When you get Vin Diesel laughing - not just a mere chuckle, but real full-on guffaws - there is a giggle that belies the actor's deep voice and action-movie machismo.
Katee Sackhoff, his co-star in the sci-fi fantasy Riddick (out Friday), can attest to the Diesel giggle, and it's just as infectious as the love he - and his loyal fan base - have for cosmic convict Richard Riddick.
"He's one of the most self-aware people I've ever met," Sackhoff says of Diesel. "It takes a very, very strong, confident man to embrace life so much and to giggle at moments. That's what I love about him: He has this innocent childlike nature and it's great."
Riddick is the third movie in the series that originated with Pitch Black (2000) and continued in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004). The title antihero again is fighting for his survival - this time on an alien planet. He's been left for dead by the fanatical Necromongers and faces monsters and two separate teams of bounty hunters - including the female warrior Dahl (Sackhoff) - who are after his goggle-clad head.
"I've spent decades playing Dungeons & Dragons, so I'm really fantasy-based and I always dig mythology," Diesel says. However, unlike his popular Fast & Furious movie series, "the wonderful thing about Riddick is that it's a cult franchise at its heart."
Writer-director David Twohy has been Diesel's partner in all things Riddick since Pitch Black, when Diesel "was just the best available actor" and not a well-muscled megastar. Now, he's also a producer on Riddick and has taken part ownership in the series alongside Twohy.
"You can sum it up by saying we are co-conspirators," the director says, "and we pulled off what feels like the crime of the century by getting this franchise back on its feet."
The Fast movies have been box-office gold for Diesel, but the Riddick films haven't been exactly furious financially. Pitch Black was made for $23 million and grossed $39.2 million. But Chronicles, its $105 million follow-up, could only recoup $57 million.
Twohy says the independently financed Riddick was made at a greatly reduced budget of $35 million to $40 million. And they struggled just to get the cameras rolling: The movie was supposed to film at the end of 2011, but after a few fall months of pre-production in Montreal, the project was shut down due to legal paperwork not being filled out correctly. That led to Twohy and Diesel not being able to pay the bills.
"Here we were, being locked out of our facilities and losing our stage space and trying to get our laptops back from the owner of the studio who wanted last month's rent. That's a horrible way to start a movie," says Twohy, who straightened everything out and started production the next spring.
Riddick was made mainly to placate those fans who wouldn't stop asking for a follow-up to Chronicles, Twohy says.
"I get the e-mails that say basically, 'You just can't leave it there.' I'd even get e-mails from fans who would illuminate the path forward for me. They'd say, 'Look, it doesn't have to be a $100 million extravaganza. Just do something smaller if that's all you have. We just want to see Riddick back in action, doing Riddickian things.'
"After hearing that incessantly for about five years, you start to listen."
Fan reaction powered Diesel, too. He has more than 46 million people hanging on his every Facebook status update, and the actor in turn takes their feedback personally.
"I'd have people on Facebook send me notes: 'Hey Vin, I'll send you $10 right now if it helps you get the movie made,' " he says. "Those kind of endearing sentiments really make you want to make the impossible a reality."