Twenty years ago Vin Diesel couldn’t get a role in Hollywood, a plight so comical that he made a semi-autobiographical short about it. In it the young, bronzed Diesel gets turned down for a beer commercial by an African-American director. “I’m going to be honest with you—you’re a little too light,” he says, before encouraging him to pursue Hispanic roles. Cut to his next audition. Another actor screams at him in Spanish. Diesel is silent. No habla español. And so on, down to the Italian roles. Funny, but personally painful, too. “It was very hard to have Hollywood look past the ambiguity of me,” he says. “Little did I know it wasn’t my time yet. The world wasn’t ready for a multicultural megastar.”
Now it clearly is. What was once Diesel’s Achilles’ heel has become his greatest strength. As US and Canadian box office declines—down 5 percent to $10.4 billion between 2013 and 2014—the global film market continues to grow, notably in China, which jumped 34 percent to $4.8 billion. An increasingly international ticket booth needs stars that can cross borders.
Diesel, 47 (birth name: Mark Sinclair), can do just that. He’s brawny, brainy, multi-ethnic and racially ambiguous, an action star who’s visually relatable to many international audiences at once—the movie star of the future. With its multicultural cast, his latest, Universal Pictures’ Furious 7, is the fourth-highest-grossing film ever, pulling in $1.5 billion, 77 percent of that beyond the borders of the United States. The franchise’s total ticket revenue now nears $4 billion—$1 billion more than Lord of the Rings. Diesel himself banked an estimated $47 million in the last 12 months before taxes and fees, No.
43 on this year’s list of the world’s top-earning celebrities and third among all actors—just behind Robert Downey Jr and Jackie Chan, and way ahead of heavyweight names like Bradley Cooper, Tom Cruise and Adam Sandler.
“The whole point [of The Fast and the Furious ] was to diversify Hollywood and in some ways change the face of Hollywood,” says Diesel, speaking in his deep, deliberate growl. Raised in Manhattan in artist housing by his Caucasian mother and African-American stepfather, who taught acting at Brooklyn College, Diesel started performing at 7. Before long he was break-dancing on the subway and in New York’s Washington Square Park to earn cash.
Diesel says he’s not precisely sure of his ethnic background. (He dubbed his production company One Race.) All the better now, but after over a decade of rejections he didn’t think he’d get out of the 1990s in the business—until Steven Spielberg gave him a role in the 1998 Academy Award-winning Saving Private Ryan.
Soon the studios came knocking, and in 2001 he hit the big time with the original The Fast and the Furious. It clocked $207 million on a $38 million budget, launching a multifilm franchise that Diesel originally walked away from. “When I got the script to the second one, my fears were confirmed,” he remembers.
Diesel turned down the sequel but says he agreed to a cameo for the third movie on the condition that he would get to produce any future Fast and Furious films. (Diesel is listed as a producer on every Fast and Furious from 2009’s fourth installment onward, meaning he gets a say in the scripts and a larger cut of the film’s back end—an estimated $25 million for Furious 7.) Showing some serious showbiz savvy, he also parlayed the bit part to grab from Universal the rights to the Riddick character he’d played in the 2000 sci-fi flick Pitch Black. “I got two franchises out of doing four hours’ worth of work,” Diesel remembers gleefully.
Under his brawny fist 2013’s Riddick went on to gross $98 million at the box office and $25 million in DVD sales, with Diesel taking home an estimated $10 million. Furious 7 would go on to gross 15 times that, edging the franchise’s total past the Jurassic Park and Bourne series.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t break into Hollywood until his mid-30s. So how does he want to be remembered? Diesel pauses and looks down, silent for 10 long seconds. When he finally looks up, he’s almost teary. “The person who brought multiculturalism to the world through my existence.”
And made a bundle in the process.
(This story appears in the 07 August, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)