Vin Diesel Transitioning From Box-Office Giant To Epic Auteur

Actor plans to star in and direct 'Hannibal,' consulting with Mel Gibson.

With a first-place weekend that had “The Pacifier” sucking in an estimated $30 million, it seems that rumors of Vin Diesel’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Just a year ago, the muscle-bound master of self-promotion had fallen into a high-profile slide that had “A Man Apart” separated from the top of the box office and “The Chronicles of Riddick” getting ridiculed after a mediocre run. Now, with hair on his head, an elephant underneath him and an old friend in the wings, Diesel has the power to move forward with phase two of his master plan.

“You know what the goal is and how hard I’ve been working at this,” Diesel said of his career, which he launched by writing, directing and starring in the 1995 Cannes Film Festival-screened short “Multi-Facial.” Now that the action and comedy worlds have been conquered, Diesel has focused his steely gaze on becoming an award-worthy thespian once again. Don’t laugh: A high-profile preview on the recent Academy Awards broadcast has Hollywood wigging out, for more reasons than one.

“Did you see the Oscars? Did you know it was me?” Diesel asked excitedly. “You didn’t know it was me? You’re kidding me. You’re kidding me! Isn’t it wild?”

The clip, aired during a tribute to renowned director Sidney Lumet, had Diesel delivering dramatic lines in a scene from their upcoming collaboration “Find Me Guilty.” The star was virtually unrecognizable because of what was missing (guns, explosions) and what had been added (body fat, a courtroom, a head of hair). “That is such a trip. It’s what an actor wants. Could there be a better way to introduce a character than to have people not really know who it is?”

“Guilty,” currently aiming for an autumn release, casts Diesel in the biographical story of a key participant in a landmark mob trial. “The character I play is named ’Fat Jack’ DiNorscio, who was imprisoned for a 30-year-sentence while defending himself and 20 other mobsters in the longest mob trial in history. It was an incredible experience, because I was being directed finally by the quintessential actor’s director.”

Diesel dove into the mind of the caged convict, sensing an opportunity to remind the world that he can do more than just blow stuff up. “I would lock myself in my apartment when I wasn’t on set. So if I got off work on Friday, I’d stay in my apartment and then go back to work Monday. The added advantage for doing this was I was trying to gain weight,” Diesel laughed. “That helped. Lots of pizzas — and ice cream every night before I went to sleep.”

As for the briefly glimpsed head of hair, the man with the famously polished dome avoids confirming where his hair ends and where the special effects by Sy Sperling begin. “You know, I do what I can with what little I have.”

After the one-two punch of “The Pacifier” and “Find Me Guilty,” Diesel plans to use the combination of box-office assuredness and dramatic prowess to get his long-awaited pet project “Hannibal” off the ground. The biopic, about the third century B.C. Carthaginian general who attacked Rome from the top of an elephant, had stalled when Diesel calculated a budget in the $200 million range, and it didn’t help that historical sword epics such as “King Arthur” and “Alexander” had trouble finding audiences. Now with a smaller budget, Diesel is intent on starring in and directing what he proudly calls his “Braveheart.”

“We’re going to have all systems go on ’Hannibal,’ ” Diesel said. “I’ve been working on my shots. In fact, my storyboard artist is a guy named Sylvain Despretz, who was Ridley Scott’s storyboard artist on artist on ’Gladiator.’ It’s going to be exciting. Just wait for that one; it’s going to all come together. I will not let you down.”

For pointers on “Hannibal,” Diesel has sought out the advice of close friend and advisor Mel Gibson. “I’ll tell you what,” Diesel said, ” ’The Passion of the Christ,’ I think, liberated a lot of filmmakers. Anyone is lucky to talk to Mel Gibson, period. Anybody is lucky to talk to Mel Gibson that’s an artist, that’s … any kind of filmmaker. The fact that ’Hannibal’ is somewhere in the ’Braveheart’/’Passion’ genre makes it all the more a right decision to talk to Mel Gibson about what you’re doing and run things by him, because you never get better advice than from someone who’s already gone through that. How many people are going to have that ’Braveheart’ experience, understand what it’s like to play a character like that while simultaneously directing it? I’m lucky to be in that conversation.”

“I like the idea of making a movie and not being governed by all the things that govern a $200 million movie,” Diesel said of the film’s smaller budget. “I want to do things like make it multilingual, non-English.”

After “Hannibal” gets Diesel to the point where people look to him for action, comedy, drama or directing any of the three, he plans on returning to the science-fiction trilogy that he visited this past summer with “The Chronicles of Riddick.”

“Riddick? Well, you know that I’ve always had ’C2′ planned,” he conceded. “I’m silently — and I shouldn’t even say this — I’m silently working on ’C2′ with some of the outlines that were created when I first thought of doing the three films.”

Where Vin Diesel goes from there is anybody’s guess, but one thing is certain as of this moment: With a $30 million opening weekend at the top of his résumé, he could announce a remake of “Citizen Kane” and someone would bankroll it. Stay tuned — that just might be the centerpiece of phase three.

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