Fun fact: Since 1999, I’ve been hailed around Hollywood as “The Generic Guy.”
Now, in entertainment industry parlance, that means I’m the one studios call to handle their “generic interviews.” These were either fashioned into featurettes or similar “behind the scenes” programming, as well as feature stories planted in specifically chosen print or digital sites. Such a job did have an enviable quality as I would usually get a lot more time than most journalists, as well as travel wherever the talent was best available. Junkets, film festivals, film sets, these interviews were never boring and the best part? It was always an adventure.
This is no longer the case in 2017 since my focus is strictly placed on creating original content for broadcast, home entertainment and, mostly, online platforms. But those early, palmier years had me interviewing more celebrities than Barbara Walters at her peak. It was like having the jet setting talk show of my dreams, without an audience knowing who the hell was asking the questions.
Being a producer in this capacity fulfilled my biggest dream of becoming a journalist, despite its also being an extension of my career as a publicist. That I was firmly embedded with the International film publicity teams was just one of the many blessings. They were fantastic colleagues and collaborators, all of whom treated me with great respect, care and trusted my ability to do the best job for their films and tv series. Why I was able to last as long as a “generic interviewer” was because I aimed to avoid asking generic or gossipy questions.
I believed then and now in the power of conversation, even in a junket setting, which was can be as in depth as speed dating. The rewards are so much greater when you just relate to the person in front of you. It takes about 30 seconds for most people to either be engaged or write you off. We all get a few talent who prefer to be in lock down mode or rip the mic right off, or just sit there taking up oxygen. Fear of libel prevents me from naming names. I’d rather focus on the positive anyway.
A lot of candid and entertaining chatter has happened over the years and I’ve often thought about collecting the best interview transcripts into a book. I even have a title: Generic. Envision a brown paper cover on the outside, a Hollywood life chronicled on the inside.
So, why not test run a chapter?
Thanks to Facebook, I was reminded of an August afternoon in 2008 when I went face to face with Vin Diesel. He was promoting the infamous futuristic thriller “Babylon A.D.” What makes this interview interesting was knowing he was about to return to “The Fast and the Furious” after a run of flops that slowed down his momentum as a box office draw. The swagger that was hallmark was tempered a bit, most likely from his also being a new father at that time. Regardless, the ensuing conversation was one I won’t forget as it was referred as a “fireside chat” by the studio’s publicist. Adding, “All that’s missing are the brandy snifters and the velvet smoking jackets.”
Yet, we did talk about the fear of building walls at our borders, a key theme in “Babylon, A.D.” Funny what can happen in nine years. Here’s more of what happened that August afternoon at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City
No matter the generation, when a film star is launched, audiences can’t wait for a second helping of what sated their hunger in the first place. But, pop culture is notoriously fickle, and people will move on to their next craving without mercy. It is a wonder why anyone wants to be an actor in the first place, but yet, the temptation is too great for some to ignore. And — which one of us can’t resist a delicious fantasy to post on our walls, computer screen – or beam down on us from a big screen at the multiplex?
Enter Vin Diesel.
Since hitting the box office lotto with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, Diesel has become the ultimate representation of not only macho cool, but the face of a multi-cultural generation finally seeing itself on screen.
Born in 1967 as Mark Sinclair Vincent, Diesel was a product of the Love Generation. Raised in an artist commune in New York, Diesel was determined from a young age to express himself through the arts. Acting since he was 7 years old, he would encounter adult rejection because of his mixed heritage. Deemed either too black or too white or sometimes not enough of either, it was his supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning SAVING PRIVATE RYAN that would prove to be more than a lucky break.
As a counterpoint to his sensitive voice performance as the robot in THE IRON GIANT, it was Diesel’s brash confidence that proved the “Nos” to fuel such films as PITCH BLACK and XXX. With the box office returns to prove it, Diesel was being hailed as the arrival of a new kind of action hero.
And then the banquet became something less enticing.
For Hollywood pundits, his refusal to return for the FAST AND FURIOUS and XXX sequels was on par with career suicide. Then, the head scratching decision to star anew as PITCH BLACK’S Riddick in the epic CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK with mild success. Perhaps in a bid to stave off further disappointments, Diesel went the route of The Rock in playing rock hard and cuddly with THE PACIFIER. While a surprise hit, Diesel seemed to be enduring an identity crisis on screen.
Seeking real challenges and opportunities to add new ingredients to his own screen recipe, Diesel showed great dramatic prowess as real-life mobster Jack DiNorscio in Sidney Lumet’s FIND ME GUILTY. Despite receiving acclaim for his performance, the film offered disappointing returns – and an uncertain future for Diesel himself.
I sat down with the actor for a one-on-one interview during a press tour for his latest film effort — French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s wildly controversial BABYLON A.D. A bold take on the dystopian future personified by such films as BLADE RUNNER and THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Diesel anchors the film as a soulless mercenary for hire named Toorop. Engaged by a crime lord to escort a mysterious young woman to New York, their danger-filled journey reveals the girl actually harbors the power to save a desperate world from itself.
After serving as executive producer on last year’s HITMAN, it appears Diesel enjoyed the chance to engage in the aesthetics of another French auteur. To hear him discuss BABYLON A.D., however, it comes as no surprise that Diesel is a real Showman, as brash and confident as the anti-heroes he’s played over the last decade.
However, I was surprised to find that Diesel is less concerned about trying to replicate any kind of prefab formula. He just doesn’t give a shit as to any labels the industry/media have, as he is content with his life:
He’s a new father.
He’s got a new film that sated both his comfort zones in action and drama.
He knows success and failure and he’s fine if either strike at any time.
I often wonder why every comic wants to be a serious actor, and why action stars want to be more than just brute muscle. I also don’t know why audiences can’t seem to want to see their favorite star recipes tampered with. What I enjoyed in our conversation was that Diesel is determined to give people what they want, but on his terms.
He’s a man of action for a reason.
You seem to be content with following your own path, despite people wanting to keep you locked into a certain type. Why return to this particular genre now?
I was talking to my father last night, who was in the screening. I always act like I don’t know what movie he’s talking about when he talks about a movie, ‘cause I want to get as much as I can. I said, “So it was packed with action?’ and he said, “Yes, it was.” I said, “So, Dad, so this other studio wants to move forward on this action film. Would it be too soon? Should I go back to the dramatic thing right now, and then do an action after?” He said, “Vin, your action film audience can’t get enough. “ There’s something about the action film genre. When you’re a fan of action films, you can’t get enough. It doesn’t matter how old you are. And he then went on to tell me a story about the guard that lived in our building. And he said, “Yeah, Vin’s got another movie coming out.” This is a guy that knew me as a child. And he goes, “Is it action?” And my father said, “Yeah,” he said “GOOD! And I’m there!” I probably never considered it as much as I did just last night talking to my father, how loyal and almost fanatic we are about action movies. We need to have them and expect to see them and make an event out of them. When I go to see an action movie, I get that charge, you know? I was raised to study the craft intensely from a very young age. You’d almost think well action movies are action movies. First of all, “action movie” is a new term, okay? Films like THE WILD ONE, GONE WITH THE WIND could be called “action movies” since they were made with the best effects that technology could provide at that time. It wasn’t until the Arnold generation that this title of action movies even came about. So every movie that I approach, every character I approach, I approach with the same conviction and the same attention to the craft, whether it’s a dramatic piece by Sidney Lumet or whether it’s an action piece.
What’s your take on Mathieu Kassovitz’s vision of the future in BABYLON A.D.?
The thought of this was taking something that had the action component and then string it together if you will all these sequences with this real French auteur style, you know? That’s what the fun of doing this film was and the challenge of doing this film and what was attractive about doing it. I had just come off this incredible experience with working with Sidney Lumet. I was hungry for different kinds of directors. The fact that it was an action piece was a comfort zone. That was the easy part, so to speak. And I was going to go. What was attractive was having a visceral take on an action movie.
Do you have faith? Do you have faith in humanity?
Yes, I do have faith in humanity. And I will guard that faith against any cynicism to my dying day. But, I’m the son of an idealist. I’m the son of artists. I am an artist! I think by being an artist, you have to have some kind of faith in humanity otherwise you wouldn’t be an artist. You wouldn’t expect anyone to get what you are saying in your art.
Do you have a spiritual faith, or a faith in yourself?
I have a spiritual faith.
That’s interesting in the context of the film because you are a man of blank morality.
You are so right, you are so right. Fascinating and interesting about playing that role, but the real me? Very strong on the spiritual faith. It’s interesting because part of the subtlety of the Michelle Yeoh character was that representation of that kind of spiritual faith.
Mélanie (Thierry, Diesel’s co-star in the film) was saying, in her mind we are not too far away from the world that is presented in BABYLON A.D. Do you share the same belief?
I don’t know. I know that when we were making this movie, we were making this movie about a character having to export somebody through borders around Russia. I would pick up the New York Times and you’ve got borders increasing around Russia. Specifically Russia and Georgia and all that. And you see the seeds of something that is scary.
I guess we’re not too far after all, Vin you’re scaring the shit out of me!
No, I’m just saying in the general sense. I have my own philosophy about how the border thing is working and how it’s…
And how it’s not.
And how it’s not and where we’re going to be in a few years with borders. But everyone might think I’m crazy.
We’ll have to look at this ten years from now and see if you’re right. I hope not.
It’s a tricky thing because the borders will be increased and strengthened in a way no one will recognize. No one will ever see them being built. The walls of China, so to speak, that are going to divide our world are going to be constructed while we’re not paying attention. What we’ll be focused on is the virtual world where there are no borders. So the physical world is going to build its borders while we indulge further into the Internet, into a world where there are no borders. When you are locked in front of that screen you’ll never see the wall being built.
And they’ll be surprised.
And they’re going to be surprised.
Which did you find more challenging, the physical or the emotional aspects your role in BABYLON A.D.?
Both are challenging in different ways. I become the character. As crazy as that sounds, live in that character and I don’t think of anything as being more challenging than the other. Might not be the smartest thing because when I’m in character I jump off the roof, I jump off the roof. It’s less of a specific thing that’s more challenging. The more you delve deep into a character, the more exhausting it is on you, right? You know, you hear all the time about actors that go and do these really deep performances and than need a year to try and detox and cleanse. Because, if it is done right and done with integrity, becoming a character is a heavy deal.
It ain’t easy.
It ain’t easy. You live in that space. That’s if you are striving to do something significant in your craft. You end up living in a space and that space ain’t always a comfortable space.
Why do you think the multi-cultural face enhances this move?
For me, any film that has a multi-cultural face is enhanced, personally. But I think it plays to this movie in a really good way. You know, Michelle Yeoh was originally written in the book as an old French kind of typical nun. And I think by casting Michelle Yeoh in that role, as opposed to the traditional, she was able to bring an unspoken spirituality. A spirituality that you didn’t have to really talk about too much, but she brought it to the screen, she brought it to the role and it helped the overall picture.
And Mélanie is interesting as well.
So exciting! She’s one of our big finds in the movie. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mélanie.
You have a huge vested interest in this. Why?
I’ve done enough movies now. You reach a place where you realize dreams which is surreal. It’s a surreal experience. I want my work to be significant. I take great pride in the art. I come from artist housing. It was government subsidized in New York, which were basically projects for artists that made less than ten thousand dollars a year. That’s the environment in which I was raised. That’s kind of affected me in Hollywood because sometimes I don’t take the big Hollywood picture payday thing and that causes a ripple because the studio needs that thing and I’m too idealistic. And the script isn’t good! And no one really gives a shit whether I think the script is good or not, but they care when they know I care, that I’m invested in a movie. I’ve had my challenges with that because sometimes I can be too precious and too involved, but I stand by the work that I do and I stand by the films that I do. And my philosophy about making movies is that everybody included in that process of making a movie should feel that way. I feel like the third wardrobe assistant should feel just as accountable for the movie as the director. That’s my own thing.
** This interview with Vin Diesel was conducted on August 20, 2008, at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.