Preparing For His Find Me Guilty Role Took Its Toll On Vin Diesel

The late director Sidney Lumet's critically acclaimed catalog spans five decades and includes classics such as "12 Angry Men," "The Wiz," and "The Verdict." After a seven-year hiatus at the turn of the new millennium, Lumet returned to the director's chair for 2006's "Find Me Guilty," another courtroom drama, but this time mixed with a little bit a comedy as Vin Diesel stars as the wisecracking Giacomo "Jackie" DiNorscio, a real-life Italian-American mobster and member of the New Jersey's Lucchese crime family who infamously represents himself in a late-'80s federal racketeering trial that features 20 defendants.

An early hurdle Lumet faced was convincing his star actor, Vin Diesel, that he had the chops to play the embattled mobster. The role would be his first time portraying a real person onscreen and "The Fast and the Furious" star felt he didn't look anything like DiNorscio. In a 2006 interview with MovieWeb, Diesel said Lumet told him DiNorscio personally wanted him in the role. But that wasn't enough to soothe his concerns as he told IGN FilmForce, "For me, it made me very anxious in the beginning because now there was this person I was being compared to," he said. "My character would have to match up in some way to the real Jackie DiNorscio." Diesel would later discover that matching up physically to DiNorscio would be far less important than exhibiting another quality possessed by the mobster.

Vin Diesel transformed into Jackie DiNorscio

If I were an actor, it would be no easy task for my agent to convince me to play a mobster. What if the mafia doesn't approve of the film for exposing too much of their criminal activities? Or what if he's disgusted by my portrayal of him? Now I have to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, waiting for a guy named "Fat Tony" to whack me. Maybe I'm thinking too hard about this. Luckily for Vin Diesel, "Jackie" DiNorscio approved of "Find Me Guilty" — and don't forget, he personally wanted the "XXX" star to play him. I mean, when a mobster handpicks you for the job, isn't that an offer you really can't refuse?

Anyway, Diesel focused on turning himself into DiNorscio. He told MovieWeb he studied footage of the mafioso to copy his accent, mannerisms, and other characteristics. Because DiNorscio was on the heavier side with a pot belly, the action star known for being in tip-top shape even packed on some extra pounds, even though Lumet was prepared to put him in a prosthetic bodysuit. Diesel felt the suit would hinder his ability to mimic DiNorscio effectively, so he pigged out on ice cream instead, eating a quart a day, an experience he said he actually enjoyed. He and Sidney Lumet then arranged for him to wear his "Jackie" DiNorscio makeup complete with the reddish-brown wig during table readings of the script so that the cast would see him as DiNorscio, not Vin Diesel; I would like to emphasize that he showed up in full costume for table readings. In the voice of Allen Iverson: we're talking about table readings, not the actual production ... but table readings.

A meeting with 'Jackie' DiNorscio onset changed Vin Diesel's approach

By the time "Find Me Guilty" started production, Vin Diesel was confident he had transformed into "Jackie" DiNorscio, but everything changed on the first day of filming when the mobster himself showed up onset. Diesel told FilmJerk that the 64-year-old, who was now confined to a wheelchair, went into his trailer and kicked everyone out, leaving him alone with Diesel.

"We started to talk," Diesel told FilmJerk. "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." 

I don't want to get into the habit of lionizing criminals, but one honorable quality of DiNorscio in the film is his unconditional love for his family, even for his drug addict cousin Tony (Raúl Esparza) who tries to murder him and then turns informant and testifies against him in the trial. According to a 1987 Associated Press write up of the trial, when his cousin, whose real name was reported as Joseph Alonzo, shot him in the head, the first words to leave DiNorscio's mouth were "I love you, cuz."

During that heart-to-heart conversation in his trailer, Diesel realized that all the attention he paid to the details of DiNorscio's look and mannerisms were immaterial compared to the heart and spirit of the person. Diesel would tell MovieWeb regarding that conversation, "So it was very, very, very helpful for me, and a blessing for me to have met him before starting filming."

'Jackie' DiNorscio wouldn't get the chance to see Vin Diesel's performance

I wonder how actors decide whether to consult the people they're portraying in biopics. For me, the natural impulse would be to reach out and seek advice if the person is still living, or their surviving loved ones if they're not. For whatever reason, some actors don't. The biopics "The Blind Side," "The Social Network," and "The House of Gucci" are just a few examples of biopics that left their subjects and/or their families less than pleased. And the HBO sports drama "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" has been denounced by Lakers legends Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. However, these famous subjects' criticisms were directed at the writers and directors for not involving them in the projects, not necessarily at the actors who were just doing their best with the scripts they were given. But there are those rare occasions when the actor does get caught in the crossfire — like when rapper Lil Kim went on a years-long smear campaign on "Power" and "Queens" star Naturi Naughton for her portrayal of the Queen Bee in the 2009 The Notorious B.I.G biopic "Notorious."

Based on Diesel's account of his encounter with DiNorscio and how it changed his approach to the role, I'm sure DiNorscio would have been proud of Diesel's performance in "Find Me Guilty." Unfortunately, he wouldn't live to see the finished film. Jackie DiNorscio died just three few weeks after his one-on-one with Diesel. His death was a tough grapple for Diesel: as he told Movieweb, "Consequently, when he passed away it was a very, very heavy experience."