Mark Wahlberg: The Curious Fall and Rise of a Star

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In retrospect, it all seems so inevitable. But at the start, Mark Wahlberg’s rise to indie film darling status seemed like the longest of long shots.

The youngest of nine children growing up in Dorchester, Mass., Wahlberg’s first exposure to show business was, of course, as a founding member with his brother Donnie of the teen idol band New Kids on the Block. But Wahlberg lost interest and left the band nearly before it began, concentrating instead on life on the street. A cocaine addiction, numerous run-ins with the law and an attempted murder charge followed (Wahlberg pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of assault in that case and was sentenced to two years in jail).

But it was when he emerged from prison that he began the first of his unlikely transformations. Inspired by time spent with his parish priest, he began rebuilding his life and eventually returned to music, adopting the unforgettable (and much to present-day Wahlberg’s chagrin, unavoidable) stage name Marky Mark. His single “Good Vibrations” hit No. 1, and soon he was on a 20-story billboard in Manhattan, barely clad in his Calvins.

Even at this point, with money and fame to spare, it would be hard to imagine that Wahlberg would become one of his generation’s defining actors. But that’s exactly what he did. His early career follows the playbook as perfectly as an athlete like Wahlberg would know how to do—get your feet wet with a couple of minor roles (The Substitute and Renaissance Man), then back up a major talent in an art house film (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries), then prove you can be the lead in a film (Fear).

Then P.T. Anderson came calling, and Wahlberg’s life would never be the same.

Looking back on that moment in 1997, Wahlberg as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights appears as a near-perfect meeting of actor and role, like Kevin Costner (another underrated actor) in The Untouchables. There’s simply no other actor who could have endowed the role with such a goofy sweetness, such a tough insecurity, such a heartbreaking self-doubt. America went nuts for Wahlberg.

What happened next was that basically, many of the best directors of his time chose to put Wahlberg in starring roles. After Anderson, David O. Russell was next in line, casting him opposite George Clooney in Three Kings. Tim Burton tapped him for the lead role when he attempted to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise. Jonathan Demme put him in The Truth About Charlie, and Russell called again for I Heart Huckabees. John Singleton cast him in Four Brothers, and as the icing on the cake, Martin Scorsese trusted Wahlberg with a crucial role in The Departed. In keeping with the old “one for you and one for them” rule, Wahlberg also appeared in quite a few movies for more commercial reasons, and not all those films are good. Partially because of that, he was marginalized, underrated as an actor, sometimes even derided as not cerebral enough. Still, it’s hard to come up with an actor of his generation who was endorsed by so many great directors in the first 10 years of his career.

Even more implausibly, the kid with the troubled past, the pop music background and the underwear-modeling chops decided to be a producer. And it worked. He began with Entourage, which quickly entered the cultural conversation for an entire generation. He was an executive producer on the excellent In Treatment, and now has the same title for the equally excellent Boardwalk Empire. After debuting as a film producer with the very solid crime thriller We Own the Night, he reunited with Russell to produce a little movie you might have heard of called The Fighter. It won some awards.

And now, 15 years after Boogie Nights, having conquered the worlds of indie film and cable television as both a producer and an actor, Wahlberg is producing and acting in an Allen Hughes film, a goal of his for quite some time.

“I expressed my interest in working with him years ago, back when we first met,” Wahlberg remembers. “He called and asked me if I had read the script for Broken City, because it was on the Black List, the list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. I hadn’t, but I had heard of it, so I read it right away.”

For his part, Hughes had looked forward to working with Wahlberg ever since that first meeting. Broken City is his first project independent of his brother Albert, so he needed a bit of that family feeling. “Mark’s the youngest of nine,” Hughes explains, “so there was a kinship there instantly that worked for this movie and worked for me directing my first time alone. It was fun for me. It’s fun for me not to be sitting next to my brother. You know, I’ve been with him for 40 years, so you look over and now you’ve got a white brother. And then finally, I was in the white place at the white time.”

For Hughes, Wahlberg represented a sort of a throwback leading man, with an authentic rugged masculinity. “I think you’ve got to have real-life experience to be a great storyteller anyhow,” he explains. “You know, if you look back in the good ol’ days, all those great actors they had, they were men. They weren’t boys; they were men doing real shit that real men do before they became famous. That’s a dying breed. We don’t really have a lot of real meaty men anymore. So the dark things one faces as a craftsman or artist, that becomes the paint, you know? The pain is what creates the colors, I believe.”

Wahlberg advocated early on that they make the film outside the studio system. “We got together,” he says, “and talked about the various ways to get the movie made and what would be the best route for us creatively. We threw around the studio options ideas and I said, ‘What about getting it independently financed, so you and I can be left to our own devices and nobody’s gonna tell us what to do or what not to do?’ I had just done that on two films, and it was a very gratifying experience. He said great, and I got my guy to come up with the money—not as much money as we would have liked, but enough to get us here today.”

Most indie films don’t get a cast like the star-studded one Broken City boasts. But Wahlberg was so sold on the tenor of the piece that he was able to do a little bit of politicking on the production’s behalf. “It reminded me of the movies I grew up watching with my dad in the ‘70s,” he says. “Serpico, Chinatown. You know, they had a real story and real characters. The screenplay was just so good, and that’s what attracted the likes of the Jeffrey Wrights and the Barry Peppers and Kyle Chandlers and Russell Crowes and Catherine Zeta-Jones of the world, because they had meaty roles. It wasn’t like we could say, ‘OK, we’ll pay your quote and plus a little more’; we didn’t have anything other than the material. I certainly offered up a piece of my back end to certain people who weren’t going to be able to get what they would normally get. I showed them good faith and how much we wanted them to be a part of it, but it was really the material that got everybody there.”

Even after gathering the great cast, though, shooting a movie that looks big-time on a small-time budget isn’t easy. “This was a movie that should have taken twice as long to shoot and probably had substantially a larger budget,” Wahlberg admits, “but I’ve done it a couple times now, so it was just the norm for me. OK, we only have this amount of time, we can only shoot this sequence in this amount of days, but I had a blast. You know, I would obviously have my take on what I thought the character was in the scenes and the moments and then I would also say to Allen, ‘Just tell me what you want me to do and how you want me to say it, where you want me to stand.’ And we found enough time to not only do what I thought I wanted to do, but also what he wanted to do. It was a great experience.”

It was a great experience for Hughes, too. “You know, he spoiled me,” he says, “because he’s very collaborative and very open, and I think he understands a lot about making a film. Also, he’s very respectful to the other artists and craftsmen while he’s doing it. He’s a great team player, and he remains calm, and has got great court vision. I think it was the best experience I’ve ever had with a movie star.”

Wahlberg’s film career has been notable. But it’s actually his work producing television that gave him the knowledge and experience needed to produce indie films on the cheap. “Having more success allows you more freedom to take more risks and do things,” he says. “If The Fighter hadn’t have happened, we definitely wouldn’t have been able to make this movie for the amount of money we got. You know, that was a $70 million movie that we ended up making for $11 million. Contraband was a $50 million movie that we ended up making for $25 million. That all came from our experience in TV figuring how to do more with less time and less money.”

Back in the early ‘90s, it would have seemed extremely unlikely that Wahlberg—troubled personal past, notable only as a pop music icon and underwear model on towering billboards—would become such a producing powerhouse. But he saw it all along. “I’ve always had it in mind,” he maintains. “I’m very proactive and aggressive and hungry, and I don’t just want to sit around waiting for the right part to come to me. I also had aspirations of producing things that I wasn’t necessarily in. The wheels are always turning, and there’s a lot going on and so I started out trying to develop and find material that I could star in and then I said, ‘At one point, I want to control and own all the content that I produce.’ And so, that’s the process.”

Television provided that entrée for Wahlberg. “My agent came from the television world,” he says, “and so we had the idea to do our first show, and that became a success. And then we kind of learned by accident that producing television prepared us for producing films in this day and age when studios are crying ‘Poverty,’ and they don’t want to spend the money. We know how to do it with less time and less money already. There are certain people that are so used to the way things were and all this excess, and they don’t understand how you can make a movie in 40 days. It’s just impossible. It doesn’t work, you know?”

When Wahlberg was finding a director for The Fighter, those cultural differences became very evident. “I remember one director who wanted to direct The Fighter, I won’t say his name, but we said, ‘OK, we have 33 days to shoot the movie and we have three days to shoot the fights.’ He goes, ‘I need 35 days just to shoot the fights.’ I’m like, ‘What do you want to do for 35 days? Take one—one punch. Alright, let’s flip the camera around. Oh, you look good—nah, you were good. Rubbing oil on one another. Uh, Joe?’ He literally had the job. But he goes, ‘OK, let’s say we can do it in 33 days and then we’ll just start shooting. And they can’t make us stop.’ So I said, ‘Dude, you pulled out this gun and I tried to grab it from you, but you shot yourself in the foot. I got it out of your hand again and you ripped it out again and still shoved it in your mouth and just lost the job, dude.’ He just fucking blew it.”

Wahlberg is excited about Entourage starting up again. “We should start shooting by May,” he says. “We just got a second draft of the script. You know, we just want to obviously make it great. I wanted to get back to what the show originally was. I mean, we had a lot of great female characters, but the relationships with the other characters became so important to the show, and we need to get back to the guys doing what the guys do. You know, let them get crazy again. So when Ari leaves and takes that job, it’s back to getting crazy.”

There’s a moment in Broken City when Wahlebrg’s character is told that his fatal flaw is that he doesn’t trust anybody, but Wahlberg himself claims that in real life “I’m just the opposite. I give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t think that’s a fatal flaw. I think that’s a good thing, and even when people fuck you over, excuse my language, you just kinda say, ‘OK, you gotta forgive and move on.’ You don’t want to lose the ability to trust.”

That’s Mark Wahlberg in a nutshell. It’s that combination of tough guy and sweet guy that’s so beguiling about him, and most likely one of the reasons directors from Russell to Scorsese have found themselves putting him at the center of their films. If that’s less interesting to us than a few cheap jokes, maybe that’s our own problem. As for Wahlberg? He’ll just keep acting and producing, making money and winning awards.

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