“I’m not a big nightclub person, so I’ve never had any real draw to South Beach,” says Donnie Wahlberg at the start of our interview.
However, the actor did have a strong draw to his intense role in a new A&E original movie set beneath the steamy sun of Miami and based on a true story. In Kings of South Beach, premiering March 12, Wahlberg plays Andy Burnett, a mysterious man who befriends Chris Troiano (Jason Gedrick), a mob wiseguy who is fast becoming the “it boy” of South Florida in the late 1990s. Troiano has founded South Beach’s hottest clubs, and has become a celebrity in his own right even as he is constantly surrounded by the likes of Madonna, the Versaces and a never-ending stream of sexy models. In addition to a strong cast (which also includes Nadine Velazquez from My Name Is Earl and Ricardo Chavira of Desperate Housewives), the behind-the-scenes credits include a script from Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas, Casino) and production from Sonny Grosso (a former cop who, with his partner, was the inspiration for The French Connection).
Wahlberg’s character in actuality is an undercover cop sent to bring down Troiano, and is based on real-life detective Andrew Dohler. This fact, and the dramatic challenge that it presented, really appealed to Wahlberg.
“I’ve done a lot of police work already,” he says, referring to previous roles in shows such as Boomtown. “The real thing I got from Andy [Dohler] was the whole approach in undercover. I actually had to be less of a cop. It’s all subtle choices. On the one hand, you never want to reveal to the guy you’re working with, anything. You have to always cover your tracks, and be a fast liar and be consistent with your story. At the same time, there’s a certain pressure that you feel, that you can’t show the person that you’re working to bring down. But you have to show the audience in order to entertain them. So it was really a matter of looking for opportunities to show vulnerability within a scene, but never to show it to the guy. If I played it strictly by the book, then it would probably be kind of a one-dimensional character.
“I think what Andy’s strength was, and my interpretation of the character from Day One was that it would behoove an undercover guy who wanted to get close to [Chris] to have the guts to tell the truth. When you become successful, people tend to stop being honest with you. People like to get a piece, they want to enjoy the ride, and they don’t want it to end. And so people are usually afraid to ruffle feathers. [Andy’s honesty] might have blown up in his face, and Chris might never have trusted Andy, but it worked. For me, that was my instinct, and Andy said ‘You’re right on with that. And even though Andy’s job was to get this guy, Andy never really went out of his way to say bad things about him. He never was out to make Chris look bad and make himself look good. I think he just wanted it to be accurate.'”
The drama and tension of undercover work seems powerfully accurate in the scenes between Wahlberg and former Boomtown costar Gedrick, as the ever wary Chris constantly tests and questions Andy. While Wahlberg had the luxury of working with Dohler for research and inspiration, Gedrick was unable to have the real Chris around — at least not during filming. But Gedrick relates a somewhat funny tale of an event that happened just a few weeks before we spoke.
“I’m at a club,” he says, “and I’m standing there with a friend, and I see like a shadowy presence in the distance. And I had this heavy, dark feeling come over me. I don’t know what compelled me, but I was drawn to it, like I had to follow it. All of a sudden in my head, it just rang: Chris. So I walk up, and as I approach him, he must have felt me following him. And he turned around and said, ‘You Jason Gedrick? You just play me in a movie?’ And I said, ‘Or someone like you.’ He said, ‘Well, at least they got someone good-looking to play me,’ and reached his hand out. It was just such a bizarre sort of out-of-body experience. I [had] tried to glean some information from photos [in my research]. There’s sort of a suspicious eye that he has in almost every one of those photos, a sort of “on guard” quality that he has, and he had it the night I met him. But [our meeting] was surprisingly convivial, just a very sort of buddy-buddy conversation. Meanwhile, I’m just freaked! Based on that meeting I feel good [about my portrayal].”
And Gedrick has no concerns about what might happen once Chris sees the film.
“I think he’ll want [the movie] to glorify him. Based on what I’ve learned and read, ultimately, just the fact there’s a movie being made — and in the movie, he’s getting laid and is kind of the king — I don’t think he really much cares. Clearly he didn’t care all that much about the celebrities anyway. He never seemed to be intimidated by them, [and just cared about] the spotlight.
“The other thing that’s interesting is that a movie, I don’t think, would even be made about his life if Miami wasn’t ready to explode [at that time], if he didn’t get hooked up with his partner, who then knew DJs, who then knew the upper society. He was put there, but sort of like a guiding eye, an intimidating sort of energy. He provided a certain muscle. He was infamous for fighting. They called him ‘The Binger’ back in the day. [He had] sort of this insatiable appetite for wanting to mix it up. And it doesn’t take more than a rumor, and maybe a couple of people to embellish that story, to become this enigma [that we have now].”