Between studio hits, thesp makes time for personal projects

Over 17 years and 30 films, Mark Wahlberg has maintained one foot in the studio system while planting the other firmly in the indie community. It’s a career of which young thesps dream: toplining blockbusters like “Planet of the Apes” and “The Perfect Storm” at the same time that he investigated the darker human strains in work such as “Boogie Nights” and “The Yards.”

This year alone, Wahlberg did a shirtless cameo in “Date Night” and served as straight man to Will Ferrell in “The Other Guys,” while simultaneously completing a 10-year odyssey to film “The Fighter.”

“It’s that old philosophy,” the actor says. “You do two for the studio and one for yourself,” and the saga of underdog champ “Irish” Micky Ward certainly represented the latter. “I was always aware of Micky’s story. I grew up 30 minutes from him,” Wahlberg says.

Pundits counted out “The Fighter” over the course of a decade, as scribes, co-stars and helmers moved in and out of its orbit and Paramount first bankrolled and then dropped it, eventually coming in as distributor. Helmer David O. Russell was given “about 25 shooting days,” says producer David Hoberman of Mandeville Films, “about the amount of time a big-budget boxing film would assign to its fight scenes alone. The whole thing was an exercise in what can be done if you’ve got the right people doing it.”

Wahlberg’s determination was a key ingredient. “It was really important to him, and he was very passionate about it,” says Mandeville’s Todd Lieberman. “There were similarities between the way Micky and Mark grew up. I think it spoke to him in a personal way. ”

“There were many low points,” the actor reports. “But it’s like working out. You feel like you don’t want to go down there, but after you go to the gym and take out your frustrations on the bag, or whoever I could get to go into the ring with me, it renews your spirit. You’re ready to go figure out this problem or that problem.”

“And that’s what I love about him,” says an admiring Russell, who previously teamed with Wahlberg on the big-studio “Three Kings” and indie “I Heart Huckabees.” “He always wants to do better; he never stops trying.”

Russell places the star within “the Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Jimmy Cagney branch of acting. They have a rough and palpable authority about them that they shape around the role, rather than the kind of actor who becomes more transformative.”

Another Golden Age comparison might be to Gary Cooper, who made his bones in high-profile epics like “Wings” while moonlighting with his era’s cutting-edge helmers — von Sternberg, Lubitsch, Mamoulian — and eventually producing his own films, one of the first stars to do so. Wahlberg carries on that tradition through his Closest to the Hole Prods., responsible for the HBO series “Entourage,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “In Treatment.”

“Producing came to me very naturally,” he says. “I was always good at organizing things and making things happen: being a problem solver, finding solutions and having people skills.” Hoberman concurs: “Mark is by nature a can-do guy and kind of an entrepreneur. Those two qualities were very beneficial to us, as well as his prior relationship with David.”

How would “The Fighter” be different had it retained its huge budget and scope? “There would have been more extras in the crowd scenes,” the actor says, “and a lot more of the stuff you don’t get to see, the craft services and the trailers. But I hope it wouldn’t be a better movie, because I do think we made the best possible version. I spent more to get the movie made than I got paid, but the end result to me is far more valuable. And hopefully in the future it won’t be so difficult to get something like this done.”

Wahlberg remains unperturbed by the major/indie distinction. “The first movie I made (“Renaissance Man”) was big-budget, and then ‘The Basketball Diaries’ was really small. I could certainly see the difference in all the bells and whistles. But both Penny Marshall and Scott Kalvert were filmmakers I could learn from.”

And learn he did. “He has a very different type of power, something expressive that’s all his own,” says Russell, remembering his first “Three Kings” meeting with the onetime rapper and underwear model.

“He was, like, this lonely 26-year-old sitting on a couch,” the director reports. “And now he’s … he’s this mogul.”


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