Throughout his career, Mark Wahlberg has repeatedly taken on acting challenges portraying characters that are based on real people -- in 'Invincible,' 'The Perfect Storm,' 'The Basketball Diaries' and, of course, 'Planet of the Apes.' (Just kidding about that last one.) But his latest role, playing aspiring boxer Micky Ward in 'The Fighter,' Wahlberg not only had to get into character, but he also had to get into some of the best shape of his life. Meanwhile, he also produced the film and shepherded it through the tumult of multiple co-stars and directors, ultimately recruiting his 'I Heart Huckabees' and 'Three Kings' collaborator David O. Russell to take the helm, and impressively, elevate it beyond sports movie conventions to become a powerful portrait of persistence, passion, and familial solidarity.
Cinematical recently sat down with Wahlberg at the Los Angeles press day for 'The Fighter' for an intimate chat about the struggle to get this particular story on the screen. In addition to dissecting the boxing clichés and bad accents of Boston movies past, Wahlberg examined his dual role as star and producer, and offered some insights into his career strategies as a guy who continues to take on new and different challenges.
With something based on real people, you obviously want to be as faithful as possible telling a story like this, but in order to adapt it you have to condense things or make certain changes.
Yeah, there were certain dramatic liberties, but very, very minuscule to me -- if you want to heighten the drama, or tonally. But you have to tell the story, and the story is so fascinating.
Was there anything that you knew if you got that right, the rest would sort of fall into place? Or conversely, that as interesting as some detail might be, it just wasn't going to fit into the movie?
Oh, God -- there's so many things. Every two hours of their life was a movie. But I always just felt like the most important thing, even though it's not a flat-out boxing movie, is that the fights are the most realistic fights that you've ever seen in a boxing movie, and I don't look like an actor who's pretty good in the ring, I look like a fucking boxer who could win the title -- just with sheer will and determination. Micky didn't have the skills that Dicky had, but he had the fucking heart and the desire and the drive that very few people had. And I always said that if you could put the two of them together, you would have the greatest boxer of all time. But I just felt like if that was the biggest concern, I knew we had a great story, I knew we had the opportunity to attract great talent, but we needed to make the boxing the real thing.
What did that mean for you in terms of what you might have to be subjected to physically?
You don't really think about it until you're actually in there, and you're like, why the hell would I do this? But that's who Micky was. And when I did 'Invincible,' that's who Vince Papale was, so I can't not be that guy; Vince Papale was not the greatest football player in the world, but he was willing to sacrifice life and limb every time out there for his love of the Eagles. So when I'd get in there with ex-NFL guys and arena-league guys, you're in there. And it is what it is; when I got in the ring with Micky, he was trying to take my head off, and I was trying to take his. It's just how it was, and thankfully, nobody got really hurt; you get a lot of bumps and bruises and stuff, but we walked away, and walked away with something that we can be proud of.
What is the most important part of tapping into a character like this? Is it preparing yourself physically, spending time with the real guy, or working with David?
Well, all of those things. I think first and foremost, spending time with Micky and being believable as a guy who, like Micky, could against all odds go and win the welterweight title. That took on a lot of responsibility when it came to physical preparation; I mean, as much as I complained about the movie being pushed and falling apart, it actually allowed me to get into the kind of shape and condition that I needed to be in to portray him in the light in which I wanted to, and I know he would have liked. So it's just one of those things where you don't want to have to do these things too many times in the course of a career, you know -- maybe once or twice is probably sufficient. But I promised him that I was going to get it done, I thought it was a dream role for me, and an amazing story -- so much more than a boxing movie. It had a lot of potential overall as a film, so it was well worth it.
Do you have to be careful when you're doing an accent like this that is so flamboyant? Is there a breaking point where it becomes cartoonish?
Yeah, I mean, the first time I saw 'The Departed,' I cringed. I was like, oh, man; I mean, there's obviously these amazing actors, but people have a tendency to do the "pahk the car on Hahvahd yahd" thing, and there's more to it than that. It's like people talk differently; everyone doesn't talk the same. People from Lowell don't talk the same as people from Dorchester talk. There are similarities, obviously, but an urban environment as opposed to a suburban environment is different. But we'd always go with the philosophy that less is more, and you would think, oh my God -- with such bright characters, how can that possibly be? But when you see the real people, you realize, holy shit -- they did tone it down a little bit.
The trailers to some extent make it look like a "boxing movie," but is there anything that you can do as an actor to help the movie distinguish itself from being purely conventional?
As an actor, you're really only required to play your part, but as a producer obviously it was my job to make sure we made the best possible version of the movie. And all of those elements were there, but we thought, whatever it takes as far as the trailer to get people into the seats, and then I think once people start seeing the movie, then word of mouth [will do the rest]. Because women have responded to the movie, young and old, better than men; they love the relationships between Micky and Dicky, Micky and Charlene, the whole family drama, so it's one of those things where it's a tough challenge to market the movie. But if you have the goods, then it makes it a little bit easier.
There's this sort of "it takes a village" mentality to help this guy become what he does, and he is sort of the least communicative of all of the characters. Is there a challenge in being at the center of a movie and yet receding into the back of this ensemble?
Well, the great thing about those other parts is that they were so flashy and so big that it's always more challenging to play a character who has to communicate more by doing less. But I just felt like it was such an interesting dynamic between Dicky and Micky, and I was the one between action and cut kind of pushing all of the different elements of that. But no, it was just my job, so you just do what your job entails and as an actor, you service the vision of the filmmaker and the story, and as a producer you've kind of got to keep everything else going.
Do you think at all about the way you're perceived, and then making sure you're challenged as an actor? For example, you did a spate of action movies and are seen as a physical guy, but to play the character you did in 'The Other Guys' seems like a send-up of that persona, and even this is a different shade of that.
We want to be able to do it all and we want to be able to continue to do different things. It's just always been part of the plan. I think when I initially started I was able to get roles like, and roles I was really attracted to like in 'The Basketball Diaries' and 'Fear,' and then I was okay being perceived as that guy, and so we found 'Boogie Nights,' which is something completely different that showed a vulnerable side and an innocence that I hadn't shown in other parts. And I want to continue to do it all; it's obviously not a sprint, it's a marathon, and a career spans, hopefully if you're lucky, many years and you just kind of keep chipping away and doing different things. Comedy was something that we always had our eye on, but it was just a matter of finding the right things at the right time, and even though there were comedic elements in other performances, in 'Huckabees' and other films that I'd done, it still wasn't perceived as a full-blown comedy. So we had to kind of wait for the right thing at the right time.
Doing something like 'The Other Guys,' does that tap into something that says you can now exercise this skill set, or is it more a matter of saying, "I know I'm funny, but I just need the right thing to be funny in?"
I don't like to say I know I'm funny; I mean, people have always said, "you have got to do comedy," and I like making people laugh. But doing comedy is a whole other level of fearlessness when it's a broad, flat-out comedy. You run the risk of looking ridiculous, and you have to be fearless in that way -- but that's what acting is all about. You know, you can't worry about what other people think, but coming from my background and it all being about how you're perceived and if you happen to be cool, and it's not a problem beating the shit out of somebody but if you look goofy, it's not good, people are laughing at you as opposed to with you. But that was what I wanted to do, and that was a very liberating experience for me, just getting in there and letting it all hang out, and it was a lot of fun -- and I certainly want to be able to do more of it.
Do you have to be very calculating or strategic about projects that you take, or does that sort of work itself out?
It's intuition to a certain extent, but you have to have a plan. You hit a lot of bumps in the road and a lot of hiccups, and things don't turn out the way you want, and you've got to kind of sit down and reformulate -- but there's always a plan. There's got to be a plan. There are very few people who have the luxury of just not thinking about it, sitting around and waiting for everything to come to them and then they get to decide, okay, what do I want and what do I not want? I'm certainly not one of those guys -- I don't think I'd be comfortable in that position. But I'm trying to create my own destiny and go out there and make things happen, and that's how it's been from Day One, so I couldn't see changing it.
Christian Bale seems like the kind of guy who, if he doesn't wait for things to come to him, then he seems to be more spontaneous. How easily did you two fall into collaborating with one another?
Instantly. It was funny because I was down the road with many other actors, and I saw him because our kids go to the same school. I was like, shit, man -- he was pretty good in 'The Machinist' and 'Rescue Dawn.' He can certainly make that physical transformation; I should see if he's interested in playing Dicky. And he immediately responded to the material, as did a lot of people, but it's one thing to say you want to do it as a fascinating idea, but to actually go and do the work and to go to that place, it's not an easy thing to do.
Was David most instrumental in balancing the different tones in this film? It's very affecting, but it's also surprisingly funny.
That was what kept coming up in our discussions. The movie was kind of one specific thing, which could have been really good, but it didn't have all of the elements -- the comedic elements, the emotion, and it certainly didn't have the opportunity to be as commercially broad without losing its edge. And that was why David was the guy. I think it still could have been good, but I don't think it would have been as appealing to women, and everybody across the board. He definitely in my opinion was the person to make the best version of the movie.
Obviously you worked with David on his previous films. Was it easy to fall back into lockstep creatively with him?
Yeah, we're so familiar with one another and we have such a great relationship and rapport, that we've remained very close after making those first two movies. He was not somebody that we initially talked about to direct the film; we were down the road and Darren Aronofksy was obviously attached for a long time, and then we were going down the road with other filmmakers, but David took it upon himself to get the script and would call me at night to talk about different ideas. All of those ideas, I started implementing into the screenplay, and then I was like, wait a second here -- he's the guy who should be directing this movie! And then it was just a process of convincing everybody why that was the case, and getting that thing accomplished.
Is there a different creative satisfaction you get from producing than from acting?
Oh, for sure, especially when it comes to helping other talented people find a way to express their abilities and strut their stuff, whether it was Jeremy Piven, who I always thought was one of the most talented guys ever working who never really had the platform to show his thing. To create that for him was just awesome. And Christian, God, and Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams doing something that she never did before, it's [incredible]. The only time I want it all for myself is when I'm on the golf course; then I want to beat everybody. But other than that, I want everybody to shine, and to be their best, so when you can create opportunities for people and do stuff that you can be proud of with other people, that's a good feeling.
Do you have to make hard decisions about, say something like this where you are in it, or does that come pretty naturally?
Yeah, but it is what it is. With this thing in particular, I felt like I was just so much closer to it than everybody else; I grew up 30 minutes from these guys, and I'm the youngest of nine kids. I know what it's like to have to scratch and fight and kick and claw your way to where you want to go, and so I had to just say, look, this is how we have got to do it, guys -- trust me on this. You're going to be happy.