Mark Wahlberg on Leading the Sun Gym Gang, Michael Bay, and Cocaine Cowboys
A New York native with a smooth tongue and a disarming smile, Daniel Lugo was fresh from serving a 15-month federal prison stint for fraud when he landed at Sun Gym in 1992. He'd earned his prison time by snookering $71,200 from people who believed he could get loans from a Hong Kong bank. The bank never existed, and Lugo ran off with the cash. At Sun Gym, a hard-core bodybuilding joint just north of Miami Lakes, Lugo quickly worked his way up to manager.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo
Using his manipulative charms, he also recruited a gang of none-too-bright gym rats -- led by a sadistic Trinidadian named Adrian Doorbal -- to pull off a pair of brazen heists in 1994 and 1995: abducting a wealthy businessman named Marc Schiller and, six months later, kidnapping Frank Griga, a phone-sex-line millionaire, and his girlfriend, Krisztina Furton. Lugo helped murder Griga and Furton and then dismember their bodies. And now he's sitting on death row for his vicious crimes.
It was all part of Lugo's sick, fiendish plot to get filthy rich as quickly as he could. He was the perfect character for Mark Wahlberg, the onetime Calvin Klein underwear spokesman who shot to Hollywood superstardom for playing another detestable human, porn star Dirk Diggler, in 1997's Boogie Nights.
A couple of weeks ago, Wahlberg was in Miami to promote Pain & Gain, the Michael Bay movie based on a Miami New Times story that told the macabre exploits of Lugo and the Sun Gym Gang.
Wahlberg sat down with New Times to give his take on playing a steroid-pumping scumbag.
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Cultist: How did you research your role?
I only had little access to who Lugo was from reading the article that was in the [New Times], reading other news clippings, and watching a reenactment that they did on the murders. Because I am playing a real person who is not that well known outside of Miami, I was able to take some liberties. I was able to do some things on my own to create the character.
Did you try to reach out to Lugo in prison?
I would have, but the [studio] didn't recommend it. I am just a hired actor, so I just tried to do my job and do the best and most interesting portrayal of this character I was playing.
You are dead-on in the way Lugo manipulated his accomplices and never accepted responsibility for his role in the Sun Gym Gang's crimes.
I don't think he was a stone-cold killer. He was put in a situation that for him, [extortion and torture] were the only answer, and he didn't really realize what it would entail. I love the idea of playing a character like this, being able to go off as much as I did. My only concern, obviously, was being sensitive to the victims and the victims' families.
How did you strike that balance?
It was just me playing my part. At the end of the day, people will realize these guys did horrible things. Nobody deserved what happened to them. These guys got what they deserved by getting death sentences.
Did you have any reservations about playing Lugo as an antihero?
Yeah, I just wanted to play it the way it was written, and the way it was written in the article that these guys were just knuckleheads. Once it started spiraling out of control, instead of saying, Let's cut our losses. If we have to go to jail for a little while, so be it; take the punishment like men and move on. But it just kept getting worse and worse. When you meet them in the beginning, they are kind of likable guys, and when it starts to go south, it's like a train wreck. You can't stop watching. You want to see what happens to them. In the end, they get justice.