Every so often Mark Wahlberg leaves his home in the ridgeline above Beverly Hills, cruises down Benedict Canyon Drive across Sunset to where it turns into North Rodeo Drive, hooks a right onto Brighton Way, pivots right again onto North Roxbury Drive, parks, and goes inside a medical office building to correct some mistakes he made 25 years ago. It's the stupid tattoos. The stupid tattoos have to go. All of them. The big one of Bob Marley on his left shoulder looking half spliffed out. The one on his right shoulder with his family name, his parents' initials, his own initials, and his date of birth, 6-5-71, all of it loud and proud. The rosary-beads one that circles around his neck and runs down to his sternum, ending with the words IN GOD I TRUST. And, finally, the one on his leg, of Sylvester the Cat making succotash of Tweety Bird, which he got 23 years ago, when he was 17, to cover up the gang tattoo he gave himself when he was 12. Going, going, someday, hopefully, gone.
Right now, sitting in the guesthouse on his deluxe $14 million hilltop property (full gym with regulation-size boxing ring, pool, waterfalls, grotto, basketball court, putting green), Wahlberg rubs Bob Marley's faded remains and says with considerable exasperation, "Doctor told me five to seven visits. Yeah, well, over the last three years, I've been to him over 30 times. Hurts, too. Hurts 10 times worse than getting them done." He likens the pain to getting doused with hot grease. He says he usually comes out of the doctor's office looking like a mummy, bandaged up from having all the tattoos worked on at once. He says he has taken his two oldest kids – he's got four: Ella, eight, Michael, five, Brendan, three, and Grace, two, with wife Rhea – to see him get burned by the laser, as a lesson. Don't be stupid like your dad once was. Learn from his mistakes.
The tattoos were, of course, the least of the mistakes Wahlberg made as a vicious, run-amok kid growing up in southern Boston. The others were more serious, more deeply criminal, and that's not even counting the criminality of him once being the rap star Marky Mark (b. 1991, d. 1996, R.I.P.) and a guy who modeled underpants. The kids haven't heard anything about that. "There will come a time, but it's not something we have to talk about just yet," Wahlberg says. As usual, his voice is kind of a raspy whisper. As usual, his eyes are kind of slitted out, giving him the aspect of either someone you don't want to mess with or someone about to doze off. As usual, he'd like to be talking about anything but his past – "It is what it is. Hasn't that story been told enough?" – preferring instead to expound on his business interests.
"Actually," he says, brightening and leaning forward, "I'm more a businessman than anything right now. Acting takes me away from my family. My entire philosophy has changed. Acting careers are short-lived; a business will last a lifetime."
To this end, he has been on a roll quite unlike any other in recent Hollywood history. First, with longtime friend and partner Steve Levinson, he's become a big-time TV and motion-picture producer. It started in 2004, with the long-running HBO series 'Entourage' (based loosely on his exploits with his own entourage), and has continued with shows like 'In Treatment,' 'How to Make It in America,' and 'Boardwalk Empire,' all critical hits. "When he first came to us," says HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo, "I thought this was another guy making a vanity play, putting his name on something, dabbling in producing. But Mark doesn't dabble in anything. His growth as a producer has been prodigious. He has a great eye for scripts, a great eye for talent, a great eye for directors – all things I would never have imagined when we first met all those many years ago."
Wahlberg has also taken to producing the movies he stars in, his biggest being 'The Fighter,' which took him six years to make and received seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. His latest is the crime thriller 'Contraband,' the making of which he regards with a businessman's eye.
"It's an inexpensive movie," he says crisply. "We shot it for just under $40 million and it looks like $80 million. You take a lot less money up front and put a lot of money on the screen. Then, if it's a success, everybody reaps the rewards. I think as a business model, it's definitely a formula we want to focus on."
And then there are his businesses outside the movie business. He's got Wahlburgers, the new hamburger restaurant he opened with his brothers Donnie and Paul just south of Boston ("It has shakes and Tater Tots, salmon burgers, turkey burgers – and a full bar"), which may itself become the basis of a reality show. He's got a pizza joint in the works. He even owns a stake in a water company called AquaHydrate ("They came in and pitched me this whole thing about proprietary processes, osmosis, trace minerals, electrolytes, all this crap I had no interest in and knew nothing about; but when I started drinking it, my recovery time after working out changed instantly"). He's also thinking about starting a money-management firm ("It'd be about protecting professional athletes and entertainers and educating them about how to live within their means; things don't last, and you need to understand that"). And let's not forget the Elite Football League, which has its heart set on bringing American football to India; he's involved in that, too. "You talk about people living in poverty," he says. "But you put a ball in the hands of those kids, give them an opportunity to play and grow and learn – it's amazing, and it's just starting to take off right now."
In brief, he has been boning up on considerations of modern portfolio theory, seen the wisdom of global multi-asset diversification, and pulled the trigger hither, thither, and yon, with more to come. "Depending on if I can relate to it," he says, "I'll pretty much take a meeting with anybody."
In the meantime, he's continuing to work on those tattoos, hoping that one day they'll just fade away and no longer be anything anyone can see. And for God's sake, could somebody please get him Barry Pepper for the political snake-pit movie 'Broken City' that he's making with Russell Crowe? Don't know who Barry Pepper is? That's OK. Wahlberg does. And he wants him for 'Broken City.' Bad.
I first met Wahlberg in 1996, when he was far different from how he is now. Today's Wahlberg says stuff like, "Who am I? I'm a God-loving individual." Yesterday's Wahlberg would say stuff like, "Who am I? I am Mark fucking Robert Michael Wahlberg, baby."
This was in North Carolina, where he was shooting a movie with Bill Paxton called 'Traveller.' He was just out of his Marky Mark phase and had recently stopped stripping down to his skivvies for Calvin Klein. He was in full-on movie-making mode, but so far he'd had only a couple of bit parts, in 'The Basketball Diaries', starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and in 'Renaissance Man,' with Danny DeVito. He was about to make a splash in his first starring role, opposite Reese Witherspoon in 'Fear,' as a psycho lothario hoodlum. But it hadn't opened yet, and no one knew how it would go.
What I remember most is how gracious Wahlberg was. For instance, he let me watch TV with him for hours on end ('The Waltons,' 'The Munsters' and even watch him sleep (nothing to report). Like guys do, we talked about cunnilingus (he did not know the word; once informed, he said, "Man, I ain't into that!") and masturbation ("I haven't masturbated since the penitentiary; they say it's a sin"). At one point, he showed up on the 'Traveller' set decked out in a furry Cossack-style hat, a white shirt worn half unbuttoned, baggy-at-the-butt khakis, his belt unbuckled, his Timberland boots untied – his own kind of disheveled, happy-go-lucky fashion mess.
Bill Paxton took one look at him and shouted, "Love your style, kid. You're coming out large, baby. You're nationwide!"
Wahlberg shrugged, grinning. "Motherfuckers in one place was ragging on my hat. It's the shit right here."
Paxton was delighted. "I'm cashing the kid like a check! I'm going to the bank with your ass. The Kid. Kid Millions!"
So even then there was something about Wahlberg that made people think he was going places. In the end, it worked out better than Paxton could have imagined. Wahlberg is not the most emotive actor – his main go-to actorly chop seems to be the deep furrowing of his heavy brow – but put him in the right role and he can be solid, bordering on compelling. He was coolly stoic in 'The Perfect Storm' (2000); showed real pop-star attitude in 'Rock Star' (2001); was convincing as a high-class thief in 'The Italian Job' (2003); scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a foul-mouthed cop in 'The Departed' (2006); displayed real grit and heart in 'Invincible' (2006); survived a number of bombs along the way 'The Truth About Charlie,' 'The Happening,' 'Max Payne'; neatly restored his reputation in 2010 with both a huge-hit comedy, 'The Other Guys,' and an even huger- hit boxing movie, 'The Fighter.' And none of it would have happened had he not taken on the part of a porn star named Dirk Diggler in 1997's 'Boogie Nights.' At first, Wahlberg was revolted by the idea. He was trying to stay away from anything that called for him to strip down. Also, how would it look to the guys on the street back home, him appearing to give hand jobs in a car? He'd be humiliated. He could never show his face again. But at Levinson's insistence, he took the part, showed a good bit of tenderness and soul, hauled out a monstrous prosthetic schnitzel for the final scene, earned rave reviews, and was seen as courageous for taking on such a daring role.
That's another thing about Wahlberg: He always gets the benefit of the doubt. He'd have been called gutsy even if he'd been blackmailed into taking the part. For whatever reason, people just want him to succeed. "He's a very decent man with an enormous heart who has worked for everything he has, and people root for him, just like they do in his movies," says HBO's Lombardo. This, in turn, has allowed Wahlberg to pretty much do things his way, with very little compromise. He made his movies, slept with lots of pretty women, hung out with his boys, played golf, played more golf, yelled, "Look out, you motherfuckers!" as he teed off, smoked a good bit of weed, smoked a crapload of cigarettes, played a great many games of laser tag, and just in general sailed along having a fine time. And then what did he do? He went and had kids and got married to a woman who converted to Catholicism to make it happen.
Not everyone has been happy about this.
"Yeah, a lot of people I thought were my friends were disappointed that I decided to settle down and don't take them on whirlwind tours of craziness anymore," he says one afternoon at his estate. "When I was the life of the party, I definitely wanted to bring as many people along for the ride as possible. But sooner or later, you find out who your friends are. If they were my friends, they would have been happy for me changing my life and growing up. I mean, because of 'Entourage,' people think that my life is just a big, wild party. And it is. But these days it's a big, wild Halloween party or Easter egg party. I don't go out at night anymore. I don't hang around with the guys. I don't really play golf. I stopped smoking cigarettes. I stopped smoking pot a lot of years ago, too. I'm focused on my family, my faith, and my work."
Here's how a typical day goes these days. He gets a wake-up call at 4:30 AM, answers on the first ring, says "I'm up," flops back down for 10 or 15 minutes, gets up, brushes his teeth, takes his vitamins ("essential fatty acids, stuff for my joints"), walks outside and down to his gym, works out with his trainer Brian Nguyen for an hour, and then hustles his two older kids into one of his cars and drives them down to the school at his church in Beverly Hills ("They're getting a faith-based education"). On the way, the kids will want to listen to hip-hop, while their dad will want to listen to K-EARTH 101 ("the greatest hits on Earth") or KOST 103.5 ("SoCal's favorite soft rock").
After that, he returns home. And what a home it is. Even more grandiose than most movie-star homes, it goes on and on, up sets of stairs, down sets of stairs, past multiple water features, under and around leafy vegetative overhangs; the only thing missing is a life-size rubber reproduction of a dead horse, legs sticking straight up, affixed to the bottom of the swimming pool as a conversation piece, but his apparent need for overlarge statements of ownership (he once drove a $190,000, 563-horsepower Mercedes SLS, 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds) isn't quite so vulgar.
For the next hour, he plays full-court one-on-one basketball. "He will kill you from the outside, and then he's great at driving to the basket," says Nguyen. "In my seven years of playing him, I've never won a game. He's a stud. He's relentless. He never eases up."
"I have one hoop at 10 feet and one at nine feet, so I can dunk and think I'm in the NBA," Wahlberg says. "I have a camera on the nine-foot one, so when I dunk on your head and am feeling pretty badass, I can send you a highlight reel of it on DVD."
At some point in the morning, he will pray: "I get on my hands and knees and remind myself of how fortunate I am, how grateful I am, how humble I need to be." And then, if it's a day like today, he'll be getting pissed off at Big A, a friend who is supposed to be there waiting for him but isn't. Wahlberg groans and moans and says, "Every day it's something with him. Two days ago, it was because Johnny Drama" – that is, the real Johnny Drama, John Alves, another longtime Wahlberg posse member – "told him I was fine with him being an hour late. And Ari" – that is, the real Ari, Wahlberg's agent, Ari Emanuel – "just hired him to drive his kid to high school every day and teach him Hebrew. I mean, it's just one thing after another." He scratches his head, flustered.
Then, if it's a Thursday, he'll be looking forward to date night with his wife. Sometimes he chooses, sometimes she chooses, and he's usually fine with whatever she chooses, "as long as it isn't a Sarah Jessica Parker movie." Or one with disturbing types of violence. "The last movie we saw was 'Straw Dogs,'" he says. "We didn't see the whole thing. I was upset – they're raping this girl and then cutting to pictures of her and her child at home when she was young, and I have two daughters, so I have no tolerance to see that shit. I didn't want to sit through that."
And all day long he will be handling his business affairs. Today it's wanting Barry Pepper business. Barry Pepper is a character actor perhaps best known for playing Lucky Ned, the snaggletoothed outlaw in the 'True Grit' remake. He looks kind of like a young Gary Busey, both tame and wild. He's fabulous. The phone rings, Wahlberg answers, and the first words out of his mouth are "Guys. Tell me we got Barry." He listens. He says, "I'm offering up a little piece of my back end if it would make a difference." He listens. He heaves a breath. He deeply furrows his heavy brow, thrums his fingers on the table. He says, "Please get me Barry Pepper, OK?"
And then, if it's a day like today, he will just stare off into space.
"I wanna dedicate this book to my dick," he wrote in his 1992 autobiography, 'Marky Mark.' Calendar pages fly past. In 2011, he was named one of 'Time''s 100 most influential people.
"I watched him go from getting in fights when we were doing 'Three Kings,' barroom brawls and stuff, to developing into this really interesting man," George Clooney says. "He's mellower and gentler than he was. He used to be surrounded by a lot of his friends; some of them weren't the most healthy of people to have around. But he was always in control, and he's developed into one of those guys who you say, 'He's not only going to last in this business, he's going to run the business.'"
Barroom brawls? Wahlberg shrugs. "I was just defending myself from some irate drunk German skydivers." Pause. "When you put your hands on me, it's a problem."
So he's still got a lot of that tough guy in him. More tough guy: He was scheduled to take one of the Boston-to-Los Angeles flights that crashed into the World Trade Center, but he canceled a few days prior. "If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn't have went down like it did," he says. "There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, 'OK, we're going to land somewhere safely, don't worry.'"
On the other hand, he's got some candy ass in him too. For one thing, giving blood freaks him out. "The first time I did it, I woke up, I was on the floor. So I gotta lay down when I do it, not look – distract myself. I do not like the idea of giving blood." Also, he cries during movies. "The last time I really cried a lot? During 'The Help'. I cried about six or seven times. It was the wife's choice, but it was a great movie."
And then there's how he feels about his older daughter, Ella, going on her first date. How is he going to handle that?
He flops back in his chair, rubs his chin, looks grim. "I'm not going to think about that right now," he says tensely. "When the time comes, I will, but it's not a good thought for me to have. Thinking about it really stresses me out, so don't stress me out right now, because that's a stressful thought, OK?"
Just then Ella shows up and kisses her daddy on the cheek.
He says, "This creepy guy right here is asking me, 'What about if some boy ever comes to the house to take you on a date? What would you do?' What would Daddy do?"
"No, no, no, no, no," Ella shrieks.
"What would Daddy do?"
She pauses. "I don't know. Go like this?" And with that she pops him a good one right in the nose.
He rears back. "Not hit me!" he shouts. He rubs his nose. She's giggling like crazy.
The phone rings. Wahlberg mashes the earpiece to his ear. "Tell me we got Barry Pepper." Some studio guy on the other end says something that causes Wahlberg to start shaking his head, eyes turning even squintier than normal. Finally he says, "Why're you saying all this other stuff to him you don't need to say?"
Ella can't help herself. She leans in and shouts, "Hello? Who is this?"
"I'm on the phone, Ella. No, no, this is inappropriate."
Ella dances off.
"I'm going to call him," Wahlberg says to the guy on the phone. "I'm going to handle it, dude." He listens, says, "Yeah, well, you're not going to do that. You need to be the bigger person. You need to handle the situation the right way. That's what the studio does, dude." Listens again, says, "You know what? Just trust me, please. Will you trust me, please? You're killing me. I love you, too. Bye."
Ella says, "Who was that?"
"Somebody who has a lot of issues."
"Who's got a lot of issues?"
"Unfortunately, a lot of people do, me included."
"You've got a lot of issues, Daddy?"
He smiles. "Yeah, and you're at the top of the list. Go. I love you. Bye."
Later on he's standing on a green above his house, whacking golf balls into the canyon down below. "I haven't done this in a long time." Whack. "Every once in a while, you hear a guy go, 'Hey! I'm down here!'" Whack. "Did you see the flight on that ball? That was probably 185 yards. 190." Whack. "See the ball?" Whack. "See it come down?" Whack. "See it?" Whack. "Dude!" Whack. "See that beautiful roll over? You seeing all this? You should be looking at this instead of wanting to look at all my troubled past." Whack. "Stand over there so you don't get hit." Whack, whack, whack. Whack.
It would be nice, of course, to forget Wahlberg's past, to pretend that what happened never happened. But it's like those tattoos of his: The past might fade, but it'll never go away completely. Plus, as much as he might wish otherwise, his past is just too unbelievable, too salacious, too pungent, too central to a complete understanding of the guy to resist – him growing up the youngest of nine in a broken family in one of the roughest parts of Boston, mugging drunks, stealing their rings, developing a cocaine habit, turning into quite the pint-size con artist.
"I saw him in Dorchester district court one time," says Father James Flavin, his childhood parish priest, "and he started crying in front of the judge, and the judge let him go, and he turned around and winked at me and walked out with a big smile on his face. It was worthy of an Academy Award nomination. He was probably 15."
But then, a year later, he hit a Vietnamese man on the head with a stick, stole his beer, ran down the street, hit another Vietnamese man, blinding him in one eye, spouted off to the cops about "gooks," and spent 45 days of a two-year suspended sentence in Dear Island prison, going inside with only a pack of smokes and a $10 bill to his name, waking up his first night seeing one guy blowing another guy, and he wondered about what that might mean for him. He was 16. He worried that he was headed down the wrong path, swore to himself that he would turn himself around, after prison tried to do right, watched big brother Donnie make millions in the New Kids on the Block boy band (he joined for a split second, but quit because the music disgusted him), got Donnie to help him produce his own album in 1991 and become Marky Mark, was inspired to drop his trousers while playing a gig at the Magic Mountain theme park, got a huge rise out of the crowd, made that his go-to musical chop, got into the underpants-modeling racket, got into the movie racket, got into the producing racket, got into the designer-water racket, had kids, got married, recently bought a piece of property on which to build a new home with a footprint of 9,000 square feet, and unfortunately now has to put up with someone like me driving with him in his Mercedes S600 down into Beverly Hills, wanting him to be like he was instead of who he is.
"So do you still feel that masturbation is a sin?" I ask him.
"I don't get down with jerking off, dude. I told you," he says. "Look. I don't believe in everything that the church says. I try to do the right thing. I lead a clean and pure life. I'm a married guy. I have a beautiful wife. Sex is not the most important thing to me, being horny all the time, spanking the – I mean, it's not against the law. You can do whatever you want. And it's not like, 'I shouldn't do it because of my faith.' I'm just not really that into it that much anyway."
We pass a deer in the woods. He points at it. "Look! Deer!"
"Do you like Hollywood?"
"I love Hollywood. Hollywood has been very good to me."
"Was there anything you had to learn to do what you do here?"
"I feel comfortable pretty much anywhere I go. Whether it's an inner-city environment or a boardroom, I can find my way to exist. But, yeah, I had a big chip on my shoulder for a long time."
"What was that chip?"
He drums his fingers on the steering wheel, soft rock on the radio – Avril Lavigne, "Complicated." He's going into town to interview potential CEOs for the water company. He doesn't need this. "I have a hard time talking about myself," he says. Silence.
"You had issues with some scenes in 'Straw Dogs'. Are there any scenes you object to doing?"
"Yeah, I don't like having to portray a scene with an actress where I'm kissing her and stuff like that. My wife knows it's my job, but I don't like doing it, and I don't seek roles that have those kinds of romantic interests."
"Do you feel the same way you once did about oral sex?"
He takes a deep, deep breath.
"That is not appropriate, dude. It's not appropriate, especially as I'm a parent and a husband, to be talking about those things. I mean, what do you want? You want to see the evolution?"
He says that with a kind of dismissive snarl. But, of course, it's true.
He pulls up to a curb and parks, and punches some numbers into his phone. A moment later, he has the great Barry Pepper on the line.
"Hey, Barry, it's Mark Wahlberg calling. What's up, buddy? I've seen everything you've done, even going back to, like, '25th Hour'. I was talking to Ed Norton about you; he just said, 'Fucking Barry is a beast,' excuse my language. Listen, just let me try to make it work. I'll do everything I can, Barry. There are very few guys out there capable of doing what you can do, and especially against a guy like Russell Crowe. I just think you would knock it right out of the park. I mean, I don't like to be the one to ask for favors. I usually offer them up. But if we can work this out, I will owe you tenfold. I promise. I'll do everything I can. I'll deliver for you, buddy."
And on he goes, a true Hollywood player now, and, yes, a pretty fully evolved one at that. And Barry Pepper? Two weeks later, he signs on. Wahlberg handled it. He knew just what to do.