Vin Diesel: 'I was drawn to the idea of playing an immortal character that lived 800 lives'
Vin Diesel may have fast-tracked into Hollywood hard nut territory but, as The Last Witch Hunter is released, Keeley Bolger discovers he’s still keen to ‘challenge the thespian’ within
There’s no mistaking Vin Diesel. Satisfyingly as bald, brawny and gravelly-voiced in the flesh as he is on screen (although less serious, taking time before our interview to chuckle along to a pop song one of his team plays to him on her phone), he is aware of the challenges of being instantly recognisable.
“It’s a catch-22 when you play a character that’s so successful in such a successful franchise,” he says with a shrug.
“The whole reason actors in general shy away from sequels is because the better they are at it, the harder it is to break away from it, or to depart from it, or to ask the audience to accept them in a different way. We’ve got seven [Fast And Furious] films, and they’re arguably the most successful film franchise,” adds the 48-year-old. “More people know Dom Toretto [his character] than they know Vin Diesel. It becomes somewhat of a challenge to service the thespian part of you, which wants to play various roles.”
While it’s a challenge, indeed, to imagine the father-of-three delivering Shakespearian soliloquies or donning a pair of tap shoes and belting out a Broadway number, he is looking to break his mould (or at least, what we see as his mould).
Notoriously private, Diesel was at the centre of some unwanted attention recently, when critics drew attention to a picture of him looking significantly less toned than usual, dubbing his formerly six packed-physique a ‘Dad bod’.
He’s also keen to keep his model girlfriend Paloma Jimenez and his three children out of the limelight. So is the Hollywood hard man really quite shy?
“When I was younger and in my twenties, I was fighting for attention,” he admits with a smile.
“If you’re the type of person who has spent your life fighting for attention and fighting to be loud and then you get an overwhelming amount of attention, it can make you somewhat reserved. You can run the risk of becoming a recluse to some degree, because you’ve been accustomed to fighting for every bit of attention you’ve gotten, and that feels unnatural for people to know who you are and to care about you, without you saying, ‘Hey, look at me’!”
Growing up in New York, Diesel, real name Mark Sinclair Vincent, cut his teeth in theatre productions before moving to Los Angeles to make headway in his movie career, working as a bouncer to pay the rent.
A master of making his own luck, it was his short 1995 film Multi-Facial which eventually attracted the notice of Steven Spielberg, who in turn cast him in 1998's Saving Private Ryan, alongside Tom Hanks.
As well as the day job, Diesel also produces, writes and directs, and was brought up in a family where grafting was the norm.
"My father is 82 years old and there's not an evening that goes by where he's not writing something or trying to manifest something," he says of his father, an acting instructor and theatre manager.
"I don't rest on laurels and maybe I should more. I'm always thinking about what's outstanding. Ironically, whenever I do press for a movie, I'm partially excited to talk about the movie I'm in, but there's a little anxiety. And the anxiety comes from not having fulfilled certain dreams."
An avid Dungeons & Dragons fan, one of his dreams was to work on a film inspired by the fantasy role play game. That idea has now resulted in his latest action-fantasy, The Last Witch Hunter.
In it, Diesel plays Kaulder, who has been cursed with immortality by a powerful witch queen and has since roamed the earth for 800 years, haunted by the memory of his late family.
As the last of his kind (as the title suggests), Kaulder is tasked with defeating the witch, with the help of a young 'dream walker', played by Game Of Thrones star Rose Leslie.
"The artist in me likes challenges," Diesel says with a smile. "I was drawn to the idea of playing an immortal character, and a character that lived 800 lives."
He's "passionate" about the film, which also stars Elijah Wood and Michael Caine, and its release has been a long time coming.
In fact, Diesel was supposed to film The Last Witch Hunter before the most recent Fast And Furious instalment, but other commitments intervened: "After Fast And Furious 6, the studio was so aggressive about getting under way with Furious 7, but overall, I was just excited about doing something different," he explains.
"It's tricky because I couldn't have foreseen what happened at the end of 2013, so I couldn't imagine what 2014 was really going to be like, but before that, I was very, very excited."
Of course, 2013 ended on a tragic note for the star, with the death of his Fast And Furious co-star and "brother" Paul Walker (Diesel named his third child Pauline in honour of his late friend).
Nowadays, he views the energetic franchise as something bigger than film.
"When I'm making Fast And Furious, I feel like I'm servicing a perpetual demand," says Diesel, who is now working on Fast And Furious 8 and the third instalment of action-thriller xXx.
"There's something about the episodic nature of storytelling that Fast And Furious plays into," he adds.
"You don't know where you'll be after high school, you don't know where you'll be after college, but you do know that you'll be able to catch up with your Fast family."
The Last Witch Hunter is in cinemas now