Dwayne Johnson in Pain & Gain.

After he read the script for Pain & Gain, Dwayne Johnson immediately knew he was about to take on the role of a lifetime.

Michael Bay asked Johnson to play the role of Paul Doyle, a convicted criminal who becomes a member of the infamous Sun Gym gang.

“This was the biggest departure for any character I’ve played over the past decade,” Johnson says.

“Paul Doyle trips and trips hard. This was a great challenge for me and there came a time when Michael said, ‘As a director and friend you are going to have to trust me,’ and I did. I’m happy I did.”

While the story of Pain & Gain is true, based on a series of columns written by Pete Collins for the Miami New Times, Johnson’s character is a blend of various members of the gang, whose other members included Daniel Lugo and Adrian Doorbal, both of whom are now on death row.

“There was a multitude of other individuals who were involved in the kidnappings and the murders who were tied into this. Paul Doyle is a composite of all their minds put into one, so that was a great challenge, an awesome challenge for me as an actor,” says Johnson.

One thing Doyle has which the other members of the gang, played by Mark Wahlberg (Lugo) and Anthony Mackie (Doorbal) do not, is a conscience when it comes to committing the crimes.

“This was one of the awesome responsibilities of this character, because in many ways he becomes the conscience of the audience. He is trying to, in many ways, bring some humanity to this insanely absurd world, which is why we were trying to find little moments of empathy, and there was softness and real genuine care and kindness from him amidst all this craziness.”

What drew Johnson to the pivotal role of Doyle was simple, according to the star.

A Miami native for 20 years, Johnson knew of the story and described it as “a series of events which rocked this city. It was unbelievable.

“I wanted to tell this story,” he says matter-of-factly.

“In the mid-’90s, the Sun Gym was a well-known place in Miami. I never went there, but I was playing football for the University of Miami at the time – and we were kings at that time – and a lot of the Miami police would train with us at the university, who would also train at Sun Gym, so there were a lot of interesting stories which were circulating and filtered over to us. The Sun Gym was an infamous place back then, for sure,” he says.

During filming, Johnson retold some of those stories to castmates Wahlberg and Mackie, while Bay hired extras who knew the criminals as well.

Johnson says Bay’s attention to detail was impressive.

“His reputation precedes him and he comes as advertised.”

Johnson, a former college football star and World Wrestling Federation (WWF) heavyweight, likens Bay to a great coach.

“He’s like an incredible coach who you’ve had the great fortune to play for. A winning coach. He’s intense, but he just wants the best for the team and, in this case, Michael wants the best for the movie, and he demands the exact same performance out of himself, by the way.”

Johnson got to stay at home during filming, a rarity for the actor, who has worked all over the world.

“One of the best parts about making this movie was that I got the chance to sleep in my bed every night. It was so nice to be on location but sleep at home,” he says.

In the film, Doyle meets up with Lugo and Doorbal, all of whom are involved in the body-building world at the well-known yet slightly shady Sun Gym. The body-building culture is something Johnson knows all too well, thanks to his years in the WWF and even as a child growing up in various locations around the world.

“Body-building is a whole other world and it’s a fascinating one. What’s so interesting about the body-building culture, which I in a way grew up in – because I grew up in professional wrestling – and the men in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of them were in the body-building world, and I spent a lot of time as a kid just hanging out in the gym and seeing these guys,” he says.

One thing Johnson hopes audiences take away from the film is the message that success takes hard work and dedication.

“When I was 14, we were evicted out of our little efficiency (studio apartment) in Hawaii, and at that time I didn’t know it then, but I know it now, it defined me,” he says, leaning forward in his chair.

“I remember thinking back then, ‘I will do everything I can to make sure this never happens again,’ that I would never come home and see my mum cry. So I thought, ‘Okay, the men I admire, what do they do?’ They were big guys. They were either professional wrestlers or Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford. I thought, ‘Right, those guys built their bodies, that’s what I can do.’ So that’s what inspired me to build my body up, to at least take my own life and destiny in my own hands.” – Paramount Pictures