Mark Wahlberg: ‘Middle America Doesn’t Want to Listen to What Celebrities Have to Say’

The acclaimed actor and director Peter Berg discuss their new film ‘Patriots Day,’ a high-octane thriller depicting the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed.

Karen Ballard/CBS Films

Patriots Day, Peter Berg’s vivid portrayal of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, wears its heart on its sleeve as it pays homage to the victims who lost their lives and limbs on one of the proudest days of the year in one of the proudest cities in America. First and foremost, it celebrates the officers and first responders who scrambled to keep Boston safe—not surprising, from the filmmaker most recently behind the flag-waving true American hero tales Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon.

But as it opens, set on the early morning of April 15, 2013, flitting between Mark Wahlberg’s unsuspecting Boston PD officer and his fellow cops, victims, survivors, their spouses, and the people around them, the film also zeroes in on two other figures as they go about their everyday lives: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers whose homemade bombs exploded that afternoon, killing three civilians and injuring over 260 others and sending the city and the nation into panic.

Berg’s film, opening Dec. 21 in New York and L.A. and nationwide on Jan. 13, might be the most humanizing and complex window into the Boston marathon bombers’ lives that many Americans will see.

“The more I came to understand Tamerlan the more I understood, to a degree, what turned him,” Berg told The Daily Beast last month, a day after premiering the stirring true story at AFI Fest in Los Angeles. “I think at the core the guy had some sort of mental disorder, whether it’s narcissistic disorder or some bipolar delusion of grandeur. He was fucking crazy. But at the end of the day I didn’t want to be making a film that offered any justification for that kind of insanity.”

Rather than justification, Berg serves up a character ensemble built around Wahlberg’s Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a character composite of two real Boston policemen who were on duty through the bombing and the citywide manhunt that ensued. (Wahlberg is also a producer on the film, his third collaboration with Berg.) Sporting shaggy hair for his Transformers 5 shoot, Boston native Wahlberg admitted he wrestled with signing on to a project that hit so close to home just a few years after the Boston attack.

“It was something I debated back and forth, whether or not to be a part of the movie,” he explained. “But then I realized they were going to make it anyway. So I said, ‘If they’re going to make it, I want to make sure they do it right.’ Everybody who’s from Boston knows somebody who was directly affected by it. Having those conversations, especially with victims and people who were directly affected by this, they were very clear on what they wanted. And we wanted to honor and respect that.”

In Patriots Day, Berg weaves together the simple narratives of some of the strangers whose lives became forever intertwined that afternoon, including Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and the FBI’s Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) of nearby Watertown, Massachusetts, where the Tsarnaevs were eventually cornered in a firefight, and survivors like Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes (Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O’Shea), a married couple both severely injured in the blasts.

Silicon Valley actor Jimmy O. Yang gives a standout turn as Danny Meng, the 26-year-old immigrant who was carjacked by the Tsarnaevs days later and managed to escape, putting the authorities on the fugitives’ trail. “He’s a badass Chinese dude!” Berg grinned. The evening prior, Berg brought Meng out onstage at the film’s premiere alongside several of the figures depicted onscreen. With Wahlberg standing humbly by, Berg led the audience in applause for Patriots Day’s real heroes.

With the exception of MIT police officer Sean Collier (played by Jake Picking), who was shot and killed in his patrol car by the brothers, three of the Tsarnaevs’ four victims are not highlighted in the film’s narrative, “out of respect to their families,” said Berg. “Different families had different desires as to how they were represented. And Sean Collier was a police officer who certainly didn’t want that to happen, but wanted a life that was potentially going to put him in harm’s way. And we felt that showing his death was appropriate, and one we talked about with his family.”

Berg orchestrates his action scenes with visceral, unflinching impact. The bombs, exploding 12 seconds apart in the afternoon glare amid crowds of onlookers, police officers, and runners, reduce Boston’s Boylston Street to a hazy war zone. The Watertown firefight between the Tsarnaevs and cops from several departments unfolds with a gritty, gut-wrenching brutality that underscores what Boston’s finest put on the line to capture the men who attacked their city.

Berg’s affection for the men and women in blue is one of the film’s most unabashedly consistent through-lines. He even cast real life law-enforcement officers in the film, including one tough female cop who gets a line so great the premiere audience cheered when she refuses to give up her position to an FBI sniper as the younger Tsarnaev is cornered.

“She was so badass,” said Berg, who cast her after she was assigned to escort him out of Boston’s Logan Airport. “She would act as if I was the president of the United States. And she would act like, if anybody was going to mess with me, they were going to go through her first. She was Boston Strong.”

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I asked Berg how he will approach opening an avowedly pro-police film amid such heated tumult in America, where distrust of law enforcement keeps rising in the wake of unjustified killings at the hands of police, and anti-Muslim harassment has seen a bold uptick thanks to the enabling rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump.

“I’m not going to get into the complexities of some of these issues like racism—these are very dense and complex issues,” he said. “And those are probably best served at another time in a more complex conversation. For us I think one of the elements of what happened in Boston, what happened in San Bernardino, what happened in Orlando, what happened in Paris and Nice, was we saw an extremely effective and aggressive reaction from police, from doctors, from paramedics, from firefighters, and I think it’s important to remember that yes, bad things happen—but good things also happen. Let’s not be afraid or unwilling to talk about some of the good things.”

“I support police,” Berg continued. “And if a police officer does something wrong, I support that police officer being held accountable. But I think it’s important that we do acknowledge all the things they do that are not wrong. And I believe that’s part of this movie.”

“The wonderful thing about the film is the message,” Wahlberg chimed in. “Hope, love, people coming together. And that couldn’t be more timely.”

Unity is certainly a welcome message that might resonate more easily in these post-election times had Trump not gotten elected in part by inciting anti-immigrant panic. His proposed Muslim registry, an alarming notion to anyone who remembers the unjust internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is one Wahlberg flat-out calls “absurd”: “I have so many friends who are devout Muslims and wonderful, amazing people.”

The counterpoint to Patriots Day’s depiction of murderous radicalized Islam also comes off as its most pointed image—but it happened by complete chance, Berg revealed. While his crew was setting up a pre-marathon scene for another actor, the camera picked up footage of a Muslim family making their way into their shot. In the film it lasts only a few seconds, but it serves as a brief reminder that Boston is home to a vibrant Muslim community whose members are just as much a part of the fabric of the city as anyone else.

“That just happened,” Berg smiled. “I said, ‘Nobody will believe it!’ We didn’t even set it up. We were filming and I was looking through the monitor at the actor putting his son in that stroller, and I’m like, ‘Who did this? This is a little heavy-handed!’ She just walked right through the crew.” He paused. “It surprises me how in Boston there’s a gigantic Islamic center. It’s a beautiful mosque. I went there several times and talked to the people there. The fact that it’s there and there’s no security, and it’s wide open. I found it really fascinating that people are getting along—and that there’s respect.”

The insight Berg includes into the lives of the bombers, then, might offer audiences the chance to confront their preconceived notions of what a terrorist is. Patriots Day depicts the Tsarnaevs as normal-ish brothers and self-radicalized jihadis who watch instructional videos on the internet while going about their thoroughly Americanized lives. Elder Tamarlan (Themo Melikidze) wages a relatably mundane argument with his wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist, aka television’s all-American Supergirl), over milk.

Younger Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), a student at UMass Dartmouth, emerges as the film’s most intriguing cipher—a typical college kid obsessed with videogames and guns, held rapt under his brother’s extremist spell. Portraying that side of the bombers’ lives was essential, says Berg. “It was impossible to ignore it, because on 9/11 Mohamed Atta and his counterparts were Saudi extremists who snuck into the country and committed this act, died, and were never heard from again,” he said. “They were these mystery men who had no assimilation with our culture.”

“These brothers were deeply, deeply embedded,” he said. “Dzhokhar was in college. Tamerlan was a very talented boxer who was trying to get a spot on the U.S. Olympics boxing team. I did a pretty deep dive and talked to a lot of people who knew them well. I studied where they live, and their relationship, and Katherine Russell, Tamerlan’s wife, is a very enigmatic character. Many believed that she certainly had knowledge, if not more than that. I felt it appropriate to present some of the information.”

“People form their own conclusions about Katherine Russell,” he said. “I do think that so many of the members of the law enforcement community and victims and survivors who have seen the film want to know what the fuck these brothers were doing.”

Given the president-elect’s hostile policy proposals regarding Muslims and Muslim Americans, Berg weighed the future under Trump’s incoming administration.

“I think if there are more attacks committed by Muslims like 9/11 or Boston or San Bernardino, it’s going to be critical that there’s some restraint and some measure shown, by whoever it is,” he said. “It would have been the same if Clinton had been elected. We’re living in a tenuous time. I think it’s obvious that there are people out there who would love nothing more than to further destroy our relationships with anyone. Nobody knew who would be elected president. And nobody was more surprised, I think, than Donald Trump. God willing there are no more 9/11s for a long, long while. Because it would strain an already strained situation.”

Berg is clear to assert that Patriots Day is not intended to be an overtly political film. “We’re not out here making any kind of political statement at all—more of a social observation,” he said. “And the way Boston reacted, like many other cities, was extraordinary and really inspirational.”

Wahlberg admits that he stays mum when asked to address political issues in public. He cautioned against celebrities—himself included—interjecting their personal opinions into the national conversation. “Middle America doesn’t want to listen to what celebrities have to say,” he said, a little over a week after the election seemed to have proven him right. “People were going out there endorsing Hillary Clinton but just because I buy your CD doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to your political views. Just like just because I’m an actor doesn’t give me the right to jam my opinion down somebody’s throat. You have people out there having a hard time paying the rent or putting food on the table.”

Berg concurred, marveling that Trump withstood high-profile opposition from Bruce Springsteen, Jay Z, Beyoncé, and Robert De Niro in the final week before Election Night—and still won. Was Hollywood just stuck in its own bubble, unable to see what was really going on in the rest of America until Trump was declared the victor?

“I don’t feel like I am, but I feel like Hollywood is as a whole,” said Berg. “I think everybody was under the impression that this was never going to happen.”

“If you look at the last three films we’ve made,” he said, gesturing to Wahlberg, “we tend to go out in the world—and that’s not to say we go out into a Republican world, but we get out. We’ve been working in Louisiana, Texas, and Massachusetts, far from Hollywood.”

Making Patriots Day sent him into the real America, filming on location. The experience was “good for the soul,” Berg beamed. And when Trump triumphed over Clinton, he said, “I was not surprised at all.”