Kiwi actor Vinnie Bennett and the top secret Fast & Furious role even he can't really talk about
When Vinnie Bennett walked into a popular East Auckland cafe on a blustery Wednesday morning this week, no heads turned
No one asked him for an autograph, and no phones were whipped out of pockets for pictures.
The Kiwi actor's hood covered his head, obscuring his tough-guy good looks that give him the vibe of a Hollywood movie star.
Today, thanks to a major role in the Fast & Furious franchise, Bennett is exactly that. But the 28-year-old doesn't act like a big shot.
"I'll have the porridge," he requests politely.
The waiter doesn't blink. No one in this hipster eatery seems to know, or care, who Bennett is.
That's about to change. As cinemas across the world begin screening Fast & Furious 9, a big-budget, high-octane, star-studded sequel, millions of viewers will be introduced to Bennett on the big screen.
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He has a starring role, playing a younger version of muscular, gruff, singlet-clad superstar Vin Diesel, who has inhabited family man and petrolhead Dominic 'Dom' Turetto over 20 years of the Fast franchise.
"It's pretty exciting," Bennett stammers, struggling to find the words to explain his sudden career climb. "It's mad."
It is certainly a big leap. The highlight of his movie career so far has been landing a "rising star" award for his role in Human Traces at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017.
A few hours after his interview with Stuff, Bennett will easily top that by flying to Los Angeles to attend Fast & Furious 9's glitzy Hollywood premiere.
When he lands in LA, Bennett will be tested for Covid-19, get fitted for a suit, take a quick nap, then walk the red carpet laid out along Hollywood Boulevard alongside the film's all-star cast.
That line-up includes some of Hollywood's biggest names: Vin Diesel, John Cena, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson and rapper Ludacris.
They're not the only famous faces. "Cardi B, Kurt Russell, Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron," recites Bennett, his face lighting up as he realises his name will appear alongside them in the film's credits.
"I'm going in blind ... It's bizarre."
Directed by series regular Justin Lin, and with a budget of US$200 million, this isn't just another instalment of the blockbuster franchise full of high flying action, impractical car stunts and one-line gags.
Delayed for a year when Covid-19 shut down theatres across the world, Fast & Furious 9 is billed as the movie that will finally get people to venture back into cinemas.
It's easily the biggest role of Bennett's career, and his is the first, and last, face audiences see in the film.
The Kiwi actress has just joined one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.
He isn't the film's only Kiwi star, with New Zealand-born actor and singer Anna Sawai, 29, playing Elle, an orphan and gifted fighter who delivers some impressive action sequences in the film's second half.
Bennett, whose partner is another famous Kiwi actor, Frankie Adams, has starred in plenty of TV shows over the last few years, including The Bad Seed, Filthy Rich and Good Grief.
He also had a bit part in the 2017 Scarlett Johansson sci-fi vehicle Ghost in the Shell - but Bennett's scene was cut. "(My) bit wasn't in the movie," he laughs.
Fast & Furious 9 is different. His is a main role, with flashbacks throughout the film helping drive the main plot line.
Because his role has been so secret, photos and clips from Bennett's performance haven't been used in Fast's promotional material. You won't see him in trailers, or his face on billboards. Stuff agreed to strict rules not to spoil Bennett's storyline ahead of this interview.
We are, however, allowed to talk about the moment Bennett landed the role of a lifetime.
"I was in Monte Carlo," he says. "I remember thinking, 'Maybe they'll call me today, just to give me a yes or a no'."
But Bennett had lost his phone, so he borrowed one to keep checking his emails.
"During dinner, I checked it one more time. There was an email from my manager (saying), 'Call me'."
After spending half an hour finding a decent phone line, Bennett finally got the nod.
"Usually I'm quite polite with my reps, especially my US reps, but I was like, 'F... off, you're f....... kidding me, get the f... out of here," he says.
"I got off the phone and straight away called my mum, called my grandma, called my mates - especially my friend who showed me the franchise back when I was a kid."
He told them: "Yeah ... I'm going to be a young Dom Turetto."
That childhood friend was by his side for Wednesday night's Fast & Furious 9 premiere at a cinema in Auckland, where Bennett's role in the film, something he'd kept under wraps for two years, was finally revealed.
"All of my friends from Christchurch, they were cheering every time I came on," he says.
His old schoolmate had an opinion too. "He's like, 'Man, it still doesn't feel like I've just seen you in this. I know all these characters - then there's you.'"
Bennett shook his head and replied: "It's crazy to me as well."
Because his character is mostly seen in flashbacks, Bennett shot the majority of his scenes without meeting the film's core cast.
Sitting in the make-up chair beside Michelle Rodriguez was about as close as he came - and he struggled to find the nerve to say hello to her.
But Bennett had plenty of other "pinch yourself" moments on set, shooting drag racing scenes in front of giant green screens, with airbags controlling his stunt car.
"We weren't allowed to take selfies on set, but I couldn't help myself. It was unreal – I had to capture these moments," he says.
"They really destroy those cars."
On the final day of shooting, Bennett finally saw his film doppelganger - Vin Diesel - driving by in a golf buggy.
He couldn't pass up the opportunity.
"I looked out of the trailer I was in and saw him and gave him a wave. He waved me over. He was sitting there with his two daughters and a big bodyguard," he says.
"I was like, 'Thank you for this opportunity. It's really crazy. Thank you so much.'"
Diesel replied: "'I've heard some good things about you." Then he said: "'Hey - you want to hear my daughters sing?'"
Bennett had to say yes. "So his two daughters busted out a song for us."
He doesn't know what's next. Bennett's been biding his time, spending lockdown in New Zealand, waiting for Fast & Furious 9 to finally hit screens.
If any more big roles come his way, he says he'll be choosing them carefully.
"I'm going to assume there'll be some opportunities that might arise out of this. It's going to be an interesting time for me, career-wise," Bennett says.
"It will be an important time to be very smart about the next projects I choose to work on, and not just opt for a big cash-grab."
* Fast & Furious 9 is in theatres now.