At first, it seems like there are two Mark Wahlbergs. Last Sunday at the Golden Globe awards, he was Wahlberg the mini-mogul. Resplendent in an old-school tuxedo, with Diddy as his date (the two are developing some projects together, Wahlberg told MTV), he held court at one of HBO's tables, and though the show he produces, Boardwalk Empire, didn't win anything this year, his wattage as one of Hollywood's hottest hyphenates was undiminished. On any given day, Wahlberg, 41, is starring in and/or promoting movies that he may or may not have produced, as well as producing and/or promoting TV series that he may or may not appear in. His most recent film, the crime thriller Broken City, opened yesterday.
In early December, when Wahlberg blew through Toronto, he wore his other persona, the tough from hardscrabble South Boston. He slouched on a hotel sofa dressed in work boots, a jacket that read "Crew" and jeans with rips in both thighs; he kept fingering the rips as he talked. His customary couple of guys, including his brother James, were along (the HBO series he inspired and produced, Entourage, wasn't all fiction). Later, his old pal Tie Domi, the former Maple Leafs enforcer, joined them, reeking of cologne, and they put on a little show.
Wahlberg, who learned to box for 2010's The Fighter, joshingly challenged Domi to a fight at the Air Canada Centre ("In boxing, you can't hold somebody's shirt and punch him in the head," he dissed). Domi countered with, "I've watched Mark shoot fight scenes. No one's hitting his pretty face. I fought the most fights in NHL history, 333. Guys a lot bigger than me, who were trying to kill me. I didn't have anyone there to say, 'Cut.'" Then the two pretended to square off while two comely female reporters took cellphone photos.
So which is the real Wahlberg? The one in the tux, of course – but he keeps the Southie alive in him, because that's what got him here. The youngest of nine siblings, Wahlberg grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with his working-class parents and a grandmother. Four of his siblings did time, as did he: four months in prison for a racially motivated assault on a Vietnamese man that left his victim blind in one eye.
That experience scared him so straight that he hasn't stopped working since, first as the rapper Marky Mark, then as an Oscar-nominated actor (The Departed). It's why he's such a dedicated a family man (he's been with his wife, the model Rhea Durham, since 2001); why he's so determined that his two daughters and two sons, aged 9 to 3, learn to appreciate what they have and give back. It's why he formed The Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for inner-city youth; and why he spent the day after our interview working the phones for a joint fundraiser with CIBC. It's why he got his largest tattoo, an inked rosary around his neck, and it's why he still gets on his knees every day to thank God for what he's got.
"I always feel like there's a good chance I'm going to end up back there," Wahlberg says. Even his voice has a dual nature: It's raspy with a cold and clotted with Southie vowels, but also soft and lilting. (Andy Samberg's Wahlberg impression on Saturday Night Live, with its catchphrase, "Say hi to your muttha for me," nailed his mix of tough and sweet.) "It keeps me focused and working hard and trying to do the right thing. I don't want to let my guard down and feel too comfortable. If you become complacent, you start feeling entitled. I'm ready to go dig ditches if I have to. Whatever I gotta do to provide for my family. Whatever I gotta do to make sure that I do the best possible job at whatever wonderful opportunities I've been handed."
His production company, Closest to the Hole, rose from his need to be self-sustaining: "Producing gives you a lot of control, and that's always been the issue for me," he says. "I would rather be the one driving the car. If we crash, at least I can blame myself."
Inherently frugal, he's figured out how to do more with less. For example, his upcoming action comedy 2 Guns, opposite Denzel Washington, was originally budgeted at $150-million (U.S.). Wahlberg hired the rising Icelandic director Baltazar Kormakur, who knows how to make small budgets look big, and shot it in New Mexico in 50 days, for half the price.
"Before us, The Lone Ranger was there," Wahlberg says, grinning. "It's about two guys on horses, and it cost $280-million to make. What the fuck were these horses doing? Do they fly? It's crazy!"
And no matter how hard he works, Wahlberg never complains. "We just did a movie that was really difficult to make, Lone Survivor," he says. "It's about the worst tragedy in the history of the Navy SEALS; it's the fourth movie that I've done in a row; and it was close to being one of the most difficult that I've made throughout my entire career." The rigorous shoot was demanding both physically and emotionally – "what really happened to this man who was standing on-set with us, the trauma that would never go away for him; and what happened to the guys and their families, and to the people of Afghanistan," he continues. "I wanted to complain. I really did. But I wouldn't. I might go home after a hard day and shed a tear or two. But I won't complain."
Nor will he slow down. Despite making four movies back-to-back, producing television, working with his charity and raising his young children, Wahlberg still calls his agent and his manager/producing partner "10 times a day, asking, 'What are we doing?'" Although he just wrapped one film, and has his next lined up – the fourth Transformers, with director Michael Bay, which he'll shoot this spring – "I feel like I'm unemployed right now," he says. "I may try to squeeze something in beforehand. I just have that mentality, strike while the iron's hot, because it could all be gone tomorrow."
In Broken City, which he also produced, Wahlberg plays a dirty-seeming cop who investigates a clean-seeming mayor (Russell Crowe). He understood his character's journey, because he lived it. "I had to do some redeeming myself," he sums up. "The bad guy who's trying to do something good is usually the one I root for."