Either way, it's perfect for Diesel, who is the world's first bona fide multiculti film star.
"As a kid who grew up checking all 12 boxes on the census form for race, it was very important to me to tell Hannibal's story and get his greatness out there," he says. "Like me, and like a lot of the guys I wind up playing, he was misunderstood from the get-go. That anger and that hunger you get from being typecast is something I really know from the ground up."
Actually, type-uncast seems more to the point. From the age of 18 till he was "discovered" at 30 by Steven Spielberg (he played a soldier in 'Saving Private Ryan'), Diesel hit brick walls wherever he turned, butting up against his skin tone and demeanor. "I was 'too Italian' for gangsta films, 'too black or Latino' for mobster things, and 'too Jewish or Asian' for commercials. Not only was I dealt a short hand for jobs, I didn't even know what cards I was holding, because they changed with every office I walked into. It got so rough that I'd show up angry, like if you said or even thought something bad about me, there was gonna be trouble between us."
Diesel, whose background is, like Hannibal's, debated – "My mother, by herself, is like five nationalities, and my birth father I never even met" – takes his ethnicity dead seriously. It's partly a function of what he's endured, but mostly about servicing his high-yield debt to the man he calls his hero. That would be his stepdad, a black actor and teacher who sacrificed much for his adopted children. "He came on the scene when [twin brother] Paul and I were babies and my mom was really struggling on her own. As big a talent as he was in rep theater, he basically gave up touring to be a hands-on father, to love us like we were his own. It's strictly because of him that I became an actor and pushed through all the bullshit to make it."
Diesel works like a demon and seldom takes vacations, but he uses what little downtime he does have to play hard. "I'll go up to the country in Northern California with some friends and some sick ATVs," he says. "If you see a guy 20 feet off the ground, getting air up over the treetops, it's probably me. I've got the big Yamaha ATV, the new 450, and it sticks the most bananas landings."
Diesel also relishes doing his own stunts, and the greater the risk involved, the better he likes it. "When we were shooting 'xXx,' I was climbing this mountain to a castle outside Prague. It was late at night and the rocks were wet because it had been raining, and I'm going up this face with just a cable and harness attached to some flimsy rigging. At any minute, the thing could've snapped and I'd have plunged straight down the hill, but it was important to do it myself. When I got back to the set, all the guys said I was insane for having thought it, let alone done it."
For Diesel, the leitmotif of struggle invariably comes up, whatever the topic of conversation. Combat mode has been his default setting for as long as he remembers, and even now, as a zillionaire movie star, the shields don't go down easily. "When you're from where I'm from, you learn one of two things real quick: either to fight well, or to talk a lot of smack. Fortunately for me, I guess, I learned to do both, because I definitely had the X on my back."
What made him such a target? "Well, again, the multicultural thing. I looked black, white, Italian, Latino – someone was always pissed at me. And living between the projects and Little Italy, I had to fight punks of all backgrounds. But also, I just had this fire inside, this burning need to prove myself. Maybe it goes back to what my birth father did. I mean, how do you bolt on kids when they're three days old?"
Diesel, who's neither heard from nor sought his birth father since, quickly took to his stepfather's craft, learning to sing and dance at a young age. By the age of seven, he was acting onstage, appearing in productions at Theatre for the New City and dreaming of a life onscreen. Drawing on his love of comic books and the muscle art of Frank Frazetta, he built himself a body in his middle teens, haunting the gyms of Brooklyn and Harlem. By 17, he and his biceps (dubbed the Kryptonics) were working the door at downtown It-clubs like the Roxy and 10-18. As bouncers go, he was a certified star, earning good money, but that didn't serve to temper his pique, which was displayed in nightly brawls with drunken thugs. "My aggression? It was always there, you know, from day one, and for a while that was the perfect job. I was kicking ass on a nightly basis, which helped with the frustration of not landing parts."