Fight club: Mark Wahlberg on the role of his career

He gives his finest performance yet as the real-life boxer Micky Ward in his new film.
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The Independent Culture

Amid the loud awards hype for The King's Speech and Black Swan, The Fighter has slipped a little under the radar so far. But that's set to change. On Sunday night, the film won two Golden Globes – with Christian Bale and Melissa Leo dominating the supporting actor categories – and critics are hailing the real-life story of Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, who also co-produced the film, as the best boxing movie since Raging Bull.

Today, Wahlberg strides into the Beverly Hills hotel room where I'm waiting, a tightly wound ball of anger cursing profanities into his cell phone. But then nobody ever accused the actor of clawing his way to the top of Hollywood by being nice.

What a long way he's travelled. The youngest of nine children raised in a tough Boston suburb, Wahlberg had developed a cocaine addiction by 13 and robbed a man of his eye during a fight while he was high, which resulted in a two-year prison sentence. While serving only 45 days, the time inside was a wake-up call for Wahlberg, who, on release, promptly reinvented himself as the teen idol Marky Mark.

It was the first of several incarnations, which also include underwear model and actor, and now entertainment mogul, devout Christian and happy family man. When he's not executive producing HBO TV's Entourage, Boardwalk Empire and In Treatment, or starring in blockbuster movies, he's either on a private golf course or spending time with his wife, the model Rhea Durham, and their four children, all under the age of eight.

The secret to his success, he says, is easy: "I stopped partying. Completely. I stopped smoking marijuana. I go to work; I go home; we have dinner with the kids; give the kids a bath; put the kids in bed; spend time with my wife; read scripts... When you're actually living a good, clean, healthy life, there's enough time in the day to do it all. My wife gets frustrated when I spend too much time on the phone but I work now so hopefully I won't have to work in the future. Certainly, the opportunities are there now so I might as well take advantage of it while it's there and hope to do good work that I can be proud of."

And there's much to be proud of, not least an Oscar nomination for The Departed, followed by a Golden Globe nomination for The Fighter. For this latest role, Wahlberg plays the Irish boxer Micky Ward, who achieved glory in the ring despite the influence of his crack-addicted boxer brother, Dicky Eklund, played by Bale. While Bale and Leo took home the Golden Globes, Bale said it all in his acceptance speech when he praised Wahlberg's role as the stoic anchor amid flashier performances in the film. Certainly, if many actors, at some point in their careers, single out a role as being the one they were born to play, then The Fighter is Wahlberg's moment.

The actor surprised sceptics with his early, star-making turns in 1995's The Basketball Diaries with Leonardo DiCaprio and, two years later, in Boogie Nights, where he played a well-endowed porn star. Going on to star in Planet of the Apes, Rock Star, The Perfect Storm, I Heart Huckabees and The Lovely Bones, The Fighter has proved his toughest challenge. After five years in the making, with many actors and a director come and gone, Wahlberg despaired of ever bringing the story of the underdog, welterweight world champion to the big screen.

"Matt Damon was attached for a while and then Brad Pitt, and then they offered it to a few other people whether they were necessarily right for the part or not. They didn't want to make it at the budget that it was at with the people that I wanted to make it with so I had to say, 'Look, can you please trust in me that I will deliver the best possible version of the movie.' I had to seek out independent financing and got Christian on board and director David O Russell shortly after." The actor also worked for a time with the director Darren Aronofsky before retooling the picture from a $50m studio film into a scrappy $20m indie.

The parallels between Wahlberg's and Ward's backgrounds are undeniable – both grew up in working-class neighbourhoods in Massachusetts.

"Lowell, where Micky grew up, is very similar to Dorchester where I come from," he explains. "There's so many similarities between our two families that it's easier to talk about what's different. The best way to sum it up is that he went into boxing and I went into entertainment. Other than that, we're both from a family of nine; we both had older brothers who were the apple of mommy's eye and we weren't really paid too much attention to. It just goes on and on. That's why we clicked so well. Both Micky and Dicky are very much like my brothers, and my mom is very much like Alice, their mother.

"Nothing was given to me, either. I had to go out, get it and earn it. But you feel better about it when you go out there and you work hard for something and you achieve your goal. And if you don't achieve your goal, you feel good about the fact you gave it your all. The biggest challenge was just looking like Micky in the ring. That took a lot of work but I was willing to do it."

Suggest that Wahlberg and Ward served as their family's breadwinners – although Marky Mark's success happened in the wake of his older brother Donnie's success in New Kids on the Block – and he hesitates. "To a certain extent that's true, but I wasn't initially the source of income in our household. When I was stealing and robbing and selling drugs, I wasn't sharing that money with anybody."

Nevertheless, Micky and Dicky's story proved irresistible. "I loved everything about it – their story, the adversity that they had to overcome; the heart that they had; the loyalty and love they had; the relationships; the strong characters from a female's perspective. The women in this movie are stronger than the men. They're certainly more controlling than the men."

It helped that the actor had a passion for boxing, too. "It's just the most brutally honest, real sport there is, hand-to-hand combat. There's nothing like it. It's just the beast in most men." Having effectively managed to placate his own beast, today shameful of his violent past, Wahlberg vents his aggression in his own private boxing ring. Along the way he has befriended many boxing legends, past and present, including Sugar Ray Leonard, who makes a cameo in The Fighter.

"I built my own boxing ring and a fully equipped gym at my home because I wanted to play a boxer so badly. I was at the gym most days by 4am, just hitting the mitts. Just to become Micky Ward. I knew the expectation that Micky had of me was high. When it came to filming it was fairly easy because I'd prepared so long and so hard. We went in there and we really hit each other but that only took three days. The training altogether was four and a half years," says the actor, who also acquired a broken nose. "My worst injury is to my hand. I've broken bones in my hand a lot of times."

Ask if anyone has been on the receiving end of his own glove, and Wahlberg can't resist bragging. "I feel bad saying it but I've fractured a lot of ribs on other people and a lot of concussions. One friend had some bleeding in the brain, and that wasn't good and it happened at my house. We're still friends and he came back to train. We never punched in the head again but we'd still spar to the body.

"Another guy cracked his rib on this side and then he tore the muscles on the other side in pain and he kind of collapsed holding both sides, and his pants fell down to his ankles. And we felt bad that he was hurt but it was so funny that his pants fell down," he says, cracking a smile. "But those are the risks you take going into the ring. Everybody who goes in is aware of that."

At one stage, Wahlberg's passion for boxing even threatened his marriage. His wife was furious when he brought Ward and Eklund home to stay with the family for a month. "She wasn't so much worried about Micky but she'd seen the documentary about Dicky doing crack and was worried because we have small children, and the documentary showed him stealing and robbing and going to prison. I said, 'Don't worry. He's cool.' It all turned out fine and it was a really big help for Christian to spend time with Dicky and to have them there, to train with them, pick their brains and study them."

The experience, however, wasn't all smooth-sailing. "There were some little issues, like I made the mistake of leaving 60 pages of the script on the table and Dicky read stuff out of context and freaked out and threatened to beat the shit out of David [the director]. But I'd talk him off the ledge. There's always something with Dicky."

If his wife was concerned about having the boxer brothers in their home, today she has bigger problems as the couple's four children have developed a love of the sport. "My kids love to go in the ring. My sons take karate, which teaches them a lot of discipline, but the only one they can fight with is daddy and they like to do it every chance that they get," he grins.

With Wahlberg's 40th birthday looming in June, he's now eating his words over a previous pledge to retire at 40, saying. "I said that before I had four children. I certainly don't want to work as much – when I said that at the time I was working so hard, my whole life was about work. Now my priorities have changed and shifted. I'm enjoying work right now. So if I can work when I want with who I want – and that's obviously a big dream, but if the stars are aligned correctly and I only do things that I can be proud of or at least turn out to be things I can be proud of – that would be perfect."

If The Fighter is a cautionary tale about drugs, it also serves as a reminder of Wahlberg's youthful mistakes. "But I don't dwell on the past too much because I have so much going on that I live with in the present every day. There is a part of me that always hopes for the best but expects the worst. There's a big part of me that feels like this is too good to be true so it's going to be over sooner rather than later. I'll go back home and I'm fine with that, and hopefully I've done people proud. I've helped people along the way, so when I go home I'll be welcomed with open arms. That's always been in the back of my mind."

In some respects, he's been given more chances than most. "I understood that the odds were against me but I was up for the challenge and nothing has ever come easy to me so I was willing to do the work, literally one job at a time. Approaching it like it was a marathon and never getting frustrated with the failures and the disappointments and the rejection because you've just got to keep chipping away. I've been fortunate enough to convince some of the most talented film-makers in the business that I can do the best job for them and that I can deliver for them. I've been very fortunate and I certainly don't feel any sense of entitlement, I feel like I got lucky and that's why I show up early and I know my lines. I'll do anything for anybody."

Despite the accolades The Fighter is receiving, Wahlberg insists there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He was forced to go back into training when Russell requested he re-shoot a scene after production had wrapped.

"By then, I was filming The Other Guys, having a great time because, after four years of training and watching my weight, I got to stuff my face every day and drink a lot of wine. By the end of it, I put on over 30lbs. Then David asked if I could do a couple of extra shots of the last fight, when Micky is in his best shape. I really didn't want to do it but he persisted so I spoke to the trainer and the nutritionist who figured we could do it in five weeks. I said, 'Look, I'm not paying for it!', because I'd paid for everything out of my own pocket – all the years of training and paying the nutritionist and the trainer. All of those things came out of my own pocket and I got paid no money to make the movie.

"They knew how desperate I was to make the movie so they made a deal where even if The Fighter made Avatar money, I'll still make no money. And I was OK with that, just to get the movie made, but I wasn't going to continue to pay after the fact. So they were nice enough to pick up the bill for five weeks of training."

If it seems hard to believe that a savvy deal-maker such as Wahlberg would settle for such terms, he smiles smugly. "This movie will allow me to make hundreds of millions of dollars from other things and sometimes you've got to give a little to get a lot. A lot of the movies that I got paid ridiculous and obscene amounts of money for are things I'd hope would never see the light of day and I'm embarrassed to have made. But The Fighter was just something that had to be done."

'The Fighter' opens on 4 February

It's a knockout: Five fight classics

Raging Bull (1980)

Martin Scorsese constructs a full-blown American epic out of the troubled life of middleweight champ Jake La Motta, the so-called "Bronx Bull". Robert De Niro excels as the self-destructive fighter who piled on the pounds outside the ring.

Fat City (1972)

The director John Huston was no sentimentalist but his film about small-time boxers is imbued with tenderness and sympathy for their plight. He knew what it was like to lose. Look out for the scene in which the loudmouth boasts, Muhammad Ali-like, how he is going to whup his opponent, and is then led back into the changing room a bleeding mess.

Fighters (1991)

Ron Peck's documentary is a moving and insightful portrait of East End boxers who see the fight game as their way to a better life.

Thriller in Manila (2008)

We're so used to the Muhammad Ali version of fight history. The genius of John Dower's documentary is that it looks at one of Ali's most famous fights many years on from the perspective of his still embittered opponent, Smokin' Joe Frazier.

Body and Soul (1947)

Long before De Niro or Pacino, John Garfield gave a ferocious, Method-style performance. He was Oscar-nominated for his role as a fighter corrupted by his own success.