar bounty hunters and battling undead cult the Necromongers on the scorched planet Crematoria. Delivering an ongoing explanation of the action would be Judi Dench, Diesel having seen her onstage in The Breath Of Life and demanded the producers secure her services.

After this, Diesel would attempt to widen his appeal with The Pacifier, an action comedy where he played a Navy SEAL who attempts to rescue a kidnapped government scientist from Serbs, and winds up babysitting for and protecting the man's five kids. Of course, he grows to love them, solves all their problems and even directs the eldest son's local production of The Sound Of Music. It seemed a stretch for Diesel, much as Arnold Schwarzenegger had pushed the boat out with Junior and Kindergarten Cop, yet still The Pacifier was a $100 million hit.

Having turned down xXx 2 and a $25 million offer to star in Tokyo Drift, a sequel to The Fast And The Furious (Diesel would just appear in cameo near the end), he'd move on to Find Me Guilty, a court-room comedy-drama directed by the king of court-room dramas, Sidney Lumet. This would be based on the longest trial in American judicial history, the 21-month epic, stretching between 1987 and 1988, when some twenty members of the Lucchese mafia family went up before the beaks. Here Diesel would play Jackie Di Norscio, a paunchy criminal already serving 30 years, who decides to defend himself and proceeds to crack a string of jokes, tear witnesses apart and expose the frailties of the justice system.
Typically for a Diesel character, he wasn't a good guy, but he was charismatic and effective, Diesel enjoying several fine moments, including one scorching scene with the excellent Annabella Sciorra, playing his ex-wife.

. The Pacifier and Find Me Guilty would justify Diesel's decision to spread his wings and turn down immediate returns to xXx and The Fast And The Furious, yet he'd quickly return to action with 2008's Babylon AD. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, this would be set in a future world of ecological and social collapse where big corporations rule. Diesel would play a hard-bitten mercenary hired by a thuggish Gerard Depardieu to pick up a girl from an Eastern European convent, smuggle her into the US and deliver her to Charlotte Rampling, high priestess of some new religion. With Kassovitz at the helm it was bound to be wild, the story involving terrorism, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, corruption and virgin births, and Diesel would be back to his monosyllabic best, pasting people with great aplomb. The next year would see him keep up the hi-octane action with a long-mooted return to one of his earlier hits in Fast & Furious. Once more he'd play Dominic Toretto, returning to the US after six years hiding out in the Dominican Republican and now hijacking oil tankers at incredible pace. As well as performing amazing stunts, he'd also attempt to hunt down a drug dealer he believes to be responsible for the death of the only woman he ever loved. Again, he'd be the perfect front-man for an extraordinary effects-fest and the film would take over $150 million at the US box office.

Outside of work, Diesel would now find himself settling down. Having been romantically connected with Fast And The Furious co-star Michelle Rodriguez, 18-year-old Czech model Pavla Hrbkova, and Playboy Playmate Summer Attice, as well as Entertainment Tonight reporter Maria Menounos, Diesel had begun a relationship with Mexican model Paloma Jimenez, 16 years his junior. Jimenez would give birth to a daughter, Hania Riley, in April, 2008.

Still Diesel kept seeking projects to challenge himself and his audience. He planned to appear alongside Nicole Kidman in a new version of Guys And Dolls and also worked hard to put together a script for an epic wherein he'd star as the great general Hannibal. Incredibly, he was even a hero in real life. In 2002, he pulled his motorbike over on Hollywood's highway 101 when he saw a car turn over and catch fire. He pulled the kids out from the back seat and managed to get the panicking driver to crawl out through the passenger side, saving them all from fiery death.

The Pitch Black, Fast & Furious and xXx franchises will keep no doubt keep Vin Diesel on top for some years yet. But expect the unexpected, too, from this most unusual of superstars.

Dominic Wills

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Gallery

  • LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31:  Actor Vin Diesel accepts the Action Star of the Year award at the CinemaCon awards ceremony at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, March 31, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
    CinemaCon 2011 Awards Ceremony - Show
    LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31: Actor Vin Diesel accepts the Action Star of the Year award at the CinemaCon awards ceremony at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, March 31, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
  • LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31:  Actor Vin Diesel accepts the Action Star of the Year award at the CinemaCon awards ceremony at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, March 31, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
    CinemaCon 2011 Awards Ceremony - Show
    LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31: Actor Vin Diesel accepts the Action Star of the Year award at the CinemaCon awards ceremony at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, March 31, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
  • LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31:  Actor Vin Diesel accepts the Action Star of the Year award at the CinemaCon awards ceremony at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, March 31, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
    CinemaCon 2011 Awards Ceremony - Show
    LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31: Actor Vin Diesel accepts the Action Star of the Year award at the CinemaCon awards ceremony at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, March 31, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
  • LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31:  Actor Vin Diesel accepts the Action Star of the Year award at the CinemaCon awards ceremony at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, March 31, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
    CinemaCon 2011 Awards Ceremony - Show
    LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31: Actor Vin Diesel accepts the Action Star of the Year award at the CinemaCon awards ceremony at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, March 31, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
  • UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JULY 16:  Actor-director Vin Diesel arrives at the premiere of Universal Studios Home Entertainment's "Los Bandoleros" at Universal CityWalk on July 16, 2009 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Universal Studios Home Entertainment's "Los Bandoleros"
    UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JULY 16: Actor-director Vin Diesel arrives at the premiere of Universal Studios Home Entertainment's "Los Bandoleros" at Universal CityWalk on July 16, 2009 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)
  • UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JULY 16: (L-R) Director Justin Lin, Universal Studios Home Entertainment president Craig Kornblau, and actor-director Vin Diesel arrive at the premiere of Universal Studios Home Entertainment's "Los Bandoleros" at Universal CityWalk on July 16, 2009 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Universal Studios Home Entertainment's "Los Bandoleros"
    UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JULY 16: (L-R) Director Justin Lin, Universal Studios Home Entertainment president Craig Kornblau, and actor-director Vin Diesel arrive at the premiere of Universal Studios Home Entertainment's "Los Bandoleros" at Universal CityWalk on July 16, 2009 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)
  • LONDON - MARCH 19:  Vin Diesel arrives for the UK Premiere of Fast and Furious 4 at Vue West End cinema in Leicester Sqaure on March19, 2009 in London, England.   (Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images)
    UK film Premiere: Fast & Furious - Outside Arrivals
    LONDON - MARCH 19: Vin Diesel arrives for the UK Premiere of Fast and Furious 4 at Vue West End cinema in Leicester Sqaure on March19, 2009 in London, England. (Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images)
  • LONDON - MARCH 19:  Vin Diesel arrives for the UK Premiere of Fast and Furious 4 at Vue West End cinema in Leicester Sqaure on March19, 2009 in London, England.   (Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images)
    UK film Premiere: Fast & Furious - Outside Arrivals
    LONDON - MARCH 19: Vin Diesel arrives for the UK Premiere of Fast and Furious 4 at Vue West End cinema in Leicester Sqaure on March19, 2009 in London, England. (Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images)
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