Mark Wahlberg Interview: The Fighter, David O. Russell, More
The actor talks to Marlow Stern about his acclaimed performance in The Fighter, working alongside the combustible Christian Bale and David O. Russell, and whether, as Marky Mark, he was the original "Situation."
"I wanna dedicate this book to my cock," declared Mark Wahlberg in the preface to his 1992 autobiography, Marky Mark. A man-child with Boy Scout dimples and a ripped torso whose squinty hazel eyes belied a dangerous sexuality, Wahlberg was a paragon of swagger. He was the pants-dropping frontman of the hip-hop group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, released a workout tape that included the famous line "I can't get no coochie without no Gucci," and his abtastic Calvin Klein advertisements still leave legions of women and gay men giddy. So does all that make him the original " Situation"?
"Yeah," Wahlberg laughs. "But I think I had a little bit more going on. It's fascinating to see the success and the phenomenon that [the MTV reality show Jersey Shore, of which Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino is the ripped star] is becoming. You come in and you get that kind of pop, but you gotta figure out how to parlay it into something else."
• ‘The Fighter’ Director’s Big ComebackWith his thick head of hair, silky delivery, and a forehead etched with fine lines, Mark Wahlberg today looks every bit the Hollywood player. He has appeared in 27 films, been nominated for an Academy Award (for 2006's The Departed), and is one of the industry's savviest television moguls, having amassed producing credits that include HBO's Entourage, which is based on his real-life Dorchester crew, In Treatment, and Boardwalk Empire. He's also reportedly developing a spy drama series for HBO with bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell.
Walhberg's latest film, The Fighter, is generating major Oscar buzz. In it, he plays "Irish" Micky Ward, a Massachusetts boxer from the inner city who, aided—and many times, inhibited—by his crack addict half-brother, Dickie Ecklund (Christian Bale), must overcome his circumstances to win the championship belt. Wahlberg trained for 4 1/2 years to play Ward and was particularly passionate about this project, as Ward grew up about 20 minutes away from him, and Ward's rubble-to-the-Ritz story mirrored his own.
"We both come from a family of nine, and we both grew up in very similar circumstances—tough family background, against all odds had to work hard and you would've never expected us to succeed," says Wahlberg. "I had to make this movie and I had to be the one to play Micky."
Wahlberg's Swedish-German father, who was a Teamster, and his Irish mother, who worked several odd jobs to support the family, split when he was 10. Around that time, his older brothers got him high for the first time. By 13, he was addicted to cocaine and, instead of going to school, would sneak out through his window at night to roam the streets with his fellow gang members. On the night of April 8, 1988, Wahlberg and his friends smoked a few joints of angel dust they found and went on a tear—first robbing a pharmacy and then a liquor store. When Wahlberg saw a Vietnamese man crossing the street carrying two cases of beer, he decided to attack him with a 5-foot wooden stick, knocking the man to the ground unconscious. After Wahlberg was arrested, he was brought back to the scene at 998 Dorchester Avenue and, in the presence of two police officers, stated: "You don't have to let him identify me, I'll tell you now that's the motherfucker whose head I split open."
For this crime, Wahlberg, then 17, was charged with attempted murder but pleaded guilty to assault and ended up serving 45 days of a two-year sentence at Boston's Deer Island House of Correction, an adult prison.
"If that doesn't turn you around, nothing will," he says now. "I enjoy my freedom, and I wanted to turn my life around and live a positive and productive life. I wanted to be able to have a family." He pauses. "Just have a positive, productive life."
Throughout Wahlberg's film career, which began with an early role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, and hit its stride in Boogie Nights, filmmakers have had a hard time placing him. He's no Cary Grant ( The Truth About Charlie), and certainly no science teacher ( The Happening). As a result, Wahlberg's had to hustle for every coveted film role, and now he shepherds films through the developmental stages as a producer, as he did on The Fighter.
"I'm not one of those chosen ones in Hollywood where you just get the pick of the litter every single time, so I just go out there and create it on my own," says Wahlberg. "I don't have a problem doing that. That's what we've been doing, to a certain extent, since the beginning."
His most effective performances have been as men after his own heart—determined, vulnerable blue-collar heroes—and one filmmaker who really understands him is David O. Russell. The Fighter is their third movie together, following the 1999 dramedy Three Kings and the 2004 existential comedy I Heart Huckabees.
"That's my brother," said Wahlberg. "He gets me and I get him. Hopefully, this will be the third of many great collaborations."
After director Darren Aronofsky left The Fighter to ultimately direct Black Swan, Wahlberg personally asked Russell to direct the film. Russell's on-set eccentricities are well-documented, including a rumored fistfight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings, and a rant at Lily Tomlin on the set of Huckabees that has since gone viral.
"He makes me feel very comfortable and very confident," says Wahlberg. "He just has a very different way of working. If he's not liking what you're doing, he won't say 'Cut!' and have a 15-minute conversation about it, he'll just yell something at you in the middle of the take and never stop rolling. That can throw some people off."
Added to the mix on The Fighter was Christian Bale, who had his own well-publicized viral meltdown on the set of Terminator: Salvation.
“I’m not one of those chosen ones in Hollywood where you just get the pick of the litter every single time, so I just go out there and create it on my own,” says Wahlberg.
"People were saying, 'Hey, what's going on between the two of them? Are you worried that stuff could happen?'" says Wahlberg. "A, I wasn't going to let that happen, and B, both those things came out of passion. They both have so much belief and faith in not only one another but the material that it was very harmonious, the working environment."
Today Wahlberg is a committed Catholic and family man. He's been with the model Rhea Durham since 2001, and the two were married in 2009. They have four beautiful young children—two boys and two girls—and are expecting their fifth sometime next year.
"But you know, that was always the plan," says Wahlberg. "I spent a lot of time tearing it up, but I got it all out of my system."
Recently, Wahlberg's daughter became so obsessed with the pop sensation Justin Bieber that Wahlberg arranged for her to meet the teen idol. "They spoke on the phone and then I took her to meet him," he says, "but now I think she's over him, so…." Wahlberg lets out a deep sigh. "I got a beautiful family," he says, "and there's nothing—nothing—worth sacrificing that." But would Wahlberg ever play his children his music? Without a moment's hesitation, he replies, "Absolutely not."
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and has a master's from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, as an editor at Amplifier magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.