By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Before he became an action star in the “Fast & Furious” franchise, the “Riddick” franchise and the “xXx” movies, Vin Diesel provided the voice of an animated robot in 1999’s “The Iron Giant.”
Now, after establishing himself in Hollywood with numerous live-action performances, the 47-year-old New York native once again is providing the voice for a computer-generated character in a film. This time, he lends his deep voice to a heroic tree creature.
As Groot in Marvel’s action-adventure “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Diesel plays a character with a limited vocabulary but a big heart. Most of his utterances in the film are various deliveries of “I am Groot,” and yet he manages to convey a lot of information and emotion in that phrase.
Groot joins a handful of other unlikely heroes—Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, WWE wrestler Dave Bautista’s Drax and Bradley Cooper’s Rocket the raccoon—who risk their lives to save a planet from destruction.
Father to 8-year-old Hania and 3-year-old Vincent with longtime girlfriend Paloma Jimenez, Diesel explains that he was pleased to be part of a movie that his kids could enjoy. In fact, he enjoys a certain kinship now with the plant world that he never had before.
Q: What appeals to you about being part of the Marvel universe and, in particular, this offshoot, “The Guardians of the Galaxy?”
Diesel: I’m new to Marvel. I guess this whole thing started for me in a kind of social media way that was adamant about me doing something with Marvel. There wasn’t really a six-month window to do a character at Marvel. When (Marvel Studios president) Kevin Feige called me and said that him and (director) James Gunn were talking about me playing a role, I had no idea what role it would be. They sent over a book of conceptual art and I went into my living room with my kids and I opened up the book, and I asked the kids what character they wanted daddy to play. They all pointed at the tree—and I knew that was a good sign.
Q: What is the significance of making this movie now in your career?
Diesel: It was at a very important time when I did this movie because it was in December. It was the first time I was coming around humans again, and the first time I was working again. There was something very therapeutic about it in my personal life, I guess in my professional life too, dealing with death (of “Fast & Furious” co-star Paul Walker), and then playing a character that celebrates life in the way that Groot celebrates life.
Q: Have your kids seen the movie yet?
Diesel: I took my kids to a screening to see the movie and afterwards they were walking around the house reciting Star-Lord, Gamora and all the characters. Something very beautiful happened in playing this role. Something as an actor that I’d never imagined, and that is whenever my kids see trees, they refer to the trees as my brothers and sisters. They’ll say, “Look daddy, it’s your brother and sisters!” The idea to be associated with trees like that is remarkable. It’s so much more gratifying than you’d ever imagine. I was really lucky. I was really lucky that that specific role came up. I was really really really lucky that when I went to breathe life into the role, I had a director that was willing to indulge in the way that he did.
Q: Did you ever have to do the acting exercise where the teacher asks you to play a tree, and has that paid off now that you actually played a tree in this?
Diesel: (He chuckles.) The phobias! The phobias! The nightmares! (He chuckles.) When I was a child actor, yes, I had the fear that I was going to be the tree, and this (movie) was a way to face my fears head on and I’m delighted that I did.
Q: What did you think of the other characters?
Diesel: I was the last person in so I got to see all of the performances and I was so blown away by the performances. It felt too good to be true. Then, while I was recording three words, day in and day out, we started one day and it ended up four days. It would be wild to actually see my script because I don’t think anyone has seen my script. On the left hand side of the page it says, “I am Groot,” and on the right hand side of the page it could be a whole paragraph about what “I am Groot” meant. When I walked into that situation and I saw someone who cared so much about every little nuance of that character, it was so refreshing for someone who didn’t think that being a perfectionist is a bad thing.
Q: How was it working with director James Gunn?
Diesel: Unfortunately, in Hollywood, there are directors who have some contempt for actors. We’ve all experienced it one way or another. So, to have a director that loves his actors (as Gunn does) is something you can see in the film. The fruits of that labor, you can see that translated into this film. And when you watch this movie, you can see a director who loves his actors and it shines through the movie in my mind and in my eyes.
Q: A mix tape is an important part of this film, and music plays a big part of the movie with ‘60s and ‘70s pop and rock hits. What is your favorite song in it?
Diesel: I loved all the music! I had so much fun with the music. I thought it was such a testament to the movie. This is the closest Marvel will ever get to a musical. It was that much fun for me. The movie starts with an emotional tone and very quickly the music and watching the Star-Lord kicking aliens makes you feel like you’re going to be covered. It makes you feel like you’re going to have a really good time. I’m singing the music every day, so most of the time when I walk into an interview I start singing. What is my favorite song in the movie? “Hooked on a Feeling.” The coolest thing was my 3-year-old son watching the movie and when “Hooked on a Feeling” comes on, he was at the edge of his seat. It was the first time we’d ever gone to a movie together. Obviously, he can’t see “Riddick” and those other movies. So he kind of scoots to the edge of his seat and he squints his eyes and starts to sing, “Hooked on a feeling. I’m high off believing…” and watching him do that just melted my heart. So we listened to the songs at home.
Q: What does your daughter Hania think of the music?
Diesel: My daughter is going, “Oh Baby give me one more chance” (from Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back”). It’s remarkable how a soundtrack could be so important to the storytelling (and) so important to the experience. Someone said (to me), “I saw the movie and I’m going to see it six or seven times.” I think the music is going to make people see this movie a lot. I think this movie is going to make you want to go. You have so much fun in the movie and it’s music that you want to share with your kids anyway. It’s great because of that. I love all those songs. I love (Redbone’s) “Come Get Your Love.” I thought it was an incredible collection. I wanted Peter Quill’s soundtrack.