With three blockbusters hitting the screens this year, along with efforts to attract a sweeping, multinational cast in xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Vin Diesel is changing the way action films are being made
by Jen Goldenberg
Playing an extreme athlete-turned government operative, Vin Diesel is back to reprise his role as Xander Cage in the long-awaited sequel to 2002’s xXx, namely xXx: Return of Xander Cage. One of the most box office-dependable action movie stars of the last decade, Diesel and the xXx reboot cap a decade that began in 2009 with Fast & Furious, extended to five more Furious films, plus Riddick, and The Last Witch Hunter, and with no fewer than five additional action films in the works: Fast & Furious 8, 9, and 10, Furia, and Avengers: Infinity War. But before he began driving cars rapidly and taking on the planet’s evildoers, the 49-year-old had a modest upbringing in Greenwich Village.
Born Mark Sinclair in Alameda County, California, the actor has a fraternal twin brother as well as a younger brother and younger sister. He was raised in New York by his mother, an astrologer, and his adoptive father, a theatre director and drama teacher at Brooklyn College.
As luck would have it, his first role as an actor came at age 7, in the form of a failed vandalizing attempt. Diesel and his brother, along with friends, were caught breaking into a local theatre. In lieu of punishment, the theatre director offered the children roles in the upcoming show, Dinosaur Door. From that point on, he had the bug.
Diesel studied English and focused on screenwriting at NYC’s Hunter College, before dropping out after his third year and moving to Hollywood to take on acting. His first days were met with scarce success, and he returned to New York after just a year. Undeterred, he starred in the 1995 low-budget film, Multi-Facial, which—appropriately enough details the problems that accompany an actor as he auditions, and was accepted to the Cannes Film Festival. He was inspired to write the movie by a book his mother had given to him titled Feature Films at Used Car Prices (Penguin Books; revised edition, June 1, 2000) by Rick Schmidt. The film was based on his own experiences as a multi-ethnic actor (he has never met his biological father), and, ironically, it led him to success. A heartfelt note to Steven Spielberg commending his film Schindler’s List, combined with that impressive debut, prompted Spielberg to offer Diesel the role of Private Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Ever since, the 49-year-old has been a part of the modern-day action canon, and something of a franchise magician.
Despite all the action blockbusters he’s accumulated (including the Fast & Furious franchise, Pitch Black, and Riddick), Diesel is actually a passion project guy at heart. He has an infectious love for the craft, offers unashamed praise for fellow actors, and peppers his CV with smaller roles, like the hard-bitten, day-trading New Jersey con man in Boiler Room (2000) and the starring role in director Sidney Lumet’s 2006 drama Find Me Guilty, in which he plays real-life mobster Jack
DiNorscio, who defended himself in court in the longest mafia trial in U.S. history.
That said, it’s tough to refuse blockbusters, and Diesel happily jumped on board for xXx: Return of Xander Cage. In his Facebook Live launch of the trailer, Diesel said, “I needed to do a movie where I could smile again. I needed to do a movie where I enjoyed the laughter. Where the laughter would fill me. Where the laughter was just bursting out.” Along with high praise for the film’s stunts, Diesel touted its global encompassment. At CCPX, the Comic Con Experience in São Paulo, Brazil, Diesel explained that, “We pulled great talent from all over the world. When people see this movie, it’s going to change the way Hollywood makes movies.” He’s talking about actors and actresses like American-born Samuel L. Jackson, Canadian Nina Dobrev, Australians Ruby Rose and Toni Collette, Hong Kong’s Donnie Yen, Denmark’s Deepika Padukone, and Colombia’s Ariadna Gutiérrez. The film’s worldly casting is evident in the storyline, too, in which Cage (Diesel) collides with Xiang (Donnie Yen) in a cross-continent, action-packed battle to regain a weapon, Pandora’s Box, which can control the world’s military satellites. It’s a breakneck mash-up of modern martial arts and next-level stunts, combined with humor.
“I just think that there was a need to revisit this type of hero archetype,” Diesel explained of reprising Cage in a Paramount Pictures studio interview. “He in some ways is the reluctant hero, in some ways the antihero, but his individuality shines, and you walk away from this experience saying, ‘If Xander can be him, I can be me.’ I think there’s something timely about that, something cool about that. When we did [xXx in 2002], we called it ‘the Bond killer,’ because it beat that year’s Bond film [xXx grossed $277,448,382], and nobody expected that. We’ve seen a lot of variations of spy movies and secret agent movies, and there’s a desire to return to this unique and different type of secret agent.”
Of his on-set relationship with Indian actress Deepika Padukone, who plays Serena Unger in the film (a Bollywood superstar, Padukone is one of the highest-paid actresses in the world), Diesel said that, “I wanted to work with her for a while; there was a moment where I was this close to casting her [in 2015’s Furious 7], but she had some other obligations and it didn’t work out. I think the global and international aspect [to the cast] made for something special. She’s so beautiful, but she’s regal, and has conviction, she really commits to the action that was demanded of her. I wanted to go…not just to all the multicultural actors in California, but to entirely separate film markets and celebrate their heroes and their actors, [not] just stay within the confines of Tinseltown.”
And speaking of action, the actor was able to participate in many of his own Xander stunts, and reported having a hell of a time doing it.
“You can’t talk about xXx without talking about the action,” he said. “It was not only fun doing the stunts, but I should add that I had fun just practicing…can’t tell you how much fun I had preparing for these sequences. It meant that I got to run the back lots, do jumps, stunts—and justifying it all by saying that ‘I’m just getting ready for a sequence.’ It was a ball.”