The former Boston street punk known as Mark Wahlberg has done well for himself. He dropped out of school after finishing the eighth grade and cleaned up his tough-guy act after doing 50 days of jail time for beating on some people when he was 16. Soon after, he took center stage as the frontman for Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, selling plenty of records and selling out concert halls in the States and in Europe. Then, with his music career fading as fast as it had blossomed, he turned to acting, with a surprisingly strong screen debut in Penny Marshall's Renaissance Man.
His newest film is the remake of The Italian Job. On top of that, Wahlberg and his girlfriend, fashion model Reah Durham, are expecting a baby girl this summer.
Wahlberg, now 31, is still reeling a bit at the turn of events in his life over the past decade.
"I don't really know what happened," he says of his careers.
Wahlberg admits he had some interest in making movies, but because of his success in music, he was only offered roles like playing the white rapper in Sister Act 2, something he wasn't at all interested in doing. But neither was he interested in going in the musical directions his record company was suggesting. So he decided to wait out his six-year contract, then see what happened.
That's when he met Penny Marshall and Danny De Vito. They were in the planning stages of making Renaissance Man.
"We clicked right away," he recalls. "Next thing you know I found myself flying back and forth, auditioning, screen testing, begging for the role. And I ended up getting it. She said to me, 'You've been acting most of your life -- it just hasn't been in front of the camera. Know your lines and make it real.' So I was in 20 weeks of the Penny Marshall school of acting and after that I didn't want to do anything else. I just dove into it and never looked back."
But while The Italian Job -- a caper movie about a talented group of thieves who pull off a big heist, lose everything to a turncoat, then set out on the road to revenge -- was a load of laughs for Wahlberg and company, his movie career hasn't exactly been a piece of cake. Even after his breakthrough role in Boogie Nights, there were still obstacles.
Wahlberg smiles and says, "I remember sitting down with a director once who said, 'You were amazing in Boogie Nights, it was fantastic; but you're not really right for this role. We need a guy like that white rapper, Marky Mark. We need a guy like that, who can also act.' I just kinda shook my head. I said, 'Good luck, I hope you find what you're looking for,' and I left."
But he was the right guy for starring or co-starring parts in The Perfect Storm, Planet of the Apes, Rock Star, and others. These days his choices are made in tandem with his management team.
"I have an agent who handles the deals and is a killer in negotiations, and I have a manager who knows my taste and my capabilities," he explains. "We all try to figure out what we want to do next. But my system is filmmaker first, script second, part third."
In the case of The Italian Job, it was a little different. He got a phone call from director F. Gary Gray (A Man Apart) asking if he would read the script.
"He talked about who else he wanted to cast, and how he wanted to make it character-driven," says Wahlberg. "I thought it sounded good and I liked the script. He convinced me it would be a challenge and that I hadn't done a part like this yet and that we would have a blast. And it wasn't even like work. I was sitting on the set in the Italian Alps with Edward Norton and Donald Sutherland, drinking wine and talking about movies. It was really a joy.
"The role posed some different challenges to me as an actor," he adds. "Just in the fact that I had never really focused on playing likeable. So I was kind of hamming it up a tiny bit and smiling a little more, having a little more fun."
And though it's an ensemble cast, Wahlberg plays the leader of the gang. In the eyes of Hollywood, that means the pressure is on him to carry the film.
"No, I don't think there's that kind of pressure," he says. Then he stops talking, thinks to himself, chuckles and adds, "Well, if it makes 250 million dollars at the box office, it was a Mark Wahlberg film."
He refers to acting as "a tough job and an easy job and an amazing job." But he feels he can only do it for a limited time.
"That's because now I'm having a family," he says. "I can only put myself first for so long. I've got another nine years of really pursuing my career at an intense pace, and then I'll see where I'm at."
Does that mean there could be a return of Marky Mark?
"Actually, I did do that in Europe," he says. "In order to succeed as an actor I couldn't take any paydays for the music for a long time. But even after Boogie Nights, I would jump on the road in Europe and go out and do a couple of concerts and make some money."
He stops talking again, then smiles, leans forward, and lowers his voice. "I would do that as Marky Mark, and then come back here. And nobody knew."