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.