On the 20th anniversary of the unlikely start of the now-monster franchise, the actor thinks it’s time to #BringJesseBack.
Death holds no dominion over the Fast & Furious franchise. It’s more powerful than memory or mortality, always pulling characters back in for new appearances, either from the oblivion of time or from beyond the grave. Letty, the rubber-burning love interest played by Michelle Rodriguez, got murdered in the fourth film, but by the sixth one, she was back as an amnesiac antagonist who had survived the explosion that appeared to have killed her at the expense of her memories. After Han, that perpetually snacking member of the car-driving crew played by Sung Kang, was killed off in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the series contorted its timeline in order to keep him around for the next three installments. In the wake of a fan-hashtag campaign (#JusticeForHan), the new movie F9 undoes his passing entirely, revealing him to have been living in hiding after forming his own version of the Fast & Furiouses’ most holy element, the makeshift family.
The franchise’s soap-operatic refusal to allow death to be final has made its strangest choice to also be strangely moving — it has stubbornly kept Paul Walker’s character Brian around, just off-screen, for what’s now been years after the actor died in an accident in 2013. But as the series crosses the two-decade mark, the small slate of memorable characters who still haven’t come back in some form has started to feel glaring. Sure, Gal Gadot’s ascendance to the superhero tier makes the surprise resurrection of her character, Gisele, unlikely — but what about Jesse, the twitchy, sensitive mechanic played by Chad Lindberg in the original The Fast and the Furious? Jesse, a self-taught savant when it comes to cars, was a surrogate little brother to Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto in addition to being an essential part of his criminal operation. He’s the first character to say grace over dinner outside the Toretto family home, a scene that became a Fast & Furious tradition. And though he may have perished in a rain of bullets after reneging on a bet made with Dom’s rival Johnny Tran (Rick Yune), as has been well-established, no one who dies onscreen in these movies has to stay that way.
Lindberg had no idea, when he took the part of Jesse in that first 2001 film, that he was appearing in something that would not just become a hit but that would, after a few stutter steps, launch an enormous global franchise that went from the Los Angeles street-racing scene to, improbably and wonderfully, outer space. But he’s more than ready to come back and reprise the role. On the 20th anniversary of The Fast and the Furious, Lindberg spoke with Vulture about why he initially turned down offers to audition for the film, his relationship with fandoms, and his own hashtag campaign.
The Fast and the Furious came out in 2001. Where were you at, professionally and personally, around then?
It’s funny, my career happened for me relatively younger, around 19 or so. I started working right away, which is unheard of, in October Sky and some good TV. I was 23, I think, when I got cast in The Fast and the Furious. I’ve told this story many times — I actually passed on the original audition. At the time, I was like, “Oh, I’m an artist. I want to do serious, independent movies.” I didn’t know any better. So my agent called me up, and she’s like, “Why aren’t you going in on this?” And I’m like, “I just didn’t respond to the script.” She hung up on me, rightfully so. She called me back, tried to convince me to go in again. She hung up on me again, rightfully so. Then another agent called me, he’s like, “Yo man, just go in,” and I’m like, “Okay, of course. Why am I being silly? I’ll go in.” I read for the casting director. They called me back almost immediately to read with Rob Cohen, the director, and then Matt Schulze [who played Vince] and Johnny Strong [who played Leon].
I got the part probably within an hour of auditioning. And I was super pumped, like, “This is exciting! All these cool cars and whatnot.” I had such a great experience. Fast-forward a few months, when the movie was done, my mom asked me, “Chad, do you want to have a premiere in our hometown?” Because I’m from a small town in Washington. And I said, “Mom, no one’s ever going to see this movie.” Then the movie came out and it changed my life forever. I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. Still, to this day, it’s, “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse.”
I am eternally grateful that the part found me. It taught me that you never, never know. The fans, the people that come up to me still — I mean, the movie is just as hot as it was 20 years ago. That doesn’t happen with movies, usually. They don’t usually end up making ten sequels.
Part of the weirdness of being an actor has to be the degree to which you’re at the mercy of auditions and other people deciding what you get to do. Especially when you’re young like that, I’m sure you want to feel you have more control over the direction your career goes in, but you can’t know.
Exactly, exactly. At the time, I kept getting cast as the computer guy — that’s not me. So I was like, “Why?” And I’m like, “I get it. I have a very sympathetic face.” That’s why we cared about Jesse when he died. So, I was like, “Okay, I’m the quintessential computer guy in Hollywood.”
Jesse is a computer guy, and, because this is a car movie, he’s also the mechanical genius. You had to handle all of the heavy gearhead vocabulary. Was it hard to get a handle on?
I’m not a car guy. My dad was a mechanic before he became a police officer. He’s kind of a man’s man and I am not. So we would always laugh about that over the years, because I would just take my car into the mechanic, and then I got cast as a mechanic. I learned, of course, what I was talking about. But I didn’t know much about cars and now I’m tied into that world forever.
What did your dad think of your mechanical expertise onscreen?
He loved it. One of our jokes was he’d always have me check the fan belt. So in the movie, you see me working on the car, and I’m checking the fan belt. I did that for him. He was at the premiere with me and one of my biggest memories is Dad at the premiere just so blown away, so excited, screaming in his seat, which he never does. And I was like, “Oh, oh, I think this is something.” He was very proud.
The movie features this incredible array of turn-of-the-millennium fashion — the jeans all low, the shoes platforms. Do you remember anything about how you were styled in that movie? I feel like you’re wearing a lot of sleeveless muscle shirts and beanies.
That was kind of my thing. I love sleeveless shirts, so that worked out. I love beanies, so that worked out. And I wear nail polish, and at the time I had some on and Rob Cohen was like, “Oh yeah, we need that. That’s great for Jesse.” I was the quirky one. But Jesse was the audience. Jesse was the most relatable. He was the character that I think a lot of the real car people can relate to. At least that’s what it’s been over the years. I think that Jesse was the heart of the movie.
What was the dynamic like with the rest of the cast? You’re all playing this family of choice; did you all get along immediately?
What they did, they took us to Vegas when we got cast, and we got to drive around some Formula 1 cars. They took us to a racetrack and that was great because we all got to bond. Nobody was famous yet, you know what I mean? It was just this pure time. It was in the summer. It was three months of just, like, “Yeah, this is awesome!”
Did you have any sense of not just how long this could go, but how big it could go?
Not in a million years! Usually movies have a shelf life. They come in, they go out, they go to video. But this movie just keeps going and going. Of course, I was bummed when I got killed in the original, and then they were like, “Oh, let’s make eight more sequels. Let’s make nine more sequels.” And I’m like, “You guys! Jesse didn’t die. We didn’t get any confirmation!” I feel like even after, when they’re done, we’re still going to see spinoffs. I’m guessing at some point down the line, we will see a prequel to the original.
It’s the story of my career, because I die often. I’m a dier, I’m a good dier, so when I book something, my family’s like, “Do you die in this?”
This particular death scene was early in your career as a dier. Do you remember what it was like getting to shoot that scene?
Yes, I do. It was really stressful because in that scene, I had to juggle the two guys coming up on the motorcycle with the machine guns. I had to juggle the squibs that I had on my body. I had to juggle the timing of the Jetta being shot up behind me. And then, I had to screech in at the end and be like, “Dom, I’m so sorry.” I remember, Rob was like, “Come on, Chad! No, no, you got another one in you.” So I back it up and I come back in, and one of my favorite memories from there was finally coming in, landing it, rocking and rolling, hitting my marks. And Paul Walker ran from that driveway at [the] Toretto house and gave me the biggest hug. He was like, “That was so awesome, dude.” That’s the kind of guy he was, just an amazing soul.
When you watch that film, he’s just so young and glowing. You even have a line that’s like, “He’s beautiful.”
That was improvised, actually. Rob was like, “You guys just go over there and start saying some things.” I think that was actually the first day of filming. And me and Johnny [Strong] were over there doing our thing. And I looked over at Paul and was like, “That’s a good-looking guy. He’s beautiful.” That was not in the script.
So when the series made the leap from being grounded in this particular reality of street racing and starts involving tanks, and submarines, and skyscrapers —
And The Rock.
And The Rock, who heals his broken arm with the force of his will. But characters started coming back — I think Michelle Rodriguez’s was first. When did people start asking you about Jesse coming back?They’ve always been saying that, but probably really around No. 4, people were like, “Yo, where are you?” And that has become the thing. I can’t go anywhere [without] people being like, “Yo, why aren’t they bringing you back?” And I’m like, “Man, I’ve been here in this for the last 20 years.” I met a guy on Instagram — his name is Dom, actually — and he’s a car specialist, he rebuilt my Jetta. We call it the “Bring Back Jesse Jetta.” It starts to gain traction almost every year, so it’s like, there’s this slim possibility, in a way. It just needs to get to Vin, you know?
I always go to the theater, I support my previous castmates and their franchise, but it’s also tough, because I’m like, “Man, I want to be a part of that ride.” It’s tough that I got killed. It would be really amazing if like, No. 10, they brought me back around, 20 years later. I think so many of the fans would love to see some of the original cast come through again. Here’s the thing — they can do it. They can bring back anybody they want. If you’re going to be doing a Jurassic Park crossover, I’m like, “Come on guys, come on. You have to bring me back, please.”
Have you come up with your own story lines that you would like for Jesse? How would you imagine him coming back? Would he be a villain?
A villain would be great. I’m actually filming a new TikTok series called Jesse’s Furious with a guy on TikTok named SemiStupid. He does a lot of amazing videos. We’re going to do a series where Jesse is furious because they went on without him, and so, I’m coming back to avenge myself and go after the crew, and it’s going to be really funny. But realistically, I think he would be cool if Jesse just went away for a long, long time. He’s been hiding out somewhere. He’s been working on his cars. He’s been very quiet. And then, I don’t know, whatever it takes, that call from Dominic Toretto, like, “We need you,” or whatever. Or maybe I was in a coma for 20 years.