“Mark’s usually right on time, so he should be here any minute,” the server at the Polo Lounge says with a song in her voice. She’s grinning as she clears the extra place settings from the back corner table that is, or so it seems, Mark Wahlberg’s favored lunch spot on the patio at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Another server arrives to pour ice water. “Mark’s back,” the first waiter coos to her. “Oh, Mark,” the second waiter sighs back. “He’s such a great guy. We love, love Mark.”
Alrighty, then! As if the Oscar-nominated actor, producer and former underwear-flashing rapper known as Marky Mark needed any help pumping up his mojo. In the last five months alone, Wahlberg has starred in a hit comedy, The Other Guys, and is about to release The Fighter—which is just the sort of gritty underdog boxing drama Oscar voters love. As a producer, he’s got Entourage—inspired by his once high-flying Hollywood lifestyle—which just wrapped season eight, as well as two new HBO shows: a fashion comedy, How to Make It in America, and the Atlantic City mob drama Boardwalk Empire. Even his Twitter feed (written mostly by his assistant, “E”) packs a punch: Golfing with Wayne Gretzky at Pebble Beach. Racing Indy cars with the Andrettis. Getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
By the time Wahlberg, 39, shows for lunch you half-expect the star of films like Boogie Nights and The Departed (his Oscar-nodded role) to arrive on one of those canopied carrying chairs amid trumpet blares and floating rose petals.
Instead, you get someone you have to lean in to hear. “I’m really sorry,” Wahlberg says softly, sliding into the booth. His handshake is warm and his manner friendly, but he’s clearly preoccupied. “My daughter was freaking out,” he says, referring to Ella, seven, the eldest of his four children with wife Rhea, a model. The family lives nearby in a Mediterranean-style estate that’s not unlike Vincent Chase’s place in Entourage. Wahlberg continues: “Ella was watching the news and heard something about Justin Bieber kissing a girl and she got really upset. She said, ‘Daddy, I’m taking down those pictures on my wall.’” He now looks genuinely distressed. “So I’m trying to track down Justin so Ella can meet him.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Wahlberg himself was breaking the hearts of preteen girls. Yet somehow, somewhere, the Boston tough who once did jail time for assault and later rapped about making “your behind move to what I’m inclined to” has evolved into a kindhearted, waitress-pleasing, Bieber-chasing softy. Dressed down in a faded blue T-shirt and cargo pants (“My wife looks at me sometimes and says, ‘You realize fashions have improved since the 1980s, right?’”), he doesn’t have a trace of flashiness. “Not everybody has the life I have and I realize that; I appreciate that,” he says. Asked what he’s reading these days, Wahlberg says: “Thomas the Tank Engine.” And his tone is refreshingly free of snark or irony. If he ever had a Boston accent, it’s gone now. He’s even having his tattoos removed. (“I just don’t want my kids to think tattoos are cool.”) And check out his lunch: a lonely turkey burger on two pathetic leaves of lettuce. “I like good, clean, healthy food,” he says.
Good, clean, healthy food.
If it’s true that human beings basically don’t change—especially Hollywood types whose grandiosity and narcissism are often inflated by the worshipful minions on their payroll—is it possible that Wahlberg has actually come around? And if so, how? To chart his course from trou-dropping homeboy to Mr. Nice Guy, it’s worth returning briefly to the bad-old days.
The ninth of nine kids born in the hard-edged Dorchester area of Boston to Donald Wahlberg, a teamster truck driver of Swedish-German descent, and his Irish sweetheart, Alma Donnelly, Wahlberg grew up scrappy and was done with school by age 14. He has said his older brothers taught him to get high at age 10, and by 15, Wahlberg had an impressive cocaine habit. “The shit I saw,” he says now. “I can’t believe I’m alive sometimes.”
In 1988, when he was 16, Wahlberg was arrested for brutally assaulting a man while high on PCP. He later pleaded guilty and served 45 days of a two-year sentence at Boston’s Deer Island House of Correction. Looking back on it, prison may have turned his life around. He did a lot of soul-searching and found solace in the weight room. “It was a horrible time being in jail,” he says. “But it made me realize I didn’t have to be a f*ck-up anymore, because I didn’t want to be one. I got out and thought, ‘OK, maybe I still have a chance.’”
At the time, Mark’s older brother, Donnie, currently an actor (Band of Brothers, Blue Bloods), was making his name with a group of baggy-pants-wearing white-boy rappers called New Kids on the Block. They had started singing on the streets but suddenly they were huge. Mark had been in and out of the group, but now, with a bad-boy backstory and a rock-hard bod to match, he was a promoter’s dream. With Donnie’s help, they dreamed up a new band to tour with New Kids. They called themselves Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. By the summer of 1991, the group’s first album, Music for the People, went platinum with singles like “Good Vibrations” and “Wildside.”
“It was an amazing run and I had a great time even when I was showing up late for shows or dropping my pants,” he says. The latter move was not lost on Calvin Klein, who cast Wahlberg in an ad campaign that was as much about selling boxer briefs as it was about the virtues of exercising one’s abs.
Wahlberg soon started getting offers for movies, but they weren’t exactly Raging Bull. “They wanted me to play the white rapper in Sister Act 2, the bad guy in the Rollerblade, roller-hockey movie,” he says, rolling his eyes. It wasn’t until Penny Marshall and Danny DeVito invited him to L.A. for a screen test that he seriously considered acting—even if Hollywood wasn’t ready to take his acting seriously. “Coming up the way I did, I was the guy who was always told, ‘Ehh, I don’t think so. I can’t see it.’”
After being cast opposite DeVito in the 1994 comedy Renaissance Man, he landed a scene-stealing role in The Basketball Diaries and eventually scored the career-making part of porn star Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. That role, he says, “was the first time I played someone vulnerable, who shows real emotions. I remember being worried, ‘What are the guys in the neighborhood gonna think?’”
Those fastidious Polo Lounge servers are back to ask if Wahlberg needs more water or iced tea or perhaps grapes fed to him by sacrificial virgins. He smiles, which they receive like sunshine after a rainstorm, and as they head off again the subject turns to boxing, his present-day preoccupation.
The Fighter took Wahlberg five years to make and is a project he has been juggling with a slate of others to come, including a Cold War spy drama he’s producing for HBO with New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. Wahlberg’s producing experience goes back as far as his days with the Funky Bunch, but it was the success of Entourage (and the suggestion that the show mirrored Wahlberg’s life, something he says is less true now than it used to be) that anointed him as a guy to do business with.
“I don’t know anyone with more of a no-bullshit, let’s-get-it-done-right-no-matter-what attitude than Mark,” says The Fighter’s director, David O. Russell, who also directed him in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. “He’s a hard guy to keep up with.” The Fighter is based on the true stories of Lowell, Massachusetts, boxers Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and his older half-brother Dickey (Christian Bale) and the obstacles that hindered their success in the ring (for Dickey it was crack cocaine; for Micky it was Dickey).
The challenge for Wahlberg was keeping the eye of the tiger even as financing and casting troubles on the tightly budgeted film stalled the start of production. “All those years, Wahlberg had to stay in prizefighter shape in case shooting was a go,” Russell says. As Wahlberg puts it: “I didn’t want to look like an actor playing a boxer. I wanted to look like a boxer who could win the welterweight championship.” That meant flying trainers with him wherever he went, and often waking up three hours early to hit the gym. “The motherf*cker has his own boxing ring at home,” Bale says. “I showed up and I thought, this guy’s gonna beat the crap out of me.”
Bale had little reason to fear. Raised Catholic, Wahlberg has spoken for years about the guiding counsel of his Christian faith and of Father Flavin, the lifelong parish priest who helped keep him on the straight and narrow. He took his wife to church on their first date after they met through a friend.
In recent years, with children to raise and fame and fortune to make sense of, Wahlberg has increased his commitment to the point where he now attends church almost every morning. There wasn’t one epiphany moment when the clouds parted, Wahlberg says. It was more of a gradual recognition that “success means nothing without a sense of deeper meaning” in life.
“I don’t pray to God to give me a movie or a better house,” he says. “I pray to be a better person. I ask for strength to be able to forgive, to love, to not hold any animosity, to retain a sense of gratitude. I pray I’m living the best life possible.” Wahlberg catches the waitresses peeking at him from their station and his smile meets their smiles, and everyone’s happy. “You know,” he says, “I just want to make sure I’m doing right by my fellow human being.”