The first thing I noticed about Mark Wahlberg was that he was wearing a large icepack around his neck. Wahlberg claims that he slept on it wrong one night in Hong Kong while he was filming "Transformers: Age of Extinction." It's startling to see Wahlberg in a neck brace after watching "Lone Survivor" -- the true story of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who was the only survivor after his team was ambushed by Taliban forces in Afghanistan -- because even though what Wahlberg faced while filming wasn't real, it still looked like a brutal physical exercise that would leave someone in far worse condition than an icepack could fix.
Now 42, Wahlberg has racked up more than 30 films, an Oscar nomination, and he's worked with such esteemed directors as Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and, now with "Lone Survivor," Peter Berg. He's come a long way since his days as "Marky Mark." On the day we met, Wahlberg was feeling reflective and a question about when he truly felt he had left the "Marky Mark" persona behind turned into a story about when Wahlberg decided to become an actor -- his origin story, if you will -- which includes "Boogie Nights," "The Basketball Diaries" and Leonardo DiCaprio as his foil, at least for awhile.
If you don't mind be asking, what happened to your neck?
This is an icepack. I hurt my neck in Hong Kong in October.
I don't really know what happened because it wasn't one specific thing. I woke up in the morning and felt shitty and couldn't move my neck. So, I've been rehabbing and doing corrective exercises ... it's getting better.
I would have assumed "Lone Survivor" would be the movie you'd get hurt filming.
Oh, I got banged up pretty good on that one, too. But, that was well over a year ago. But you don't really think about those sort of things because you're in the moment and 42 days is not a long time.
Even though I knew the ending of this movie before I saw it, it still maintains an intensity ...
Absolutely. I think you've seen that -- this is not the first time you've seen that in movies this year.
Like "Captain Phillips."
Yeah. You know the outcome, but if it's a well-made movie and a well-told story, it will still keep you hoping.
I've been paying attention to your press tour, this may be a weird question, but is this the movie you're most proud of?
I ask because I've never seen you this intense about the subject matter of a movie before.
No. Because it's so much bigger than me. It's not about me, it's about those soldiers. It's about Marcus and his team -- it's about all those guys who died out there. It's about all of those Afghan people who were willing to sacrifice their lives to save a stranger, basically. They thought it was the right thing to do. Every other movie that I've done, I've felt, Well, it's kind of about me. You know, I had to do this, I had to do that -- but it wasn't like that for anybody. Everybody was there for the same purpose: To tell the story and pay tribute to those guys. And, for me, literally anyone who has walked in to a recruiting office and signed up to defend our country.
You hadn't worked with Peter Berg before, right?
No. I tried to get him to do "The Fighter" and he was like, "Nah."
Before David O. Russell?
I didn't know that.
He doesn't want anybody to know that. It's not one of his better choices. But, you know what? It was all good because this was the one we were meant to do first together. You know, "The Fighter" was obviously something that was very special to me, but this is just such a unique experience, and I am lucky to have had that experience with everybody.
I feel you got David O. Russell out of director jail a little bit.
Oh, 100 percent. Every single person on the movie said "absolutely not, over my dead body." But I just figured out a way to get it done because I certainly knew how talented he was -- a lot of people knew how talented he was -- but a lot of people didn't want to deal with it. The best time to get somebody is when they really need it.
Speaking of Russell, was "Three Kings" the movie that people accepted you as an actor and not a musician? I feel that was still mentioned when "Boogie Nights" came out...
You know what? There was a lot of little different things that were happening. I remember after "Renaissance Man," people just expected me to be so bad that they kind of thought I was better than I really was. "The Basketball Diaries" was an opportunity for me to show something -- then I had more confidence as an actor. I was obsessed with acting after that point. And, then, by the time I got the job for "Fear," neither one of those movies had come out yet. Leo was actually the one who recommended me to ["Fear" director] James Foley.
Yeah. Leo definitely didn't want me in "The Basketball Diaries," nor did I think he was right to play Jim Carroll. Scott Kalvert -- who was my director who had directed all of the music videos that I had done -- he told, not only myself, but Will Smith and Tupac, that we should be and we will be in the movies. I remember auditioning seven times before Leo would agree to be in the room.
Yeah. And then I ended up showing up probably six or seven hours late to the audition because I had gone to Puerto Rico for the weekend -- there was a snowstorm in New York and the flight was delayed, so I had everybody waiting for me. The audition process became like a live theater show for people ... I was acting out every scene in the movie and going crazy and beating whoever was in the scene with me. Then we got in the room and we started reading and [Leo] started doing his thing and I started doing my thing and we were both kind of like, "Huh, OK, I get it now." Then that night we were out hanging out and hit it right off. After we finished the movie, Leo had a meeting with James Foley ... he's like, "Don't think this is crazy, but do you know the guy Marky Mark, the rapper? The underwear model?" Foley's like, "What?! Are you out of your mind?"
Do you think you had to go through the wringer for all of this because of your musical career?
Yeah, but, you know, I probably wouldn't have gotten in the door with Penny Marshall the first time, either ... you know, it helped and it hurt. I didn't really think about it like that -- it was about the work. Once I started making movies, I wasn't going to make music in the States anymore. I would go overseas and do concerts and stuff to get paid, then I would just find the right roles.
Did you make the decision after "Renaissance Man"?
Yeah, I made it during "Renaissance Man." Once I got on the set for the first time, I was like, "This is what I'm doing." And I love movies. I'd go to movies with my dad all of the time, but I never thought it was possible to be in the movies. Then, once I started making music, I felt, I'm so real, I'm not going to be pretending to be somebody else -- that attitude. Because they were offering me the white rapper from "Sister Act" and, like, not good parts. Going back to your question, each one of them [was] kind of different and pivotal for different reasons. But, "Boogie Nights" was the real test for me and challenge for me as an actor. I gotta be a full-blown actor, or was I only going to play parts where I could be the badass or the tough guy. I was really worried about how I would be perceived in the neighborhood playing somebody soft and vulnerable. And then, of course, the backdrop of the movie being set in the porn world.
I feel "lucky break" isn't the right term, but with "Boogie Nights," it's nice to be cast as the lead in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie so early in your career. That's quite a break.
Absolutely! But you didn't know it at the time. You know, "Showgirls" had just come out. And I didn't know this guy -- I had never met Paul or seen any of his movies. And it was like, if this guy just wanted me to to come in with the underwear and take the underwear off...
When did you realize that wasn't true?
About five minutes into the meeting the first time we met. You go to the meeting and John C. Reilly is there, Philip Seymour Hoffman is there, Thomas Jane is there and it's like, "Well, let's just read some scenes." So I'm like, "Aw, fuck it, let's do it." Because I had read the first act of the script and I was like, "This could be brilliant or this could be fucking bad." So, I didn't read the rest of it until I met Paul, then I read it, then I came in and was totally unprepared. In the first scene, Burt Reynolds' character Jack Horner comes in, and I'm doing the dishes. "How old are you?" I say, "Seventeen." "Where are you from?" And I said, "Tor-ance." Torrance, I had never been there and I mispronounced it and they all started laughing. Then we kept reading and reading and it was one of those things where we literally went though the whole script and he felt like he had his whole gang.
Could you tell then that it would be a movie everyone still talks about 16 years later?
We all felt like we were doing something really special, for sure. But, yeah, even the movie that I made with James Gray was a great experience for me, "The Yards" -- working with Jimmy Caan, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron. And Ellen Burstyn playing my mom and Faye Dunaway being the cold aunt that she had to portray in the movie -- I was just watching "Network" the other day.
I still think of you as a young guy, but you're a "veteran actor" now who has been doing this for a long time now who has worked with a lot of people. Do you think about that?
Sometimes. Everyone once in a while I will, but I'm so busy moving forward with what's next, I kind of usually wake up thinking, Oh my God, I gotta do something here. I have to build a career for myself. I have to build a body of work. I gotta get out there and do something. I've been doing nothing for the last 20 some odd years and, holy shit, I'm 42. I better get in the game. I feel like I'm broke.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.