An evolved actor

Last Updated 31 July 2010, 12:18 IST

Smack in the middle of Mark Wahlberg’s cavernous home gym in California in the US amid the racks of weights and rows of cardio equipment, is the emblem of a career-long ambition: a regulation-size boxing ring. For as long as he has been a movie star, Wahlberg, 38, has wanted to play a boxer. He has come close a few times. He had the lead role in a never-made biopic of the middleweight champion Vinnie Curto and was briefly attached to The Black Dahlia, the mystery noir whose hero is an ex-pugilist.

Wahlberg now finally has a boxing movie almost in the can, and the bonus is that it’s an especially personal one. The Fighter, of which he is also a producer, tells the life story of a boxer Micky Ward, one of his childhood heroes.

Wahlberg has been training for The Fighter for more than three years. The morning we met, he had already completed a four-hour workout that started at 6:30 am. Wahlberg said it was important for him to show “the most realistic boxing ever in a film,” which meant sparring with real fighters. The general idea: “Let’s try not to kill each other, but definitely get in there and take some shots.”

Innate talent for acting

The demands on his body have only intensified as the shoot has wound to a close. He gained nearly 30 pounds for a handful of scenes filmed in March that show a retired, out-of-shape Ward. When feedback from a rough-cut screening suggested a few more close-ups for the climactic fight, Wahlberg had to lose that extra weight quickly — hence a stepped-up training regimen and a strict low-carb diet. But he’s not complaining. “I don’t mind working hard,” he said. “Look how fortunate I’ve been with my hard work.”
As Wahlberg would be the first to admit, he now has an acting and producing career that few could have foreseen back in the mid-90s when the rapper, teen
idol and underwear model known as Marky Mark decided to reinvent himself in Hollywood. “I feel like I’ve snuck in the back door,” he said.

Wahlberg is the rare actor who’s at ease in both maximalist and minimalist modes. He can be compelling while acting up a storm (a hotheaded detective spewing salty tirades in The Departed, a conscience-stricken firefighter ranting against petro-capitalism in Huckabees) or when seeming to do very little (the most famous scene in Boogie Nights, in which a drug deal messily unravels, peaks with a nearly minute-long close-up of his dumbfounded expression).

In either case his great gift as an actor is his straight face. He wears it not as a mask of deadpan irony but as a mark of deep sincerity, which can be a source of comedy or pathos, sometimes both at once. He doesn’t often get to stretch, and he has played more than his share of cops and criminals (“I’m still waiting for a call for an English period piece,” he said). But he is almost without fail the most convincing thing about any movie he’s in.

His willingness to plunge in body and soul serves Wahlberg in ambitious, demanding films — Russell’s madcap farces, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, the near Greek-tragic family dramas of the writer-director James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night). And it helps even when the movies are middling or worse. His faith in the material elevates the sports-underdog clichés of Invincible, grounds the doomsday horror of The Happening and cuts through the new-age mysticism of The Lovely Bones.

In Wahlberg’s early roles, the flexed pectorals and come-hither scowls of Marky Mark still imprinted in the pop-culture consciousness, he went through the bad-boy motions, playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s hoodlum sidekick in The Basketball Diaries and Reese Witherspoon’s seducer-stalker in Fear. Then came Boogie Nights, in which his wide-eyed busboy finds a calling and a community after assuming the nom de porn Dirk Diggler. Wahlberg went into the film with some trepidation, he said, worried about what “the guys in the neighbourhood” would think. But playing someone as guileless as Dirk was liberating.

“It was nice to be that guy, because for a long time I had my guard up,” he said. “I had to be this guy who was perceived as tough, and if you’re not that guy, then you’re the victim.” Wahlberg has not shied from roles that echo his troubled past. Gray said that for The Yards, he had asked Wahlberg to play the smooth operator Willie (a role that eventually went to Joaquin Phoenix), but Wahlberg wanted the less showy part of Willie’s childhood friend Leo, an ex-convict. “He knew the fear and the insecurity and the desire for redemption,” Gray said in an e-mail message, adding that Wahlberg’s best work “always reflects a life that is lived.”

“Sometimes I think he’s an actor slightly out of his time,” Gray continued. “He feels to me like our answer to John Garfield.” Garfield, a vivid tough guy who played boxers more than once, was among the actors Wahlberg watched as a kid with his father.

Wahlberg recalled that when Fear was reviewed in The New York Times, he was compared to Garfield and Robert Ryan. (“I knew who those guys were,” he said proudly.) While he was always drawn to old-Hollywood actors with a “blue-collar, regular-guy quality to them” (a poster of the James Cagney classic Angels With Dirty Faces hangs in his kitchen), he never thought of acting until the director Penny Marshall offered him a small part in the 1994 comedy Renaissance Man.

“For a long time I’d been acting in my life anyway, whether conning my way into something or out of something,” he said. “I was always a fairly good salesman, and a fairly bad liar, so if I believed it, I could do a good job of convincing somebody else.” Wahlberg has long been candid about his teenage delinquency. He set up a youth foundation in 2001, and he talks about being a role model for kids from similar backgrounds “who can be creative and artistic and be considered cool,” he said.

Wahlberg’s career continues to flourish, but no amount of success — not even the Oscar nomination he received for The Departed (best supporting actor) — has made him feel fully at home in the industry. His work ethic is bound up with the sense that he still has something to prove. “I appreciate every opportunity I’ve been given,” he said. “I want to show up early. I want to be the most prepared.”

The New York Times

(Published 31 July 2010, 12:18 IST)

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