Vin Diesel for “Babylon A.D.”

Hard to believe its been ten years since former bouncer turned sex symbol action hero Vin Diesel hit our screens with a memorable role in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”.

From the “The Fast and the Furious” to two Riddick movies to “XXX”, Diesel was a blossoming bankable action star. Yet it seems he’s been gone for a while. After a memorable turn in Sidney Lumet’s “Find Me Guilty” in early 2006, he’s back with the French sci-fi feature “Babylon A.D.” – not to mention a new family.

The gravel-toned and often light-hearted actor remains bullish and bulging in all the right places, but more relaxed than ever as he sat down in New York for a roundtable interview:

Question: How has fatherhood changed you?

Diesel: Fatherhood makes me want to be a better person. You know the film Pacifier is how the whole damn thing started. I was working with those babies too long and I’m like ‘OK it’s time.’ I decided to work on the film Pacifier for my niece and nephew because they were saying “when are we gonna be able to see our uncle?” So I did the movie and now my nephew is saying: “When are we gonna do another Pacifier”?

Question: Where have you been? It’s been ages since we’ve seen you.

Diesel: We just got back from the Dominican Republic, which was an incredible experience. It was a very cool thing to go down there and direct a prequel to “Fast”. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a feature film of that status create a prequel and do a short film about it. I went down there and shot with Michelle Rodriguez and Sung from Tokyo Drift and some really incredible Latin artists.

One of the most beautiful things about shooting there was the fact that we were able to enroll students that have been attending the film school which I’ve created three years ago in the Dominican Republic–where I gather inner city kids and put them through a six-week guerilla filmmaking course. My father brought down the whole NYU curriculum to intensely do this non-profit thing.

The coolest thing in the world is that these kids, who knew nothing about film are now hands on working for a Universal picture. How cool? You don’t have that here. If you went to NYU, you couldn’t be guaranteed to work on a set of a major motion picture.

So that’s where I’m coming from now…editing that. Before that six months of shooting the Fast and Furious which is a prequel to the third one. It’s gonna be interesting. If you notice it just says: Fast and Furious. It doesn’t have a number on it. It’s going to be interesting how they present the film–if they’re going to follow the chronological order. What I think they’re trying to say is that this is the true sequel to the first one because we have all the original cast. So I did that for six months which was wonderful and a nice return from the Babylon kind of European “serious”. It was refreshing to go back to the home of Hollywood.

Question: Did you apply any of your fitness skills to Babylon A.D.?

Diesel: I practice martial arts. A lot of my friends have been heavily trained in Martial Arts and the style for Toorop lends itself to the familiarity with Martial Arts but his style is based on young guerilla soldiers–a kind of non traditional style. He was never made to look too polished, just resourceful and spontaneous in his fighting style. You always felt like he’s been in this a thousand times, killed a milion people, but each encounter is different.

Question: Do you find that you have issues with trust?

Diesel: I’m a New Yorker. I always have issues of trust… You know I like to keep it honest here. Do I trust anyone? Yes. I trust people.

I can say the logical answer is time, experience…but really trust is something that comes from inside and I think you have to trust people from your gut. I don’t think it’s anything specific. I don’t think it’s anything tangible. I think you are forced when deciding to trust someone to rely on your intuition, which we probably don’t do enough of.

Question: Any truth about a lot being cut out of this movie?

Diesel: I just got off of Fast and Furious and had this wonderful opportunity with Universal Studios…because in The Chronicles of Riddick they allowed me to write a draft and in this one, doing Fast, they asked me to direct a prequel to the prequel (mentioned earlier)…which is actually really cool because people don’t talk enough about their relationships with studios, there’s usually a lot of studio bashing [but] it was pretty cool that they said “here, take the money, direct a 20 minute short that’s a prequel that’s all a character study as a prequel to Fast.” So, it was a wonderful experience shooting a movie. The reason I said that is [because] literally, I was in the editing room all night to now and I haven’t seen the cut of Babylon (in 6-8 months) So I don’t know…am I in the movie? Am I in the movie or am I on the cutting-room floor, goddammit

Question: How do you establish a character?

Diesel: The first thing that happens which you probably don’t hear much about is the closing of the former character, which is a process I don’t think a lot of actors talk about. You purge yourself of the character that you played prior, which is the first thing you want to do. Then you want to think about what the character represents and kind of create this mental chalk board and write down all the elements about this character [then] take the time to allow all the elements of this character to find some synchronicity and start breathing your character. Sidney Lumet asked me what was my process for becoming a character? I grew up the son of an acting teacher so I was introduced to all these various methods early. And even with Sidney Lumet I was never really good at articulating what that process is or how it’s done. It’s more internal. It’s about replacing the essence of one character with another.

Question: What attracted you to the character Toorop?

Diesel: Well first off…there was something interesting about doing a film that had the trappings of an action film but held by a French auteur. That felt unique. To play a character like Toorop, who is that skeptical, that’s not trusting–I felt that there’s a part of that in all of us. To exercise that in a character to the fullest in a film excited me. But it’s also the question: Why do we pick the roles that we pick? Again, it’s never specific; it’s usually a combination of things.

Question: Is it the genre because it’s been successful for you?

Diesel: It’s less about the genre. I was lucky enough to work with Sidney Lumet and I worked within the confines of Hollywood and rarely get the opportunity the branch out [and] this is one of those opportunities to branch out and try something that was of the European mind.

Question: What does it take for you to trust a director?

Diesel: It’s been awhile since I’ve done some press…these are all very good questions with no easy answers. How do I trust a director? That’s a tricky one because you can never really…I remember when I started to feel like I can go direct an independent movie. I’ve been auditioning since I was 5 years old and remember thinking: why should I go in to audition if the director isn’t telling me where he’s setting up the lights? Or if a director isn’t showing me how he moves the camera along the dolly or what his ideas for editing is. Why should I?

The first thing that came to mind is that whatever film you see, it’s never just the director. Choose any film that you love–it’s not so easy to say “Oh, it’s directed by this person!” Which means that any movie after, that this person directed would be wonderful…they get the credit but it’s hard to audition a director. How do you say ‘are you going to keep it all together?’

Filmmaking is such a collaborative piece of art, that you can’t look to one person. You can’t look to me and say Vincent it’s this or that. It’s really all of us coming together for that period of time to try to make magic. You’ve got to go back to your gut.

Question: What’s happening with Chronicles of Riddick 2?

Diesel: David Franzoni is writing as we speak. I’m very excited about what he’s doing. He’s so zoned in, I think he’s probably doing the second and third (Chronicles) ones simultaneously. I was always fan of the [Ralph] Bakshi films and that medium. In fact I’m directing now an animated “Hannibal” that will serve as a prequel to the film. It’s Hannibal as a boy, so it’s the boy and the elephant. It will be very fun?great, great voices.