We live in an age of celebrity nerds, but Vin Diesel is… special. He’s a beefy, monosyllabic, hyper-masculine, 1980s-style action movie star in the vein of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. He looks like the most intense dude who goes to your gym. His low, gravelly voice sounds like he has so much testosterone coursing through him that it’s possibly leaking out of his ears. If you took the classic nerd stereotype — gawky, taped-together glasses, a pocket protector with a graphing calculator in it — and tried to figure out its polar opposite, you’d end up with a being not unlike Vin Diesel.
He named himself Vin Diesel, for Christ’s sake.
And yet, Vin Diesel is simultaneously a nerd — a very, very lucky nerd. Beyond starring in the Fast & Furious movies — one of the highest-grossing movie franchises in the world — Diesel has portrayed a cult favorite sci-fi antihero in the Riddick trilogy (with a fourth on the way), been the voice of Guardians of the Galaxy’s beloved sentient tree Groot in four Marvel movies (with at least one more on the way, and likely many others) and has joined James Cameron’s Avatar sequels. He portrayed his first on-screen comic book superhero in this weekend’s Bloodshot. And oh, he also founded Tigon Studios, a video game company that Wikipedia hilariously describes as “focused primarily on games featuring actor Vin Diesel.”
To put it in the nerdiest terms possible, in the giant Dungeons & Dragons game that is life, the actor rolled a natural 20 — a critical success.
If a teenaged Mark Sinclair (his actual name) knew about the life he was going to lead, I assume he would have been pretty pumped. As he discusses in his foreword to the 2004 book 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, Diesel played his first D&D game when he was 11, run by a friend’s mom who lived in the same apartment complex. Here’s how he describes it:
“There we sat at her long, aged, dining table, eyes wide, palms sweating, our hearts pounding at the infinite possibilities of the unknown. The inexorable threat of a ravenous Orc War Party determined to enslave us. The slow whisper of mischievous footsteps creeping down the long dark corridor. We trembled at the sound of sulphured breath hissing from the chamber below. We became completely immersed in this new world of wonder.”
You can find Diesel talking about Dungeons & Dragons to just about anyone who asks him about it with that same level of enthusiasm, frequently mentioning his favorite character, a half-Drow elf named Melkor Tar Morloth (an important note to my fellow nerds: Diesel created Melkor before author R.A. Salvatore introduced Drizzt Do’Urden, another Drow who’s starred in more than 30 best-selling Dungeons & Dragons novels and inspired countless players to make copycats). In that same foreword, Diesel credits D&D with helping him evolve as an actor, calling it “a constant exercise in developing voices and characters.”
He’s not wrong: If you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, you know it’s a group of people who tell a story together, with the players portraying the story’s main cast, while the Dungeon Master creates the environment and controls the supporting characters. There’s a reason it’s called a role-playing game.
This RPG experience — and Melkor, specifically — inspired Diesel’s 2015 fantasy movie The Last Witch Hunter. The actor has said the film essentially stars his beloved half-Drow, despite the movie being set in the real world, in the present day and, uh, also he’s not an elf. The movie only exists because of a conversation Diesel had with screenwriter Cory Goodman about their D&D days: The Last Witch Hunter was considered a flop and got terrible reviews, but that doesn’t lessen at all the amazing achievement that Vin Diesel got Hollywood to give him $90 million to make a movie about his D&D character.
“If you would’ve told that 17-year-old kid playing Dungeons & Dragons that one day that piece of graph paper with chicken scratch on it and a really pathetic portrait of a — take your pick, a ranger or a magic-user or whatever — was going to have a movie like this made, I would’ve thought you were crazy,” he told Screen Rant in 2015. “It’s kind of crazy. It’s kind of insane.”
Speaking of insane, it’s worth noting that Diesel’s managed to turn his ultra-popular Fast & Furious films, which are ostensibly set in the real world, into superhero movies as well. While his character Dom Toretto was a simple street racer and leader of a gang of car-based thieves in the original 2001 film, in the last few movies he’s become an indestructible, unbeatable badass who can pick up cars and walk through fire (I’m not even kidding).
Interestingly, Diesel’s nerdiness isn’t what led him to star in his new superhero film. Based on the Valiant Comics character of the same name, Bloodshot is about a deceased Marine who gets resurrected as an unkillable, nanotech-augmented super-soldier. Despite playing the arboreal, fan-favorite Marvel hero Groot, Diesel has never mentioned any particular fondness for comic books, but when the actor met with director Dave Wilson to discuss joining the film, he brought his nine-year-old son with him, who convinced his dad to play the superhero by the end of the meeting.
And yet, despite all of this, Vin Diesel doesn’t seem like a nerd — somehow even less so than fellow D&D fan and beefcake Joe Manganiello. Maybe it’s because he presents himself as such an alpha male, but as a nerd myself, I think it’s because he’s so open and authentic — it’s clear that his nerdiness is just a small facet of his life. The man isn’t shy about anything, as anyone who’s seen his Facebook page and his self-released videos knows.
His fathoms-below-bass singing is surreal — if you haven’t heard his cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” above, you absolutely need to — and has earned him plenty of guffaws over the years, but he’s never hesitated to pick up a mic. Regardless of his cinematic image as the toughest of tough guys, he’s even uploaded some truly goofy videos of himself lip-syncing and dancing to Beyoncé and Katy Perry hits. Diesel isn’t embarrassed about anything, and it’s made him one of the most popular celebrities in the world — seriously, with nearly 100 million fans, he’s the third most popular celebrity on Facebook, behind only Shakira and Real Madrid soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.
There is something universal about Diesel’s appeal that can’t be defined, least of all by his nerdiness. It’s made him one of the biggest stars in the world. It’s made his wildly geekiest dreams come true. It’s even changed lives, because Diesel reportedly taught Dame Judi Dench how to play Dungeons & Dragons on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004. And if that’s not living anyone’s best nerd life, I honestly don’t know what is.