“My character owns a bodega,” says Diesel matter-of-factly. “When I first did the movie back in 1999, as a thespian, I felt I had to go to Cuba because my character has Cuban blood. I went to Havana before I filmed the movie to become the character. I could have given him another background, but that’s who he was. That’s where all the family values come from.”
As a multicultural actor — his mother is white, and he’s never stated his birth father’s background — Diesel gets it. “That sentiment is how I feel about me as a movie star,” he says. “For so many years I looked too ‘multicultural.’ I don’t fit any specific role. It was very hard for me to get roles back in the 1990s.”
“He wasn’t white enough, he wasn’t Black enough,” adds Nicky Jam. “Now there’s many actors like him.”
When Diesel was first approached to play the role of Toretto in the original The Fast & the Furious, he wasn’t yet a star — he was the sixth or seventh lead from Saving Private Ryan. And he was unconvinced; he felt that the script and the characters were underdeveloped. But he was sold after director Rob Cohen walked him through a shot: “‘I take the camera through your eye, down your arm and into the shaft and the engine of the car, making you one with the car,’” recalls Diesel. “I was [like], ‘Oh, my God. This is incredible.’ Then I got the script. I said, ‘You’re not there yet.’”
Diesel felt strongly about character development, and if the script were reworked, he said, he’d do it. So began an on and offscreen saga: Diesel co-starred alongside Paul Walker in the hit 2001 original but declined roles in the next two installments because he felt the producers weren’t evolving the story or its characters. By the mid-2000s, Universal offered him the opportunity to “produce the way you want, the way you think the franchise should go.”
The proposal came around 2005, while Diesel was vacationing in the Dominican Republic. “I was riding my bike in el Malecón, and a kid came up and wanted to shine my shoes, but I had sneakers on,” he recalls. The kid said: “OK, buy one of my mixtapes.” Back in his hotel room, Diesel played the music and was taken aback. “It wasn’t just raw. It was very organic,” he says. “Rap was already explosive. But this was something that was just so fresh, that was taking influences from all kinds of music.”
One song caught his ear: “Bandoleros” (Outlaws), a track written by Don Omar and performed with Tego Calderón that brilliantly fuses Puerto Rican cuatro with reggaetón beats. “I felt it was written for Dom Toretto. I was stuck on it,” says Diesel. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a sign. I’ll tell the studio, if they play this song, I’ll go back.’” Soon enough, “Los Bandoleros” was soundtracking a last-scene sequence in 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, playing right before Diesel makes a teaser cameo.