One of the most indelible and adorable scene-stealing characters to emerge in Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is Groot. Diehard Marvel Comics fans first met Groot (aka Monarch of Planet X) back in 1960 when he appeared in “Tales to Astonish” Issue 13. Described as “an extraterrestrial, sentient tree-like creature” Groot was originally an invader, capturing humans for experimentation. By 2006, Groot crossed over to the Marvel Comics “Annihilation: Conquest”, reconfigured to be heroic and joining the Guardians team. Since then Groot has appeared in a multitude of Marvel formats from comic books to cartoons to merchandising and even trading cards. But we have never seen or experienced the Groot we now see in James Gunn’s universe and that’s all due to Vin Diesel - the voice, and the heart, of Groot.
With one sentence (and thanks to some beautiful CGI facial animation), Vin Diesel infuses entire soliloquies of emotion into Groot through inflection and vocal tone with just three words - “I am Groot”. A lot of the softer emotion we saw from Diesel in “The Pacifier” is imbued within Groot while complimented with the "tough guy grrrrr" attitude for which he is best known.
Delivering the single most emotional performance of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, it is perhaps the story behind Diesel’s involvement in GUARDIANS that is more telling as the invitation to breathe life into Groot came at one of the darkest moments in Diesel’s life; within a month or so of the tragic death of his dear friend and colleague Paul Walker. During the film’s press day, I asked Diesel about joining the Marvel universe and becoming Groot. Welling with emotion, Diesel tenderly recalled the experience, admitting that “When Kevin Feige called me and said that he and 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 opened up the book, and I asked the kids what character they wanted Daddy to play. They all pointed at the tree, so I knew that was a good sign.”
Wiping some tears from under his sunglass covered eyes, Diesel thoughtfully and softly continued. “For me, it was at a very important time, when I did this movie, because it was in December, and it was the first time I was coming around humans again and working again. There was something very therapeutic, in my personal life and my professional life, after dealing with death, playing a character that celebrates life, in the way that Groot celebrates life.”
No stranger to the world of franchises, even Diesel was taken aback at the majesty and power of Marvel; not to mention diehard fans. “ This whole thing started for me with a social media wave that was adamant about me doing something with Marvel, but there really wasn’t a six-month window to do a character at Marvel.” It wasn’t until late in the game that Diesel came into the project, but for James Gunn, there is no one but Diesel who could have become Groot. “No one will ever understand, from the bottom of my heart, how much Vin Diesel brings to that role. I sat and watched the movie a billion times, with my voice in there and with my brother Sean’s voice in there. And when Vin came in and said, “I am Groot,” it really filled out that whole character. . .it made that character. That was a CGI character [that was], suddenly complete. And it still doesn’t sound like Vin to me. It sounds like Groot. [T]here was a weird, strange energy in the room when he was doing it. A lot of people have felt, after seeing the movie, that Groot is this emotional character, and we even felt it while we were shooting.”
Being the last piece of the puzzle to come on board, Diesel’s excitement recalling the experience is undeniable. “I got to see all of the performances, and I was so blown away by the performances! It felt almost too good to be true!” And when it came time to record Groot, it boiled down to four days, recording the three words, all day, every day. “James sent me a script where the left-hand side of the page said, ‘I am Groot,’ and the right hand side of the page would have a whole paragraph about what that meant.” Giving well deserved credit to James Gunn for being “a director that was willing to indulge the way he did”, Diesel notes, “I walked into that situation and saw somebody that cared so much about every little nuance of that character. It was so refreshing that being a perfectionist wasn’t a bad thing. . .To have a director that loves his actors is something that you can see in the film and in the fruits of that labor. You can see that translated in the film. When you watch this movie, you can see a director who loves his actors, and it shines through the movie, in my eyes.”
Grateful that the stars aligned for him, humbled and reflective, Diesel’s joy in voicing Groot is undeniable and infectious. “Something very beautiful happened in playing this role, that as an actor, I never would have imagined; and that is, when my kids see trees, they refer to the trees as my brothers and sisters. The idea of being associated with trees like that is remarkable. It’s so much more gratifying than you would ever imagine.”
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is in theatres August 1, 2014.