Mark Wahlberg has come a long way from his time with the Funky Bunch. His well-respected roles in major Hollywood hits like Boogie Nights (1997), Three Kings (1999), The Italian Job (2003), I Heart Huckabees (2004), Four Brothers (2005) and The Departed (2006) have been more than matched by his success in recent years as Executive Producer for HBO's hit shows Entourage, In Treatment, How To Make It In America and Boardwalk Empire. Wahlberg recentlt sat down for an interview with Buzzine to promote his latest acting role: professional boxer "Irish" Mickey Ward in David O. Russell's sporting biopic 'The Fighter'.
Emmanuel Itier: Why did you want to make this movie?
Mark Wahlberg: I wanted to make a boxing movie, and I'd talked about a movie where I’d play Vinnie Curto and Bob De Niro would play his trainer, Angelo Dundee. I tried to make The Black Dahlia with Brian De Palma because there was an element of boxing in it. I’d already built a ring in my backyard by then. I first met Micky [Ward] when I was 18 years old, and was a huge fan. I thought this is the movie I should make. John Herzfeld and I went to Lowell to see Micky and Dicky [Eklund] and talked about the possibility. But we found they’d already sold the rights ten times over, and it had become such a cluster fuck that it seemed there was no way we’d be able to sort it out. Then, five years ago, Brad Weston called me and said he had a script to send me. "It’s about Irish Micky Ward the boxer," he said. "Do you know him?" I was blown away by the script and thought, we’re getting this done. So I started training the day I got back from vacation. That’s how this whole thing began. Then we went from one co-star to another, different writers, directors, the whole thing.
EI: You grew up on the streets, in a tough neighborhood like they did?
MW: There were so many comparisons to my life, my story, my upbringing. I am the youngest of nine kids. My brother was much more successful and was looked at as the chosen one, while I was the one in trouble. And I had to play Micky. Dicky was a flashier role, but it wasn’t about that for me. It was about being believable as a guy who could win the welterweight title and not look like an actor who could maybe box a little bit. And those four-and-a-half years turned out to be the best thing for me. But if somebody had come to me and said you’re going to have to train that long to make a movie, I’d have said I’m fairly athletic and willing to work hard--I can do this in six months. And I never stopped training, even when I was making other movies. I assured them that they would be portrayed in the light they deserved, that I cared about them and was so proud of what they were able to do in circumstances like that. That’s the only way I know how to do things. Like when I was doing The Perfect Storm and portraying Bobby Shatford, I went to his family and stayed with them. I wanted them to feel like we were going to protect him.
EI: What was the reaction of Micky and Dicky to the film?
MW: I showed it to them twice. First time, it was me and David [O. Russell], Christian [Bale], and a couple other people at Paramount. I realized how difficult it must be to see your life up there on the big screen condensed to under two hours. I said, "Come see it with an audience." We did that in New Jersey, and that was an experience. This movie is so down and dirty and real, but it has a lot of humor and emotion, and an amazing payoff at the end. To see the crowd’s reaction, I really felt proud. Micky got it the first time he saw it. For Dicky, it was harder to swallow. The fact is, he blew it. He was able to help his brother but felt like he’d ruined his own opportunity. That’s something that is never easy to fully accept. There was always one role for me to play, and that was the champ. I wasn’t giving up the belt. And look, who else was going to play that part and be believable as a guy who could win the welterweight title? I love so many boxing films, and what I wanted to do was to create the most realistic boxing in the movie and look like I could win that title.
EI: Which fights inspired you?
MW: There are so many. Raging Bull is so different than Rocky. Daniel Day-Lewis was very good in a lot of ways in The Boxer. Body and Soul. And Robert Ryan, Kirk Douglas... We wanted to make one that was our own, but there was a little bit of the dark side of Raging Bull and some Rocky. You see Micky Ward in any of his great fights and they play like Rocky because of his style of fighting. And let’s not forget Hilary Swank. She looked good in there, starting out with no knowledge about a boxing ring. She’d never hit a speed bag, but she had heart and desire. She was fearless and was willing to get out there and go for it. And toward the end, she started looking pretty damn good.
EI: What part of that character appealed to you most?
MW: Micky is the most humble guy I’ve met in my life. He doesn’t feel bad that he only made a couple of seven-figure paydays when he was champ. He’s a Teamster now in Boston, takes pride in what he does, and has a gym where he trains people. He’s a warm, caring guy. Then you get in the ring with him. You think, "He’s my friend, I’m playing him in this movie, this will be fun." I’m very much like that too. The guy who tells the story through his eyes is a much more difficult part to play, harder than the part that has the flash and is big and in your face. That was Micky.
EI: When did you most fear that this movie wasn’t going to happen?
MW: I really couldn’t look at it like that. I’d already told Micky that we were going to get it done, and I was getting three or four phone calls a week from him. I knew it meant everything to him and to Dicky to have their story told, so this movie had to get made. I had to figure it out. At Paramount, they had a certain idea of how they wanted the movie to be made--the filmmaker, the costar and the budget--and we went down the road with a couple other people, and it didn’t work out. So I went to the studio and said, "I think I can figure out a way to get this movie done. Can you let me take it for a little while and then bring it back to you?" And they entrusted me with that. I thought I had figured out a way to make the best possible version of this movie, and I was able to get that done. From a practical standpoint, if you work out for two years and you don’t do it again for six months, you’re back to square one. It’s not like riding a bike, where you get right back on it. That training process was as expensive as it was time-consuming. It wasn’t like somebody else was footing the bill. I was dragging these guys around with me everywhere we went, putting them up in apartments when I was in different cities, on different locations, making films and promoting films... There were times we were so desperate to make the movie that we almost made the wrong version of the movie. And for whatever reason, we were protected. I was able to get David O. Russell. And after spending a lot of time with David, I just thought he could make a version of this movie we hadn’t been looking to make before. It would still be very real, but it would have more heart, humor, and emotion.
EI: What about the intensity level?
MW: People expected all kinds of fireworks, but that wasn’t going to go down. Christian felt like David had a really good take on the film and on his part, and we all felt that less was more when it came to the drugs and the addiction thing. Everybody was excited about making this. We all felt we were onto something special. I tried to set the tone early on, and the vibe was good all the way through. We were telling a story important not only to us, but the real people involved, who were a big part of things. Dicky stayed at my house while we were training, and Christian and David would come over every morning. We would write in the guesthouse and do casting there.
EI: What about Bale's performance most surprised you?
MW: I wasn’t really surprised. I’d seen The Machinist and Rescue Dawn, and I knew that he was willing to go there. It was such a big commitment to the role and a risky move in some ways, but I just knew he would be willing to go there.
EI: What about when you consider taking a big cut to get a picture made?
MW: This wasn’t hard at all. If you make those kinds of sacrifices for a good movie, all that other stuff will continue to be there for you. I’m more nervous about taking a big salary on a big budget movie where, if it doesn’t succeed, you’re in big trouble because you take all that weight for its failure. I believed in this movie and that it was an amazing story that could inspire people. I thought those guys were so heroic, and I’d given my word and I didn’t want to be that guy who said, "Hey, we’re doing something," and then not. But I’ve learned not to count my chickens before they hatch. You have no idea. This movie was pretty much a go back at the beginning. So I’m at a junket, and when they ask what’s next, I say I’m going to do The Fighter with so and so. Then you’re promoting the next movie and the question is, so when are you doing The Fighter? And you’re just like, "Oh no." You say, "We didn’t do it yet, but we’re going to get it done." And then it became this ongoing joke. Every time I promoted a movie, I’d see someone else I’d talked to about the movie with such enthusiasm. Now I don’t like to talk about things until I’m on the set. By far. I’ve never had anything like this. I hope I never have to go through anything like this again, even though the results were extremely positive. It was nerve-wracking, physically and mentally exhausting, right down to the final hours. But that’s symbolic of who Micky was--the guy who never gave up, who never quit. Playing him, I literally got into that head space. I’m like that anyway. I’d never be in the position I’m in if my attitude had been, "If it happens, great, and if it doesn’t, okay." I’m not one of those guys where they just opened the gate and said come in and do whatever you want.
EI: What about Amy Adams?
MW: I’d met her a long time ago on another movie. I watched her rise and thought she was such a good, well-rounded actress, and I knew she looked the part--that Irish Catholic girl from Dorchester, Southie, or Charlestown, or any of those areas. But it was more a matter of her wanting to do it as opposed to any doubt that she could. Charlene [Fleming] wasn’t as pivotal a role in the earlier versions. The role was actually very small, but David really wanted to beef that part up, and it was part of the effort to make it more appealing to women. We thought all along that guys would love this movie, but how were we going to get women? Boy, did we get lucky there. But whatever needs to be done, I enjoy doing it. I’ve always thought of myself as someone with street smarts to make stuff happen. I try to make people feel good about getting involved and being part of something. And thankfully, the stuff I’ve produced to this point has been well-received. When you get a track record, it’s easier to tell someone, "This is going to be great." When it came to Mickey O’Keefe and Melissa Leo, there were a lot of other big names being talked about. I’d seen Melissa in Frozen River and didn’t really know who she was at the time. And there were one or two other people I thought could have been real in that role who wouldn’t come in and think, "This is a chance for me to chew it up," because that would have taken away from the authenticity of the piece. With Mickey O’Keefe, I had to insist he be there the entire time. If we’d cast an actor, we’d have one more person who’d only been around a boxing ring a couple of weeks. I needed the real guy. Even if he wasn’t going to be good in the performance, he would be believable working in the ring with me during the training, and he ended up being so good in his performance because he is real. There were times he was nervous and looked like a deer in the headlights, but we got through it. I was able to use my relationship with HBO to get a pay TV window and get them to give us the rights to all the fight footage and the commentators. Thank God I had that relationship through our television series, because I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get that. I wanted it shot like a real fight, so we used HBO, their cameras, their operators... These same guys who shot our fights are going to do the Manny Pacquiao vs. Antonio Margarito fight. The guy who directed them shot the Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti fight. Some directors we talked to about doing the movie said there’s no way you can do this in 33 days--you’ll need 30 days just to shoot the fights. I’m like, what are we going to do for 30 days? Rub oil on each other, put the dolly in the ring, and all this craziness? With real fights, they get shot in 12 rounds with a minute in between. These guys don’t miss a thing, and they don’t know what’s going to happen. We have the luxury of showing them in the morning what will happen, and to do it multiple times. We were using real fighters who weren’t messing around, and I thought we could do those fights in a day or two, but added a day to be safe. And we got it done in those three days.
EI: How did you get Sugar Ray Leonard to play himself in the film?
MW: I’ve known him a long time. We play golf together. I’d told him about the movie, and he talks about his experience in Lowell as one of the most memorable in his whole fight career. It was such a hostile environment, he remembers it like it was yesterday. He was excited, and I just had to stay on him. I’d been told, "Let’s get somebody else to play Sugar Ray." I said, "Why would you get somebody else to play Ray when we can get Sugar Ray?" He looks more like Sugar Ray than anybody else! And he’s still young and fit. It was amazing to see him and the real Dicky in the ring in Lowell. After he shot a scene, Ray got in the ring and people gave him a standing ovation, and he was moved by that because he most certainly did not get a standing ovation when he fought Dicky.
EI: Would you like to direct?
MW: Definitely. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of talented filmmakers, and I’ve tried to study them throughout the course of production, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to make a film I would act in.
EI: Anything else coming up?
MW: We’ve been developing the John Roberts story. We have the rights of those guys, John Roberts and Mickey Munday, and set it at Paramount as well. Evan Wright did a pass on the script and will have somebody else doing another. There are a couple other things we want to put together. It’s nice not waiting around for somebody to offer you a part that might further your career or give you an opportunity to do something great. You’ve got to get out there and create those opportunities for yourself.
EI: Where do you see yourself right now?
MW: My life has changed in a more dramatic and different direction than the storyline of Entourage. I’m married with four kids. With Entourage or Boardwalk Empire, what I do depends on what’s called for--putting out fires, getting people to take part... One of the things on Boardwalk was convincing Marty Scorsese that doing television could actually be a great thing, and that HBO would be a wonderful experience for him.
EI: What about The Fighter made you most proud?
MW: Just getting it made in what I think is the best possible version of the movie. Getting David to direct, getting Christian on board... The first time I screened the movie, I was just looking but not really watching. I was so shocked we’d actually gotten it done, and I needed to see it again right away because I hadn’t paid attention to whether it was any good or not. Then I watched it and thought, "Wow, we’ve really got something here." Keeping my word with Mickey was great, and having Paramount say, "You were right, we love the way you did it..." It’s as much their movie as mine. We all went down this road, along with David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman. And Relativity was willing to step up to the plate and believe in it and me. So to go through all that, and then see people respond to the drama and the fights and feel that buzz build...this doesn’t happen that often. And I’ve been on the other side, where you had the best intentions going in, and things just don’t work out the way you want.
Relativity Media's The Fighter is in theaters now.