Fantasy legend J.R.R. Tolkien means a lot of things to a lot of people. To Vin Diesel, what’s really inspiring about Tolkien is the way he writes about death. Tolkien is a touchstone for Diesel, and he was a huge influence on Diesel’s new film The Last Witch Hunter.

“I pulled a lot from Tolkien on this,” Diesel tells io9. “I mean, when you really look at Tolkien, when you really look at his secondary universes, if you distill it down to the one thing that’s probably the most important, the thing that he himself as a author was exploring, he was exploring death. Producing a film about immortality, I’m gonna go to previous works that have dealt with immortality, and done it right. The Silmarillion was probably one of the first fantasy pieces that played with immortality that wasn’t straight up deity mythology. As an author, he’s playing with immortality in this really cool way.”

“Tolkien proposes that mortality is a gift,” Diesel adds. “Immortality isn’t a gift, it’s the mortality that’s the gift. And which is something that we were kind of close to and I was able to kind of factor into our mythology.”

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In The Last Witch Hunter, Diesel plays Kaulder, an big, bearded, ancient soldier who is cursed with immortality when he kills a mythic Witch Queen. Centuries later, Kaulder has to face the Queen and her minions again, this time in modern New York City.

The theme of mortality and immortality also wound up hitting close to home for Diesel, who is the producer as well as the star of Last Witch Hunter. Playing a character who has been alone for 800 years helped the actor with the pain of losing friend and Fast and Furious co-star, Paul Walker.

“2014 was a tricky year for me because I was deepest in my mourning and still having to complete Furious 7,” Diesel said. “So playing a character that is masking his pain or masking his melancholy was actually appropriate.”

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Lord of the Rings meets Batman

In addition to Diesel, the supporting cast of The Last Witch Hunter is a who’s who of genre royalty, and Diesel says those casting decisions weren’t coincidental. Michael Caine is basically played Alfred in three Batman movies, and he plays another loyal hero-helper. Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood and Game of Thrones star Rose Leslie also play prominent roles.

“You’re doing a fantasy film, so you get the poster child of the cinematic Tolkien universe,” Diesel said. “You get my favorite character in Batman and he wants to play the mentor cleric of your fantasy film. I mean, take your pick on Game of Thrones, but [Leslie] is pretty prominent and arguably one of the best characters. You get her to come on to play a dream walker. I don’t think we were shying away from that. I think we were excited about that.”

But none of those actors put their lives on the line for the film like Diesel did. He put a tank of propane on his back to wield his character’s flaming sword.

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“Was it dangerous? Yeah. Was a propane tank strapped to my back? Yeah. All right, did we have eight firemen off to the side with fire extinguishers? Yes. But it was practical. And there was some cool value to that,” Diesel said.

As much as The Last Witch Hunter is a fantasy epic, it’s also a modern mystery film. Kaulder has to figure out how the creature he killed 800 years ago has come back.

“We’re hearing a lot about the Dungeons and Dragons influence, but there’s a lot of Bond in it. There’s a lot of Sherlock Holmes in it,” Diesel said. “There’s no accident that Michael Caine is playing a mentor-like role.”

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is super-emotional

Meanwhile, Diesel is preparing to appear in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, due out in 2017. In the film, Diesel will once again provide the voice of Groot.

“I’ve heard the story pitched to me from my friend James Gunn over at my house on my son’s birthday,” Diesel said. “So [I know] as much as you can absorb during a little kid’s fifth birthday party. But it’s emotional. He’s approaching it from the point of character. And I think the audience is really gonna respond to that.”

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Time will tell if audiences respond to The Last Witch Hunter but, even if they don’t, the film will stand as the movie that not only helped Diesel deal with personal demons, but fulfill his childhood fantasies.

“Without realizing it, I’ve spent many years holding a flaming sword,” he said. “If you would have talked to the 17-year-old [Vin], never in a million years would he think that he’d be doing it for real.”

The Last Witch Hunter opens October 23.


Contact the author at germain@io9.com.