Mark Wahlberg on adversity, success, and violence
Whatever you think of the movies Mark Wahlberg makes — from a shoot-’em-up urban western like “Four Brothers” to the gritty boxer biopic “The Fighter” to the filthy but very funny “Ted” — it’s hard to argue with the career he’s created for himself. A former juvie from Dorchester who once seemed destined for an extended stay behind bars, Wahlberg is now 41 and a full-fledged Hollywood mogul. Two decades after appearing on buses and billboards, buff and smirking in a pair of Calvin Klein tighty whities, Wahlberg is an Oscar-nominated actor (for “The Departed”), a successful producer (of the HBO series “Entourage” and “Boardwalk Empire”), and an entrepreneur (he and his brothers Donnie and Paul own Wahlburgers, a burger restaurant in Hingham that they hope to franchise elsewhere). In short, Wahlberg, who’s married to model Rhea Durham, with whom he has four children, has become a grown-up, a solid citizen of the sort that may surprise even members of his own family. In his new movie, “Broken City,” which opens Friday, Wahlberg plays an ex-cop seeking revenge after being double-crossed by a powerful New York mayor played by Russell Crowe. The film costars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jeffrey Wright. In a recent phone interview from Atlanta, where he was busy promoting “Broken City,” Wahlberg talked about his motivation for making movies and what he’s up to next.
Q. So I read an interview you did not so long ago in which you said you’re at a point in your career where you make movies you’d like to see. This is one of those?
A. This fits, in particular, because it reminds me of “Serpico” and “Chinatown” and all the great movies of the ’70s that I watched with my dad, movies that were character-driven, underdog stories of guys that have to overcome quite a bit in a very realistic way. I just read the script and fell in love with the material. Initially, we wanted to do it independently so we didn’t have studio people staring over our shoulder and what not. So [director] Allen [Hughes] and I were basically left to our devices and . . . after we shot the movie, we made the deal with Fox.
Q. Talk to me about making a movie with Allen Hughes, who, with his brother Albert, also made “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents.”
A. I was a big fan of Allen’s since “Menace II Society.” We talked about working together at one point or another but this was the first time it came together.
Q. This film falls into a category you’re quite good at. I don’t know what to call it. Maybe “revenge films”? There’s a setup and then you make things right.
A. It has a redemption theme.
Q. Right. That’s something that appeals to you?
A. For sure. I love this character. He lives in this world which is a very unapologetic world. I remember one journalist asked me why wasn’t there a big kind of apology/breakdown scene. I said because that’s not what happens in this story. This guy’s going to have 15 years to deal with the mistakes he’s made. But he’s willing to take that chance in order to right something even bigger.
Q. There is a political undercurrent here. But you don’t strike me as a particularly political guy. Is that fair?
A. Yes, very fair. My biggest concerns, obviously, when it comes to politics or unemployment or inner city or at-risk kids are things that affect people who come from where I came from.
Q. The movie is violent, but not gratuitously so.
A. When you see the campaign manager [Kyle Chandler] shot, you don’t see him actually get shot. And you see a bullet going through my car window, and you see me shoot that big guy [Chance Kelly] in the leg. I knew we were going to have to fight so I wanted to level the playing field a little.
Q. He is a giant.
A. We didn’t want to pull any punches making this movie. All those guys were specifically hired to come in and fight with me. We didn’t want to do the slick editing choreographed fights. We wanted to be down and dirty and real. Like the car chase.
Q. Yes, the car chase is good. Honestly, I didn’t think you were going to get up from that. But I guess you had to.
A. Yeah, there was a little bit more to be done.
Q. You seemed prepared for my question about violence. You’re a dad now — a family man — is violence something you think about as you decide what movies to make?
A. Of course. If you think about the horrible tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and think about what happened in Aurora, Colo., our country is not doing something right. We have to be able to protect our families and our children and our schools.
Q. So when you’re making a movie, you’re thinking about how violent it is?
A. Yeah, you know, there’s a much bigger problem going on. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But, yeah, I think about a lot of things, being a parent and a husband now. All of that comes into play when I think about what I want to do.
Q. You’re also a Catholic who goes to church regularly. Does that influence the decisions you make?
A. My faith and my family are the most important things in my life. I’ve made a lot of movies. I hope God’s a movie fan.
Q. You’ve had success doing comedies, with “Ted” and the movie you did with Will Ferrell, “The Other Guys.” You get a different audience with those movies. Do you find comedy difficult to do?
A. There have been comedic elements to my performances going back to “Boogie Nights” and “Basketball Diaries.” But doing a full-blown comedy is a different thing. It’s all a matter of finding the right vehicle. It really comes down to the material. My approach to doing comedy is the same as it is for drama: Play the part as real as possible. Comedy has got to come from the commitment to the absurdity of the situation. Playing it as straight as possible, which I did in “Ted.” That bear was real. He was my best friend. We smoked pot all day, and I tried to balance keeping my girlfriend happy and spending time with my best friend. You have to be, like, OK, this is really happening. How else are you going to get an audience to buy into a concept like that?
Q. It was also well written.
A. Absolutely. You can’t have me falling through tables and making funny faces.
Q. In addition to being an actor, you’ve had a very successful career as a producer. Last time we talked, you called yourself a businessman. What is the thing that makes you happy? Is it money? Awards? Recognition?
A. Awards and accolades are nice but it’s not why I make movies. I make movies to entertain people but also to be successful. Films have to be successful in order for them to give you more money to make more films. So I want to make great things that are enjoyed by everybody. Every time we make a movie, no matter what kind of movie it is, we’re trying to make the best version we can. So I’d say making successful films is the most important thing to me.
Q. You’ve done that.
A. It’s funny because when I started producing, I was always trying to find and develop material for myself so that I wasn’t waiting around for Hollywood or a studio to send me the script that was going to change my career. When I started producing, I had an in with television so I started producing television. And as the economy started to change and studios started crying poverty because the DVD business was going down the toilet, the only way to make movies was to do it with the television approach: less time and less money. So when ‘The Fighter’ was originally a $70 million movie, we were able to make it for $11 million, and the same thing with ‘Contraband’ and with this movie and with [the upcoming] ‘Lone Survivor’ and with ‘2 Guns’ with Denzel [Washington]. That movie was supposed to be north of $100 million and we figured out a way to make it for a lot less. So many people don’t know how to adapt. They think it’s impossible to make a movie in 40 days for X amount of money. It’s crazy. I try to explain to them the process, and they just can’t wrap their heads around it.
Publicist: I’m sorry to interrupt, but last question.
Q. Oh, we’re done? OK.
A. That’s what happens when studios get involved.
Q. You’re getting involved in a few reality TV projects, including one that’s based on the CBS show “The Big Bang Theory,” but at a local university. I must say, that seems like a brilliant idea. Tell me about it.
A. We’re working on it as we speak, and next time I go to Boston I’m going to try to meet with everybody so we can sit down and explain to [MIT] exactly what we want to do. I, too, think it’s a brilliant idea, but it’s all in the execution. I want [the university] to know they’ll be in good hands and our intentions are coming from a good place. People hear “reality TV” and they get crazy. When they hear docu-series, which is what we’re interested in doing, it’s all about quality and integrity. So we’ll articulate that message to them in person.
Mark Shanahan can be reached at shanahan@ globe.com.