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.
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.
You do a monologue when Lugo is in court in the beginning of the movie. Did you do that on your own or was that in the script?
It was written into the script, but I improvised a lot during the shooting of the movie. Michael gave me the freedom to just do my thing, like when I am talking to the kids.
The scene where you are passing on Lugo's knowledge to the kids after a game of basketball was made up, right? That didn't really happen.
No, no. We made it up. When we started talking about the bench-pressing and hanging out with them, I just wanted to go off. It was a fun scene. The kids were really into it. But their parents didn't know what I was saying at the time.
What is it like to work with Bay?
He is fantastic. There is no downtime. We are shooting constantly. You are never in your trailer waiting for hours at a time. It's just get it done and try to get as many different versions [of a scene] as possible so he has choices in the editing room.
When you saw the first cut, what was your impression?
I thought it was just crazy. It reminded me of Boogie Nights, Pulp Fiction, and Fargo. It is just so damn different and refreshing. I am fascinated by crime thrillers, dramas, and sagas. It is right up my alley.
Did you get a feel for Miami from reading the New Times story?
Yeah. It is an incredible place. You can see why so many people want to come here. It is like Los Angeles. There is a lot of temptation. You have a lot of people who don't have [material wealth] and see a lot of people who do have it. I can see how it could be easy to be lured into the idea of doing something to get rich quick -- trying to get the American dream the easy way instead of earning it.
That's what this movie about, isn't it?
Yeah, exactly. People always wanting more -- that is a recurring theme in the bodybuilding world. If they can just get a little bigger here or more cut there, they feel better.
Are you still moving forward with your Cocaine Cowboys movie?
Yeah, Bill Monahan, who wrote The Departed, is working on a script right now. I am very excited about it. He is one of the best writers I have ever worked with. He's watched the documentary and read [the late cocaine smuggler] John Roberts' book. Bill has been following John's path, which led him to Miami. I am really excited about it.
Are you excited about playing John Roberts?
Yeah, absolutely. I want to find someone great to play Mickey Munday. It is a fascinating story.
Did you get to meet John before he died?
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What was your impression of him?
He was just raw. For me, the world I come from, I have been around a lot of people who have done a lot of bad things. I try not to judge them based on that. What I get from them is a sense of what kind of person they really are. John was a real hard-core dude.
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter: @thefrankness