Mark Wahlberg: The bad boy who rode the storm

Teenage tearaway. Beefed-up rapper. Underwear model. Hollywood star. Whatever will Mark Wahlberg do next?
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The Independent Online

At the grand old age of 29, Mark Wahlberg has just got serious. After all these years, he's finally abandoned the glam wet T-shirt look, around which he made his name, for the frumpy wet- shoes look in his role as a fisherman in The Perfect Storm, released here last weekend. This new-found blue-collar seriousness may astound earlier admirers of his highly artificial, pretty-boy image. For from his days as a beefed-up Boston jailbird to his brief career as the muscular white-bread rapper Marky Mark, Wahlberg has always been marketed as "macho-lite" - an image reinforced when he donned those sparkling white Calvin Klein undies for the iconic 1992 advertising campaign credited with turning Calvin Klein's finances around.

At the grand old age of 29, Mark Wahlberg has just got serious. After all these years, he's finally abandoned the glam wet T-shirt look, around which he made his name, for the frumpy wet- shoes look in his role as a fisherman in The Perfect Storm, released here last weekend. This new-found blue-collar seriousness may astound earlier admirers of his highly artificial, pretty-boy image. For from his days as a beefed-up Boston jailbird to his brief career as the muscular white-bread rapper Marky Mark, Wahlberg has always been marketed as "macho-lite" - an image reinforced when he donned those sparkling white Calvin Klein undies for the iconic 1992 advertising campaign credited with turning Calvin Klein's finances around.

True, he'd already gained good reviews as a serious thesp in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 Happy Valley porn epic Boogie Nights, but they were largely overshadowed by the notoriety attracted by the 14-inch prosthetic manhood he revealed in the film's final scene. It's a role that still haunts him: the evening after I met Wahlberg at the Dorchester Hotel in London, he complained to friends of being pestered in the Men's Room of the trendy Met Bar - not by propositioning gay men, but by drunk, insecure punters taking the chance for a peek at his, er, star asset. And when you tell women you're going to meet him, they seem to smile in this thoughtful, mysterious way as if they've been transported to some miraculous realm at the mere mention of his name.

It's as George Clooney's leading man that he's finally making a break with the froth of his past. Their partnership in The Perfect Storm is the second in a series of films they plan to make together, following this year's highly original Gulf War satire, Three Kings. Clooney has also acted as producer for Wahlberg's soon-to-be-released Metal God project - in which Wahlberg takes on the role of a long-haired heavy metal guitarist pretending to be British in a British metal band. And the pair are about to team up again for a re-make of the cult "Rat Pack" movie Oceans Eleven. No wonder there have been rumours that the pair's relationship goes beyond mere friendship - rumours stoked up by Clooney mischievously airing the possibility at numerous US press conferences.

"It's funny," says Wahlberg, looking decidedly shifty on the subject. "But the last time I was over here I was confronted about being a gay-basher and now they're asking about these rumours of me being gay." He's referring to the accusations of homophobia that arose after a 1992 appearance on the infamous late-night pop programme The Word, when he remained silent as another guest, cadaverous ragga musician Shabba Ranks, briskly expanded on his belief that homosexuals should be "crucified". A conviction for assault on a Boston security guard soon after, which led to community service and appearances in anti-racist and anti-homophobia TV ads, have long made the subject a sore-spot for him.

For the record: George was joking, Wahlberg isn't gay, and furthermore the former rapper still claims he isn't homophobic. "I do consider myself tolerant," he says with an air of tortured anguish. "Very, very tolerant. But there's one thing I can't tolerate and that is people who take advantage of people who can't protect themselves. I didn't react to Shabba because I didn't think I was in a position to stand up for one group and denounce another. I said to him afterwards: 'did you miss the part of the Bible where it says you shouldn't judge people?' I've been faced with that - being judged - my whole life. Boston is not an easy place to grow up in a number of ways'.

Boston, Wahlberg's birthplace, looms large in his life. He's always had something of a love-hate relationship with his background, bitterly telling one interviewer recently: "People there are much happier when you don't try to do anything for yourself. They're really not supportive of change. The only reason I go back there is because of family." After a spell in prison as a youngster (he got 45 days in Deer Island, aged 16, for assault on a Korean shop-owner after an argument over a case of beer), Wahlberg was saved from a life on the wrong side of the tracks by his brother Donnie - who became a wealthy pop star with boy band New Kids on the Block and secured a music contract for his miscreant sibling. I get the feeling that the spectre of another life - that of a crack-addict in a stinking Boston tenement - stalks Mark Wahlberg every time he walks down the red carpet of a premiÿre gala in LA.

But right now he is keen to emphasise the links between his own past and that of the fishing community of Gloucester, Massachussetts (an hour or so from where Wahlberg grew up), portrayed in The Perfect Storm. He still sees himself as rooted in that blue-collar environment, claiming he took the role of fisherman Bobby Shatford "because to see some kid from [California's] Happy Valley in the part would have broke my heart". After all, producers also had a stronger interest than usual in "keeping it real" with this movie - it is based on Sebastian Junger's bestselling account of the devastating storm which hit that coast in October 1991.

Total immersion in the part seemed to Wahlberg to be the best method of preparation. So before the movie began shooting he moved into The Crow's Nest, the favourite watering hole of the local fishing community. He was even given his character's old bedroom and looked after by his character's mother. "I had to reach out to them and make them aware of my intentions," he recalls. "It's obviously a very sensitive subject. But they were very happy that a guy from their neck of the woods was playing the part. It's OK for Clooney and all those guys in LA with their big mansions. I live with my mom in Braintree, south of Boston, and if I get it wrong these guys know where to find me. They'll come down and find me - about 50 fishermen - and kick my ass."

Hollywood, however, looms large in his future. Current projects include a major role in Tim Burton's upcoming Planet Of The Apes re-make, being fast-tracked for next summer. "It's the first time I've accepted a role without reading the script," says Wahlberg of the film, in which he'll act opposite ape-villains Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. Then there's a movie about a boy band to be directed by Spike Jonze of Being John Malkovich fame. Squeaky-clean popsters N Sync were rumoured by one US newspaper to be involved. "Me and Spike Jonze started a boy band called Four of a Kind when we were filming Three Kings," says Wahlberg, "and we've got a four- or five-song demo with Spike rapping about girls, popcorn-love. And I wrote this script about the development of a boy band. It's very dark, though, ve-ry dark. Which is why I don't think the guys from N Sync will do it. There are similar things in it to my brother's New Kids experience..." He doesn't elaborate, but that boy band descended into a long-overdue break-up in 1994, several years past their prime.

Despite being one of the hottest properties in film, Wahlberg still doesn't seem secure in his status, however. It's as if he thinks he's in a dream and might just wake up and find himself in that other life he narrowly escaped. He injured his ear on the set of Metal God, and hurt himself again in The Perfect Storm - but says he's not pursuing the insurers over his injuries. Why not? The same reason he says he doesn't play basketball with Clooney between takes - nervous, self-protective caution. "If George breaks an ankle they shut it [the movie] down," he says. "If Mark breaks an ankle, call in another guy. I got injured twice on my first movie - I learnt the hard way."

He shouldn't worry. The Perfect Storm has passed the magic $100m mark in the US. So next time if he injures his pinkie or has to bandage his toe, they'll put the movie on hold. James Foley, who directed Wahlberg in his one celluloid mistake so far, the stalker movie Fear, intriguingly compares his rise to that of a certain media dominatrix for its equivalent level of ballsy, sassy ambition. "He has an uncanny understanding of what kind of personality gets carved on the media's mind," observes Foley. "The only smarter person I've met about this is Madonna."

The pop and pants days are behind him - Mark Wahlberg has truly arrived. Now it seems that all he has to do is convince himself of the fact.

'The Perfect Storm' (12) is out now. A shorter version of this interview appears in the current edition of 'The Big Issue'

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