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Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, kicks butt and has a career path that includes not one, but two movie franchise characters, the latest being Triple X, the secret agent and reluctant hero made for our cynical times. Andrew L. Urban meets Vin Diesel – alias xXx. (Mr X to you!)

Vin Diesel is sitting in a small armchair facing the door as I walk in for our interview, the hotel room looking extra spacious with the bed taken out. It’s late afternoon on the second day of his Sydney media tour and as I approach, he drops his head back on the chair, eyes closed, mouth open, feigning sleep. But he bucks up, stands, we laugh and shake hands. He’s tall – just over 6 foot – but not as bulky as he looks in xXx. 

On a glass coffee table in front of him is a large cup and a couple of silver coffee pots. I get a beer. “I haven’t had a drink in three and a half years,” he says as an aside. It didn’t give him a good look, alcohol. So I ask how he gets his kicks. He shrugs and grins….a pause: “Er … kicks ? Do movies…” he laughs, and it’s more like a question. Obviously he either has no down time or it’s not wise to talk about it publicly. “Thank God I’ve got these movies that are fun and I can do things, like go on a 10 week boot camp – that’s fun. It’s a lot of work, sure, with an 80 day film shoot and tack on another 10 weeks of training, you’re looking at 8 months of non stop, every day Triple X. But that’s what you gotta do if you want to make a really exciting film.”

The first thing that strikes you about Vin Diesel is his immediacy: he engages in the interview without needing a dance. He is serenely comfortable in his self, but not so much as to be obnoxiously egocentric. In Triple X, he plays a seriously confident thrillseeker, Xander Cage, who makes videos of his death defying feats – not for his own ego, but to sell. Bending and breaking the law, he attracts the attention of the National Security Agency’s Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s looking for someone just as lean, mean and capable of dealing with Anarchy 99, a group of dangerous thugs in Prague, led by Yorgi (Marton Csokas) and his edgy girlfriend Yelena (Asia Argento). Nothing less than the fate of the world is at stake, and Xander has little option but to agree to the job, or go to jail. That’s how agent Triple X is recruited.

Much of the film’s appeal – and its original take on the secret agent formula – is due to the character’s background and persona. James Bond he ain’t; if there’s an echo anywhere that resonates with this sort of story, it’s in films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) where men who are otherwise due for (or already in) jail are utilised by the authorities for dirty, undercover work. Perfect for our cynical times. Any softening of the Xander Cage badass persona would undermine the character’s core appeal to today’s main film consumers, Gen X who would not be as ready buy a made-over Xander with a conscience and a desire to do good in the world. How can such a character be retained. 

"a reluctant hero"

“That’s the key. That is the thing we’ll have to pay attention to. He’s going to have to remain a reluctant hero,” says Diesel, his voice rumbling like a large …er…diesel engine. “And I think the idea is to make it part of the charm of the next film,” which Diesel will again have a hand in producing. “You’re 100% right: it’s critical. We have to keep that individuality.”

Xander Cage, by the way, was not born fully formed in the original script. Vin Diesel had a lot to do with the character’s final form. But that’s par for the Diesel course on movies these days. He never did things by halves, and his personality is powerful and robust enough to make a difference when it comes to getting a movie project developed to fit his collar size. “To play a character right,” he explains, “you have to gravitate towards the character, but the character also has to gravitate towards you. You have to pull the character to you, as much as go towards the charcater. You have to become the character, the character has to become you…So I have a great level of influence, which is why I’ve started producing these films, to legitimise that influence.”

xXx is the first of a franchise; it was always intended to be. “In order to create a franchise, I think generally you want to plan that, prior to shooting the first picture. I’m not a huge fan of making a film and if it’s successful going back and saying, oooh, let’s make more out of this. I would rather plan it out and make it clear what our objective is. With Triple X, our objective was to create a character that could become a character we’d want to see again and again in different situations.”

So Diesel is already working on that. (I didn’t want to risk asking if the next Xander Cage movie would be called XXXX …) But he’s also working on the upcoming movie, Riddick (in 2004), a film taking his Pitch Black character, Richard B. Riddick, on another outing. How is he going to maintain two movie franchises? Diesel reacts with a physical joke, clenching both fists, scrunches his face, eyes closed and shakes in alarm for a few seconds. “Aaaaahhh….well, that’s why I’ve turned down other franchises, I can’t do too many of them. Triple X is the action/spy genre franchise, that could last ….well, forever. Riddick is in the sci-fi genre, and I didn’t want to do a sequel to Pitch Black, but what is fascinating is recognising that we might have tapped into something with this character, at the beginning of a mythology that is accessible for our generation. For today…

“So instead of doing a sequel in the conventional studio sense – what was really appealing to me was creating a trilogy with the character. In the same way that Lord of The Rings is a trilogy that incorporates the tale of the Hobbit but doesn’t demand that you know the Hobbit. Pitch Black will be independent of the trilogy about Riddick. I think there’s been a void in mythologies on film…in the 70s we had Star Wars….in literature after the war we had Tolkien’s novels, that was kind of our mythlogy. And there isn’t a mythology done with real balls – and that’s we plan to do.”

"key figures"

In a relatively short career to date, Diesel has amassed enormous kudos. And an extensive list of key figures who’ve helped and influenced him. “So many key figures,” he sighs with wonder. “So many people that go uncredited that are all part of it. So many…I think about it all the time. We’d be talking with friends, or having dinner, and I’d think of one or another important figure in my life. Teachers ….for example, who’ve said the right things that have stuck with me. You know, a teacher who taught me how to write…” [Diesel spent three years at Hunter College majoring in English before succumbing to the lure of the professional stage.]

“I remember how he started an essay about capitalism with an opening sentence something like, ‘The sound of Scottish bagpipes bring to mind…’ and I remember how it made me feel. It made me feel liberal in my writing, it broke down walls. You could write about capitalism and start with bagpipes – or floating comestibles, as he put it! And I remember every acting teacher, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg, my father….a woman called Carol Ferrante, without whose support and belief I might not be here today…and Crystal Fields…”

Crystal Fields was the first. Diesel broke into theatre at the age of 7. That should read: Diesel broke into a theatre, at the age of 7. He and some friends broke into a New York theatre to vandalise it. A woman stopped them and offered them each a script and $20, on the condition that they would attend everyday after school. The woman was Crystal Fields. From there, Vin's fledgling career progressed from the New York repertory company run by his adoptive father. 

Later, when his first attempt at being a movie star flopped (his theatre training held him back in L.A.), his mother gave him a book called "Feature Films at Used Car Prices" by Rick Schmidt. The book encouraged him to make his own movies. He wrote a short film based on his own experiences as an actor, called Multi-Facial (1994) which he shot in less than three days at a cost of US$3,000. The film was invited to the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and when Spielberg saw it two years later, he called Diesel to ask him to join the cast of Saving Private Ryan.

“Then there are the friends you see in the hallway,” he says motioning towards the corridor outside where a small group of people usually called minders were mingling, waiting for me to finish, among them George Zakk, who is executive producing Riddick with Diesel. (I had already spoken to George, who was discussing the shoot, complaining that they couldn’t get a booking at Fox Studios in Sydney, which is where Diesel was desperately keen to base the production. Too many Star Wars and too many Lord of the Rings bookings.) “Seven years ago, George was sleeping on someone’s couch…” His team has been around a while, and they’re solid, as they say on the street.

His list of thanks continues to Robert Redford, “for championing my film at Sundance,” (Strays, 1997) “and the investors in that film who came up with extra money to help me finish the film…and so many more…”

"flawed heroes"

My beer’s finished and Diesel has a few things to do so we have to wrap the interview. I ask him one last question: does he have any fears, does he have flaws? “Hmmm,” he nods (fatigue is taking over), “I have many fears and even more flaws. Which is why I probably gravitate towards flawed heroes. Because it’s the one thing I can wrap my head around. I think people can learn from them…and I think when some kid is watching Xander Cage, as much as an action film that it is, this is a guy that doesn’t drink alcohol, a guy who looks down on someone for smoking cigarettes. Heroism on film is a tricky thing these days … hero figures are rare; and to be able to relate them, that’s the key.”

Published September 12, 2002

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