At first glance, Mark Wahlberg’s hotel room could be the police office at the end of The Usual Suspects; only, instead of clues unravelling the tale of Keyser Söze, they’re unravelling the career of Wahlberg.
A giant television is showing vintage Mike Tyson bouts: The Fighter. Two of his pals are hanging out, eating free food: Entourage. There’s even a bunch of grapes (possibly funky) on the table.
Luckily for Wahlberg, the theory runs out of steam before getting to his new film, Contraband. He’s stirred up enough controversy lately without being caught in possession of some dodgy duty-free. But more of that later.
Contraband — a remake of Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam — sees Wahlberg as a smuggler-gone-straight blackmailed into that film staple, one last job; in this case, shipping counterfeit dollars from Panama to New Orleans to save his brother-in-law from some disgruntled gangsters. It’s gritty, low on gimmicks and action-packed; the kind of film Wahlberg looks happiest doing. Well, looks happy is pushing it — he’s not known for smiling much — but it seems like he enjoyed it.
“I like playing a part where I get to go off,” he says, “whether it be physically or verbally. Preferably both. My past helps me identify with these characters and play those parts in a more believable way, but you can turn it on and off. Henry, do I ever get a little crazy? A little violent?”
Henry, one half of the entourage, is sat quietly at the edge of the room working on a laptop.
“No, not violent,” says Henry. “Just kinda bipolar.”
“Come on,” says Wahlberg. “This is your chance to tell on me.”
“Er, he’s nice in the morning and very kind in the afternoon.”
“Then it’s crazy all night,” jokes Wahlberg.
“In the evening it just all comes out,” agrees Henry.
“All right, thank you, that’s enough. Get back to your laptop, you f*cker.”
BIGMOUTH STRIKES AGAIN
It’s the kind of exchange that does Wahlberg’s image few favours. He’s been positioned — by more than one publication — as a brawling Boston hardman with a tendency to shoot his mouth off. The truth is, there is no “crazy all night” — he’s in bed by 9pm — but his tongue is shoved so far into his cheek that, serious or not, he tends to be taken at face value.
This most recently got him in bother when, in February’s edition of US magazine Men’s Journal, he claimed that the first plane to hit the World Trade Centre “wouldn’t have went down like it did” had he been on board. Wahlberg humbly apologised, but only he, the journalist and possibly Henry will know if it was for ill-advised bravado or ill-advised humour. It’d be tempting to suggest the latter.
He may not be known for smiling much, but after nearly every dig or controversial statement, something appears: a little grin. It’s there as he finishes his exchange with Henry and it keeps on coming.
How upset were you when The Fighter failed to win last year’s Best Film Oscar? “I thought we had the best film. Who gives a f*ck about The King’s Speech? F*cking English movie.”
The conversation moves on to stunts, and the trend for actors to throw themselves into mortally dangerous situations: “I think all the stunt talk is because of Mission: Impossible and Tom Cruise. I’ll do it, but I don’t want to go on Letterman and talk about how badass I am just because I jumped out of a window with a harness on.”
And there it is again. That grin.
THE TURNING POINT
Wahlberg’s mouth may get him in trouble these days, but at least he doesn’t employ other body parts. This wasn’t always the case, as shown by a teenage rap sheet that included a prison term for assault during a robbery. In fact, this penchant for a punch-up, fresh from his Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch fame (where he received more criminal records), almost nipped his film career in the bud by endangering his first notable film role in 1994’s Renaissance Man.
“I almost didn’t get the part,” he says. “I got into a fight at a party in LA with three guys and broke a guy’s nose. It was a few of Madonna’s people, so she called the f*cking cops on me. Told everybody this bullsh*t story that I was doing sh*t that I wasn’t. Penny [Marshall, the producer] called me saying, ‘What the f*ck did you do?’, but then she was like, ‘F*ck that, I’m giving you the part anyway.’
“After that experience, I was on set every day. I wanted to know who was who and what they were doing. I became fascinated by it. I started shooting short films and making home movies. Then I did The Basketball Diaries. I felt like I’d found my niche. This was what I was meant to be doing.”
The rest is history. Wahlberg’s career has followed a steady incline, albeit with the odd hiccup (“The Truth About Charlie was f*cking awful”). He’s notched up Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated performances in The Departed and The Fighter, while Contraband joins The Fighter, Entourage and Boardwalk Empire on his list of production credits.He’s even learned to play on his reputation.
Roles in Date Night and The Other Guys riffed off his intense image and, when comedian Andy Samberg impersonated him on Saturday Night Live, Wahlberg decided to have a little fun with him.
“I just didn’t think it was funny,” he says, without a hint of a smile. “Saturday Night Live just isn’t that funny any more. But then a friend asked me to play upset. So, I went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and I said ‘When I see that motherf*cker, I’m gonna crack that big f*cking nose of his. I’m gonna go there and crack his f*cking nose.’ They didn’t know if I was serious.”
Wahlberg did go to SNL, but only to parody himself by doing an impression of Samberg’s impression. It’s how the grown-up Wahlberg rolls. At 40, not only is he ashamed of his past behaviour, he also prevents children becoming little Mark Wahlbergs through youth projects. He’s devoutly Catholic, a fiercely protective father and media mogul. And his social life seems less brawling, more bawling.
“I’m an emotional guy,” he says. “I went and saw The Help with my wife and I must have cried 10 times. Watching Real Steel with my sons got me. When the kid turned to his father and said, ‘I just wanted you to fight for me’ and the father’s neglecting the kid, I looked at my son and I said, ‘Would Daddy fight for you?’ and he turned to me and said, ‘Yes.’ You know?”
Mark Wahlberg emotional during a film about fighting robots? Really? Looking closely, he doesn’t grin.
Contraband is at cinemas nationwide from 16 March
(Image: All Star)