The actor sits down to talk about his new film

During a long afternoon, a few press people sat and waited, and waited for Vin Diesel to come and talk about his new film Find Me Guilty. It's based on the true story of Jackie DiNorscio, and the court case that took over 650 days in New York in the mid-1980's.

Vin really altered his image for this role; Jackie was overweight and had hair - a complete transformation was underway for the action star. Jackie, along with members of his mob family, were accused of drug smuggling, along with other various charges. Jackie decided he would defend himself, a move that really paid off.

When Vin finally arrived, we had already been having a little fun; I started a chant at the table, not knowing Vin was walking in the room. He laughed, looks at his publicist and says, "And I thought I was waiting on them." I responded with "You were shaving off all your hair, right?" His answer, "I was shaving, I was losing weight, I trained really quickly."

And that's how our interview started. Here's how the rest of our chat went:

Did you really gain the weight and did it drive you crazy not to work out?

Vin Diesel: This is going to sound perverse, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed putting on the weight. I enjoyed departing from the normal characters that incorporates that physicality. I enjoyed playing Jackie DiNorscio and everything that meant, everything that came along with it.

Did you pig out on certain foods?

Vin Diesel: Ice cream. A quart a day, ice cream.

Jackie passed on while you were making this - did you get to meet him - how much did you try to be like him and how much did you just want to capture his spirit?

Vin Diesel: Both. Initially, I spent all the time prior to meeting him working on the attributes and mannerisms and characteristics and physicality's that Jackie possessed, in an attempt to just be him, just to match the footage that I saw. It wasn't until I met him, until he actually came to the set, until he had a heart-to-heart with me, that I understood, or began to understand, what the whole trial meant for him, and what at the core he was fighting for. When I met him all of the attention that I paid to his characteristics, the work that I'd put into imitating him, took a backseat to me representing the truth he was trying to fight for. So it was very, very, very helpful for me and a blessing for me to have met him before starting filming. Consequently, when he passed away it was a very, very heavy experience, because it was the first time I'd ever played a real character, a real person. All the other characters I've played were fictitious, and I had the liberty of creating it anyway that I wanted to. This was different. I had to represent a man whose characteristics represented the trial, and whose truth represented the outcome.

What does he mean spiritually to you now?

Vin Diesel: When I was shooting the movie I had the luxury of being directed by Sidney Lumet, which allowed me to go full force in becoming this character, and so I didn't think about how the character would come off as a whole after watching the whole picture. And after watching the picture I realized, 'This is strange, I haven't seen a character in film for a long time that has Jackie's ability to love.' I haven't seen a character that had the ability to love to the degree that he could love a cousin that shot him and tried to kill him. A character that would be willing for the sake of loyalty, for that dying virtue, be willing to sacrifice his own life to make a statement about loyalty.

Would you describe this film as more of a comedy or drama?

Vin Diesel: Another good question. I don't know. I know that while I was shooting the movie I was very in tune with the drama of the character to the point where when I saw the movie, we were in Berlin and I saw the movie with Sidney Lumet, who had been there 50 years earlier to receive an award for 12 Angry Men, and I said to Sidney, 'I wasn't trying to be funny.' And he said, 'By committing to the character the way that you did, you took on the attributes that Jackie had, and one of them was being funny in that courtroom, and being an entertainer in that courtroom.' So I don't know, I guess you would call it a dramody.

How do you think Jackie gave himself such a good defense when he had so little education?

Vin Diesel: It's real simple at the end of the day. He was there on trial where the objective by the prosecutor was to expose how inhumane they all are, and all he really did was expose how human they all are. He was revealing the humanity of everyone, through humor, through his own experiences, through anecdotes that the jury could relate to in one way or another. So that's how.

Would you say working with Sidney was a big push why you wanted to do this?

Vin Diesel: A huge, huge, huge, huge reason for me doing this movie was Sidney Lumet. I started acting in the New York theatre over thirty years ago, and as a New York actor you dream of being in a Sidney Lumet movie, one of our few New York directors. He was such a role model for us New Yorkers, for everybody really, that when I went off to direct my short film Multi-Facial, and I had spent years learning how to write at Hunter College, and I'd already spent years working as an actor and studying to be a student of the craft for so long, I had no idea how to direct a movie. I went and I bought a book called Making Movies by Sidney Lumet. And that's where I got the confidence to direct my first short movie. It comes full circle ten years later when he sees that short movie and becomes adamant that I should play Jackie DiNorscio. So having an opportunity to work with Sidney Lumet was kind of like going into the Masters Program of Filmmaking. I was scheduled to go off and start Hannibal, so it was a great experience for all types of reasons, one of them learning from one of the great master directors.

All the courtroom scenes, there are lots of extras on the set that you played to; did being a stage actor help you?

Vin Diesel: Very interesting. Yes, it was one of the things that I loved that Sidney did, because at first we were supposed to go to Canada, and Sidney said, 'I have to shoot this here in New York,' Of course, that meant, Vin, you got to do the movie for free.' That's what it always means right away. 'But I have to do this movie in New York,' and I said, 'Um,' and he said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'Because I want to hand pick every single one of the extras.' So you've got a director committed to the emotional truth of everybody in that room to the point that he hand selects, and auditions, all these actors just to be in the jury or to be in that courtroom. It was very much like returning to the New York stage, to New York theatre. In part because you would have to know fifteen pages off book, ready to do in one take, and to do it in front of a sea of New York actors. They were all wondering, 'Alright, now Vin's coming back home, let's see what he can do. Mr. Big Bucks is coming back to New York. Let's see what he's got.'

Can you talk about your makeup, the hairstyle, your accent - does this look more like the real Jackie or is this your definition of Italian Mafia?

Vin Diesel: No, it was very Jackie. One of my chief concerns at the beginning was Sidney and I met in his office and we started reading the script and he felt very good about it. I said but I don't look anything like Jackie DiNorscio and he said well, Jackie wants you to play him. I asked 'what movie did he see that he wanted me to play? The Fast and The Furious; what! What did Dominic Toretto have to do with Jackie DiNorscio?' And he said, 'Vin, we have ways of making you look like Jackie DiNorscio.' Little did I know that it was 2 hours of makeup every morning to look like Jackie DiNorsico. The weight I gained was because initially Sidney said if you can't get that weight thing together, we can put a prosthetic body suit piece on. But I had been working with the details of his movement so much that I felt if I ever put on this weight suit, I would lose some of the physicality I had been developing for this character. So I ate ice cream and gained the weight. Sidney Lumet gave me the confidence to look like the character and he was very, very clever in the way he incorporated that look because he wasted no time. While we were doing table readings before we were shooting, he would ask me to come in 3 hours early for the table readings to get into makeup. I said I don't need to do the makeup. For me, it's not going to do anything for my table readings but I realized it didn't have to do with me. It had to do with every other actor that he needed to see only Jackie DiNorscio. He didn't want any other actor in the room to be familiar with Vin in the way they were familiar with me. He was very adamant about everybody getting to know Jackie DiNorscio through this process so much so that when they came to the table reading I'd already been Jackie from the 2 hours of makeup.

Did it make you want to have hair again?

Vin Diesel: Oh my G-d. I had sleepless nights (laugh). Oh G-d, nobody looked at me. I tried to wear a toupee; sleepless nights.

What would you say was the most helpful piece of directing advice in that book you referred to and was it the same when you actually met Sidney?

Vin Diesel: What's interesting is it's pretty much in that book. The thing that was the most helpful was he, in the book, described a place called the Ukraine Center in NY on the Lower East Side. I had known the place because they had rented it out for parties and I was a teenager going to these parties, but he was renting out this place to do table readings. He'd put tape on the ground and he'd walk me through the scene. He was very extensive with his rehearsal. When I did Strays, I took 2-3 weeks of just rehearsal time and production time on Strays was only 3 weeks. So I met the production time with rehearsal time because of that book. When I finally shot Find Me Guilty, boy was he good at rehearsal. It didn't say in the book that you had to go through makeup to sit down at a table read.

What was the interaction like between you and Peter?

Vin Diesel: Incredible. Peter Dinklage came to the project likely because of Sidney Lumet but he just came from doing a stage performance of Richard III at The Public. Peter Dinklage was a real blessing for the project. He really, really brought something special to the role of Klandis. You want actors who are that committed in a picture like this because if one person is off, it can throw off the whole scene and a few scenes that are thrown off, can throw off a whole movie. When Peter Dinklage came on, he immediately grabbed that character and then our relationship started building in a very cool way.

Did you film more of your relationship that's not in the movie?

Vin Diesel: I think Sidney wanted it to be very subtle. He didn't want to make it so obvious that the judge was secretly rooting for him, that Klandis was secretly rooting him. He didn't want to alleviate the pressure so he didn't play those things up as much as someone else could have, I suppose, which I thought was cool, keeping it concise because it's a tricky relationship between Jackie and the other lawyers. How are the lawyers supposed to respect this man impersonating a lawyer. How are they supposed to commit to their occupation or to their task with somebody who is not a lawyer and part of the whole process?

Can you talk a little bit about Riddick 2 and what you see happening with that?

Vin Diesel: Right before I did Riddick, I would look inside the mirror and see two blue eyes staring back at me; I haven't seen that for a while. But, it's coming. It took me five years to make The Chronicles of Riddick and I'm very precious about it and it went through many, many writers. Hopefully, it won't take five years to make this one, but when I was in the process of creating this mythology for The Chronicles of Riddick, the idea was to create a trilogy that would start at the end of Pitch Black in the same way that Lord of the Rings is a trilogy that starts at the end essentially of The Hobbit. So I wanted Pitch Black to be The Hobbit of The Chronicles of Riddick; I wrote a storyline that covers three pictures so where Riddick goes in the next two pictures is already mapped out. It's not in script form, but it is all being all developed and it all is going to resurface when you least expect it.

Are you buying the rights back from Universal and giving it to someone else?

Vin Diesel: Who told you that? Where is he, I'll kill him. Hmm, very interesting. Let's just say it sounds like a very interesting idea; I will give it thought.

Find Me Guilty opens in theaters March 17th; it's rated R.

Brian B.