Mark Wahlberg: The Boogie Man
Mark Wahlberg is a movie star. You don’t question that any more. Next week he’s going to be headlining another Transformers movie. Once upon a time, Wahlberg had to fight to be taken seriously as an actor. He was still seen as Marky Mark of the Funky Bunch, rapper and underwear model. Prior to Boogie Nights, Wahlberg had been making inroads towards respectability. But Boogie Nights changed all that. After his performance as Dirk Diggler, people started taking Wahlberg seriously. In this interview from the June 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, Wahlberg talked about his burgeoning movie career.
Here’s how one of Hollywood’s top casting directors describes Mark Wahlberg: “Where other kids come in all actory and full of poses, he’s real, raw, unguarded. Right away, he showed the ambition and the huevos to be a real screen presence.” Here’s how Paul Thomas Anderson, the hot young writer/director of Boogie Nights, a black comedy about the adult film industry in which Wahlberg’s huevos–and pretty much everything else–are in plain view, describes Wahlberg: “Forget the Marky Mark shit, forget the underwear shit, that’s boring and old. This is a fucking great, Sean Penn-type performance. Nothing against Leonardo DiCaprio, who was almost in this movie, but Mark is better than Leonardo would have been. It’s clear Mark will do anything in a movie. He’s not a movie star, because movie stars are usually embarrassed. He’s an actor. He’s going to get great scripts now. Great directors are going to want to work with him.”
I’m talking to the ex-rapper, ex-rude-boy-underwear-model over lunch on a terrace at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, and here’s how I’d describe Wahlberg: he’s a guy who’s been many things, and led many lives. He can look and sound from one moment to the next like an altar boy, a thug, a con artist, a sweetie pie, a babe in the woods, a soul-weary roue. Today he’s scrubbed, groomed and elegant in dark slacks and a crisp white shirt. But under the shirt you can still catch a glimpse of a tattoo in a rosary bead design. Bottom line is, on-screen and off, everything about Wahlberg smacks of what he’s been and done. That’s the linchpin of his strength, and he seems to know it. When everyone here defers to him as “Mr. Wahlberg,” he breaks out in an infectious “ain’t-life-grand?” grin.
In view of Wahlberg’s screen career to date, particularly the positive critical reception he got for The Basketball Diaries, I ask why he chose to do a movie from which it must have seemed he could easily emerge as the male Elizabeth Berkley, instead of the daring, serious actor he wants to prove himself to be. He says, so quietly I lean in to catch it all:
“When I read this script, I was like, ‘Either they’re going to make me the underwear-boy-embarrassment-most-pathetic-piece-of-shit-in-the-world, or this movie is going to be brilliant.‘ I wanted to be good in a good movie. I wanted to do something totally different, to prove to people that, in the right situation, I can act. I’ve gotta play different parts or I might as well just get on a TV show. This felt like a movie that the filmmakers were going to make because they felt it should be made. And why I love it so much is that I believe in it, too. Somebody could tell me it’s the worst thing in the world and I’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I don’t really care what anybody else thinks.”
Whatever people make of the movie, and reactions are likely to be all over the place, Wahlberg has indeed worked with some real-deal actors here, performers the director praises as “motherfuckers, scene-stealers.” They include Julianne Moore as a porno movie queen, Don Cheadle as a porno party-hopper, Burt Reynolds as a porno movie director and up-and-coming Heather Graham as a porno movie Lolita on roller skates. How was he treated? “I’ve had to win over the actors on every movie I’ve been on,” he tells me. “The better actors I’m starting to work with are definitely like, ‘What’s this kid doing here?’ That’s just the nature of the game. These people are very on-their-toes. But I grew up getting that look from people, that whole confrontation thing. Everyone on the film was really considerate of me, but they were always waiting to see why I got the part. Once that was out of the way, it was a really nice feeling to be accepted by people I respect so much. Some of them thought I was shy because I’m quiet. It wasn’t that. I was studying them, learning from them. I was paying attention.”
So, how did Wahlberg, who tells me he’s never studied acting and is wary of ever doing so, get ready for this? “I started smoking as much as possible,” he says wryly, firing up the first of what will be umpteen lights. “I wanted to change the way I looked, so I stopped eating, too. I lost 40 pounds. When my mother came from back East to see me she thought I was, like, on my deathbed. I go, ‘Maaa, it’s a movie, you know?'”
In addition to getting a realistic wasted look going, Wahlberg visited the set of an adult film to pick up the vibe and details. “You know what? I just wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as I could. I still believe sex is a very private thing. But in the 70s, sex was the most open thing–everybody was having sex with everybody. The whole idea of people trying to make real movies but having sex in them–sex being what everybody was thinking about–was something that interested me.”
Sex being to him a private thing, did he experience any qualms about having a film crew watch him and Julianne Moore hump and grind skin-to-skin? “I saw Julianne as I would have seen my sister, just the warmest, nicest person in the world. It was not a problem clinging to her. The weird thing was the couple of scenes where we had to portray intimacy–it was awkward. But everybody was just so professional, it was a relief.”
How about the bit in which Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a sweet, unctuous hanger-on in the skin trade, plants a drunken kiss on Wahlberg? “I would kiss Phil Hoffman any day of the week, any day,” Wahlberg smiles. And the bit in an early cut of the movie where his own character whips out his jaw-dropping love gun for all the world to see? Anticipating the question, Wahlberg makes it clear that the gun in question belongs only to his character. “Dirk Diggler is a very well-endowed young man,” he says dryly. “And the thing about me,” he continues, “is, well, people have seen me in my underwear before. I would imagine it would be pretty difficult to hide something like that.” True, but won’t folks who consider him a sex icon be disappointed that he was prosthetically enhanced? “I have hopes that I will meet, or I may have already met, in fact I may already be in love with, the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. So I don’t have to worry about people being disappointed.”
He adds, grinning, “Now, I may get followed to the bathroom a couple of times, sure.”
So did anything rattle Wahlberg on this picture? “There was some quirky porn stuff I just couldn’t do and the director was, like, ‘Come on, man, this is the best stuff,’ and I’m like, ‘I just can’t, man.’ Coming out wearing nothing but Speedos and cowboy boots was kind of hard. But then it got so I started walking around the streets like that, I was just so into it by that time. It was my ass, literally, so I thought, why not just go for it? This isn’t your regular feel-good movie. There’s no play for sympathy here like The People vs. Larry Flynt. At the end of the day, though, I had to admit to myself, ‘Being out there like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy is a bag you’re going to carry for a long, long time.'”
OK. Time to backtrack a little and let movie talk wait a while. Did I hear Wahlberg, Internet pinup icon and once the object of screaming-girl-fan attention, actually admit he’s seeing someone seriously? Is his love-of-a-lifetime in the entertainment business?
Wildly shaking his head in the negative, he explains, “I don’t think there’s too many people in the business interested in getting to know anybody. Everybody has their own agenda. I want someone who wants the same thing I do: a strong, family-oriented lifestyle.” And what about his gay following, some of whom have, alternately, claimed him as well as accused him in the past of making homophobic remarks and appearing with anti-gay lyricspouting rapper Shabba Ranks? Is he once and for all saying he could never be gay?
“I love women,” he says, grinning broadly. “Looove them. They can control my every thought and action. I mean, never say no. I wake up feeling differently every day about different things, but I’ve never been attracted to men in that way. The only guys I’ve ever kissed were my brother and, like we said, Phil Hoffman in Boogie Nights. But I’d kiss Phil again anytime because he felt like a brother to me.’
Since Wahlberg often mentions religion and God in interviews, how does he reconcile doing Boogie Nights with his spiritual beliefs? “Well, I was raised Catholic, so I’m guilty about everything. I just hope God’s a movie fan and he realizes, like my family does, that I wasn’t a little naked–Dirk Diggler was a little bit naked.
“See, most movies I was offered were always, take off the shirt, run around, beat up the guy, get the girl, get killed. Everybody is so brainwashed with all these big high-tech, plane, train, bus, car, action movies that are ridiculous because so few people make the good ones. If I’m going to try to be an actor, I gotta act. At least in this movie, I don’t go to fuckin’ space running around with Martians and shit.”
Hmmm. This couldn’t be some veiled reference to the talk I’d heard about his maybe doing Paul Verhoeven’s man-vs.-bugs sci-fi epic Starship Troopers? Wahlberg confirms the rumor that he spoke with Verhoeven, but explains, “I can’t look at a blue screen and say, you know, “These bugs are gonna fuckin’ kill us, man!'”
With that, he mimes the expression and stance of a dozen bad young actors we could name. “Maybe down the line when I start getting a little bit more mechanical, it probably wouldn’t be as hard because by then I probably wouldn’t give a shit. But I don’t want to get to that point. I just have to be patient, go up for things I’m right for and hope for the opportunity to be in a good movie.”
But blue screen or not, he did want the Boy Wonder role in Batman Forever that Chris O’Donnell got, didn’t he? “Something in the back of my mind told me, ‘If this movie is a commercial success, you’d still have the opportunity to go and do good movies.’ But I’d only done one movie before and I didn’t feel bad about not doing Batman Forever.” Did he feel bad about not getting to work with John Travolta in John Woo’s Face/Off? “John Woo and I had a good meeting. [But] I had to say, ‘I’d like to do a movie with you like The Killer. Why aren’t you doing a script that good?'”
One reason Wahlberg’s gotten so far in movies is that the camera rarely fakes him out. He radiates urban authenticity. “I’m definitely as honest as possible,” he asserts. “I just try to be natural. If you begin rehearsing, you’re not even starting out really listening to other people’s lines and stuff. It’s like Jimmy Cagney. See, all I watch is old movies and I could sit and watch Jimmy Cagney forever. He could be the toughest guy in the world, then he would sing and dance in another movie and get away with it. Cagney changed a lot of my ideas because, when I first came into the movie world, I didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t close to home, wasn’t real, wasn’t street.
“I made a really nice, small movie about gypsies with Bill Paxton called Traveller,” Wahlberg continues. “Bill said something about his whole approach that hit me, which was that if he got the opportunity to audition for the part, he’d go up for it; if he got the part, he would just learn his lines and play it. Simple.”
How would he rate the work he’s done so far? He shrugs his shoulders and, by way of explanation, brings up Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt. “Her approach was very simple, straightforward, but I couldn’t understand the overwhelming excitement about it. But, hey, she pulled the unexpected, wowing a lot of people in this town. People expect you to just suck so bad, if you do anything that’s halfway decent, they think you’re amazing.”
What about his less-than-amazing 1993 debut in the made-for-cable picture The Substitute? “Somebody busted me for it yesterday, saying, ‘I saw some movie where your throat gets sliced by a bottle.’ I said, ‘Wasn’t me. That was Marky Mark, OK?’ It was a big money offer of two days’ work on a script I didn’t even read. I said the lines like I was onstage at one of my concerts, only wearing other funny clothes. When I was leaving, the director told me, ‘You’re going to win an award for this.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah? Thank you very much. I appreciate it.'”
Can he defend 1994’s Renaissance Man? “I just wanted to meet Penny Marshall and Danny DeVito–I grew up in love with those two–I didn’t want to be in the movie. By the time I walked out of the meeting, I wanted to try to be in their movie. Then I read the script, which I should have done beforehand. I literally owe Penny everything and I love her. She deserves some major butt-smooching. Renaissance Man gave me the acting bug.”
Wahlberg fed that bug by working with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, and many people believe he was better in that film than DiCaprio. He deems the whole project “a hectic experience” that began with less-than-perfect bonding between the costars, but ended well. “We both went into it with a chip on our shoulder,” he admits.
“Being, to a certain extent, from the world [author] Jim Carroll describes in his book [from which the film was adapted] gave me the position to say, ‘Hold on. Why is this guy doing this? He’s from Hollywood.’ And, him being a great actor, with lots of experience, and the star of the movie, he was like, ‘Hold on. We don’t want this rapper/underwear model fucking up our beautiful art movie from this classic book.’ We both got over it and got along well. I’ve been on movies where there’s this fake, ‘I love you,’ then you see somebody later and they don’t even want to look at you. It just wasn’t like that here–it was genuine, and it’s still like that today.”
I tell Wahlberg I’m stumped by Fear, his 1996 follow-up to The Basketball Diaries. Why play the lead in yet another grade-B, younger Fatal Attraction, even if, as rumored, he got to contribute to the shaping of the project? “I thought [director] Jamie Foley did an amazing job on Glengarry Glen Ross, and, what was the title of that other movie that was great–?” At Close Range, I offer. “Yeah, exactly, and we were really gonna try to do it in a way it hadn’t been done before. The opportunity of working with Jamie was huge at that stage of the game.”
And what was his contribution to the story overall? “The original idea was about a crew of guys like the Spur Posse who were doing all this messed-up shit. But I thought they were a little bit pathetic and not interesting enough. After three movies, I wasn’t a master filmmaker or anything, but there were just certain things I could relate to a little bit more than Jamie could, and obviously there were a lot of things that he knew a lot more about.”
Wahlberg strikes me as one of the straighter-talking guys I’ve met in some time, which is a neat trick for someone who’s pretty much grown up in public. Where would he say his head is these days? “I think I’m pretty fortunate to be who I am inside,” he asserts. “I’m at a stage where I’m letting it all out. It’s the first time I’ve ever been able to talk about personal feelings, to be honest in personal relationships, to say how I feel without hiding it, without acting cool or like I don’t care. I’m just growing up.” Staring off for a few moments into the middle distance, he continues. “I used to feel like the cops were watching me all the time.”
For a while they probably were. As a teen growing up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, Wahlberg got into scrapes for car theft, rolling drunks, stealing cash boxes from liquor stores, small-time drug dealing and hurling racial epithets. At one point, he served 45 days of jail time. “When you’re always watching over your shoulder,” Wahlberg continues, “you have that feeling of not being relaxed or comfortable, you know? Of having to watch what you say? It was just becoming such a burden, making me so miserable, I had to let it all out. I talked to certain people I felt I could talk to. And God, when I did, it felt pretty good.”
Wahlberg recalls his Christmas visit home last year, when he played Santa to three sisters, five brothers, a retired teamster father, and a mother who’d worked two jobs to help support the family. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t just sign my name in the cards,” he says, almost in a whisper. “I wrote what I felt. Maybe they just didn’t expect it from me, and didn’t really read it, but no one said anything.” Here Wahlberg seems almost about to weep.
“They respect and understand what I’m doing to a certain extent,” he says hoarsely. “They know where I’d be if I’d stayed. Because of the family I have, and because of my strong belief in God, I’d [probably] be doing the right thing now. But if I’d gotten unlucky, I could have easily been like any of my friends, doing life in prison or having huge numbers of kids they don’t take care of. Writing those Christmas cards and thinking of all that, of my family, and my nephews and how I hadn’t been home in eight months was very emotional for me. I just poured it all out into these cards. I should have said it, not written it, but I didn’t want to upset anybody.”
One of the strongest incentives for Wahlberg’s emotional coming-out seems to be his deepening relationship with his father. “He’s had a couple of strokes, so he’s not in the best of health,” Wahlberg tells me. “Every time I see him, with his family, his grandchildren, he’s the happiest guy in the world and the saddest at the same time. My dad never cried. Now he cries all the time. He took me to my first movies, and we still watch Cagney movies together. He said, ‘Kid, you made it. You’re in the pictures. I always told you you should be in the pictures.’ I told him, ‘Dad, you’re in the pictures, too. I’m you.'”
Before we’d met today, Wahlberg had already taken a meeting about his next movie possibilities, and he’s got another lined up for still later in the afternoon. All part of the Wahlberg master plan to leave his notorious former persona behind. “Marky Mark was made into something false and became a character these record company people were selling randomly,” he observes. “I was the biggest thing that ever happened to them, and as soon as someone made a decision against what we wanted to do, it all fell apart. Anyway, the whole rap world is at a really negative place now, convincing middle America that these guys are out killing people and admitting it on record. I don’t take what they say seriously, but other people obviously do. I listen to Tupac, mesmerized by the way he wrote his own fate, in a way. When he got shot, it seemed so fake and scripted, like, ‘OK, this is the ultimate marketing scheme.’ When he died, I was devastated.”
As Marky becomes a distant memory, how would Wahlberg like to see the future unfold? “After Boogie Nights, it’s hard for me to watch anything or want to commit to anything that isn’t really wild. I’d really love to work with Martin Scorsese. Those are the movies that I really love. Marty, better give me a call soon. The thing with me is, though, I’m not out to prove anything to anybody other than myself. I’ve had a huge amount of success and I’d like to make wonderful movies for the rest of my life. If not, hey, growing up where I came from, I’ve done more than I ever thought I would have accomplished.”
Stephen Rebello interviewed Nastassja Kinski for the April issue of Movieline.