It should come as little surprise that women are flocking in droves to see the new Vin Diesel spy thriller XXX. Unlike Hollywood action heroes of yesteryear — Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. — Diesel has something more to offer than muscles and attitude. No, not neck tattoos, silly. We're talking about raw sex appeal.

"I don't know how it happened," shrugs the 35-year-old ex-bouncer of his heartthrob status. "I wasn't a pretty boy in school. It could [come from] the fact that the characters I play are representative of our culture now, [with] the angst and that rebellious tone our youth has today. [They] are anti-heroes and don't pretend to be perfect."

Or it could come from the fact that he's, well, freakin' hot. And while many actors cringe at being labeled a sex object, Diesel seems to be enjoying it. "I don't think it will kill me," he laughs. "I've survived worse."

That said, there are increasing signs that the Saving Private Ryan vet has some brains to back up all that braun. In addition to serving as an exec producer on XXX, he's slated to produce and star as Carthaginian general Hannibal in a big-screen epic along the lines of Braveheart and Gladiator.

"Hannibal is a character I've always wanted to play," says Diesel, who will begin work on the ambitious period pic after completing the upcoming Pitch Black sequel, Riddick. "First of all, he redefined war strategies and he was a classic underdog. He was the only guy that ever thought of attacking Rome, and he did it in a shrewd way."

As long as he drops toga, we'll be there.