On the surface, Vin Diesel looks like the sort of bully who would gleefully terrify a nerd. It might be his looks — that shaved head and scowling face are enough to make anyone a bit nervous. Or it could be those “Fast and the Furious” films, where he drives souped-up cars with gorgeous women beside him.
But as books don’t always match their covers, the heart of a true geek beats deep within his action hero body. True, he looks like he can break your neck with a flex of his massive arms — and he probably can — but he’s more likely to use his hands on a video game controller — and he’ll probably win. After all, he owns his own video game company. And if you think you can out-geek him in a friendly game of Dungeons & Dragons, think again. He’s big, but he’s certainly not stupid. He’s played the fantasy role-playing game for over 20 years, and he’s forgotten more strategies than you’ve likely known.
But best of all, he’s not the least bit ashamed to flaunt his geeky side. In fact, he embraces it and uses it to expand his brand into gaming, as well as those blockbuster movies.
His background isn’t as extreme as his reputation, and his mother didn’t give him the name Vin Diesel. His real name is Mark Vincent, and he changed it while working as a bouncer, before his film career took off. Vin, of course, is short for Vincent, and he says he picked Diesel because people said he was always “fueled up.”
As the son of a theater director and psychologist, he began acting at the early age of seven at the “Theater for the New City.” He only worked as a bouncer at Manhattan nightspots to help him pay for classes at Hunter College. He dropped out to make his first movie, “Multi-Facial,” about a young, struggling actor willing to play any ethnicity to get jobs. That followed with “Strays,” another self-produced film, which made it into the Sundance Film Festival.
He didn’t hit mainstream success until Steven Spielberg noticed Multi-Facial and cast him in “Saving Private Ryan.” That role would launch a string of jobs that called for scowling, muscle-bound stars. During that rise in Hollywood, though, he still enjoyed his passion: Dungeons & Dragons.
Growing up in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, Diesel and his friends played the role-playing game intensely, even when he became a bouncer.
“Imagine Dungeons and Dragons with a table filled with artists — they’re able to live in this world of imagination,” he told AMC’s Shootout in an interview. He said he was into it before video games became popular.
In fact, he wrote foreword to the book “30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons,” and according to Wired, even taught Dame Judi Dench to play on the set of Riddick.
Diesel doesn’t often mention his love of the game, but if there are any doubts of his dedication, his “somewhere” on his body a tattoo of his player name: Melkor.
Video games are often the fantasy outlet of choice, and his interests extend to the modern landscape, as well. In 2002, he started his own development house, called Tigon Studios, because, as he says, he was tired of substandard games based on movies. Ironically, many were based on his movies, which generated huge sales from games and merchandising, so he decided to jump into the highly-competitive business of video games during the filming of Saving Private Ryan.
“When I realized Steven Spielberg was entering the game world unabashedly, somehow that gave me the ‘green card’ to launch a video game company that would speak to a favorite pastime — or one of my favorite pastimes,” he said in an interview for Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena.”
Several games are based on his most popular character, Riddick, and critics say they’re even better than the movies.
“‘The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay’ is one of those exceedingly rare types of games that delivers exceptionally high quality through and through and single-handedly ups the ante for all similar games,” Greg Kasavin wrote on GameSpot. “The fact that it also happens to be based on a movie franchise — something that’s usually a bad sign for a game — makes it all the more incredible.”
His performance as Riddick, a villain with a heart of gold buried under a fierce exterior, was a fan favorite, and gamers enjoy “becoming” him to enter his world.
But Diesel is having a hard time keeping his video game line afloat. While it enjoyed initial success, Tigon has fallen behind to mobile systems. The rise of casual gaming has overtaken consoles, and Tigon hasn’t made the transition to smartphones. As a result, it hasn’t repeated the massive success of its early games.
In 2009, after poor sales of its action game, “Wheelman,” the company hasn’t released another title in the four years since. Tigon, though, said it is developing three games, including one called “Melkor,” but it has yet to announce a launch date, or if it would come to smartphones.
Diesel is in his mid-40s, so he’s taking less action-hero roles. But he still has movies in production, all sequels of long-running franchise films like “xXx,” “The Fast and the Furious” and “Chronicles of Riddick” — and those films should spawn a spate of games, exposing Diesel and Tigon to another generation of geeks.
Despite his muscles and fame, Diesel is a man at a crossroads of his career. He hasn’t played any truly new characters in years, and as he ages, younger stars will come up, replacing him in the types of films that made him famous. In other words, he risks becoming a fading stereotype.
Still, if he decides to use his geek cred on projects, it’s exciting to think that a digital version of Dungeons & Dragons, particularly if it’s expanded beyond the board to mobile devices. Oh wait, there’s already an app for that. ♦
Categories: Features | Secret Geeks