Many actors dream of working just once with a director like Sidney Lumet. Recently, Vin Diesel, the star of Lumet’s latest, “Find Me Guilty,” sat down to talk about working with the iconoclastic filmmaker, and the things he learned that he will take with him when he directs his upcoming “Hannibal” project.
Q: You look like you’re having a lot of fun.
Vin: I was. I was. At times, at times.
Q: What was the most challenging part of working on “Find Me Guilty?”
Vin: There were so many challenging aspects to it. Initially, it was coming to terms with the look. I had never played a real-life character. All of the characters that I’d played before were fictitious, and here was a verifiable human being there, who lived a life, had done all this, and I was portraying his actions in this trial. I got the script initially while I was shooting “The Chronicles of Riddick,” by the writer TJ Mancini, who had spent several years talking to Jackie DiNorscio while he was in prison, writing the script with that hour phone call a day and incorporating all the transcripts. So when I initially got the script, I already started playing with the character, how I would build this character. Up unto the point where I met Jackie DiNorscio, and I’d spent all this time creating the affectations and amassing the attributes and characteristics and mannerisms. And then he came to set the first day of filming. And he came to my trailer, he kicked everyone out of the trailer. And we started to talk, and he told me, in his own words, just for him and I, and he’d never say anything after this, what this whole story was about for him and what that trial meant for him, and why he was fighting that trial. What was interesting is, after meeting with this man, all of the work that had gone into building the mannerisms and attributes seemed secondary. The most important element was to understand and believe in his cause.
Q: Well, how accurate was what you had built before you met him, or did you have to rethink everything?
Vin: No, it was accurate, I had footage… All the trappings were accurate, but I didn’t have the inside, I didn’t have the heart, of the character ‘til I met him. And for me, and my portrayal of the character, and my experience of making this movie, the heart was the chief ingredient, if you will, in becoming Jackie DiNorscio.
Jackie passed away three weeks after the shoot, the day before I filmed the ending summation scene, which in many ways is the purest that we see Jackie. He died that Sunday morning. That afternoon, we were scheduled to go visit him in the hospital, on our first day off, which was very important because I was going to run by him again this most important ending summation for him. And he passed away. So while I was shooting the ending summation scene, you know, no one is supposed to talk about spirituality in Hollywood, but in many ways, it felt like I wasn’t alone shooting that scene.
Q: Was Jackie really that animated?
Vin: Jackie was, even when he came to visit me, still very animated. He came up in a wheelchair, and everyone had to lift the wheelchair up onto the trailer. Five guys, and he was still animated. He was just sick and older at the point, at that time when I met him. In the courtroom he was extremely animated. His objective being, while the prosecutors are proving how inhumane we are, let me take this opportunity to prove how human we are.
Q: We find ourselves rooting for the character because we know Jackie refuses to allow himself to be plea bargained by a lawyer who doesn’t have his best interests at heart.
Vin: It was a courageous thing for him to decide to defend himself. He got a lot of resistance not only from the prosecutors, and the peoples of the court, he got resistance from his own friends because his own co-defendants felt like him defending himself could put all of them at risk. And understandably so, to a degree.
Q: There are a couple of scenes where you almost seem to enjoy lifting up your shirt and rubbing your belly.
Vin: Loved it, loved it, loved it.
Q: How do you put on the weight?
Vin: I ate a quart of ice cream a day, and I just needed to stay still. Every time I had the urge to get up, I’d just sit back down.
Q: And how did you lose it again?
Vin: After filming, I went to Europe and started preparing returning to the preparation of the Hannibal character. So I went hiking up into the Alps, I was doing deep (inaudible) Olympic training, riding elephants, and that activity… I spent so many years in a gym, when I was a bouncer, the only thing I needed to do was go to the gym. That nowadays I’m lucky that my training comes in the form of preparation for a character.
Q: You and Annabella looked great…
Vin: She was so amazing. And God, did she bring it. She brought it on that role.
Q: This movie comes out right as “The Sopranos” is coming back on TV, and people seem to have an endless fascination with Mafioso life. Are you a fan of the genre? What are your favorite mob movies?
Vin: Well my favorite mob movies are “Godfather,” and obviously “Goodfellas,” and more than that, “Mean Streets.” A lot of the Scorsese films.
Q: Why are we so fascinated by it? Why do we watch these kind of shows and movies?
Vin: Because I think when we go to the movies and we are forced to follow a whitewashed protagonist, I think there’s a part of us that divorces ourselves from that character. Because we say “I’m not perfect, there’s no way I can relate to this person that’s perfect.” I can easily, or more easily, relate to a character that has imperfections, like we all recognize in ourselves. We’re very quick to recognize all the imperfections about ourselves, so we are able to follow a story with a protagonist that has imperfections.
Q: Is Jackie a good guy in your book?
Vin: Jackie’s a good guy in my book, because Jackie had this ability to love more so than we’ve seen in characters in film. I mean, when’s the last time we saw a character in a movie that has the ability to love someone that shoots him?
Q: Do you think Jackie ever kill anybody?
Vin: Oh, I have no idea.
Q: What was the most fun working on the film?
Vin: The most fun was being able to work with Sidney Lumet. That was a dream. As an actor, you find yourself studying the performances of actors you’d admired in the past. And so often those performances were in Sidney Lumet movies. When I directed my first short movie, “Multi Facial,” I had been learning how to write screenplays. I’d been an actor already for 20 years. But I had no idea how to direct. And I bought a book by Sidney Lumet called “Making Movies,” and that book actually gave me the confidence to direct my first short movie. So it was coming full circle 10 years later, into the master’s program, with the master. For an actor, in Hollywood nowadays, it’s a treat to work with an actor’s director. It’s not the norm. It’s a treat nowadays. Sidney Lumet is one of those old school directors that believes in rehearsal. To the degree that when I was doing the table reads for “Find Me Guilty,” he would put me through two hours of makeup. I said “Sidney, I don’t need to go through this makeup to read this, I can still read the part.” And this is how thoughtful he is. It had nothing to do with me. It had to do with all of the other actors around that table, that he needed to see me not as Vin, or not as anything familiar. So even while we’re table reading, I just got out of two hours of makeup, when they hear the words, they’re not hearing it from Dominic Toretto, or Riddick, they’re hearing it from Jackie DiNorscio.
Q: Do you think when “The Pacifier” passed one hundred million dollars, it helped you to get to do “Hannibal” after this?
Vin: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, when “The Pacifier” was beginning to creep up, I was in the Alps, so my communication was down. So who knows? I hope so. Any success helps to make the next picture. But here is the interesting thing. Since we announced this Hannibal thing, there’s been quite a lot of Hannibal documentaries. We can’t turn the TV on without seeing a Hannibal documentary, and the producers were nervous about that. But someone said to me “It’s a good thing, because not enough people know who Hannibal is. They still think Anthony Hopkins, and they’re not thinking this historical Carthaginian general. Vin, you’ve got nothing to worry about. The more people know about Hannibal the better. The more that people can identify this general, the better for you when you’re making a movie.” And the way I translated it was, the problem with making Hannibal for the last 50 years, is that to really tell the story, you have to convey what the Punic Wars are. If you don’t understand the Punic Wars, then you don’t know what Hannibal Barca’s father was doing and why this hatred towards Rome ever began. All these documentaries seem to help that, allow me to… I thought it was miraculous how Mel Gibson made a movie about the last 12 hours, as opposed to trying to make a movie about 30 years of someone’s whole life. But everyone knows the Bible, so he has an unfair advantage, because you’re referencing a story that everyone’s familiar with. The more people understand Hannibal, know about the Barcas, know about the Punic War and know about this North African kingdom — at that time Carthage was the shield that protected all of Africa — the easier it will be to tell a story that takes place from 218 to 216 BC.
Q: Are you going to start shooting “Hannibal” any time soon?
Vin: (crossing fingers): You know what I’m saying? Four years of soft pre-production, and an initial budget of $237 million after David Franzoni had written this first great draft. And we all know that means you aren’t making your movie.
“Find Me Guilty” opened today in theatres nationwide.