He may be Hollywood's hottest new action star but he also loves Judi Dench, horoscopes, geeky games...and talking in riddles. Rob Driscoll battles the surreal and the psycho-babble to get to the real Vin Diesel
HE'S big, he's bad, he's the current king of movie machismo. So what was the most exciting aspect of working on sci-fi blockbuster The Chronicles of Riddick for Vin Diesel?
Er, getting to meet and work with Dame Judi Dench, apparently...
That's the intriguing dichotomy presented by this gruff-voiced, buffed-to-the-max, shaven-headed dude who looks like the kind of guy you wouldn't want to mess with down a dark alley, and yet when he starts talking, he's just a cotton-wool ball of sweetness and light, getting all hot under the collar about someone we know best as the star of cosy TV sitcom As Time Goes By.
'For years people had asked me who I wanted to work with,' he says. 'They'd expect me to say an A-list actor or an A-list director; and I'd say 'Judi Dench."
'And when I told them that, they'd say, 'What would you guys do together?',' he continues. 'Well, she was magical. At the end of the first day's filming together, the stills photographer came into my trailer with an 8 x 10 (photograph), and I immediately sent it off to my mother, with the message, 'If nothing else, my dream has already come true. I did it, I did a scene with Judi Dench."
But didn't Hollywood's hottest new action star find it just a little daunting acting opposite Britain's most cherished Dame of stage and screen? After all, when Pierce Brosnan landed the part of 007, he said the most intimidating thing was working with Dame Judi.
'It was a love match,' purrs the 37-year-old Diesel. 'She was like my fairy godmother. Nothing could go wrong, and I was in the safest of hands.
'This is going to sound crazy, but my mother is an astrologist and Dame Judi is a Libra, and a Libra is an air-elemental sign - so you draw the conclusions.'
Quite. But astrological gobbledegook aside, it is undoubtedly inspired, and rather bizarre, casting that brought Judi Dench her part in The Chronicles of Riddick: our well-loved Dame plays the ethereal character of Aereon, an Elemental Ambassador from a rarefied race, whose role in the proceedings remains as elusive as her amorphous shape.
No wonder Vin's star-gazing mother is so pleased . . . not to mention proud of her son. It's well recorded now that the star of down'n'dirty action thrillers xXx, Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious never knew his biological father, and was raised in an artist's housing project in New York's Greenwich Village with his mother and adoptive father.
Other than revealing that Vincent is his full last name, he's never talked about much of the rest of his early life, but it's his mother who nurtured his interest in the theatre and acting - an ambition he eventually addressed after years as a New York club bouncer and general dogsbody.
His short independent feature Multi-Facial, which explored the issue of being multi-racial in modern society, got a rave showing at Cannes in 1995, and was seen by Steven Spielberg - who promptly cast him in Saving Private Ryan, kick-starting an increasingly high-profile career.
Almost a decade on, and Diesel is making it clear that he is a man of diverse choices and varied skills; not for him a steady diet of Bruce Willis-in-a-vest actioners.
Recently completed, for release next year, is his first comedy, The Pacifier - which could almost be seen as a parallel take on Arnold Schwarzenegger's Kindergarten Cop. Diesel plays an undercover agent forced to protect an important government scientist's family, only to discover that child care is his toughest mission yet.
In the meantime, he's concentrating on The Chronicles of Riddick, one of this summer's most expensive special effects extravaganzas.
The film is the biggest sign yet that Diesel's arrived as a major mover and shaker in big-time international movies.
The film has attracted criticism as a po-faced, humourless, frequently incomprehensible concoction of heavy duty space opera and interstellar spiritualism - the complete opposite, in effect, of the movie that inspired it, 1999's cult hit Pitch Black, which in turn was a tightly-wound, nail-biting, unpretentious sci-fi shocker. It also gave birth to Diesel's brilliantly taciturn, monosyllabic anti-hero Richard Riddick.
When Hollywood realised that it had a new, exciting muscle-bound star in its midst - thanks to the success of Pitch Black and Diesel's other two hits (The Fast and the Furious and xXx) - the studio honchos were anxious to formulate a movie franchise for their hottest signing.
Diesel, not surprisingly, couldn't do them all - which is why there's no sign of him in Fast and Furious 2, and why there's been no more of his Xander Cage, the James Bond for the extreme-sports generation, in anything resembling xXx2.
Instead, he's clearly bought into the idea of creating a Riddick mythology, so much so that there are formative plans to create a Chronicles trilogy on a Tolkienian scale - think Dune meets The Lord of the Rings, perhaps, via Battlestar Gallactica. And Diesel has played a significant part in creating this vast and ambitious universe.
'When we went to the studio with the script, I bought these leather binders,' he enthuses. 'I got three leather binders, and one of them said C1, one said C2, and one said C3 - and they all had locks on them. And we only gave the key to C1 to the studio.'
It's then that he loses me. Are you ready for the science bit? 'So C2 we will go to the Underverse. C2 will be rated R, C2 Riddick will interact with new Elementals. Not air Elementals, but with fire, water. And then we come full circle with C3 when he must return to Furion and escape the impending doom of the Necromongers.'
There's no sense of irony as he launches into a full summary of where he'd like the Chronicles to venture next, when all we really want to know is how does he keep so incredibly fit, and has he got a girlfriend? Though many have tried, we'll never know the answer to that last conundrum; Diesel's private life is a no-go area when he meets the press, but he'll gladly oblige when it comes to talking about his fabulously- toned body. A year before shooting The Chronicles of Riddick, he bought himself a trampoline.
'In training for the film, this is how crazy and meticulous I was about trying to get the right anatomy,' he explains.
'The reason that I got the trampoline is that I wanted to create this body anatomy that kind of resembled a Frank Frezetta illustration.'
No, mate, lost us again. He interrupts his flow to explain that Frank Frazetta is the 'classic illustrator of iconic comic-book creations of Conan and Tarzan, where the body anatomy was always very savage.
'So instead of being on a wire and just flying through the air I tried to create this very specific body anatomy.'
And there we were thinking it was just about lifting weights and doing a few push-ups...
Lest anyone should somewhat patronisingly assume that Diesel is little more than a pumped-up Muscle Mike for the MTV generation, his conversation is constantly peppered with literary references and theatrical anecdotes.
He is evidently well-read, but also a self-confessed geek when it comes to computer games, notably the fantasy role-play romp Dungeons and Dragons. During nights off from the Chronicles shoot last year in Vancouver, he would play for hours.
And what's the betting he'll be packing his Gameboy when he sets off on location to shoot his next cinematic adventure? Diesel's shortly to play Hannibal, the legendary Carthaginian general who rode an elephant across the Alps to attack Rome in the third century BC. This eagerly-awaited epic has been written by no less than David Franzoni, who scripted both Gladiator and King Arthur. As usual, Vin's thrown himself into the preparation for the role. He began elephant riding two years ago. He has bonded, apparently, with an elephant called Timbo - the largest African elephant in North America.
'This is the film I'm most passionate about,' declares Diesel. 'And the march across the snow-covered Alps is an integral part of the story. He crossed them from Spain into Italy, when it was an unthinkable task, on elephants.'
The training with Timbo has been necessarily tough, but Diesel is taking it in his stride. Characteristically, he has a few words of psycho-babble to describe the experience, too.
'Elephants have killed more trainers than any other animal,' he says proudly.
'I think I got lucky. I just kind of chilled with the elephant. I looked at him and said, 'You know? I've been doing this for years. . . ."