"The '90s was characterized largely by an East Coast/West Coast beef: I was a quintessential New Yorker, he was a quintessential LA boy. It was already so unlikely that we would be not only brothers but bond the way that we did,” Diesel, 53, tells USA TODAY about the friendship he and Walker formed making “The Fast and the Furious,” which celebrated its 20th anniversary on Tuesday.
The first chapter of the series, now up to nine films (plus one spinoff), introduced Walker as undercover cop Brian O’Conner and Diesel as famed street racer Dominic Toretto, whose crew O’Conner is tasked to infiltrate while investigating a series of vehicular hijackings. And it’s the relationship formed between those characters that became the heart of “Fast” as the films added more personalities and shifted from plots around illegal street racing to epic stories of heists, spycraft and saving the world, always with family at its core.
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"When I did the first one, it was a cool movie where I got to run around in race cars, shoot a gun and kiss a hot chick. That's where I was at in my life then," Walker told USA TODAY in November 2013 during one of his last interviews from the set of "Furious 7." (He died in a car accident days later at age 40 on a break from production.)
"The themes we hit on early on, whether the audience even realized what it was that was drawing them in is irrelevant. The second you lose the family, how significant are we?"
Justin Lin, director of "F9" (in theaters Friday), remembers being a teacher’s assistant for a documentary class at the University of California, Los Angeles when he saw the first “Fast and Furious.”
"I don't think anybody ever felt like it was going to be more than one movie," Lin says. But that Diesel/Walker dynamic "was able to permeate and connect with the audience. It’s why you go to movies. And when you see that, you never forget it. They all got together in that exact moment and made something that was so special."
Diesel has fond memories of making that original movie with Walker. The first scene had Walker doing test drives in Dodger Stadium, "and I remember us feeling like, this is going to be work? This is insane! We're about to have more fun than we've ever had," Diesel says.
The initial meeting between Dom and Brian, however, is at the Toretto bodega where Dom keeps this stranger he’ll eventually grow to love like a brother from getting a beating. Brian is flirting with Dom’s sister (Jordanna Brewster) while Dom is first seen seated, strong and silent behind a cage in the back. It was director Rob Cohen’s "clever way" of giving Dom "that beginning, to seed him with that stoic character."
But the bond between Walker and Diesel was cemented early on.
"I remember there being a table reading a week before we started filming," Diesel says. "And from the very beginning, (Walker) did this strange thing, which was he made me feel like he only cared about what I thought."
"Fast and Furious" was a pop-culture breakthrough for both Walker and Diesel, though Diesel had filmmaking expertise that Walker respected: Diesel had a short film he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, “Multi-Facial,” that played at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and his first feature, 1997’s “Strays,” screened at Sundance.
"There were 50 people in the room: actors, directors, writers, executives, producers, assistant directors," Diesel remembers about that "Furious" table reading. "After every other line he would read out loud, he would stop, he'd look across the room and in front of everyone say, 'Vin, what do you think?' And I'm like, 'You're going to get me in trouble, bro,' " he adds with a laugh.
"Invariably, I would have to say, 'They could give you a better line. That line's a little goofy.' And, boy, did he light up. It was just magic for him. It was just something like, 'Yeah, that's what he's going to tell you all if you try to give me any goofy lines. If you don't elevate my character, he's going to fight for it.' And it was the beginning of what our relationship became."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Fast and Furious' turns 20: Vin Diesel talks 'magic' of Paul Walker