At the age of 26, Vin Diesel wrote his own obituary. It was an assignment from his journalism tutor, and the next day, his teacher asked him to read it aloud in front of the class. As he began to describe his perfect life – a wife and children, numerous contributions to the film world – he realised the one he wanted was nothing like the one he was experiencing.
The next day, Diesel dusted off the script for a short film he'd written and decided to make it happen. Two weeks later, it was being filmed. The piece, about the struggles of a multiracial actor, was called Multi-Facial, and it caught the eye of Steven Spielberg. Diesel was cast in Saving Private Ryan, and from there, his acting career rocketed.
In 2020, Diesel, 52, is one of the most marketable stars in the world. The Fast and the Furious franchise, which he has anchored for almost two decades, is up to its highly anticipated ninth instalment. He's one of Marvel's Avengers, voicing the beloved Guardian of the Galaxy, Groot. And he's about to kick-start a new superhero franchise with Bloodshot.
The film, his latest major release, tells the story of a soldier named Ray Garrison who, after being assassinated, is revived by scientists who endow him with superhuman abilities.
Comic-book films are dominated by Marvel and DC, but Bloodshot is neither. Created by the comic book creatives Kevin VanHook, Don Perlin and Bob Layton for the 1990s US upstart Valiant in 1992, Bloodshot is the first of the publisher's characters to reach the big screen, and it's that underdog spirit that attracted Diesel to the project.
"It was so clearly a different take on the superhero narrative, a different approach to the genre that in the last decade we've become all too familiar with," he says.
"The idea of playing a superhero who at no point claims to be heroic, but [becomes a superhero] through constant torture, so to speak – it's a little more Spartacus than anything else. He wants to break free. That was interesting to me.
“I normally play characters who are very in control and this character was not at all in control of his life. People will walk out of the theatre and maybe question what’s real in their own lives, and who’s manipulating them.”
Sitting with The National in Los Angeles, Diesel thinks back to the obituary he wrote for himself. He feels that, in some ways, he's wildly surpassed his own expectations, but there is one thing that would disappoint his younger self – and has disappointed one of his idols.
"Speaking of Steven Spielberg, I saw him recently, and he had said to me, 'When I wrote the role for you in Saving Private Ryan, I was obviously employing the actor, but I was also secretly championing the director in you, and you have not directed enough. That is a crime of cinema and you must get back in the directing chair," Diesel says. "I haven't directed enough." After helming Multi-Facial in 1995, Diesel followed that up by directing his first feature film, Strays, in 1997. The movie went to the Sundance Film Festival, where Diesel met another aspiring young filmmaker named Jon Favreau.
"It's so funny, because we were both alumni at Sundance as filmmakers, and he goes off to do Lion King, Iron Man and all these great movies. It's fascinating. I kind of go 'Steven is right'," Diesel says. There's one project in particular that he has spent the past 20 years wanting to make – the story of Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general who fought the ancient Romans in the Second Punic War.
"I haven't done it yet. As much as I am grateful for the accomplishments, there are moments when I go 'God, you promised the universe, very specifically, the Hannibal Barca trilogy, and you haven't delivered it. You travelled all over the world'.
"I was in Egypt, in Tunisia, I was in Spain. I crossed the Alps where Hannibal did. I did so much research for this, but I still haven't carved out the time to do it," Diesel says.
Even if he does at last return to the director's chair, Diesel will not leave his life as a blockbuster star behind. He sees making films that pack cinemas as his duty, as more and more people opt to stay at home and watch Netflix rather than visit their local multiplex.
"There's the threat to the cinematic experience, and when you make movies like Bloodshot or Fast 9, you are protecting that thing that might not be here forever, and that's that cinematic social experience. Although I have to do that, I have to continue the director's journey at some point."