But Diesel wanted more. Not more money, just more.

And now hes starring in a real movie—the gavel drama Find Me Guilty, directed by Hollywood legend Sidney Lumet, who directed Al Pacino in Serpico and Paul Newman in The Verdict. Diesel plays softheaded gangster Jackie DiNorscio, a real-life wiseguy who represented himself in court instead of ratting on the mob. And the thing is, Diesels performance is heartbreaking. Its that good.

Im not trying to do a one, two, three, Im outta here, says Diesel, who turned his V-shaped back on action sequels—guaranteed cash machines—because they werent advancing his characters. Im trying to go as far as I can, to get as close to that perfect film as I can.

That may sound like a bunch of Johnny Depp b.s., but some believe Diesel can transcend his flex-and-smash persona. Its sort of like the male equivalent of being a really good-looking actress, Lumet says. You think, Oh, she cant act. But I think hes the real McCoy. Hes a totally honest actor. Hes not faking emotion.

But who asked Vin Diesel to get all emo on us? Its a little bit weird to be so close to all hishumanness. See, Diesel doesnt hold back. Hes not able to. Despite the supersized life, the Beverly Hills home, the tanklike SUVs, hes just a likable guy, a guy you can empathize with, especially when hes antsy, and vulnerable.

Diesel grew up not far from the posh setting of the Soho House—but a world away—in subsidized artist housing in the West Village. And he likes to talk up his street cred in a Goodfellas-like voiceover about learning to swim at the Carmine Street pool and working out on the jungle gym in Washington Square Park, about mothers on stoops and kids in the street, about his stepfather pulling him on a sled.

Perhaps its because his biological father left before he was born and Diesel was raised by an African-American stepfather (who was an acting coach), but hes always been preoccupied with identity. As the well-worn story goes: A Manhattan bouncer and wannabe actor named Mark Vincent makes a self-financed 20-minute short called Multi-Facial in 1994, in which he plays a multi-ethnic actor who cant find work because hes seen variously as either too black or too Hispanic. He screens it at Cannes. Steven Spielberg sees it and casts the bouncer-cum-auteur in Saving Private Ryan. And somewhere along the way Mark Vincent becomes Vin Diesel.

Im always that kid wanting to make his first picture, Diesel says of his need to succeed. Wanting to make his first short film, to direct his debut film, wanting to make something ofsignificance.

Which partially explains missteps like the overcooked A Man Apart and may also explain his now signature coyness about his private life, which has led to all kinds of is-he-or-isnt-he speculation on the part of his fans. The most persistent rumor is that hes gay. He was once linked to his Furious costar Michelle Rodriguez, but since then hes never been spotted with a girlfriend, never been seen sneaking out of L.A.s Element draped with a sloppy WB starlet. A female radio-talk-show caller in New York even confronted him about his sexuality, asking point-blank if Vin played for the other team.