Inside the Crazy, Batshit Life of a Fast & Furious Racer

Almost getting knocked out by Vin Diesel. Suspended inside a car mid-air. Doing laundry with Ludacris. Michael Ealy, Brandon T. Jackson, and more talk about life inside Hollywood's most improbable franchise.
IMAGE Universal Studios

Ask any Fast & Furious racer, any real Fast & Furious racer, it doesn’t matter if you appear in one scene or two—being a part of the family is being a part of the family.

Starting on the streets of Los Angeles in 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, Hollywood’s most unprecedented franchise has spanned 11 films and counting, traveling to Miami, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro, among other exotic locales. Even more impressive is the expansive, eclectic, A-list cast that was originally built around Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster. Now, the crew also includes Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang, Nathalie Emmanuel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Gal Gadot, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, John Cena, Helen Mirren, Brie Larson, Jason Momoa, and Rita Moreno. (Yes, Helen Mirren and Rita Moreno.)

While it might be hard to remember, before Fast reached insane heights—F9 really went to outer space!—at the heart of the films was street racing. A group of alums who kicked off their careers as Fast drivers have since gone on to become recognizable faces, such as Michael Ealy (Barbershop), Amaury Nolasco (Prison Break), Brandon T. Jackson (Tropic Thunder), Neil Brown Jr. (Insecure), and Celestino Cornielle (Mayans M.C.).

Ealy and Nolasco starred in 2003’s Diesel-less sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious, which hailed from Oscar-nominated director John Singleton and centered on Walker’s cop-turned-fugitive Brian O’Conner. The Miami-set film begins with Tej Parker (Ludacris) organizing a race between Slap Jack (Ealy), Orange Julius (Nolasco), and Suki (Devon Aoki). Unfortunately, none of them stand a chance when Brian is a last-minute addition, as Slap Jack eventually crashes and Orange Julius refuses to jump a bridge.


Six years later, Diesel, Walker, Rodriguez, and Brewster reunited for the fourth installment, Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious. Jackson and Brown Jr. played Alex and Malik, two drivers on a street racing team that doubled as drug smugglers for a kingpin that Dom (Diesel) and Brian were looking to take down. Lastly, Cornielle headed to Cuba for the opening sequence of 2017’s F. Gary Gray-directed The Fate of the Furious, which marked the first outing since Walker’s tragic death. In a nod to Walker and Fast 1, Cornielle’s Raldo races Dom through the streets of Havana for pink slips, and Dom wins—despite his clunker exploding—but Raldo earns his respect.

"Whenever you see actors doing press from that franchise, and they seem happy, I get why," says Michael Ealy, who appeared in 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious. "It is some of the most fun moviemaking you can do."

Photo by Universal Studios.
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With this week's release of the franchise’s penultimate installment, Fast X, and director Louis Leterrier promising a return to street racing, we raced to interview Ealy, Nolasco, Jackson, Brown Jr., and Cornielle. From beating out Pitbull, to almost getting beat up by Diesel, here are their incredible Fast stories.

“Kids were doing donuts in the parking lot”

MICHAEL EALY: I had no knowledge of the franchise, other than the first one worked and they were making a second. I never watched the original until much later in life.

BRANDON T. JACKSON: I was in high school when the original came out, and all the kids were doing donuts in the parking lot after the movie. I'm from a suburb outside of Detroit, a very diverse neighborhood. You have these different nationalities, different backgrounds, and you just see all of us peeling out and trying to do what they did in the first Fast & Furious.

NEIL BROWN JR.: I was a big Vin Diesel fan, back to when he popped in Pitch Black, so I was excited for the first Fast. I was really happy to see them all come back to restart the series [with Fast 4].

CORNIELLE: I got into the entertainment business in Miami, and I was doing some modeling when my agent twisted my arm to go and audition for 2 Fast 2 Furious. I was fighting him, like, "Dude, come on, I'm not an actor.” So I showed up nervous as fuck, literally, like the 8 Mile song, palms sweaty and everything. I was a royal mess—I was stuttering, didn’t know my lines. The casting director lost her shit with me: "Who the fuck sent you? You're terrible." She basically kicked me out of her office, and my ego was so bruised because I had to do the walk of shame by all the other actors waiting outside. It bothered me so much that I was like, I'm not going out like that. I never wanted to be an actor, but I took some acting courses, just because I wanted to prove myself. A year later, I auditioned for the same casting director, and that’s the first movie I ever booked. She didn’t recognize me. She was like, "You're really good, how come we've never met?" [Laughs.]


“It was clearly for Pitbull”

CORNIELLE: The franchise kicked me into this career, and then fast-forward in time to all these years later, to be cast in the eighth installment. That was like I was walking in a dream. With 2 Fast, I auditioned to be the character who gets ejected from their seat, and a friend of mine actually booked it—but it was nowhere near the role that I ultimately got. That shit was cool. When that role came, I just felt so confident that it was for me, and I did the audition and knew that what I was doing was different than what other actors would do. But, in essence, the role was written for Pitbull, who was friends with Vin. But F. Gary Gray, when he saw what I did, he was like, “No, that’s my guy,” and this dude seriously fought for me. Gary later tells me that Pitbull was calling him, and even his bodyguard was like, "Yo, Pitbull really called him begging for the role.” [Laughs.] When I showed up to Cuba, the wardrobe was pre-chosen and it was clearly for Pitbull. Like, dressed in all white, with a big fedora.

JACKSON: I was always running to be an action-comedy star, and my agent was like, "Yo, this guy dropped out.” [The character] was actually called "Asian Racer," which is totally different casting, right? [Laughs.] But I was like, "Of course I can play ‘Asian Racer!’ What do I gotta do?" I didn’t have to audition. My agent was like, “Just go now,” and next thing you know I'm back on the Universal lot, where I had just shot Tropic Thunder.

BROWN: It came out of nowhere, because I didn't have an agent. I had done a movie called Never Back Down, and I called to get a general meeting with casting director Sarah Finn. Before that, I went with my cousin, Tory Kittles, to meet his manager, Matt Luber, who was also Paul’s manager. He said, "A lot of people don't know, but they're going to do another Fast & Furious. So mention it, and if you get cast in it, I'll do the deal." So the general with Sarah went really well. I mentioned Fast, and she says, "I was going to bring it up anyway because you seem perfect for the movie." She brought me in for Fast & Furious producer Neal Moritz, and Jeff Wadlow, the director of Never Back Down, had said, “If you get close, I'll let Neal know how great you are.” Jeff texted Neal while I was in the room. Neal looked at me and said, "You've worked for me before, haven't you?” I was like, "Yeah, just a small part on a Denzel movie [Out of Time].” He looked back down to his phone, and I continued auditioning. About a month later, at the premiere of Never Back Down, I got the call.

One bummer for Neil Brown Jr.? He didn’t actually get to drive. "It was disappointing that we didn’t get to jam in those vehicles like we wanted to," he says. "But they had bigger fish to fry—they had to blow some stuff up!"

Photo by Universal Studios.

NOLASCO: They wanted a Latino guy with long hair, like a Don Juan-type thing, and, clearly, hair is something I don't have. The character was named Orange Julius, and I remember going, "Who the fuck is named Orange Julius? There's no way a parent is going to name a kid Orange Julius. This has to be a nickname, and he either really loves the smoothie franchise Orange Julius or the color orange.” So, for my audition, I decided to show up with orange sweatpants, a white tank top, and I stopped at an Orange Julius store and got myself a smoothie. I went off in Spanish a few times, just because I thought the character had a little bit of a temper. When I got the call and went to Miami, I met the writers and they said, “Let me tell you, we had envisioned something completely different. But we saw your audition and all went, ‘Forget about what we had before, this is our guy.’”

EALY: I got a call to come in and audition for the role of Tej. When I didn't get that role, I remember they were like, "But Neal Moritz wants you to do another role—a street racer." I was like, "Well, what about Tej?" They were like, "They're going with Ludacris on that one." I was in my feelings, a little bit hurt, and I was like, "Nah." [Laughs.] And, sure enough, I got a call saying, "Neal really wants to have a meeting with you.” I went into Neal's office, and, literally, all he had to do was show me the car. That was it. Like, “I’m in, say less.” I told him in the room.

“Vin Diesel is about to knock your ass out”

NOLASCO: We were staying at Miami’s Shore Club, in a beautiful suite, overlooking the beach. At this time, I was bartending, making 200 bucks a night. They are giving me a hundred bucks a day per diem—and I couldn’t even spend the whole thing! I’m like, “Are you kidding me? A hundred bucks just for me to eat?” I felt like I made it.

EALY: Barbershop opened and the next weekend I flew to Miami. I remember being in a club called B.E.D., hanging out with Anthony Anderson, Gabrielle Union, Martin Lawrence, and Michael Bay, because they were shooting Bad Boys II at the same time. And people were asking to take my picture. I was really, really flabbergasted at how much life had changed in the course of about seven or eight days. A year before that, I was a waiter in New York—and here I was, in South Beach, shooting with John Singleton.


NOLASCO: Barbershop had just come out, and so, everywhere we would go, people would recognize Michael. He was the star among us.

EALY: John Singleton had requested that they bring me straight from the airport to set. So I come to set, and he was up on a camera crane, like, "[Screaming] Michael Ealy didn't want to do my movie! Michael Ealy didn't want to do my movie!" [Laughs.] And I was like, "John, I just wanted the role of Tej, man. I'm sorry.” And he was like, "It's all good. I'm fucking with you.”

NOLASCO: I owe so much to John Singleton, rest in peace. This is John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood, and he's somebody who believed in me! He said, "We want more scenes with him," and they kept writing scenes for me. It’s funny—it got to a point where the producer was like, “No, that’s it. We can’t have him in the whole movie!” [Laughs.]

"I’m a big fan of Vin Diesel; Pitch Black blew me away," says Celestino Cornielle. "So, inside, I’m losing my shit, but outside, I’m telling myself to be cool—because I’ve got a job to do."

Photo by Universal Studios.

EALY: I had a little bit of salt towards Luda, because he took the role I wanted. When I met him, all of that instantly washed away. Luda came up to me and was like, "Yo, I love what you did in Barbershop. I'm glad you're doing this." He was so nice to me, I was like, "I can't even hate on him right now.”

NOLASCO: This is how ignorant I was in terms of music and the hip-hop world: I didn’t know who Luda was. The day of the table read, Luda was right next to me. I introduced myself: “Hey, how are you? My name is Amaury,” and he goes, "Hi." I said, "And your name is?" He looked at me, like, Is he fucking with me? But, right away, he was very cool, and he goes, "My name is Chris."

EALY: I was staying in a hotel, and somehow I brought up that I needed to do laundry. Luda was like, “I got a house, just come over and do your laundry there.” And I'm thinking to myself, I'm going to go to Luda's house, in South Beach, and hang out and do laundry? My life is different. And I did it! I went to his house, did laundry, and hung out.


NOLASCO: Exactly what you see in the movie, that's how the set was. It was like walking into a party. I couldn’t believe this was my first movie. You’ve got all these extras, beautiful girls, hot pants, loud music. Some of the scenes were night scenes, so we were there pulling an all-nighter. There was always a party in Luda’s trailer, and it was kind of like a club to get in—there was a whole velvet rope at the entrance. To be honest, I don’t think I ever got in. And I was in the movie. [Laughs.]

CORNIELLE: We were in Cuba, and we were the first film to get greenlit to do it, and that was mind-blowing. The Cuban people were so excited. It was like a madhouse. Production had a really hard time controlling it, because there were so many people and they just wanted to be a part of it. They were standing on their balconies and coming down. When Vin showed up, it was like a block party—these people were going crazy.

EALY: Whenever you see actors doing press from that franchise, and they seem happy, I get why. It is some of the most fun moviemaking you can do.

JACKSON: It was loud. Just engines revving and zooming. Between all the guys, I remember being the youngest, only 23. I didn't know what was going on, but I was having the best time of my life. And it hadn’t even clicked for me that this is one of the biggest franchises of all time. Everyone was pretty big—and I wasn’t that big—so I was just kind of observing everything. It was cool to get the chance to work with Wonder Woman.

Amaury Nolasco had one thought when he learned of his eventual Fast and Furious character: "Who the fuck is named Orange Julius?"

Photo by Universal Studios.

BROWN: Gal Gadot, you could see that, if she kept at what she was doing, she was going to do amazing things, so I was not surprised. Everybody was on the cusp of doing something pretty major.

CORNIELLE: I'm a big fan of Vin Diesel; Pitch Black blew me away. So, inside, I’m losing my shit, but outside, I’m telling myself to be cool—because I’ve got a job to do. We’re doing my first scene, and we’re in each other’s faces, like, there was no foreplay or nothing. It's just me in my idol's face, talking shit to him. And I'm the new guy, so I was a little overzealous. Vin actually pulls Gary aside, and—in so many words—basically says, "Tell this dude to back the fuck up." [Laughs.] So Gary pulls me to the side and says, "Yo, don't get so close,” and I'm like, "What are you talking about? I'm not even moving." He's like, "You're moving, and Vin Diesel is about to knock your ass out." I meant no disrespect, it was just nerves and excitement.


BROWN: Everybody knew they were doing something special, and it was very uplifting to be a part of that. The part wasn't huge, but it was a big opportunity to see how these movies are done, and to observe the way that Paul and Vin handled themselves. Vin was very adamant about getting as much value out of everything that everyone did in each role. More than anything, he was looking at it like a producer, because this could be a restart to the franchise, and was about the business of it, which I found quite refreshing.

CORNIELLE: Here I am, thinking, Vin doesn’t like me, he’s about to kick my ass. But, one day, we’re all waiting for him, because he’s the big shit, and I’m just sitting and looking out at the water. He pulls up and hollers at me from far away, "Celestino, I was at home thinking about what a great actor you are!" I was like, What the fuck? It turns out that Vin liked my performance so much that he shuts production down for hours, and nobody knew what the fuck was going on. And what the fuck was going on is that they were rewriting my scenes so I could be more prominent in the movie. The end of the race, where I’m giving him my car keys and he gives them back to me and says, “Your respect is good enough for me.” It wasn’t initially written like that. Fans love that scene because it pays homage to the origins of the series and Paul Walker, and I feel so honored that I got to carry that torch. It’s incredible—you’re a nobody, working with an A-list actor, and you feel all these nerves. I stepped on his toes, but, from that moment on, I felt like I did earn his respect.

“I can't say enough about Paul Walker”

EALY: To this day, Paul Walker still might be the nicest guy I've ever met in Hollywood. Paul was not fazed at all by the success of the franchise. He was just a kid in a candy store, having some fun, and waiting on an opportunity to go surfing. Paul was easy-breezy with it, and a lot of that really came through with the character of Brian. When we did Takers a couple of years later, same exact guy. One of the best ever—and someone who everybody liked.

Photo by Universal Studios.

JACKSON: When I got a chance to meet Paul, it was like seeing an angel, for real. His energy was so fluid, calm, peaceful, and loving. Just seeing how gracious he was on that set, being nice to everyone.

BROWN: I’d always dug Paul, and I’d known him in passing. Then he was just a really sweet, kind individual who really cared about people and the work that he was doing.

NOLASCO: I can't say enough about Paul Walker. I vividly remember when I saw Paul for the first time. We're all waiting in the lobby for the van to pick us up. Paul walks in, comes straight to me, gives me a big hug, and says, "Welcome to the show." And I was like, What the fuck? I mean, he was already Paul Walker, he had the success of the first Fast & Furious, and he’s so humble, so welcoming. I'm freaking out, because it's my first movie, you don't want to fuck up, and he made me feel at home from day one. “Welcome to the show.” I will never forget that. What an amazing guy.

“I did the movie for the car, and I couldn’t drive it”

EALY: I was out of my mind happy. They took us to an abandoned airfield, where the second unit was practicing all of the stunts, and they had an instructor teach us how to do NOS into the camera, how to do 180s. I could not believe how much fun I was having—and they were paying me?!

NOLASCO: We got there about two weeks before principal photography, because they wanted us to take lessons on how to drive. Little did I know that we were not going to drive. At all. [Laughs.] They wouldn't give us that responsibility—it was just to get the feel of how these racers drive. And I remember Devon [Aoki] had never driven before, so she didn’t even have a license.

BROWN: For a few years, when acting had slowed down, I was a stuntman, and I had done a lot of action stunts and fights. So I was excited about driving these vehicles. When you heard about the first one and all the work everybody did with learning how to drive, it was disappointing that we didn't get to jam in those vehicles like we wanted to. But they had bigger fish to fry—they had to blow some stuff up!

EALY: I did the movie for the car, and I couldn’t drive it. The only person that really got to drive a little bit was Paul, because he was the most experienced driver. In that race sequence, we were on the rig most of the time. They were like, "Here's the problem: The car is 800 horsepower; you can't take it out of second gear. It’s not street legal, so, after the movie’s done, we're going to destroy the car." I got up to about 45 [miles per hour], and they were like, "OK, slow down.” I was like, "Oh god, please, I just want to see how fast it can go!”


NOLASCO: It was amazing and disappointing at the same time, because we had been taking lessons for two weeks. It's every guy’s dream to get these cars and peel them out, and the only one they would let drive was Paul. They wanted to keep us safe, and I guess they didn’t trust us—and they were probably right [Laughs.] They let me drive about maybe 30 miles per hour, no other cars, on a closed street, but it was pretty much a straight line.

CORNIELLE: They had several of my same car, and each one was used for a different thing. One was just on a dolly. Another one, they really built this thing and it was fast as shit, so they were really nervous. Because of the danger factor, and with so many people on the road, a lot of it was shot at another location where they could take the crowd away for safety.

JACKSON: I didn’t get a chance to really show my skills. I mean, I don’t have skills like a racer, but I don’t go off cliffs and stuff [like my character]! [Laughs.] But that’s some professional driving, so, instead of looking crazy and stupid, I’d rather the stuntmen do it.

EALY: They had four of my cars, and one of them was rigged for the crash. I got to watch the stunt driver drive that thing into the billboard. I was in Miami for about five or six weeks, and then I did one or two days on the Universal lot, where we did really close interior shots of gear shifting, pedal shifting, and a couple of ad-lib lines.

NOLASCO: At Universal, they had our cars on a crane, with a green screen in the back, and you're just spitting out lines.

JACKSON: They said, "Just be yourself; say whatever you want.” I was like, "I'm going to talk crap.” So I'm on the green screen, just yelling things at Vin Diesel.

CORNIELLE: When we were in Atlanta, they had a model of the car made, but it went up in the crane, and they were like, "You're going to go up there." I thought they were joking, and they're like, "No, for real.” So I’m in this car, 50 feet up in the air, and this stunt guy down below is using a remote control to move the car. In the movie, our cars are bumping into each other. To do that, I was in a car, Vin was in the car next to me, and the entire floor was really slick. They had bars on the car, and there were four or five guys on each car, pushing and bumping them together. I felt like I was in a game of air hockey.

EALY: The first time I saw it was at the premiere, it was nuts—I couldn't believe how real it looked. I really learned to trust my director on a movie like that. Some of the stuff John was throwing out, I was like, "Am I really going to do that in this moment?” And he's just trying to get me to understand, "I know you're only going 25 miles per hour, but it'll look like you're doing 100, so just trust me." It felt like I was overacting, but, in reality, it all works.


“I got to get back in there”

CORNIELLE: I was in Cuba for maybe two months, but then I was filming a TV show, and I had this feeling that they were going to call me back. I don't know, maybe I just wanted them to call back. [Laughs.] When I'm filming this show, they wanted to cut my beard, and I totally lied and told them I couldn’t cut it because I was still on Fast. And, sure enough, a few weeks in, I get a call from someone in Fast production, and the first fucking thing he asks me is, “Do you still have your beard?” I was like, “Hell yeah!”

"Exactly what you see in the movie, that’s how the set was. It was like walking into a party," says Nolasco of working on 2 Fast 2 Furious.

Photo by Universal Studios.

JACKSON: When I saw it in the theater and I went off the bridge, I was like, “Damn, I want to be in another one! Rewind, I’m a better driver than that!” [Laughs.] We were building a career, and no one knew how big Tropic Thunder was going to be. That part was to get great face value.

NOLASCO: When they were doing Fast 6 or 7, I got a call, saying, "Hey, they're talking about bringing specific characters from all the other movies back. Are you interested?” I go, "Are you kidding me? I will play my character again in a heartbeat.” But it went nowhere. I guess it was just an idea and they wanted to see who was out there before they wrote the script.

CORNIELLE: It's such a great franchise, with so many fans, and such a big cast. I understand they can't bring everybody back, particularly as they're trying to wrap everything up. I mean, it would be beyond me to be called back to continue with the franchise, but I was just happy to be a part of it. I'll forever be grateful for F. Gary Gray and Vin Diesel. Those two guys forever have my heart. Seriously, they can call me right now, like, "Yo, come fucking help me lay some tiles in my house,” and I’d be there in a second!

EALY: Every time I see a commercial for Fast, I'm like, "Man, I got to get back in there.” I'm bitter that I was in 2, and I haven't been in the eight since. [Laughs.] They’ve brought in new people, and then the new people stick around. Like, Charlize is on her third now. I feel like I've got to go win an Oscar for them to call me.


“It’s a family that I feel very much a part of”

NOLASCO: Fast means so much to me, because it opened the doors for me. I was bartending at a club in L.A., and, after doing that movie, I said, "OK, I can consider myself an actor now." I stopped bartending and my career took off, little by little.

JACKSON: That was the start of my career, and, looking back, it’s nostalgia and great times. It’s a blessing to be able to be a part of something that is a staple.

EALY: Everywhere I go in the world, somebody recognizes me from that movie.

NOLASCO: Right after 2 Fast, I’m still getting my feet on the ground, trying to get my next movie, and they called me to do a car show. The fact that I was in Fast, they wanted me to take pictures and sign autographs. And so, there I am, at my little table, with my headshots, and there's a big banner behind me that says, "From 2 Fast 2 Furious, Amaury Nolasco." I have a few people, but there’s hardly a line for me, and there’s a moment where I’m sitting by myself, just waiting, and a gentleman comes by and says, "Who are you?" I said, "My name is Amaury Nolasco." He goes, "No, no, no, who are you in the movie?" And I said, "I played Orange Julius,” and he's just looking at me dumbfounded. I said, "Well, did you see the movie?” He goes, "Yes." I go, "I'm the Latino guy who wouldn't jump the bridge." He goes, "Oh, shit! Honey, get the kids, it’s the Latino guy who wouldn’t jump the bridge!”

BROWN: I just feel very fortunate that I was able to be a part of this massive journey. It was a well-needed check [Laughs.] That was a big year for me, in terms of getting my feet wet in this industry, so I'm always thankful for anything that touches back on Fast & Furious, and all the people involved that helped me get to where I am today. Some lifelong friendships were made there.

CORNIELLE: A lot of people talk about drama on the set, and that happens when you have big egos. With the core group, there's truly a sense of family, loyalty, and camaraderie. And I like to think of myself as a cousin! But that mess that happened with Vin and The Rock, and Tyrese and others picking sides, that’s a family! [Laughs.] I grew up in a dysfunctional home, and it was like that.

NOLASCO: I’m still a fan, I’ve seen them all. It’s a family that I feel very much a part of, and I’m always rooting for them. It's insane how it has taken on a life of its own. Every time there's another one, people go, "How many more are they going to do?" And I go, "Well, brother, people keep seeing them, so it's working!"


FromEsquire US

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Derek Lawrence
Derek Lawrence is a freelance writer who covers film and TV for Esquire, Vulture, Vanity Fair, and The Ringer. He has profiled Wesley Snipes, Ethan Hawke, and interviewed Sen. Elizabeth Warren about Ballers, and only Ballers.
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