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If you want to blow someone's mind when the subject of Vin Diesel comes up in conversation, there are two facts you might mention. One: He and Paul Giamatti are the same age by a matter of weeks. (Giamatti was born 42 days before Diesel in 1967.) The other fact is that Diesel is a massive nerd.
Of course, that's only a shocking fact to those who are primarily familiar with Diesel as the star of the Fast and Furious series or xXx. Just scratch the surface of his filmography and it's clear that his taste in picking projects has always skewed toward the sci-fi and fantasy realm when he's not driving cars fast or indulging in extreme sports, including the Riddick series, Guardians of the Galaxy, Babylon A.D., and the newly released Bloodshot.
Every nerd has their areas of focus, and in Diesel's case, it's a deeply felt passion for Dungeons & Dragons, the iconic role-playing game first published in 1974. There are many stories from his life about his love of the game — a Facebook post featuring his very appropriate birthday cake, for example. Or the time he wrote the introduction to Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons. Or the fact that he allegedly played D&D on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick — a film that riffed on many D&D ideas — with Karl Urban, Thandie Newton, and Dame Judi Dench.
For the record, it's actually pretty hard to find firsthand verifiable sources for that last fact: While it appears to have come up during interviews he did while promoting Chronicles in 2004, not a lot of them seem to still be online. However, you can read an archived version of his interview with Shawn Adler for UGO.com, where he talks about it. This was his response to the interviewer's second question:
Q: Is it true you're really into Dungeons and Dragons?
VIN: No. I never play D&D. For some reason, they thought that I played D&D for 20 years. They thought that I spent years playing Barbarians, Witchunters, The Arcanum. They thought I played D&D back in the '70s when it's just the basic D&D set. They thought I continued to play D&D when it became Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. They thought I played D&D when there were only three books - the "Player's Handbook," the "Monster's Manual" and the "Dungeon Master's Guide." They thought I played D&D as it continued onto the Unearthed Arcanum, Oriental Adventures, Sea Adventures, Wilderness Adventures. THEY thought I played D&D at the time when "Deities and Demigods" was the brand new book. THEY thought I played D&D when I used to get up to a place called The Complete Strategist in New York.
[Mouths: "I'm into D&D a lot."]
Diesel's D&D love perhaps climaxed with 2015's The Last Witch Hunter, an action-fantasy film literally based on a D&D character created by Diesel: an 800-year-old witch hunter named Kaulder. In making the publicity rounds for the film, Diesel even stopped by the Geek and Sundry web series Critical Role to play a session — in character as Kaulder.
Like, sure, Diesel's fandom isn't strictly limited to D&D, based at the very least on his passion for pursuing Marvel Cinematic Universe projects beyond his voice work for Guardians of the Galaxy. But his love for the game is more than just a fun random fact about one of Hollywood's biggest movie stars — it has an incredible influence on the work he does.
That's because the thing about Diesel being a fan is that even his more mainstream projects have been infused with these qualities: as just one low-key example, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage literally introduces each of its new characters with on-screen graphics listing their strengths and skills.
But more important, there's the franchise with which he'll always be identified (even if he did sit out the second film). It's wild to remember that The Fast and the Furious, the film that technically started it all, was a relatively straightforward action/crime film about underground street racing. Nineteen years later, we're looking forward to the ninth film (now set to premiere in 2021) and still trying to make sense of a dense mythology that includes super-soldiers, complicated overlapping timelines, and characters coming back from the dead.
The franchise has become, in its own special way, a unique storytelling universe — perhaps not yet on the level of a Star Wars or Star Trek (though 10 films plus two short films and an animated series is pretty impressive). And Diesel has been a producer of the Fast Saga since the fourth film, which is also when the franchise truly spun toward its new level of intensity. Director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan deserve a lot of credit for being the architects of this, but it's impossible not to see how Diesel — a man who knows how glorious and engaging it can be to build a rich, fictional world — might have had an impact.
As he told Adler back in 2004, his interest in doing The Chronicles of Riddick (even though it meant he couldn't do the second xXx film) was driven by that passion. "Going back to the D&D — this wasn't like creating a movie. This was like creating a universe," he says.
Many of his passion projects have failed to connect with audiences. But when they work, they really work. Because Vin Diesel is a nerd — and that means he gets the power of people caring passionately about the chance to escape.