Actor Vin Diesel puts his career in overdrive with two new films, ''Pitch Black'' and ''Boiler Room''

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Updated February 25, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

”It’s a film that explores humanity, a life-and-death situation. The guys we perceive as heroes, the guys we perceive as nefarious — what do they do?”

Vin Diesel, the mega-muscular, smooth-headed actor whose rich, gravelly voice makes Barry White sound like a castrato, isn’t reminiscing about playing Private Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan. Instead, he’s describing Pitch Black, a $25 million sci-fi thriller in which he stars as a psycho killer stuck on a planet with bat-winged aliens. But whether it’s a film about saving the world, or a film about saving some other world, Diesel, 32, is determined to kick ass and take fame.

Raised in Manhattan, the son of a father who taught theater and an astrologist mother, Diesel (whose real surname is Vincent; he won’t divulge his first name) dropped out of college to make Multi-Facial, a short about a struggling actor that screened at Cannes in 1995. Two years later, he entered Sundance with Strays, a feature he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. While reaction to the films was mixed, Diesel’s skillful self-promotion won him attention from the likes of Steven Spielberg, who, after watching Multi-Facial, cast him in his World War II epic. After Ryan, Diesel opted to stay in front of the camera, hopping from Pitch Black to the stock-scam drama Boiler Room (both films opened on Feb. 18).

Pitch Black may well make Diesel the terminator of the moment, but as director David Twohy recalls when he first learned of Diesel’s interest: ”I said, ‘Good name, good look, but can he act?”’ Twohy had heard rumors that Diesel ”embodies the rampant hubris of young actors.” (Diesel won’t comment, but his demands got him thrown off Reindeer Games before filming began.) ”That rep is really unearned,” Twohy says. ”Vin was always good energy for me.”

Diesel was eager to follow up Pitch Black by playing a suburban Italian-American broker hankering for mainstream Wall Street acceptance in Boiler Room. ”I wear a tank top in Pitch Black, and I thought my next role had better be in a suit so I’m not [pegged as] Mr. Action,” says the actor, who seems to bridge both worlds in real life, sporting a leather band on one wrist and a spanking new stainless-steel Cartier watch on the other. Diesel — who has bought a villa in L.A. where he will live with his Staffordshire bull terrier, Winston — is now revisiting his punkier roots, rewriting Doormen, based on his experience as a nightclub bouncer, for Interscope. Diesel says he was originally asked to write an ensemble film that could potentially star someone like Brad Pitt, but after Pitch Black screened, the producer called and said ”Just focus on your character.” That,” says Diesel proudly, ”was huge.”