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.