Vin Diesel Moves Beyond the Action
Credit: SGranitz / Getty Images

He had countless fights then, scores upon scores, full-strength melees that boiled out of clubs, a dozen or more guys whaling away. The glamour of brawls had long since worn off, that lightning feeling from his wrist to shoulder when he knocked a kid cold with one shot. Still, as he stands in his splendid yard near the top of Beverly Hills now – a soft moon hovering like a diving bell, the breeze carrying the scent of hibiscus and that other indigenous crop here, newfound wealth – he finds that, looking back, one battle stands out. He was working the door at Tunnel, a ravenous New York club that drew thousands of kids from the 'hood, where he often took on entire crews from the Bronx or Brooklyn. On this night, though, his lone opponent was a kid crazed on PCP. Time and again, he took the kid down with a mammoth hook or cross – and time and again, the kid got up, his eyes like the scope on an Uzi. "He was pure, total rage," he says, "and as strong as a chimp; there were three of us and we couldn't cool him out. Finally, after this goes on for-fucking-ever, we picked his ass up, opened the door, and threw him as far as we could into the street."

If it's odd to be having this conversation in the poshest zip code in America, it seems all the more so given the speaker's occupation: a $10-million-plus-per-picture movie star. But Vin Diesel was an action star even before he started making movies. His life has been one long pitched battle, starting three days after he left the womb in 1967 and his father walked off for good. Every step has been an uphill slog, and even now, on the lawn of his opulent home – a glass-enclosed mansion at his back, a lot full of tank-size trucks, Harleys in the garage, and a high wall of privet to ward off the curious – Diesel talks like a man under siege, trying to hold his ground. Out there, downhill, the enemy still waits.

"I was a bouncer for nine years – it was all I knew how to do – and my training was to not talk loosely, reveal my shit to strangers. That's still my thought process all these years later: Shut your mouth, watch your back, and keep working till your ass falls off."

I had come expecting a war of my own. Diesel, by reputation, can be hell on journalists: peevish, thin-skinned, and grudging with his time. But instead I found him relaxed and personable and eager to chat, particularly when he learned that we'd gone to the same school and grown up a few blocks from each other. Casually dressed in a tight-fitting T-shirt and muddy hiking boots, he at one point showed off the gut he'd gained for a new film, 'Find Me Guilty,' a movie about mobsters on trial.

"I sat in a room for weeks doing nothing," he says, "just eating and becoming my character. For me to go that long without working out, and not having the body that I built my identity around, drove me pretty close to crazy for a while. But it was fun walking around like Ralph fucking Kramden, parading my gut for the cast."

He showed me into his dining room, where the table was piled with work. What registered, besides the panoply of rich-guy gizmos – the huge plasma screen floating on a wall, the concert-quality sound system that hulked in an alcove – was a series of prototype posters and sketches depicting Diesel in ancient armor. In several he is riding an elephant, glowering from his perch, bare-chested.

"Excuse all this; I've got like five projects going now, including 'Hannibal,'" he says. "That's the big one, and I'm trying to do it right, without it costing out at $200 million."

'Hannibal' has been something of a white whale. It was first scheduled to begin shooting in the spring of '03; now Diesel hopes to launch it later this year. He has long been taken with the general from Carthage who, despite stunning victories over mighty Rome to avenge his murdered father, remains a shadowy figure in popular history. "To the extent people remember him, it's as this savage guy, the barbarian who came over the hills," says Diesel. "But he's more interesting than that. He's a warrior who proved the power of a son's love."

And proved it in a certain X Games, out-there way, armoring and riding two-ton elephants and trampling tens of thousands before him. Another hook – both for Diesel and Denzel Washington, who has a competing Hannibal project in start-up – is the matter of the general's race. Thundering into Rome from what is now Tunisia, Hannibal was one of the first great warlords of color – a black, or in any case brown, Alexander. Ethnologists dispute whether he was African or a Semitic tribesman.