When he was young, the lad who would grow up to be Vin Diesel was in a gang. It wasn’t a particularly tough gang. He and a bunch of other little kids used to scurry all over the nooks and crannies of the old Bell Laboratories buildings in New York City’s West Village, going to the roof to look at the Statue of Liberty or playing games in a basement. The converted industrial complex housed artists and their families at deeply subsidized rents, and kids were encouraged to roam free.
Even in those days, Mark Vincent, as he was known, was a head honcho. “He was definitely one of the ringleaders or alphas,” says Adam Davidson, a financial journalist, who also grew up in the building. But as gang leaders go, Vincent was more life coach than dictator. “I was younger,” says Davidson, “and Mark would encourage us to go to parts of the building that were a little scary, the roofs or dark stairwells.”
The bruiser with a hand out for the little guy has always been Diesel’s signature cocktail, served neat, in a beer glass. It finds, perhaps, its perfect expression in the seventh iteration of the Fast and the Furious franchise, in theaters April 3, a series of exuberantly preposterous movies about souped-up cars and their pumped-up drivers that has done for the promotion of safe-driving habits roughly what selfie sticks have done for humility. Furious 7 should easily push box office from the series well beyond the billion-dollar mark.
But Diesel’s you’re-all-my-wingmen persona also finds expression in the unique, oddly symbiotic relationship he has with fans online. On Facebook, the 47-year-old offers his 86 million followers blue-collar-guru pearls of wisdom and encouragement like “The best is yet to come …” and “Stay focused!” on or above photos of himself. Even more curiously, he solicits advice from his online clique. “You know I value your opinion” he wrote early in 2013. “Who would you like to see me work with this year?” (Most of those answering, of course, nominated themselves.)
In Furious 7, Diesel plays Dominic Toretto, a petrol head with a plush interior. Toretto’s the kind of guy who talks tough, scowls liberally and wears shirts with his name embroidered above the pocket but will do anything for those he considers family. In one telling scene, he is left by the woman he loves, in a cemetery, holding nothing but a sledgehammer. What’s the point of these enormous biceps, the look on his face seems to say, if there’s nobody to hug?
Toretto and his roguish clan have drawn the ire of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a British ex–special forces assassin who can outrun, outshoot and out-blow-up any of them. Plus, he can drive. Shaw wants to give a computer doohickey called God’s Eye to some other bad guys so they can track every human being on the planet. But what’s really grinding Toretto’s gears is that Shaw’s picking off the Furious gang one by one, even putting (gasp!) Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs in the hospital. For a guy like Toretto, this is an affront. “I don’t have friends,” he growls in a timbre that indicates that the movie’s central theme is about to be revealed. “I got family.”
While fighting off Shaw and retrieving the digital knickknack, the Furious crew subject their environs to vehicular mayhem of a whole new order. They drive cars out of planes and off cliffs. They engage repeatedly in high-speed head-on collisions. They crash into the upper floors of skyscrapers and smash ancient artifacts with a vigor normally exercised by a certain type of jihadist. The whole thing is so ludicrous that Ludacris plays the sanest guy in the group.
But Diesel doesn’t really want viewers to pay attention to all that. He wants you to notice “the history-making mythology” of what he likes to call “the saga.” He recommends that novitiates study up before the newest iteration. “In spite of the fact that it’s a huge action movie and a movie that allows itself to go into superhero status shamelessly, it’s a mythology,” he says. “If you watch the other movies, you’re going to have a much better understanding about the metaphors that exist in Furious 7.” At one stage in the marketing discussions, someone jokingly suggested the campaign slogan “If you didn’t see 4, 5 and 6, you’re not invited to 7.”
Diesel, who was initially opposed to anything as lowbrow as a sequel for the first movie, came on as a producer for the fourth when he was given an opportunity to lend the series “my kind of mythology style.” He also has his own kind of producing style, which includes seeking counsel from his fans online, both on Facebook and on Diesel’s personal social network, Vinbook. Anyone can submit ideas, art or Vin-based creative efforts to Vinbook. If one of them strikes Diesel’s fancy–a picture of Diesel’s face on a dragon’s body, for example–he’ll share it. Not just on his Facebook page, but sometimes even more widely. “So many of the decisions that have been made in the saga and in all of my work I can attribute to the feedback that I’ve been lucky to receive,” says the star.
Longtime friend and Furious co-star Michelle Rodriguez says conferring with people online is in keeping with Diesel’s philosophy of connection and unity. “He feels like it’s part of a collective consciousness,” Rodriguez says. “If he thinks that what one person is saying resonates with what everyone is feeling, that’s what he’s going to go with.” She’s convinced this interaction is more than just a branding exercise. “It has had a lot of influence with the franchise and with his conversations with the studio. When I talk to him, he speaks of the people as if they are part of this production.”
Many movie stars use social media but not like Diesel–he says it can take up about 1,000 hours a year. And his News Feed is surprisingly personal. He announced the birth of his third child on Facebook. He posted a Valentine’s Day video of himself singing along with a video of Maroon 5’s deeply sappy song “My Heart Is Open” for all to see and share. “Over the past few years, I’ve been as intimate to those fans as I’ve been to anyone,” says Diesel. “You’ve seen me do things that you only do in the privacy of your own home.” Diesel doesn’t have Facebook friends–he’s got family.
Along with the personal stuff–plus the obligatory workout photos and movie promos–Diesel also publishes philosophical musings. Occasionally, they’ll be quotations from historic leaders like Nelson Mandela (but superimposed on Diesel’s face). Other times, the message is simpler. Above a photo of himself and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is the word “Visionaries.” Above a shot of the star giving the thumbs-up is “Confidence … never deny yourself of it, for it costs you nothing and leads to great things … /smile.”
Even his co-stars find this behavior out of character. “He’s a laid-back and extremely private guy,” except on social media, says Ludacris. “It’s crazy. He’s a really thought-provoking individual.” To Rodriguez, the public ruminations are an anomaly but are not random. “In the entire 16 years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him just blurt something out. He’s very thoughtful,” she says. “Sometimes you won’t get a response to a question for a year or two.”
Diesel dismisses any notion that he’s trying to become an Internet guru. “I don’t know if I’m all that conscious of what I’m saying,” he says of his online declarations. “I know that I’m trying to be sincere and authentic, and if there’s wisdom in those words, then so be it.”
Of course, the oracular declarations, the artistic tributes and the requests for assistance that litter Diesel’s Facebook page are familiar to anybody who has studied a more classical mythology than the Furious saga. Perhaps that’s deliberate. Diesel loves to tell his origins tale, of a childhood in subsidized housing, games of Dungeons & Dragons and hardscrabble years getting by as a bouncer at New York City clubs. And indeed he walks the walk. He funds a clinic for kids from poorer backgrounds to learn moviemaking, overseen by his dad Irving Vincent.
But some of that is mythmaking. Many aspects of Diesel’s childhood were idyllic, at least for the formation of a creative mind. His mother Delora was an astrologer, he says, and Irving an off-Broadway theater director who moved into TV production and film education. Diesel and his twin brother went to private school and grew up in Westbeth, the country’s first federally subsidized arts colony, which required residents to be both poor and artistically gifted (as judged by a committee of their peers). The enclave was so progressive and bohemian that fellow resident Davidson says he was shocked to find when he got to college in the ’80s that homosexuality was frowned on in some circles. “All the parents in the building were obsessed with art and the creative life,” he says. “Everywhere you turned, there was play or an exhibition.”
The put-on-a-show spirit of his childhood no doubt helped propel Diesel from standing in front of clubs dashing the dreams of the underage and uncool to taking a risk on a dream of his own. He wrote, directed, scored and starred in the short film Multi-Facial, which, the story goes, was seen by Steven Spielberg and led to Diesel’s first real break, at the age of 30, in Saving Private Ryan.
Pretty soon, the action-hero franchise roles were coming fast. In addition to Toretto and Richard B. Riddick (three movies so far, plus video games), he has played Xander Cage in xXx, the third chapter of which was just announced. But Diesel is nearing 50. The career options for aging tough guys with potato-shaped heads remain limited: start doing comedies, join the gang over at The Expendables or become the conservative governor of a liberal state. Diesel already had a stab at humor with The Pacifier–or as some wags nicknamed it, Vindergarten Cop. It made money but burnished nobody’s artistic reputation. In fact, Diesel hasn’t made a non–action film in almost 10 years.
“Vin’s biggest challenge has always been stereotyping,” says Neal Moritz, his Furious co-producer. Rodriguez puts it more poetically. “The body Vin Diesel was given to walk the earth is a gift and a scarlet letter, because automatically it creates an assumption,” she says. “He’s muscular and he’s big, and you don’t really expect a complexity, because no human being has ever seen an intellectual with muscles.”
When asked about his future, the star refers to Sidney Lumet, who directed Diesel in his one dramatic endeavor, 2006’s Find Me Guilty. “He said, ‘You’ll have all the time in the world to play these Oscar-contending characters,'” says Diesel. “‘Do not shy away from action. Just continue to approach any character the way you approach all characters, with integrity.'”
Lumet may have been right on one point: dramatic actors aren’t hard to come by. But tough-guy working-class philosophers with a code of brotherhood, undefinable ethnicity and lean-on-able shoulders are a rarity. Diesel’s charm is like that of a big dog–a bullmastiff, maybe?–loyal, protective, wary of strangers, given to jowls. And like a big dog, he looks after his pack.
“My mom used to say that I became a fighter and a scrapper and a tough guy to protect who I am at my core,” Diesel told a fitness magazine, before admitting to doing yoga and Pilates. “This exterior means that I am actually one of the few people who can show love without coming across as soft.”
This became particularly clear after the other star of the Furious franchise, Paul Walker, died in a car crash shortly before the latest movie wrapped. Diesel wept as he talked about Walker at an early film screening. But when it happened, he was everybody’s anchor, says Moritz. “It must have been hurting him more than almost anyone, but he was emotionally there for all of us, to help in any way.”
The movie was finished with the assistance of Walker’s brothers, some CGI and a new ending, one in which Walker’s Brian O’Conner leaves to face down the terror of domestic life. “What better heaven could we come up with for our mythology,” says Diesel, “than going off to have your own family?”
Whether Walker’s demise means the Furious saga has driven its last mile is not totally up to Diesel. The nonmythological truth is that the series’ future will depend on ticket sales for this one. As the saying goes: Movies don’t have friends–they got fan bases.
–WITH REPORTING BY NOLAN FEENEY
This appears in the April 06, 2015 issue of TIME.