The 35-year-old star of the hit action flicks "A Man Apart," "XXX" and "The Fast and the Furious" says that even when he's not filming movies, he's preparing for them or, at the very least, thinking about them.
"What I do for fun is film," Diesel told reporters in New York recently. "Do I play ball? Yeah. Do I love chess? Yes. But it always feels like whatever I'm doing, I'd rather go back to somehow developing a project."
Right now, the actor who lent his distinctive gravelly voice to the animated film "The Iron Giant," spends most of his time researching characters on the Internet for his upcoming sci-fi adventure, "Riddick," as well as physically training for his starring role in the third-century epic, "Hannibal."
"I built a Hannibal tent in the back of my yard," the actor confessed. "And I ride elephants, and I go elephant training. But it's very odd for a New Yorker. It's like the only thing I ever rode was the A Train. So, riding the largest elephant in the country is a weird feeling."
Asked where one might find the country's largest pachyderm, Diesel replied: "There's a place that has the largest African elephant in America. It's two hours outside of L.A."
"I just go up there and practice riding this elephant. It's really bizarre because no one knows this, but elephants have killed more animal trainers than any other animal. So, it's just me and this one cat, and I'm riding this elephant back and forth. And I'm looking at this guy going, 'You can do nothing if he decides to flip over.' And he's got his trunk all in my face. A beautiful experience. But even the hobbies somehow relate to the greater hobby, which is film. So, I love riding. I enjoy that. But it's also part of the Hannibal character, which I won't shoot for another 12 months. Some long lead stuff," he said.
Although Diesel is often identified by his chiseled physique, the actor emphasized that staying buff isn't really high on his list of priorities. That is, unless it relates to a role.
"Ironically, now I try to keep a neutral physique," he explained. "Because I may need to play an anorexic character or an obese character. I don't want to be limited at all. And quite honestly, I cater the training routine specifically for the character that I'm playing. So, for the 'Riddick' character, I was doing yoga, and trying to create a more panther-like movement for him. For 'XXX,' obviously, I was doing something entirely different. Like learning to do jumps on a snowboard... And for ('A Man Apart',) the character has a hobby, which is ultimate fighting. And so, I started training for this character, with Brazilian jujitsu teachers."
"A Man Apart," the story of a Drug Enforcement Agent whose wife is murdered during a botched hit, gives Diesel his first real chance to show his sensitive side, an opportunity he said he relished.
"What I liked about this role," he said, "was playing a character who is truly in love. I mean, truly in a perfect marriage. And I liked that this character Vetter was forever juggling between the desire to be violent, the desire to express his frustration in violence, and the ever-constant search for meaning in a world without the one person he so much loves."
Asked by a prying journalist if he believed an actor had to personally experience such a love to convey such pathos, Diesel answered, "I don't know that you necessarily have to have had such a perfect marriage."
"In the same way, I don't know necessarily if you have to kill someone, in order to play that part of the character," he reasoned. "I think what we do as actors, is we find traces of the character's characteristics in our own personality, and then amplify it for the role."
Now considered a major Hollywood star, Diesel said he can remember very clearly his days as a struggling actor. Noting that it was good to be back in New York promoting a big studio production, Diesel said, "For me it's about being home."
"Being back in New York is what is such an overwhelming feeling for me," he admitted. "You know, this is where it started. I went out to Hollywood when I was 22 years old, and I had already been acting for many years. Unsuccessfully. And I thought that because I was a New York-trained actor, the doors would fly open in California. And I was sadly mistaken. So, I came back to New York a year later with my tail between my legs."
And how does he feel now that he is a huge success?
"Ahhh... Indescribable!" he exclaimed. "I feel like the luckiest kid in the world."
"A Man Apart" is in theaters now.