Vin Diesel talks Hollywood and Find me Guilty

“Halfway through his cranberry soda at Soho House, the posh members-only club in New York’s overrun meatpacking district, Vin Diesel gets rattled. Two guys in hipster glasses have grabbed the table next to us in a not-so-subtle bid to intrude on a Movie Star’s personal space. Or so Diesel believes.

“There’s a million tables,“ says Diesel, eyeing the interlopers in the mostly empty restaurant, his sandblasted voice rising all goofy and slurred, like he’s imitating a drunk. “But the monkey has to come over and look at me. And like, What is it? You can’t call it. It’s not a foul. It’s just surreal to me.“

Surreal? The man’s a star. He must be used to this sort of thing by now. But as diners start to trickle into Soho House’s steel-and-brick Drawing Room, Diesel, who was already restless—shifting back and forth in his chair, wringing his napkin, high-fiving me until my hand hurt—turns visibly annoyed. Now this…affront. I try to get him back on track, and he tries too. He does. But he’s got this point to make.

“Do you know what the fuck I would do if I could be a dick?“ he says, screwing up his eyes like a pity-me schoolboy and making me laugh out loud. “My hands are tied. I can never be a dick. If they give me cold soup and I complain, now they got a story for the paper. ‘Eh, guy didn’t like cold soup. Who the fuck’s he think he is?’“

Up to this point, Diesel has answered that last question in bold, marquee type: He’s the first multicultural action star, a man who loves heisting cars and blasting bad guys. To look at him, in this crowd of jaded strivers with its tired Sex and the City vibe, he appears wholly unambiguous. Tight tee. Bulging biceps. Glowing Bluetooth clipped to his ear. Yep, action hero. Mr. Badass.

And yet, there it is, something lurking underneath that impressive cranial outcropping. Something soft that’s making him squirm. Here’s a guy who should be wearing a $20 million–a–picture grin. Instead, he’s sweating a couple of mouth-breathers, juiced about their walk-on part in his life. And then I realize what it is. Diesel wants way more than his fans might be willing to give him. He wants Brando status. He wants to make trilogies. He wants respect. And why should we be surprised? Diesel has always wanted more.

Just look what he did after gaining multiplex stardom with The Fast and the Furious and XXX, each of which grossed $140 million–plus. Most action stars would have run those franchises into the ground with sequels before moving on. But Diesel jumped off the action-movie bullet train and into the funny car of last year’s estrogen-fueled comedy The Pacifier, in which he plays unlikely nanny to a bunch of suburban bed wetters. It took in over $100 million.

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

And now he’s 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, Diesel’s performance is heartbreaking. It’s that good.

“I’m not trying to do a ‘one, two, three, I’m outta here,’“ says Diesel, who turned his V-shaped back on action sequels—guaranteed cash machines—because they weren’t advancing his characters. “I’m 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. “It’s sort of like the male equivalent of being a really good-looking actress,“ Lumet says. “You think, ‘Oh, she can’t act.’ But I think he’s the real McCoy. He’s a totally honest actor. He’s not faking emotion.“

But who asked Vin Diesel to get all emo on us? It’s a little bit weird to be so close to all his…humanness. See, Diesel doesn’t hold back. He’s not able to. Despite the supersized life, the Beverly Hills home, the tanklike SUVs, he’s just a likable guy, a guy you can empathize with, especially when he’s 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 it’s because his biological father left before he was born and Diesel was raised by an African-American stepfather (who was an acting coach), but he’s 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 can’t find work because he’s 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.

“I’m 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 of…significance.“

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-isn’t-he speculation on the part of his fans. The most persistent rumor is that he’s gay. He was once linked to his Furious costar Michelle Rodriguez, but since then he’s 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.

“I was like, ‘How could you say that? Why would you say that?’“ says Diesel, the smooth space between his brown eyes wrinkling up in a neat W. “I’m not gonna put it out there on a magazine cover like some other actors. I come from the Harrison Ford, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino code of silence. I’m not gonna do that.“

For that reason, Diesel prefers dating in Europe, where he’s not as easily recognized. He thinks celebrity-on-celebrity hookups are crazy. People going through your trash, taking your photo at Starbucks, mashing up your last names into a Bennifer-style punch line. “It’s a sucker’s bet,“ he says.

While Diesel is known for his mesomorphic gifts and that intimidating triple threat of the shaved dome, rock-chewing growl, and fuck-you glare, he’s hardly recognizable in his new film. He ate truckloads of ice cream to replace his six-pack with a Boss Hog gut. Strangest of all is the creepy hair—a thinly tufted mini brown pompadour, heavy on the power alleys. When I ask if it’s real, if he grew it out, if he can grow it out, he laughs.

“Well, we don’t want to say. We don’t want to…“ he begins with theatrical equivocation, and then he descends into a string of hysterical nonsense syllables, meant to sound like the jabbering of a half-wit. “Got to leave something to the movie magic!“ he says finally.

Diesel will need straight answers to convince Hollywood and moviegoers to buy into his latest project. While some actors scheme to bring their version of Hamlet to the screen, or ache to prove a Cole Porter biopic is viable, Diesel’s filmic ambition is to portray one of the baddest conquerors in all history: Hannibal, the elephant-riding Alps-crosser. In fact, Diesel’s production company has set up offices in Spain, where the actor has spent months retracing Hannibal’s steps, hiking into the Alps, visiting the ruins in Cartagena and Saguntum, the conquest of which kicked off the second Punic War.

But get this: Diesel doesn’t want to make just another swords-and-sandals epic. He wants to roll Mel Gibson–style—his hero will speak Punic, a language no one has heard in 2,000 years.

I can’t help commenting that this sounds a little…nutty.

“It is nutty!“ he thunders, looking like a frat boy who just heard someone yell, “Road trip!“ and offers up yet another meaty high five. “But I don’t have a choice. I got to do it right.“

Unfortunately, he adds, Hannibal’s life is so sprawling he’s not sure how to do it in one movie. So, are you thinking a trilogy? I ask. Diesel freezes in mock horror.

“You can’t say anything—you’ll ruin me!“ he blurts out in his best Joe Pesci whine. “If Hollywood finds out I’m planning a trilogy I’ll be buried! It’ll be like, ‘You motherfucker!’ Whack! Whack! WHACK!

And then I realize—no wonder he’s so uncomfortable. Diesel has put himself on a pressure-cooker timetable worthy of Jack Bauer. He’s transitioning fast. It took Gibson two decades and four Lethal Weapons, not to mention What Women Want, before he amassed the cash and the cojones to take on The Passion of the Christ. And here’s Diesel, a relative arriviste, trying to vault from The Pacifier to a Hannibal-in-Punic trilogy like he’s crossing the street. Of course people are looking at him. They’re scratching their heads over those violent lane changes, waiting for him to swerve off the road.

By now, the Soho House is being pounded with hip-hop, the billiard room is filling up with smoke (including some from Diesel’s own American Spirits—“Things’ll kill ya“), and the actor’s BlackBerry is starting to buzz persistently. He’s got plans, he says, but he won’t say with whom. “If I gave you even the initials,“ he says, “it would be all over the newspapers tomorrow. Got to keep it q.t.“

Okay, maybe he’s screwing with me. But whatever. A man with plans this big probably needs to keep some of them to himself. All that’s left now is the Big Exit—the confident $20 Million Man striding off to his unknowably impressive appointments. Except the Big Exit never comes. Instead, there is the Self-Conscious Retreat: As we get up to leave, Diesel says, “Watch this. Walk in front of me and see what happens. Don’t walk behind me, because you won’t catch it.“ So I do, and sure enough every head in the room swivels as we pass—men and women, ogling. In the lobby he says, “See what I mean? Sick. What’s wrong with people?“

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