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Mark Wahlberg premiered his latest film at AFI Fest last month, the film festival programmed by the American Film Institute in Hollywood, California. At the world premiere of The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg sat down for a Q&A to discuss his career and latest film.

The Gambler stars Wahlberg as Jim Bennett, a literature professor by day and compulsive gambler by night. The film is a remake of a 1974 film starring James Caan. With a new script by William Monahan (The Departed) and directed by Rupert Wyatt, Wahlberg wanted to see if we’d still like him as a hopeless character. 

“The first thing we talked about was we realized that Jim was not the most likable guy in the world but he’s interesting enough that we think people will watch him, and how far can we push that?” Wahlberg said. “I wanted to do something completely different. I get an opportunity to play a literary professor, why not take a shot?” 

Muscular Mark W

In The Fighter, Wahlberg played boxer Mickey Ward. In Lone Survivor he played Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. He’s played cops, thieves, even an astronaut in Planet of the Apes and a porn star in Boogie Nights, but portraying a literature professor made him the most nervous.

“There wasn’t anything that I wouldn’t do to prepare for the role so whether it be spending time with a lot of literary professors all over the country while I was shooting another film, whatever I had to do I was more than willing to do it,” he said. 

Playing Jim Bennett was particularly important to Wahlberg because he dropped out of school himself. “I quit school when I was in the eighth grade. I did go back to get my GED. It was very important for me not to be in a situation where I had to explain to my children why I didn’t graduate yet I force them to go to school every day, and try to impart how important it is to get an education, but I think that’s the biggest regret I had. Now hopefully I’m in a position where I continue to further my education, by being believable as a literary professor, being able to believe in myself going out there saying those words, feeling confident being in that classroom.”

To further distinguish Jim Bennett from the typical Mark Wahlberg character, the actor lost 60 pounds. Wahlberg typically looks like a heroic specimen, whether fighting robots in Transformers: Age of Extinction, playing a football player in Invincible or actually a bodybuilder in Pain & Gain

“Once I start doing something, I have a tendency to obsess over it a little bit,” Wahlberg said. “I was on this liquid diet for six weeks and I continued to jump rope and run. As you see at the end of the movie, I was running all over L.A. I was losing weight while we were shooting so the continuity went out the window. So that was how that happened, but I was more focused on understanding the words that I had to speak in the classroom.”

The Gambler begins with a major gamble. After hitting a hot streak at blackjack, he bets it all on roulette and loses. The exact same thing actually happened to Wahlberg while prepping the movie, but his fellow gamblers didn’t understand why he was so happy to lose. 

The gambler“I was in Hong Kong finishing up Transformers so we had a little day trip to Macau,” Wahlberg said. “I went over to Macau with some friends and I actually went to a casino, played blackjack, won a bunch of money playing blackjack but I didn’t have any Hong Kong money. So I borrowed it from the guys that I was with. I win all this money, I got a hand at the casino, I got an Ace, then I got another Ace. I split, then got another Ace. Then I got Jack, Queen, King, won all this money, went right over to the roulette wheel, put it down, put it all on black, lost and left with the biggest smile on my face. They said, ‘What are you doing? You just lost all our money.’ I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand. When you see the movie, you’ll get it.’ It was perfect and I didn’t lose a penny so it was perfect. I’m not really big into gambling.”

The Gambler is poised to be the latest in a string of hits for Wahlberg that includes Transformers, Lone Survivor, 2 Guns, Pain & Gain, Ted and The Fighter. It’s hard to remember there was a time when people doubted he could act. In the ‘90s, Wahlberg was successful as the rapper Marky Mark, and a Calvin Klein model. He always loved movies though.

“I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m not supposed to be here right now. I kind of snuck in the back door. I never had really interest or desire in acting but I had a very strong love of cinema. My dad was a huge movie fan and he was also a teamster. I was the youngest of nine so I would be home and my dad would come home after working and he’d be sitting there either drinking a Schlitz or a coffee and brandy and said, ‘Let’s go to the movies.’ The first movie he ever took me too was Hard Times with Charles Bronson. I was probably seven  years old at the time, still remember it like it was yesterday.”

Mark and Jessica in The GamblerNow Wahlberg has his own children, and they are not allowed to see most of his movies. A lot of Wahlberg’s movies are rated R for language and violence. “They don’t understand why they can’t see Ted because they think oh, it’s just you and a teddy bear, Dad,” Wahlberg said. “They’ve seen Invincible because it’s a Disney movie and my sons are both football players. They saw Transformers, I tried to cover their ears any time there’s bad words. My wife’s not happy about it. I took my boys in to see the very beginning of Lone Survivor. But then once the swearing and the blood starts happening, I had to take them out.”

The young Wahlbergs want to be like Dad too, getting up early to work out, even though they can’t make it through the rest of the day afterwards. “I was in the gym this morning at 4:30 and now my wife’s getting upset because my kids wake up at 4:30 in the morning on school days to come and hang out with me in the gym. The teacher’s writing notes saying one o’clock, they fall asleep in the classroom. So I’m in big trouble for that.”

With the success of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Hollywood came calling, but they only wanted a version of Marky Mark. He turned down an offer to play a white rapper in Sister Act 2, but met with director Penny Marshall and star Danny DeVito for what would be his first movie, Renaissance Man.

Lit Class with Mark W“Penny and I started having discussion. She said, ‘Why don’t you want to act? You’re acting anyway. You act like a tough guy. You should give it a try.’ It was the first time I felt comfortable in the room. I felt really comfortable with them and five minutes after sitting with them, I found myself going outside the room with the sides, learning the lines and I auditioned for five different roles that day. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get this part.’ She was nice enough to call me to invite me to L.A. I had to fly myself to L.A. for a screen test. So I remember fighting for that part, finally got the part. I got the phone call, I was ecstatic. From the first moment I walked on set, I realized I had finally found my calling, my niche. I didn’t want to do anything else. I would literally be on set every single day because I wanted to understand everybody’s job, whether it was in front of the camera or behind the camera.” 

One movie wasn’t enough to get Wahlberg his next audition though, and it would take time before Renaissance Man was released. Scott Kalvert had directed Wahlberg in music videos, and wanted him to act in his first film, The Basketball Diaries.

“Scott Kalvert came to me and said to me, he had only said this to three guys that he worked with - he said it to Tupac, Will Smith and myself - he goes, ‘You guys should be actors and you will be actors.’”

Mark and Jessica

The star of the movie was Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom Wahlberg would later costar in The Departed, but in the ‘90s, they had a beef. “Leonardo DiCaprio and I had a weird run in at an MTV Rock n Jock basketball game,” Wahlberg recalled. “I was performing in my underwear at halftime and I think I blocked his shot. I was a punk, I was a prick, so I was not nice to Leo that day. [Kalvert] called me into audition, Leonardo said, ‘No way, I’m not making a movie with Marky Mark’ as did a lot of other people. So finally they convinced Leo to read with me and of course I show up eight hours late. By accident. I was in New York and there was going to be a snowstorm, so I said, ‘Let’s go to Puerto Rico for the weekend with my entourage.’ So we fly into Puerto Rico. My flight gets cancelled, I show up late, he’s sitting there pissed. We go into the audition, he’s sitting there pissed and I didn’t feel like he was necessarily the right guy for the part either. He’s not a New York street guy basketball player street legend. I’ve seen him play ball. So we both had a bit of a chip on our shoulders and then we started reading the scenes.”

DiCaprio ultimately became instrumental in Wahlberg booking his first leading role, as the scary boyfriend of Reese Witherspoon in Fear. “We became fast friends and he actually, he was having a meeting with James Foley shortly after we shot the movie. James Foley directed me in Fear. So [DiCaprio] says, ‘I’m not really right for this part. You should meet Mark Wahlberg.’ [Foley] said, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘This is going to sound crazy. You know the rapper Marky Mark?’ Foley goes, ‘What? Are you out of your f***ing mind?’ [DiCaprio] goes, ‘No, you should hire this guy to be in the movie.’ We have an eight hour meeting in New York. We have a blast. We hang out. By the time I get back to my house in Jersey, the phone’s ringing. He goes, ‘Dude, I just want to tell you something. I had a blast hanging out with you. There’s no way I can put you in the movie but I still want to be your friend.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t have hung out with you for eight hours if I wasn’t having a great time. Don’t worry about it. It’s your movie. Do whatever you gotta do.’”

Foley reconsidered though and let Wahlberg audition for the movie. Wahlberg nailed the audition and Foley fought to cast him. Betting on himself has paid off for Wahlberg and now he is one of the top box office stars.

“I’ve met and faced many roadblocks,” Wahlberg said. “You know what, those were things I understood completely and I didn’t mind because I was in it for the long [haul]. I try to encourage people, ‘You know what? Don’t take no for an answer.’ You’ve got to just keep working hard. If you put it all out there and it doesn’t work out, at least you’ll feel good about the effort. And if not you’ll always feel like well, I could’ve done more.”

The Gambler opens December 19.
 / Issue 165 - September 7451
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