Talking Fame, Faith and FATHER STU with Mark Wahlberg

An Interview with the star about his latest Faith based biopic

While in person press junkets are still the exception rather than the norm, I got a surprising email a few weeks ago mentioning that Mark Wahlberg was coming to Philly and looking to chat about his passion project, which was releasing in time for Easter, Father Stu. I’ve always been fascinated by Wahlberg’s relationship with his Catholic faith in relation to his career and his faith based film, Father Stu has the actor portraying Father Stuart Long, a boxer turned, actor, who is in a horrific accident and then hears his calling to become a priest. That part is very much your standard self-destructive sinner finds his redemption through Christ story, that is familiar ground to this genre. While that story alone is worthy of the Hollywood treatment, given Stu’s blue collar upbringing and charm allows him to connect and inspire those that come from the working class homes, but after Stu begins his journey to becoming a priest he is stricken with inclusion body myositis and his faith is severely tested as he loses control of his muscles.

It’s the truest test of Stu’s faith and that third act of Father Stu could be some of Wahlberg’s finest work as an actor. When I originally got the email, it sounded more like a press conference type junket, and luckily I tend to OVER PREPARE for these things. One COVID test after I arrived and little did I know it would be me sitting directly across from Wahlberg having an engaging discussion about faith, struggle, what he would do if faced with Father Stu’s test of faith and the trying times we live in.

Dan Tabor: The crew behind the camera on Father Stu is nearly as fascinating as the actors in front. Can you tell me a bit of how this production came together. I believe it was a passion project for you — I mean you invested your own money to get it made, produced by genre icon Colleen Camp and directed by Rosalind Ross, who I assume was brought in by Gibson. How did this film come together?

Mark Wahlberg: Well, you’re the first person to have mentioned and acknowledged Colleen Camp, so I’m gonna make sure that I FaceTime her right after this and tell her that. She’ll be very happy.

You know, it’s just kind of how it all happened. I think all the pieces kind of fell into place. I really feel like the “big guy” was at work, kind of pulling the strings here — from the time that I was pitched the story, by a priest in a restaurant. I’m like, why are you trying to pitch me on a movie padre? I thought you were gonna ask me for money to help rebuild the gym at the school, or do some sort of contribution, which I would have no problem doing. But then when I listened to the story, I realized, oh my God, I’ve been looking, I’ve always kind of (been) asking, you know, I know I wasn’t put in this position to just kind of forget about where I came from, I was like, how do I utilize my talents and gift for God’s greater good?

This story was an opportunity to do that, to do something that really had some real substance and meaning. I was developing it with David O’ Russell for quite some time and that didn’t work out. We had a draft of the script written, that was just was not working at all. So I was like, you know what, I gotta kind of go do this on my own. I had the sense of urgency that I don’t think anybody else really shared and I knew Mel (Gibson) had financed The Passion (of the Christ) himself, so I wanted to pick his brain about that. And Rosalind Ross had written something else that I really liked, so, I knew her work and she had expressed interest in possibly taking a crack at it, even though she wasn’t raised Catholic.

She felt like she could really understand and relate to the story of a guy on this journey, trying to find his purpose. So I told her the story, I connected her with the family and everybody and then I was like, all right, I’m gonna go make another movie, you know, good luck. I came back and she literally handed me the script and I read it and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, how did you do this? How did you put this on the page?’ I mean, this is what I wanted it to be with the humor and the heart and the emotion and the struggle. So I then started preparing to make the movie and I knew the best way to do it without having any kind of interference with the creative process would be to just kind of finance it myself. So I talked to two other friends that I knew would be helpful, and then we just made the movie and then here we are.

It’s been a long, crazy process to get my friends at Sony to distribute the film who I released The Fighter with, when Josh was at Paramount. So lots of moving pieces, this has been an interesting one.

Dan Tabor: Well, you, you mentioned purpose. I felt like in addition to the physical struggles Father Stu had like later on in life, and even in the beginning when he’s at the tail end of his boxing boxing career and how it was impacting his body, it’s like, okay, he has these physical struggles. But I thought what was really interesting was watching his development just as a human being and that search for purpose and that struggle changed from a physical to a spiritual one. What drew you into this story and how did you develop this character?

Mark Wahlberg: I just thought it was, it was really powerful, you know, he wouldn’t take no for an answer and he wouldn’t give up. I just feel like, anything that I’ve wanted to achieve in life or anything that I set out to accomplish, I had to do it the old fashioned way — just hard work, really kind of straightforward, no nonsense, big discipline. That’s why I’m so routine oriented, you know, it’s worked for me and it all stems from my faith and kind of making that commitment and everything being grounded in that. That allows me to do everything else that I want and then know when I’m successful. Fantastic. I know it’s about the work. When I fail. I know I put my best effort forward, so I can still hold my head high in the amount of effort that went into it.

Stu was just relentless and when he found his purpose, he was so powerful in what he did. I remember talking to the Archbishop and he was saying, you know why I really ordained Stu? He said, because he could see the impact he had on people when he talked to them. Right. All of his real life experiences afforded him the credibility to communicate in a way that they knew was very true and very direct and they could relate to that. So to then have him say, Stu did more in his four short years as a priest than the Bishop did in his 40 years, it’s pretty remarkable. I still didn’t really get it until I went to Helena, Montana on Monday and I saw all the people there waiting to see the movie, all like saying, ‘oh my God, if you, you don’t get this right, you’re in big trouble’. But just seeing how many people he impacted and touched was powerful.

I mean, little things happened. Like we got out of the car, it was raining, the clouds parted and the sun shined on everybody who was waiting outside in the rain. It was just one little thing after another. I could always feel his presence.

Dan Tabor: So that last act is kind of gut wrenching. I really think it’s some of your best work as an actor, hands down. Now what went into that performance and what was going through your mind? Because you literally walked more than a mile in this man’s shoes and did you even think about, “what would I have done if I had been tested like that?”

Mark Wahlberg: Yeah. I mean, what will I do if that’s my future? If I’m lucky enough to live long enough and have to deal with those sorts of things. I saw it with my dad, you know, I saw my dad’s health decline so quickly. Then I saw my mom’s during the making of the film.

Dan Tabor: Oh wow, my condolences.

Mark Wahlberg: You know, I lost my mom and she deteriorated really quickly, but thankfully she had the same type of strength and resolve that Stu had, where she was really just worried about us, but it’s still very difficult to see. So with all that real life experience that I have, and the good and the bad, and everything that I’ve been through, I’ve never had any formal training as an actor. I just utilize and draw on all that real life experience that I have and when I am trying to create these moments and make them as real and as authentic as possible.

But yeah, it was, it still is a difficult time for everybody. So I think it’s nice to see people seeing the movie and really laughing together, crying together and ultimately walking out feeling really optimistic about the future and I think challenged a little bit to just say, okay, let me find my role in the big picture of things and what can I do. Whether that’s just, you know, saying a kind word to somebody that needs it, or calling somebody that you know, might have slighted you, but you know, you are the one that takes the initiative to say, ‘Hey I was thinking about you’.

You know, you’re gonna be able to just think about your own situation, your own life, your parents and relatives, somebody that had a struggle in COVID. Everybody knows somebody who lost somebody and that’s a really difficult thing to struggle through. So yeah, Stu is still doing his work, which I really get a kick out of because I think he’s only getting started. He’s challenging me all the time. Like I have pictures of him kind of around my house and on my desk and I do most of everything at my desk.

So I’m on the phone arguing with somebody doing me dirty in my restaurant and all of a sudden I’m like, Stu’s giving me that look and I’m like, okay, no problem. You know what? You got me on a good day. It’s all done.

Dan Tabor: I love that even though this is more of a faith based narrative, you still show the fallacies that often happen within the church, where the grace that should be given to people the most is sometimes not. So what was it like for you, showcasing that?

Mark Wahlberg: I mean you got the church, right? But then you got the guy who died to build it. That’s my guy. Everything else is, you know, human beings making mistakes, we’re all weak in the flesh. I get it. No problem. The rules are crazy. Things gotta change. Like you wanna bring people in or you’re chasing people away. It’s like, this is supposed to be about us bringing people together. God wanted to help everybody, especially the less fortunate.

Dan Tabor: Your faith has been a big driving point, in your life and your career, but the ways that you communicate it is not necessarily like preaching like Stu. But I’ve noticed Stu and you have had very similar paths you know what I mean? Boxing, acting, speaking about your faith and like the saying goes it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish and everything in between is up for interpretation. So could you discuss those paths a little bit and leave my readers with a final thought?

Mark Wahlberg: You know, I just want to encourage people, in this day and age, this is not a time to be giving up on people. You know, it’s about finding the good in people, supporting them, encouraging them, accepting them for who they are and knowing that they should have hope, that we care and we’re rooting for them because that’s the only thing that’s gonna bring everybody together. I want people to know and understand how good my faith has been to me. For me, everything good in my life personally and professionally, I attribute to my faith in one way or another, cuz it’s all deeply rooted in that. That’s where it kind of starts, that’s my center of gravity, so I want people to be able to feel that.

Certainly, if I could overcome the obstacles and the odds that I face, there isn’t anything anybody can’t do, with young people, especially cuz you know, we look at the leadership that we have today and we need great leaders. We need young people to come in and say, all right, you guys, and myself included have done enough damage. Let us figure this out and we’ll make the rest of your life as comfortable as possible, and by the way be like father Stewart, embrace whatever suffering you face, if you’re old enough to get old.

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