Mark Wahlberg: the Fighter at Rest

Mark wahlberg the fighter at rest rotator

It all began with the fists. He was little, in a dark place, and bad people wanted to beat him—maybe kill him, he didn’t know. There was only one chance to get out: Fight. And that was only a chance.

Dorchester, MA, 1971. He came awake in a black world angry at the slaying of its spiritual leader, Martin Luther King Jr., a white world enraged by the murder of its native son John F. Kennedy, a war-torn world where children went off to fight 10,000 miles away, in a place that could not be taken…and all that anger spilled into the streets. His mother was screaming—every day, at anyone, about anything; his father was working two jobs driving trucks and buses; and his five brothers and three sisters were scattered, fighting for their own piece of the world.

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Roxbury, 1978. Trotter Elementary School, also known as “gladiator school.” The proposition was simple: You either fought or you went down. Why? He didn’t know. There was so much he didn’t know in the Roxbury slum of Boston, where things moved too fast for you to stop and think. Pull tight and push hard. Stick and move. Fight your way out. Use your fists.

But there had to be something else, too. How did he survive before he was old enough to use those fists? Simple: He smiled. As a child, he had a charisma that could even quell his mother’s blind rages. A laugh as quick as his fists would become. And he learned to use that weapon with as much effect as a blow to the face. 

Then, in those long, exhausting days when even the smile wouldn’t disarm the enemy—gang members, drug dealers, police officers were all around—and the fists weren’t strong enough, there was one last bastion for the ninth of nine children in an Irish-Catholic family against the cruelty of that working-class world: the sanctuary. The church itself, where God is always watching. You don’t have to put on a face with God—neither the smile nor the fists work—because He sees inside you. He sees all, and no one can strike you there. In church the air is still, the nave and narthex silent, and, unlike the streets, it smells of incense and candles. And when it’s not silent, the walls echo with hymns. Yes, you could go to church for some relief, and even your sins were a kind of currency there, because you could confess and be forgiven. You could say your prayers and walk out clean again, into the dirty world, to live and fight another day. Even now, he begins each day with a visit to church—a few prayers, if not a full Mass.

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By the time I met Mark Robert Michael Wahlberg last fall, he was a long way from the darkness of his youth. Through violence and charm, the 42-year-old had battered and bruised his way to the light at the top. We were inspecting the penthouse apartment in Trump Tower in downtown Chicago, an unfinished space 89 floors above the banks of the river, surrounded by 18-foot-tall windows. The light was so bright that it burned the white walls and the raw white concrete until it shimmered. 

He came stepping across the bare floor with that odd walk of his: torso thrusting left and right like a man walking chest-deep in water. He wore jeans, a tight white T-shirt, and working man’s brogans. His hands were square and his arms angular, as if he’d just recently been roughed out in stone for a sculpture to be completed later on. I held out my right hand to greet him, and he took hold of it with his left, saying, “Excuse the left. I hurt my hand.” He did, indeed.

It’s not the first time. Over the course of his career, he’s hurt both hands and the rest of his body, too. One reason for his distinct gait was that he performs his own stunts. He was in pain. Sometimes he hurt all over.

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We were joined by a small entourage of Wahlberg’s, including one business associate who was an imposing giant of a man. As we walked through the rooms blasted by sunlight, the man spoke into his phone, saying, “Siri, when is the Super Bowl?” He turned to Wahlberg and asked, “Do you want to go to the Super Bowl?”

“Sure, I guess.”

In the maze created out of drywall and bare pine studs, you could see an incipient kitchen here, what might become a bathroom there. A beautiful young lady from Trump was trailing us, explaining that the apartment was 15,000 square feet—the entire floor—with 360-degree views of the lake and the city. It’s one of those views that just seems to suck you out into the blinding light. Who could possibly live here in this $32 million labyrinth? 

Siri finally answered: “February 3.”

“I can do it,” Wahlberg said, “but I’d have to fly back that night because I have to work the next day.”

The man said Wahlberg should consider the same Super Bowl package he’d bought. It cost $300,000. Wahlberg thought about that as we paused for a moment to look out over the city. “I can take my sons,” he said. The kids: two boys, two girls. Eldest, Ella, 10, fifth grade; Michael, 7, in the second grade; Brendan, 5, just starting kindergarten; and Grace, 4, in preschool. Wahlberg went home nearly every weekend to be with them. When we met, he’d just finished Lone Survivor, the story of four Navy SEALs who come under attack in Afghanistan. Three die. The fourth tells the story. It was now Day 80 of a 100-day shoot for Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth installment of the billion-dollar franchise directed by Michael Bay. When I asked him how it was going, he said, “I just want it to be over.” He was glad that his next movie, a remake of 1974’s The Gambler, in which he reprises James Caan’s role, would be shooting in Los Angeles, so he could go home to the kids at the end of a working day. 

We continued walking through the undecorated apartment that all of us inspected but no one considered buying. It was just curiosity that drove us around until we’d arrived at the place where the cameras and lights and backdrop were set up for his Men’s Fitness photo session. The shoot was quick and painless, and Wahlberg was a quintessential professional, quietly doing what the photographer asked of him. “Chin up, that’s it. A little smirk. Okay, good. Left a bit. Great. Perfect.”

It was hard to read him. Docile. Gentle. Yet the coals burning beneath his calm demeanor had not gone out. The square hands at his sides looked as if they might break into action of their own volition. This is a man who carried untamed things into this civilized world, a onetime street thug now ensconced atop a business empire that has expanded beyond film and television—Wahlberg’s Leverage Management, which he cofounded with business partner Steve Levinson in 1997, produced the HBO series In Treatment, How to Make It in America, Boardwalk Empire (still in production), and, of course, the Wahlberg-inspired Entourage—to include a company selling electrolyte-enhanced bottled water, a partnership with GNC, and even a burger restaurant in his native Boston.

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As he posed, he occasionally glanced my way, and I saw something else in his eyes, too. It was a furtive glance, a flash of that street-fighter temperament, honed over the years so that it could no longer explode by accident and take him by surprise. But it’s a look that emerges onscreen in certain roles—when you see it, you’re convinced that you’re looking at a real psycho. This happens in The Basketball Diaries when he stomps on an old woman to get her purse, when he pistol whips a friend, and when he pushes a dope dealer off the roof of a six-story building. That’s the psycho Wahlberg keeps beneath the surface, the servant now at his beck and call.

He wasn’t always so controlled. “The first time I left Dorchester, I’d never eaten anything but my mother’s cooking or something from the sub shop on the corner,” he told me. “First time I went to London? Get me out of this fuckin’ place. Germany? Same thing.” He has a way of closing his green eyes, smiling, and shaking his head at the sheer idiocy of his former self. At first, in the new world of travel, he’d get into fights because that’s all he knew from home. “You know, if somebody looks at you, you think, ‘Oh, shit, if I don’t get them first, they’re gonna get me,’ right? You know how it is back there? It was either me or them. It was just how it was. It took me a while, and thankfully I was able to figure it out.” So he learned to stop beating up random people on the street. He learned to eat in restaurants. He stopped being afraid to ask questions. He became an educated man whose genteel speech was punctuated with F-bombs, as he called them.

Wahlberg is famous for the way he looks at himself in the mirror. His career skyrocketed after 1997’s Boogie Nights, in which he stands in his minute red briefs checking himself (and his hair and penis and butt) out in a full-length mirror in his bedroom at his parents’ house before embarking on a career as a porn star. Ever the fighter, his instinctive reaction is to start boxing and throwing karate punches and kicks. He was 25, playing a 17-year-old. Later in the film, he closes his acceptance speech at a porn-flick awards ceremony with another karate kick.

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