For Mark Wahlberg, ‘Patriots Day’ is personal
LOS ANGELES — Mark Wahlberg was expecting the question.
But, sitting at a corner table at E Baldi, an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills popular with Hollywood’s A-list, Wahlberg paused before answering. He gazed out the window as a woman clutching a shopping bag the size of a Mini Cooper walked past.
“It’s not too soon,” the actor said finally. “It’s not soon enough.”
Wahlberg was talking about the timing of “Patriots Day,” the movie about the bombings at the Boston Marathon three years ago that killed three, grievously injured dozens of others, and forced a major American city to shelter in place while legions of police, state troopers, and FBI agents hunted for those responsible.
Wahlberg, who coproduced and stars in “Patriots Day,” knows there are people, including some directly affected by the blasts, who think Hollywood has moved too quickly to turn the tragedy into a big-screen spectacle — one that will be released during the run-up to the holidays, no less. They don’t need, or want, to be reminded of the day Boylston Street resembled a battlefield.
The 45-year-old actor, a Dorchester native who still has strong ties to his hometown despite living in Los Angeles for most of the past 25 years, says he and director Peter Berg anticipated such concerns.
But if the story of April 15, 2013, and its frantic aftermath was going to be told — and it was, he insists — Wahlberg wanted to be the one to tell it. (A second scripted movie about the Marathon bombings, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as survivor Jeff Bauman, is due out next year.)
“The wounds are far from healed, but I realized if the wrong type of person came in and made this, it could have turned out to be extremely gratuitous,” he said. “I knew a lot of the responsibility was going to be on my shoulders. But I pride myself on being able to go home and show my face, so I wanted to get it right, you know?”
“Patriots Day,” which premieres at the Wang Theatre on Wednesday before opening in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles on Dec. 21, stars Wahlberg as a composite of the police officers who were at the finish line when the two bombs went off and later aided in the search for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who planted the explosives.
The film centers on Wahlberg’s character, Sergeant Tommy Saunders, and several real-life Bostonians, including Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, newlyweds who both lost limbs in the explosion; slain MIT police Officer Sean Collier; Dun Meng, the Chinese-American student who was kidnapped by the Tsarnaevs; as well as Boston Police Department brass Ed Davis and William Evans, Watertown police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, and FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers.
In addition to Wahlberg, the “Patriots Day” cast includes John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, and Michelle Monaghan.
Notably absent from the film is the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old Dorchester boy who, along with Medford resident Krystle Campbell and Boston University student Lingzi Lu, died in the blast.
Martin Richard was a focus of the script initially, but his parents met with Wahlberg before filming started and asked that they not be included.
Wahlberg said Bill Richard, who had been at the finish line with his wife, Denise, and their children when the bombs detonated, was unhappy with “Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph over Tragedy,” a book about the bombings written by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge.
As a result, according to Wahlberg, the Richards did not want to be part of the movie, even though “Patriots Day” is not based on the book. The Richard family did not respond to a request for comment.
“Bill didn’t want anyone portraying himself or his wife or his children [in the movie], and we said, ‘Of course. We completely understand,’ ” Wahlberg said.
In the film, Martin Richard’s death is handled obliquely: The body of a child is covered with a sheet amid the rubble on Boylston Street as a Boston police officer stands guard nearby.
Michael Radutzky, a senior producer of “60 Minutes” and coproducer of “Patriots Day,” said the conversation with the Richard family was typical of many that Wahlberg and Berg had with victims’ families, survivors, and law enforcement as they sought to assure locals of their intention to tell the story of the bombings without sensationalizing the tragedy or glamorizing the culprits.
“Pete [Berg] happens to be a director who pays a lot of attention to detail and to accuracy in the movies he makes,” Radutzky said. “And nothing required that more than wading through this movie.”
“Patriots Day” is the third film Wahlberg and Berg have made together in the past three years — “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon” are the others — and the two have an almost fraternal relationship. It didn’t start that way. The two share the same agent, Ari Emanuel, who had encouraged them to work together, but they resisted.
“We were both reluctant, for whatever reason. I think it’s kind of that guy competitive thing. I’d offered him ‘The Fighter’ and he politely declined,” said Wahlberg, referring to the 2010 film about Lowell boxer Mickey Ward that earned seven Academy Awards nominations, including a best director nod for David O. Russell.
That was all forgotten by the time “Patriots Day” began filming last spring. Something of a miscreant in his youth — he served 45 days in jail as a teenager for assaulting two Vietnamese immigrants — Wahlberg is obsessively disciplined now.
He attends a Roman Catholic church daily — yes, daily — and prides himself on being the most prepared person on every movie set.
For the interview at E Baldi, he arrived 30 minutes early, dressed in a blue Under Armour T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers — casual for a place charging $40 for a grilled T-bone bistecca with sea salt and coarse pepper.
Before turning his attention to the movie, Wahlberg got up to chat with Jude Law, who’d just finished lunch, bro-hugging the British actor before he was ushered out a back door by the maitre d’.
“I consider Hollywood a tad bit out of touch with the rest of the country,” Wahlberg confided. “But I can live and exist here because of everything, good and bad, that shaped and molded me back home.”
The actor said it was clear to him that Berg, who has described his father as a “hard-ass ex-Marine,” understood the sensitivity of the material and would be respectful of everyone who lived through the calamity.
Wahlberg noted that when some Watertown officials objected to the filmmaker’s plan to re-create the gun battle with the Tsarnaevs on city streets, Berg did not protest.
Nor did the director argue when officials at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a student, balked at having movie cameras rolling on campus.
“I’ve been in situations where [the director] is, like, ‘I just want to do my own thing,’ ” said Wahlberg. “Pete knew this wasn’t our own thing, and it wasn’t going down like that.”
Kevin Bacon, who plays DesLauriers, the FBI agent, in the movie, said making “Patriots Day” was an uncommon experience.
The veteran actor recalled showing up at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, where a replica of Boylston Street had been constructed to film the explosions.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is fun.’ That wasn’t the vibe,” said Bacon. “When we walked onto that set, there was a feeling of horror and sadness. This definitely didn’t feel like doing a regular movie.”
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s premiere, “Patriots Day” producers have held a series of private screenings in Boston for law enforcement officials and victims’ families, including the Richards.
Wahlberg acknowledged it was difficult for many of them to watch the movie.
“Look what’s happened since in Paris, in Brussels, in San Bernardino. People are dealing with this stuff all over the world,” he said. “What do we do? Do we live in fear or do we live our lives feeling like good will overpower evil? The message of this movie is love, and that’s hopeful.”