2 Brothers 2 Furious: How Vin Diesel and John Cena are redefining Fast family in F9

Twenty years after the first Fast & Furious, the little franchise that could faces the next frontier: A Toretto brother, space, and reviving the movie industry.
By Derek Lawrence
June 15, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT

Vin Diesel has come a long way in the 21 years since he walked onto this Universal soundstage for the first table read of The Fast and the Furious (then known as Redline). He wasn't that far removed from spending his nights working as a bouncer at a New York City club, and his days attempting to get his big break. It was that struggle as a multiracial actor that inspired him to write, direct, and star in his 1995 short film Multi-Facial, which earned him a champion in Steven Spielberg - the legendary filmmaker created a role specifically for Diesel in 1998's Saving Private Ryan. Roles in Iron Giant and Pitch Black followed, but it was his turn as street racer Dominic Toretto, an outlaw with an honor and a code, that was the star-making vehicle.

Fast-forward nine movies, one spin-off (with more expected), and $6 billion at the box office later, and Diesel holds the keys to the unlikeliest series of blockbusters ever. Now, he returns to this life-changing location on the Universal lot, becoming so "flooded with memories" that he briefly pauses EW's F9 cover shoot to make an impromptu, nostalgia-fueled speech that touches on Fast & Furious, family, and the late Paul Walker. It's a rare moment for the forward-thinking world builder. "I don't reflect enough," admits Diesel, 53, weeks later over the phone. "For some reason, I believe in order to pull this off I need to apply all my energy into pushing [Fast] up the hill. And maybe that's not the best route, and I should take a minute and reflect on how far we've come."

It's easy to wonder if any franchise has ever come farther. Forget the jokes and the recent Jurassic Park-Fast crossover memes for a second. Truly, how is it possible to go from a modestly-budgeted, scrappy action film featuring a group of not-yet movie stars as underground racers stealing DVD players to a globe-trotting, world-saving, space-traveling (don't worry, we'll get back to that), A-list-stuffed phenomenon whose ninth installment has already made $300 million overseas and been pegged as "the blockbuster Hollywood needs"? Oh, and did we mention, 26 years after presenting Multi-Facial as a young filmmaker at the Cannes Film Festival, Diesel will have a full-circle moment when F9 screens in July at the glam beachside fest? Not a bad start for a film finally hitting stateside on June 25.

The secret to that success: "Fast takes the unrealistic and makes it commonplace," posits superfan and new Fast family member John Cena, 44. "A film could try to do what Fast does, but it will be unbelievable because it hasn't earned that. It's almost like the audience winking at the screen being like, 'Of course you guys are going to do that.' And Fast isn't afraid to occasionally wink [back] at the audience to say, 'Thanks for allowing us to do this,' which is a really good trait of any form of entertainment - never take yourself too seriously."

Still, no one saw this coming. Diesel himself asked Universal not to make a sequel after the first film became a surprise hit, fearing "they would compromise the ability for it to be a classic." Without him, Fast drove on, with Walker returning as cop-turned-fugitive Brian O'Conner alongside Tyrese Gibson's fast-talking Roman Pearce for 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious, and then came a complete reboot with 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. But a final scene cameo in the latter from Diesel (which he did in exchange for the rights to his Pitch Black character Riddick) paved a new road to the past and future. Diesel, Walker, and fellow original stars Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster (who play Dom and Brian's ride-or-die love interests, Letty Ortiz and Mia Toretto) reunited for 2009's Fast & Furious, which also brought back Drift director Justin Lin and his breakout scene-stealer Sung Kang as Han, setting the then-April record for highest-grossing weekend. 

Fast never looked back, getting bigger and bigger with each sequel, whether it came to high-profile cast additions (Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron), stunts (flying cars, jumping skyscrapers, racing submarines), or box office (2017's The Fate of the Furious racked up more than $1.2 billion).

Even so, "we always feel like we have to earn it," Diesel says. "This has never been IP with preexisting comics and books; it's been built from the ground up, and we've never taken anything for granted."

F9 digital cover
Vin Diesel and John Cena
| Credit: Mark Leibowitz for EW

It hasn't been an easy road for John Cena, the actor. In the early 2000s, the college football player-turned-wrestler burst onto the WWE scene, first as a trash-talking rapper, then as the clean-cut, charismatic face of the company. Following the Hollywood transition made by the artist formerly known as the Rock, the WWE had similar plans for Cena, making him the signature star of its newly-launched WWE Studios. But films like The Marine and 12 Rounds flopped. He spent years going through the motions, feeling more like a cog in a business model than an actor. "I did it for the wrong reasons," Cena says candidly during a lengthy Zoom conversation in early May. "All those times I was sitting idly on a movie set, from 2004 to 2009, I wanted to be on the canvas. I remember being like, 'I'm never doing movies again.'" Until he made a conscious decision to play against type: Instead of once again attempting to be an action hero, the mammoth of a man found an unexpected niche earning laughs in comedies like Sisters (opposite Amy Poehler and Tina Fey), Daddy's Home (opposite Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg), and baring it all in Trainwreck, as Amy Schumer's workout-obsessed boyfriend.

"I've been given a second chance at the movies - who the hell gets a first chance?" says Cena, who has gone from hoping film audiences could see past his WWE persona to embracing it. "I never ever want to shake the ball cap-wearing, T-shirt, double wristband, jorts, sneakers, John Cena. It's part of who I am. I think a great parallel would be to ask Vin if he ever wants to shed himself of Dom Toretto. I don't think he'll ever get tired or fed up with being known as Dom, because he knows the contribution has stuck with people."

Cena's relationship with Fast started as a fan. He'd then find himself positioned as the WWE rival of Johnson, who had just debuted as Luke Hobbs in 2011's Fast Five. The two highest-profile wrestlers-turned-actors faced off in 2012 and 2013 as the headlining match at Wrestlemania. But Cena's fate in the Fast & Furious may have been sealed in an unlikely place. In the 2018 hit comedy Blockers, Cena starred as an overprotective father trying to stop his daughter from losing her virginity on prom night; a mini-van chase scene ended with a crash and a Fast joke. A March 2018 interview between this reporter and Cena veered into his favorite franchise. "That stuff is beyond my control, but I would absolutely love that opportunity," Cena said at the suggestion of him joining Fast. "That, for me, would be a dream."

After taking Fast to new heights while directing installments three through six, Lin walked away content, never imagining he'd back behind the wheel of the franchise. And yet, without having even seen Furious 7 or The Fate of the Furious, the two films made in his absence by James Wan (Aquaman) and F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), he suddenly woke up one day with an idea that would forever shake the foundation and theme of Fast: Who better to force Dom, the man always preaching about family, to confront his past than a forsaken brother? (Want a good drinking game? Take a sip of Corona every time we or Fast use the word "family.")

"It was a very interesting concept," says Diesel of Lin's pitch. "Even the person that is the spokesman for brotherhood could have a broken brotherhood in the past." But Diesel always viewed the introduction of a new Toretto as being more about fatherhood than brotherhood. Before Elena (Elsa Pataky) was killed by Cipher (Theron) in Fate of the Furious, both Dom and the audience learned that she had given birth to Dom's son, who would later be named Brian as a tip of the hat to Walker's character.

F9 finds Dom adjusting to his new life as a parent, all while reliving the tragic circumstances of his own father's death, details of which he shared with the elder Brian in the first film. "You needed to uncover something that surrounded that story Dom tells Brian in the garage 20 years ago," Diesel says. "Now being a father, Dom has to take a hard look at his father, his father's death, the past, and all the decisions that surround it."

The prospect of introducing Jakob Toretto for a bloody family reunion (little sister Mia returns in F9 in a major way) instantly re-energized Lin and Diesel, no strangers to adding high-profile stars like Johnson and Statham as adversaries. "The next thought was just pure 100 percent fear," admits Lin, 49. "Like, holy crap, how are we going to [cast] this?" Diesel also says he experienced "a moment of anxiety" when thinking about casting, until he realized what was once his biggest hindrance to becoming a working actor was now his biggest asset. "What was very challenging in the last millennium for me to get work was the fact that I'm multicultural," he remarks. "Going into this millennium, it ended up being something that was a godsend. You could literally have cast anybody to be my brother - there's no stretch too far. Because of that, once it came time to cast Jakob Toretto, all the men came rushing in from every race, every nationality."

However, only one man ever was in serious consideration. Lin's first and only meeting for Jakob was Cena, and after 30 minutes, the director thought, "Okay, good, I can breathe." Lin immediately called Diesel to tell him they had to connect. Cena was summoned that same day to what Diesel calls his "Dom shrine," where he goes to work out and get into "that Dom state of mind." Cena still didn't know the details of the Jakob character or the Toretto connection, and was simply there to soak up as much as he could from Diesel. But there was no shaking the fact that he was talking to the Dominic Toretto: "I literally remember seeing the [signature Toretto necklace] for the first time, and I'm like, what the f--- is going on?'" He wasn't prepared for what happened next. Without warning, Diesel pulled out his phone and recorded a video hinting at the possibility of Cena joining the saga, which he then posted to his 70 million followers on Instagram.

"I didn't really think about it that much, because I don't know if anyone will ever believe me, but I literally just, for some reason, felt like Paul had sent him," says Diesel of "Pablo," as he called his Fast costar and friend, who died in a car crash in 2013. Walker is also the reason why Diesel named his daughter Pauline. "There's no bigger message than that. And I didn't think about it for a second, I didn't ask [Cena] to read anything, I didn't need to look at anything. I just told him it was going to be super, super challenging, and felt like I had to warn him what he was walking into. I had no other way to explain it. If you go back to that day and you read that post, I said, 'Thanks, Pablo,' because, like always, he had a way of removing my anxiety."

For Cena, who was already prepared to give this "life-changing opportunity" everything he had, Diesel's words about Walker only intensified the motivation. "It's really difficult to conceptualize something like that," he explains. "I never had the chance to meet Paul, but, man, the outpouring of emotion for this individual that had such dedication to the franchise, to his craft, to fans, to cars, it's not lost on me. There are now tremendous expectations set on your shoulders - and that's the way I like it."

The Instagram post from Diesel, who - along with his sister Samantha Vincent - is a Fast producer, may have been the unofficial job offer, but it wasn't until Cena got his hands on the script that he discovered the magnitude of what he signed up for. "They said they wanted me to specifically read Jakob, and you read very early on that Jakob is a Toretto," says Cena. "The last name alone is going to make viewers around the world ask questions." Luckily, he had the No. 1 Toretto expert at his disposal in Diesel, who is so invested in Fast lore that, according to Lin, he's got a wall at his house with strings connecting every character in the universe. "It's like one of those serial killer movies," the director says with a laugh. Diesel alludes to plenty of "deep conversations" between the two actors about the family history, but at a certain point, "[Cena] had to do his own soul searching to find that character."

And loyal Fast fans will have to do some searching of their own to accept the explanation of how Dom, the ultimate family man, could have a brother whose existence has never been acknowledged. Hell, in the fourth film, Fast & Furious, as Dom prepares to leave on a revenge mission, Mia asks him, "How do you say goodbye to your only brother?" Lin assures that "everything's going to be accounted for," adding, "we're going to earn that line, I promise you."

The filmmaker behind some of the most beloved Fasts, including the universally recognized No. 1 Fast Five (think Avengers meets Ocean's Eleven, but with the Rock), also promises that F9 is the best yet. The latest installment picks up with Dom and Letty having retired from living their lives a quarter mile at a time in order to safely raise Brian. But their peaceful new existence is interrupted when an unexpected threat, that somehow involves Cipher (Theron), Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), and the previously assumed dead Han (Kang), pits the team up against Jakob, the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they've ever encountered. 

Cena says Jakob is a "great polar opposite to Dom," all smoothness and planning, as opposed to Dom's "bull in a china shop... last minute, last second, diffuse a bomb, get out of harm's way somehow" kind of guy. But even far removed from wrapping production, Cena is still at a loss for words when asked about filming the pair's first showdown, as Cena looked across at Diesel as Dom, and looked down at himself and saw the necklace gleaming against his chest.  

"Think of the thing you're most passionate about - the show or the form of entertainment, music, whatever. And then you come face-to-face with the pinnacle of that [thing] you are passionate about, and you are given a relic that defines that pinnacle, and you are treated as equals," says Cena. "I always compare everything to WWE, and that would be like face-to-face with the Rock. There's no denying that Dom Toretto is an iconic character and that was really special. That's a main event at WrestleMania."

F9
Jakob (John Cena) and Dom (Vin Diesel) in 'F9.'
| Credit: Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures

Long before he ever became Dominic Toretto, Diesel grew up with a father who was part of the Actors Studio and theater scene in New York, so dinner time often included a wide array of thespians and dialogue about the art of acting. "What he recently said to me was, one of the things that none of them ever really discussed was how you carry a character over multiple decades," shares Diesel. "That has never been brought up in a Stanislavski book, or mentioned at Actors Studio. You do a movie, you let the character go, you find a new character. To be the vessel of a character to this degree for decades, what you end up finding is that you're pulling from your real life, it becomes that personal. It's like when Paul used to say how much he loved being called Brian. That means for so long he's played this character, he's adopted part of the character and the character's adopted part of him. And maybe in this Fast universe, as complicated as it is, life is a little simpler."

A lot of real-life events found their way into F9, from conversations between little Brian and Dom that Diesel says he had with his own children, to #JusticeForHan, the online movement that began with fans expressing outrage over how the aftermath of the beloved Han's Fast 6 death was handled and ended with Han being revived... again. But amid miracle resurrections and evil long-lost brothers is the most out-of-this-world plot point. For years, it seemed like the internet's favorite joke was that the only logical thing for Fast to do next was go to space. Well, it turns out Lin was listening.

"Oh my God, I had so many mixed emotions," Diesel says with a deep laugh of the F9 plot point that finds Roman and Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) taking one giant leap for Fast. "Then I had this Cheshire grin on my face. Like it's so bold and blatantly outrageous. And you go, 'No, no, no, no, no!' And then you go, 'Wait a minute, maybe, yes, yes, yes, yes!' I was like, 'If we pull it off, we'll pull it off. And if not, we tried.'"

F9 digital cover
John Cena
| Credit: Mark Leibowitz for EW

Cena has the same thought process about Jakob's future post-F9. "There have been instances where I go out for WWE and I think I crushed it and it's the worst performance I've ever had, the audience doesn't get it," says the now in-demand actor, who will also be seen this summer in James Gunn's superhero sequel The Suicide Squad and Hulu's raunchy comedy Vacation Friends. "So why don't I just enjoy the now, and if the moment is good enough where fans are like, 'We'd like him back,' what a cool thing that is. And if they're like, 'Eh, good try, but he's not Fast material,' cool, I got to touch the sun for a hot second."

The wait for the verdict has been longer than anyone could have expected. It was January 2020 when the F9 cast took over Super Bowl Weekend in Miami for a concert event to unveil the action-packed debut trailer. As momentum built towards the May release, fans were abuzz with the big reveals of Jakob's lineage and Han's status as a suddenly living person. And then the world shut down. By March, the coronavirus pandemic set off a chain of film delays, and while many studios initially moved their projects just a few months, Universal was aggressive in postponing F9 almost a full year to April 2021, and eventually June 25. The last 15-plus months has further expedited the conversation over the future of movies and, specifically, movie theaters, with many tentpoles either being pushed to streamers or rumored to be. That was never the case for F9, with Diesel being a vocal proponent of the theater experience, as demonstrated by his recent PSA that earned the honor of a Saturday Night Live spoof. ("Movies!")

"We got here, we've proven our resilience, all of us, collectively, and we're going to return to that past time that we love," Diesel says. "The theatrical experience is critical. It's one of the few places where we congregate and cheer and gasp and laugh together - and there's a magic to that. I think it's something that society needs, and I'm happy to be a part of the theatrical salvation."

F9 digital cover
Vin Diesel
| Credit: Mark Leibowitz for EW

Like Diesel, Cena believes F9 "symbolizes what going to the movies is all about." He says, "I couldn't think of a better vehicle, absolute pun intended, to get people to come together." 

After the extended wait for F9, like always, it's full speed ahead for Diesel, who's already prepping for a January start on Fast 10, the first of two films from Lin that will complete the main series.

Diesel says 10 is always what he and Walker talked about ending on. "It's bittersweet," admits Diesel, "but every book needs its last chapter."

Motion and still photography by Mark Leibowitz for EW.

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