The leader of the pack
YOU’VE SEEN the TV show Entourage, right? The one based on Mark Wahlberg’s wild hangers-on during his early Hollywood years? Well, Mark Wahlberg’s real-life entourage, a couple of guys wandering back to Dublin’s Merrion Hotel from a Claddagh ring souvenir shopping trip, are disappointingly unlike their fictional television equivalents.
Wahlberg, too, lately arrived in Dublin from Dubai, is more sedate than one might have supposed. Jetlagged and anxious to get home from a whistle-stop tour for new movie Contraband– “I just really, really want to get back to my family,” he says later – the actor and producer couldn’t be less rambunctious.
“You know what?” says the 40-year-old. “I never go anywhere unless I have to for work or I have to because my wife wants to take a vacation. I’d like to come back here and get a better look around but she always wants to go someplace warm.”
An earnest fellow who rarely breaks eye contact, Wahlberg has proved one of cinema’s most enduring dark horses. Nobody imagined, back in 1991, that the dropout from older brother Donnie’s New Kids on the Block, was going anywhere with rival hip-hop combo Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Then he scored a number-one single and a string of hits. His award-winning breakthrough performance as porn star Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights, in turn, was thought to be a fluke.
Marky Mark was fine for underwear commercials, modelling for Annie Leibovitz and workout videos ( The Marky Mark Workout: Form, Focus, Fitness, anyone?). But acting? Wahlberg, it transpired, was a very fine actor, capable of stealing films such as The Departedfrom right under the noses of better-known co-stars Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. He’s a charismatic lead. In common with golden era Bruce Willis there’s an intensely boyish vulnerability to Wahlberg’s potty-mouthed action men in The Perfect Storm, Four Brothers, The Fighterand Contraband.
The colourful profanities are often his own. He’s very creative with swearing. “Yes. Unfortunately. Very good at it.” He smiles sheepishly but he’s genuinely apologetic. A once-troubled teen hailing from Dorchester, a Boston borough with one of that city’s highest murder rates, as a minor Wahlberg served 45 days of a reduced sentence for attempted murder. He was arrested, by his count, on more than 20 other occasions before a parish priest talked him around.
“Growing up in Dorchester there was an Irish bar and a Catholic Church and next to that there was another Irish bar and another Irish church,” he recalls. “And the whole neighbourhood was like that. St Greg’s. St Mark’s. St Ambrose’s. St Margaret’s. St Mary’s. All on the same street. Some of them have closed down now but that was all I knew. I was always going to end up drifting into one of those places.”
Today, on his rider, there’s a box of sports water and directions to the nearest local church: Wahlberg attends Mass daily and even on tour he requires additional time for prayer. “This is just a job,” he says. “That and my family are my life.”
The last of nine children born into an outsized Boston Irish Catholic clan, it’s easy to picture Wahlberg as the tough, gabby little tyke at the bottom of the dog pile. “The runt of the litter,” he says. “And the others let me know it every day. That’s for sure.”
He retains a strong affection for how and where he grew up and has headed up a charity youth foundation there since 2001. “But it’s nice to be able to go back, too,” he says. “If you can’t maintain an integrity and respect for where you come from then what’s the point?”
Contrabandis a quintessentially Wahlbergian actioner, a shoot-em-up underscored with family values and a low body count that the makers of The A-Teammight envy. A remake of the 2008 Icelandic thriller Reykjavík-Rotterdam, the new film casts Wahlberg as a retired smuggler who gets back in the game for a final Panamanian score when drug-running hoodlums kidnap his family.
“That’s certainly something that appealed to me about it,” says Wahlberg. “I fell in love with the original film. I loved the cool heist and that the character was smart and tough and fundamentally decent.”
This is Wahlberg’s fourth picture as star and producer, following on from We Own the Nightand The Fighter. You’ll also find his name on the executive producer roll-call for Entourage, In Treatment, How to Make it in Americaand Boardwalk Empire.
“Producing is not only a way to take hold of my career but also to understand the business I’m in. I love producing. Whether I’m in it or not. But I particularly love producing the movies I’m in because I can retain creative control.”
So there’s a Wahlberg career master plan? “Oh yeah. The choices I make are very calculated,” he says. “They have to be. You got to choose carefully. Every once in a while luck factors in. But you can only be lucky so many times. It’s extremely difficult to make a good movie. You got to have great material. You have to have a great director and a great cast. But even then you have to get lucky with the execution.”
He works hard, too. As we meet he’s between the 10 meals a day he’s consuming for his role as a bodybuilder in bombast merchant Michael Bay’s long-cherished black comedy, Pain & Gain.He trained for four years for his award-winning turn as “Irish” Micky Ward in David O Russell’s tremendous sports movie, The Fighter. The film almost didn’t happen.
“It was great that The Fighterwas a contender for awards and it did pretty well considering what it cost and the competition out there but I was just thrilled to get it made,” says Wahlberg. “All along I thought it could be special but the financing and logistics just kept falling apart. And when that keeps happening you start to second guess your initial instincts about the story. For me getting it done and released was the biggest thing because it was so damn hard to do.”
A capable comic, Wahlberg will appear in this summer’s hotly anticipated Ted, the debut feature from Family Guycreator Seth McFarlane. He has also appeared in Date Nightalongside Steve Carell and Tina Fey and partnered Will Ferrell in The Other Guys. “I’ve always wanted to do comedy,” says Wahlberg. “But all the comedians I ever met were dark and weird. I couldn’t imagine being in a creative situation with any of those people. But Will’s comedy comes from a very nice, straightforward place: he just enjoys making people laugh. Even before he told me what the idea was I said I was in. And Seth is a really smart, really mellow and very charming guy.”
Was he familiar with the McFarlane oeuvre before? “Not at all. I knew about Family Guybut I hadn’t seen it. My agent sent me a copy of an episode with the script. And I figured ‘Oh, it’s a cartoon’ so I sat down with my daughter and son and watched it, three of us f***ing dying laughing when my wife walked into the room. She was pretty pissed.”
At home Wahlberg’s own brood – supermodel wife Rhea Durham and children Ella (9), Michael (6), Brendan (3) and Grace (2) – are not remotely impressed by what he does for a living: “They haven’t seen any of my movies and they don’t care,” he says. “I went to a daddy-daughter dance at school and she pointed at a seat and she said ‘sit there and don’t embarrass me’. That was my evening.”
Wahlberg, tongue firmly in cheek, describes his acting as “undercover method . . . If I’m playing a p***k I have a tendency to stay nice with the cast and crew. But I have my guys that travel with me. And I stay in character and beat the shit of them.” Ah yes. The entourage. What is the current population of the Wahlberg posse? “I usually have about three guys with me. When I shot TedI had eight guys. But that was shot in Boston so there weren’t any travel restrictions to work around.
“When I’m travelling I have different guys because some of the others can’t leave the country for legal reasons. Some of my other friends can’t get in the country.” He shrugs. “They’re all guys I grew up with. What can you do?”
Contraband opens on March 16th