Vin Diesel Moves Beyond the Action
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Unqualified to do much besides guard an entrance (Diesel had quit college, and never learned to tend bar), he kept showing up at auditions. But this was the mid-'90s, when nobody was sifting call sheets to hire an ethnic enigma. Finally, after a short-lived move to Los Angeles, Diesel was presented with a book by his mother about making one's own film on a shoestring. Scraping together every nickel he had, Diesel wrote and starred in a 20-minute short about the travails of a minority actor. Shot for a total of $3,000, 'Multi-Facial' is a stingingly vivid piece, evoking the despair of a racial outsider and the hoops he's put through. In 1995, it screened at Cannes; eventually Spielberg came across it and reached for the phone.

"I'm going back there this spring for my 10th anniversary," says Diesel. "Ten years in, and still I can't relax; in my mind it's like I'm always starting from scratch. That's why I had to make 'Multi-Facial,' because I had no Marlon Brando or Sidney Poitier to look up to – I was it, the first prototype 'everything.' And also, I felt I owed it to my dad. It was his dream for me to become a great actor, not just an actor of color."

To that end, diesel is now stretching himself, trying satire and genre films. This spring he'll work against blunt-force type in a 'Kindergarten Cop'-like comedy called 'The Pacifier,' playing a Navy SEAL assigned to guard a family of brats. "It's a fish-out-of-water role, and he's very funny in it, mainly because he doesn't force being funny," says director Adam Shankman. "Instead, he does a take on a tough guy trying to cope with a roomful of screaming kids, and is hilarious at it. I think it's going to open up his audience, and layer that hard-ass rep of his with some warmth."

Next off the line is 'Find Me Guilty,' for which Diesel gained 30 pounds and wore a pompadour. It's directed by Sidney Lumet, the man behind 'Dog Day Afternoon,' 'Serpico,' and 'Prince of the City.' So enthusiastic is Diesel about his showy part as the crime boss Jack DiNorscio that he runs off to fetch a reel of dailies from the just-completed shoot. "I could probably go to jail now for showing you this," he cracks as he slots the disc. "But it was just such a dream for me to make the film that I'll give you one small taste."

On the big plasma screen, the camera pans on a morose federal courtroom. A man is holding forth as his own attorney, addressing the jury in the coarse vernacular of a northern New Jersey wise guy. Several seconds pass before it reaches me that the guy giving the speech is Diesel. Fully transformed by the beer gut and wig, he is funny, profane, and frightening at once, in a Paulie Walnuts-meets-Jackie Mason sort of way. It's a powerhouse scene and an anointment moment, a tap on the shoulder from film royalty. (Lumet will be presented this year with an Oscar for lifetime achievement.)

It's also a reminder of who Diesel was before he took the blind alley of pulp films. In 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Boiler Room,' he was the big-shouldered street guy with the thousand-kilowatt stare and an intensity that backlit the screen. So good was he at embodying menace that you thought you saw traces of the early Brando, or a better-spoken young Stallone. Certainly he was someone to keep an eye on, and you wouldn't have been wrong in supposing that his true gift was playing reality. He took the bait of eight-figure checks for a string of videogames-cum-movies ('A Man Apart,' 'Pitch Black,' 'The Fast and the Furious,' 'xXx'). Yes, one can make a killing that way, but one can also be a washed-up star at 40 – just ask the Van Dammes and Dolph Lundgrens. Not many actors work to a ripe old age uttering lines such as "If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead."

This, then, is a very big year for Diesel. He is battling the first law of showbiz physics, which holds that all things hot must cool. He is also pitted against the Left Coast saw that there are no second acts for action stars. But that's just fine; Diesel loves a good fight, going back to when he was in grade school.

"I had this thing of talking shit to kids who were four years older than me, which is a great way to catch a beating," he says. "But, hey, you take your lumps and learn to keep your mouth shut." If he can notch a couple of new hits and get 'Hannibal' made, he'll shut a lot of other people's mouths this time, including the critics who've needled him.

As we wrap things up, I ask for his take on a reviewer who called his work "caricature." For the first time all night, Diesel flares.

"Really? He said that? But why? What's his angle, that dickless, no-necked –" He stops for a moment and collects himself. "On second thought, no; I won't respond. As someone who worked the door for years, you know not to give out information so people can track you down later. It's basically the same rule in Hollywood: When thousands of motherfuckers roll to your spot, some of them are going to leave angry."