It’s the morning after the chat-show fiasco of the night before when I meet Mark Wahlberg in London’s Mandarin Oriental. The previous evening’s taping of The Graham Norton Show is yet to go out, so I am at the time of our encounter oblivious to Wahlberg’s, shall we say, merry telly performance.
As will become apparent a few hours later on BBC1, the 41-year-old American actor flirted outrageously with comedian Sarah Silverman, sat on Norton’s lap and tweaked his nipple, and challenged Michael Fassbender to a manhood-measuring competition.
But, in the hotel suite, the former teen tearaway and one-time hip-pop star known as Marky Mark (left) is coming over all reflective. “I was off the charts at 12, dude,” says this youngest of nine, thinking back to his days of adolescent delinquency in Boston that saw him wind up in jail. When I mention his friendship with Justin Bieber – he and the 18-year-old have a basketball movie in the works – and ask how Wahlberg might have coped with Bieber-type fame in his teens, he levels an intense stare.
“This is a better scenario: imagine him, two years ago, being in a prison,” he says with a quizzically raised eyebrow. “How would he pan out?” Don’t know, your Honour. But I’m guessing Wahlberg – almost as wide as he is tall, with upper arms thicker than my head – was no pushover. “Well, listen, we come from very different places, Justin and I, and at that age I was already able to take care of myself. At least to a certain extent. Prison is not a good place for anybody.”
But all that, like his now lasered-away tattoos, is far behind him. Today Wahlberg is one of the big players in Hollywood. He’s currently starring alongside Russell Crowe in Broken City (in cinemas from Friday 1 March) and has made a handful of brilliant movies, from fairy-tale porn masterpiece Boogie Nights to last year’s talking-bear comedy Ted (his biggest box-office hit). He received an Oscar nomination for acting in The Departed and another, as a producer, for The Fighter. He’s also set to produce a big-screen version of HBO comedy series Entourage, which is loosely based on his and his buddies’ adventures in Tinseltown. And, away from the movies, Wahlberg has a business portfolio encompassing water, burgers (Wahlburgers) and sport.
All told it seems that, since the days of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and modelling Calvin Klein underpants, Wahlberg has deployed a purifying work ethic to better himself.
“I’m blue collar to the bone,” he assures me, having lost none of his Boston twang. “It’s always about working hard. If you want any thing to happen, you better damn well go out there and make it happen yourself.”
He moved to LA, he says, to escape the neighbourhood, but also with a mission to act. “I was already committed to doing the right thing. But that’s a hard thing to do, on a daily basis, seven days a week. There were many times when I still made poor choices and did stupid s**t.” Such as? He mentions a run-in with Warren Beatty. “We were out and I was being a smart-ass.”
Anyway. Then he met his wife, and they had the first of their four children. “Now there is no way in hell that I could ever do anything to jeopardise what I have.” The love of a good woman, then, turned things round.
“Yeah, and the love of the Lord. But, still, to have that focus 24/7 is hard. I get down on my hands and my knees and pray every day for a good 15, 20 minutes. I don’t pray for success – I pray for the ability to succeed at what’s important in life: to be a good servant, father, husband, son, brother, uncle, friend, neighbour, leader to those that look to me as an example, and a follower to those that serve God.”
No surprise, perhaps, that this reborn action hero – next up is the fourth Transformers movie – would now baulk at playing his Boogie Nights character, legendarily well-endowed Dirk Diggler. And little wonder that his favourite Oscar contender is Life of Pi(ous).
Broken City opens in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 1 March