WHILE still in his 20s Mark Wahlberg announced he had his career plan all mapped out: get to 40, retire and spend the rest of his days on the golf course.
Now 41, Wahlberg has three movies in the pipeline and shows no sign of reaching the 18th hole. So what happened? “My golf game is bad,” he shrugs.
For all the ridicule he has taken in the past for being rapper Marky Mark and a Calvin Klein underwear model, Wahlberg has become one of Hollywood’s most powerful 40-somethings. He is also that rare thing: an actor who’s actually as tough as the roles he plays. He spent his teen years in and out of trouble, and eventually did time in jail. Now he heads up films and TV shows, and fronts campaigns to encourage juvenile delinquents back into education.
But just in case you think Wahlberg is in danger of becoming an entirely serious figurehead, he’s about to be seen in a new comedy where his best pal is a talking teddy bear who encourages him to smoke dope and bests him in fights by kicking the crap out of him. Ted may be the actor’s biggest screen leap to date, and when he first heard the concept he “wasn’t really that excited about it”, according to Wahlberg. “I said, ‘This is not for me.’”
Although he has done comedy before, most recently as a dense cop in The Other Guys and a permanently shirtless superspy in Date Night, he has never starred in one quite as broad as Ted. This is the first film by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, a notorious roughhouser when it comes to comedy, and also stars Mila Kunis. His best-known TV show is an adult cartoon series so raucous and profane that it’s shown post-watershed. “I had no idea,” admits Wahlberg, who was sent DVDs of the show in an attempt to persuade him to sign up for Ted. “I started watching it with my kids because I thought it was just cartoons. I was wrong, but we were all laughing – at least until my wife came through and screamed at me.”
If you’re looking for sweet, Spielbergian magic about a little boy who wishes his best friend could come alive, then Ted may not be for you either. The little boy grows up to be Wahlberg. The bear becomes a millstone; U-certificate cuddly on the outside but with 18-certificate tastes in women, drugs and other lifestyle choices.
Wahlberg’s four children, aged two to eight, have not seen any of his films to date, and they won’t be seeing Ted any time soon either. “Driving through LA, they see me and the bear on posters, laughing hysterically. They’re like, ‘Dad, it’s you and a teddy bear. Why can’t we see it?’ I’ve told them that the bear has a potty mouth.”
Wahlberg has quite an alpha male vibe. He’s competitive, he admits: on the golf course or basketball court, he plays to win. But he softens up talking about his family, and is especially wry about the power wielded by the women in his house.
When Ella, his eldest child, went through a Justin Bieber crush, he pulled some strings so she could meet him. It was the only time his job impressed one of his kids. “They haven’t seen any of my movies and they don’t care,” he says. “When I went to a daddy-daughter dance at school, my daughter pointed at a seat and she said, ‘Sit there and don’t embarrass me.’” He adores his two sons, he stresses, but it’s being the father of girls that has changed him. “Let’s put it this way: when we watched The Help, I must have cried seven or eight times during that movie. And my wife made fun of me.”
There was a time when no-one would have dared take the mickey out of Wahlberg, the youngest of his family. Growing up in Dorchester, a Boston borough with one of the city’s highest murder rates, he learned to stick up for himself early. In his teens, he stole cars, fought and clashed with cops. But even then, a future as an actor could be seen – although through a cracked lens.
The parish priest, Father Jim Flavin, witnessed one of Wahlberg’s bravura early performances, during one of his many appearances in court. “He was just pouring it on to the judge,” recalls Flavin, who remains close to the Wahlbergs to this day. “He said, ‘I’ll never do it again, I’m sorry.’ He was wonderful, and when he started tearing up the judge just melted and said, ‘All right, you know, this’ll be it.’ And then he turned around, looked at me and winked. And I said, ‘You little bugger. That was an Academy Award performance in the court room.’”
Wahlberg’s acting skills couldn’t keep him out of jail forever, though, and at 17 he spent two months in prison for various theft and assault charges. “At first I thought I was one of the guys, that I’d made it,” Wahlberg told me in a previous interview. “Then the reality of jail finally sank in. I realised this is what it meant to be one of the guys. And that I’d hurt people who didn’t deserve it; my life changed that day.”
After Wahlberg got out, he went to see Father Flavin, who encouraged him to make a fresh start. He rediscovered his Roman Catholic faith and now he’s one of Hollywood’s more devout figures, taking his family to mass weekly, though he grumbles that instead of hymn books he gets handed scripts during services. He also gets involved in inner-city youth projects, and recently took his kids on a tour of his old neighbourhood so they could see what he had left behind.
He is also back at school, completing his education online. “My kids don’t know I didn’t finish school,” he says. “I don’t want my kids saying, ‘Well, Dad, if you didn’t finish school why do I have to?’ And my daughter is eight, but when I look at her science I don’t know what it is. It could be in another language. It’s my biggest regret. Imagine what I could have done with a real education. I’d be running whatever studio I work for now.” So far, he says, he has had high scores in English, but his social sciences need some work.
Wahlberg’s background gave him street cred when he joined the music scene and enjoyed some success as a rapper. It also coloured his early film roles; he played a soldier in his film debut, the Danny Devito comedy Renaissance Man, and our earliest interview was for a film called Fear, in which he played Reese Witherspoon’s psychotic boyfriend. In fact, for most of his 1990s movies, he played the dude you don’t mess with. “Playing a vulnerable guy, or someone not so cool, used to be a concern for me,” he agrees. “I was a little too self-conscious. I loved playing a badass, and I wanted approval from my peers back home and respect from guys in general.
“But to be a good actor you’ve got to be able to be vulnerable and do all kinds of different things. I try to find something completely different to surprise audiences, to challenge myself.” He pauses. “But nothing too out there – you won’t see me doing any English period pieces.”
In the old days, Wahlberg conducted interviews with a swagger, although it wasn’t always easy to make out what he was saying: a combination of a thick Boston accent and a tendency to talk to his chest. Now the swagger has been replaced by real confidence. “I’m a married father of four, so I don’t give a sh*t about what anyone thinks,” he says, very matter of fact.
In person, he talks low and slow, with plenty of eye-contact. He has played a porn star in Boogie Nights, and been Oscar-nominated for The Departed and The Fighter but Wahlberg also has a shrewd business brain since turning his underwear modelling fame into exercise video sales (The Marky Mark Workout: Form, Focus, Fitness).
He has a property and construction portfolio and has just launched a line of nutritional supplements for the health-conscious that may rival Paul Newman’s salad dressings. But what has brought Wahlberg new respect is his series about Hollywood. As an executive producer, he developed Entourage in 2004, a TV show about a star actor who hires his boyhood friends to serve as his team. Since then he has produced more than a dozen film and TV titles, including Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, but Entourage was his first project and his most personal.
Wahlberg has an entourage of his own, a circle of friends who remind him of where he came from – and, sometimes, how far he has travelled. “Entourage was really the toned-down version of what my life used to be when I was young and crazy. When I met my wife, I was living with five or six of my friends in a small apartment, like my real entourage. And my wife was like, ‘Look, I love you and I like your friends, but if this is how you’re going to live it’s not going to work with us.’”
His pals found new homes but he remains loyal to them. When he starred in The Perfect Storm with George Clooney, the fishing tragedy brought him back home to Boston, and old friends from the neighbourhood visited the set to watch their boy at work. “They’re looking at the cameras and all the equipment and they’re like, ‘What’s one of those things worth?’ They were looking at one of those Panavision cameras, which was about $250k. Then they’re like, ‘My God, we’re going to steal this thing.’ So I said, ‘First of all, you can’t steal that off the movie. We need this thing to shoot. But second of all, where are you going to sell a Panavision camera? To George, at the corner store?’”
Wahlberg has no illusions about the movie business. He has seen careers crash and burn through hubris, poor choices or just bad luck. His bulwarks are a network of family and friends, and business options that mean he doesn’t have to depend on acting jobs for validation or a steady pay check. “I want to build a business where I can also be at home a lot more, spend a lot more time with my wife and children.”
However, acting is not done with Wahlberg: besides Ted, he has another two films upcoming – the crime drama Broken City, opposite Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and playing bodybuilder Daniel Lugo in Pain and Gain. He may not be the greatest actor in Hollywood, but he is careful to work with the best directors, including Scorsese, Tim Burton and Paul Thomas Anderson, who gave him his breakthrough role as the prodigiously gifted porn actor Dirk Diggler.
There’s also a longstanding joke that he and Matt Damon can swap careers as they fancy. Born and bred in working-class Boston a year apart, both have large families and a zeal for promoting education programmes. In films, Wahlberg replaced Damon when he dropped out of Planet of the Apes and in The Fighter. Then, when Wahlberg was too busy for the remake of Ocean’s 11, his friend Clooney gave his role to Damon. Even starspotters get them confused. “People come up to me and say, ‘Hey Matt – loved you in The Bourne Identity,’” admits Wahlberg.
“Or sometimes, they come up and say ‘Aren’t you Matt Damon?’ and I have to say, ‘No. I’m Brad Pitt.’”
• Ted is on general release from 1 August
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