Mark Wahlberg’s career arc reads like a particularly fanciful Hollywood narrative: Scrappy Boston kid from the wrong side of the tracks makes it big as the teen star of a 1980s hip-hop band, walks away from music to focus instead on abs and a Calvin Klein underwear modeling gig, then reinvents self as an actor, eventually ending up as respected, Oscar-nominated movie star and powerhouse producer — while still in his thirties.
“Laid out like that, it does sound like a fantasy,” allows Wahlberg. “But I really wanted to succeed (as an actor), and the main reason I think I succeeded was because I was willing to do anything to be good at it. I was obsessed with it, I felt I had it in me, and when I stepped on the set of my first film, I truly felt like I’d found my calling. But I surprised even myself in the end.”
Wahlberg definitely surprised many in Hollywood with his unlikely career, one that began with his dropping the Marky Mark moniker and scoring a small role in that first film 16 years ago, “Renaissance Man.” That Penny Marshall film was followed by acclaimed performances in “Basketball Diaries,” “Fear” and his memorable turn as porn star Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.”
In the following years, there have been some misses at the box office, but there’s also one Oscar-nommed perf, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”
“I want to continue to grow as an actor, so I really like to mix it up and keep bouncing between different genres,” says Wahlberg. “And my next two (films) are exactly that — completely different.”
First up is “The Other Guys,” a buddy-cop comedy with Will Ferrell, out Aug. 6. The film, directed by frequent Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, marks Wahlberg’s first starring role in a comedy.
“I guess I’m known for dramatic roles, but I love comedy, and working with Will who’s so good at improv was a real education,” he notes.
There were also fun times in a supporting role in the recent “Date Night” with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell. “I had to sit there every day with my shirt off, so they were merciless in taking advantage of me,” he says, thinking back to his underwear-model days. Fortunately, his scenes didn’t call for any extra workout preparation. “I was already in training for ‘The Fighter,’ which I shot right after ‘Date Night,’ so the timing was perfect.”
“The Fighter,” out in December, stars Wahlberg as real-life boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and reunites the actor with director David O. Russell. “It’s much more of a family drama than a fight film, and about someone overcoming obstacles and the odds to become a champion and a better man,” reports Wahlberg.
For Wahlberg, directors are an important part of the equation that includes “good material, a good role and a fresh challenge. I’d love to work with Spielberg, Clint Eastwood — any of those top guys, as it raises your own game — and you learn so much just watching them work.”
Despite the commercial disappointment of “The Lovely Bones,” he recalls collaborating with Peter Jackson as “a beautiful experience. The guy’s so inventive and brilliant, and again I learned so much from the months we spent together — everything from camera placement to lighting choices.”
And the rewards of collaborating with a Scorsese “go far beyond the Oscar recognition,” he explains. “Doing ‘The Departed’ established a relationship between Marty and myself, and that led to us working together on ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ this series about corrupt politicians, gangsters and Atlantic City in the 1920s that we’re doing for HBO. He directed the pilot and is producing with me and my partner, Steve Levinson, and that’s allowed me to show a different side of my talents. I’m not in it at all — I’m just producing, and I’m very excited about it.”
“Boardwalk Empire” is skedded to bow in September.
It’s almost an understatement when Wahlberg says he has “gotten into a lot more producing over the years.” Indeed, through his company Leverage Management, Wahlberg has quietly and efficiently built his own empire with such popular TV shows as “Entourage,” “How to Make it in America” and “In Treatment.”
“On ‘Entourage,’ I’m called upon to handle various situations and put out fires, as well as being the voice of reason when necessary. And apart from appearing in it, I also get people to come on the show. And it’s the same with the other shows I produce,” he says. “I like to be hands-on wherever needed.”
If there’s one area of his career that Wahlberg has eliminated, it’s his music. “Yes, and I don’t miss those days,” he says. “Although occasionally a show like ‘Glee’ does one of my songs, which is nice. But I have no involvement with any of that now.”
Wahlberg, who turns 40 next year, stresses that he’s “in a very good place now” in both career and private life.
“My attitude is simple — I have no sense of entitlement,” he says. “I feel very fortunate in how my career’s gone, and I actively try to have other people adopt that philosophy on a daily basis. It keeps you working hard, striving to do the best you can, and gives you a better perspective on life and this town. And at the same time, it helps you deal with failure and disappointment in a much better way. Every career has its ups and downs, and the key is to just keep working. Honestly, if it all ended tomorrow, I’d just feel so grateful for the great run I’ve had. Considering where I came from, I’ve been very blessed.”