Vin Diesel looks like a bully that would gleefully terrify a nerd — that shaved head and scowling face are enough to make anyone a bit nervous. But just as books don’t always match their covers, the heart of a true nerd beats deep within this action hero’s body.
While he can snap a neck with a flex of his bicep, he’s more likely to use his hands to play video games. But it gets better. He’s also played Dungeons & Dragons for over 20 years, and not the least bit ashamed to flaunt love of fantasy. In fact, he even taught Dame Judi Dench to play on the set of Riddick, according to Wired.
Diesel’s background isn’t as extreme as his reputation. Growing up in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, the son of a theater director and psychologist began playing the role-playing games at a young age.
“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.
His real name is actually Mark Vincent. Vin, of course, is short for Vincent, and “Diesel” comes from his days working as a Manhattan nightclub bouncer to pay for acting classes at Hunter College. People said he always seemed “fueled up.”
Before graduating, he dropped out to make his first movie, “Multi-Facial,” about a young, struggling actor willing to play any ethnicity to get jobs. Then, he followed up with self-produce, award-winning film “Strays.”
Mainstream success didn’t hit until Steven Spielberg noticed Multi-Facial and cast him in “Saving Private Ryan.” That role would prove to be his breakthrough, and launch a string of jobs that called for a scowling, muscle-bound actor.
During his rise in Hollywood, he enjoyed his passion: Dungeons & Dragons. He’s stayed so obsessed, in fact, he wrote foreword to the book “30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons,”
While he doesn’t often mention his love of the game, if there are any doubts of his dedication, “somewhere” on his body is 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. ♦