‘Guardians of the Galaxy': Vin Diesel branches out as Groot

Aug. 04, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.
A scene from "Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy" featuring Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel. (Marvel Entertainment)

A scene from “Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy” featuring Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel. (Marvel Entertainment)

Vin Diesel is behind the wheel on the Burbank lot of Walt Disney Studios. But instead of one of the Mopar classics or souped-up Mazdas that helped shape his gruff and intimidating persona in the wildly popular “Fast and Furious” movies, the actor is in a very different kind of vehicle. He is piloting a golf cart.

“The pressure is on!” Diesel jokes, as he maneuvers the cart along a paved path at just a few miles per hour. An ill-timed crash would surely ruin his hard-charging reputation.

Diesel’s latest movie, the cosmic adventure “Guardians of the Galaxy,” is yet another kind of vehicle for the actor, one with similar risks for his reputation. Though he’s noted for his tough-guy exterior, the actor’s brawny physique is never glimpsed on screen. Only his voice can be heard in his role as the heroic Groot, a sentient tree with a generous spirit and a vocabulary of just three words: “I,” “Am,” “Groot.”

With its wild menagerie of creatures and interstellar locales, “Guardians” dazzled moviegoers in its opening weekend, raking in an estimated $94 million at the box office to become the latest in a string of outsized hits for Marvel Studios. Directed by James Gunn and rooted in a 2008 comic book series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, the $170-million film is the first installment in a new franchise; “Guardians 2″ is set to arrive in theaters July 28, 2017.

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Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), left, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in "Guardians of the Galaxy." (Marvel)

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The Collector/Tanaleer Tivan, played by a white-haired Benicio Del Toro in "Guardians of the Galaxy." (Marvel)

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The fan-favorite character Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in "Guardians of the Galaxy." (Marvel)

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Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) in "Guardians of the Galaxy." (Marvel)

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Gamora (Zoe Saldana), left, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). (Marvel)

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Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) in a scene from "Guardians of the Galaxy." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Gamora (Zoe Saldana), left, Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). (Marvel)

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Actor Chris Pratt photographed at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills hotel in March. Pratt plays a charming trouble-maker in Marvel's new space action comedy "Guardians of the Galaxy." (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times).

Groot is easily the sweetest member of “Guardians'” five-person team: Chris Pratt’s sarcastic womanizer, Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord); Zoe Saldana’s green assassin, Gamora; Dave Bautista’s vengeful Drax the Destroyer; and Groot’s pal Rocket, a machine-gun-wielding raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper.

The unlikely allies band together to try to stop a genocidal villain, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

Although he had not previously been familiar with the character or the comic series, Diesel says he was intrigued by the unusual challenge of playing Groot, specifically the notion of saying one line any number of different ways to convey different ideas.

“When you’re presented with something bizarre like that, the optimistic side of you finds the challenge and says, ‘OK, it’s only three words, but what if I really went all in?'” Diesel says. “What if I really treated it like it was Shakespeare, if it had as many lines as you could imagine?”

He did have reservations about accepting the role, however.

“There’s such a beautiful innocence about Groot that’s not like any of the other characters I’ve played,” Diesel says. “I was a little apprehensive about how the world would [respond to] a huge action hero playing a character that is not a huge action hero, that is not playing up to my physicality. It’s almost the antithesis in many ways.”

Vin Diesel attends the UK premiere of "Guardians of the Galaxy" at Empire Leicester Square in London. (Anthony Harvey / Getty Images)

Vin Diesel attends the UK premiere of “Guardians of the Galaxy” at Empire Leicester Square in London. (Anthony Harvey / Getty Images)

It’s true that Groot is radically different from “Fast and Furious” driver Dominic Toretto or “xXx” government recruit Xander Cage or the titular sci-fi survivalist in “Riddick.” But he could be a not-so-distant cousin of the alien robot Diesel voiced in “The Iron Giant,” the 1999 animated film directed by Brad Bird about a boy who bonds with a peaceful extraterrestrial visitor.

That film turned on the relationship between the 50-foot-tall robot and young Hogarth, but “Guardians” has its own central friendship, between Groot and Rocket.

If “Guardians” is Marvel’s answer to “Star Wars,” then the mismatched pair functions as a warmer C-3PO and R2-D2, even down to the one-sided banter.

“You walk away from this movie believing there are probably no better friends in the galaxy than Rocket and Groot,” Diesel says. “To think about the galaxy and to distill the whole galaxy down to a friendship is profound.”

Diesel recorded the entirety of his dialogue in four days late last year. Before the sessions began, he asked director Gunn to translate for him what each individual “I am Groot” was intended to convey so that he could articulate each sentence with the appropriate inflection.

“It was sometimes the breath in between the words that had to be changed, if that makes any sense,” Diesel says. “It was a performance layered with nuances solely because there was nothing else to layer the performance with.”

Gunn says he can’t imagine anyone else as Groot. “It’s the resonance of his voice. I think that there’s a soulfulness in what he did that fits the character.”

The role arrived at an emotionally fraught time for the actor. His close friend and “Fast and Furious” costar Paul Walker died in a car crash in Santa Clarita on Nov. 30. Diesel was grappling with grief when Marvel asked him to play Groot.

“The timing couldn’t have been more perfect,” Diesel says. “I was out of commission. No one heard from me for a month. The first time I had done any work after [Walker's death] was going into this booth and breathing life into a tree and mourning the loss of a friend. There was something very therapeutic about playing a character that celebrates life. Ultimately, Groot represents life.”

He’s also pleased to have made a film his two young children can enjoy.

“When I pick the kids up from school, I used to hear, ‘You’re Iron Giant!’ Just this year, that has been replaced with ‘Groot!'” Diesel says, slowing the golf cart to a stop. “I’m preparing for them to all [ask me to] say ‘I am Groot’ a lot.”

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


One Response to ‘Guardians of the Galaxy': Vin Diesel branches out as Groot

  1. Still can't get over how shockingly awesome this movie was.

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