Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mark Wahlberg

A sandy-haired actor with cute, punk-next-door looks and a past to match, Mark Wahlberg went from a jailed Boston street thug to a respected legitimate actor in less than a decade, with attention-grabbing stops as a rapper and underwear model along the way. The youngest of nine children, Wahlberg counted among his brothers New Kids on the Block heartthrob Donnie. Indeed, he was briefly a member of that million dollar vocal group, but quickly left, reportedly unwilling to take singing lessons and unhappy with their syrupy style.

While Donnie was nearing the top of the charts as a New Kid, Mark was in jail, serving time at age 16 for a drug-addled attack on a Vietnamese man. While incarcerated, the young man worked on turning his life around and bulked up his relatively small-statured body with regular weight training. Three years later Wahlberg released the hip-hop/pop album "Music for the People" under the moniker Marky Mark. The 1991 record went platinum on the strength of the singles "Good Vibrations" and "Wildside" and the rapper's thuggish charm. Unwilling to rest on his music alone, Marky Mark gave his audience a little something extra, and was known for dropping his pants and revealing his buff physique as well as his underwear. This caused the people at Calvin Klein to take notice, and soon the rapper was a model, appearing on Times Square billboards in the designer's signature boxers.

Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch suffered a sophomore slump with their 1992 follow-up "You Gotta Believe,” and Wahlberg began to be known, much to his chagrin, as a model and celebrity more than a musician. The fallout that followed reports of his sometimes racially motivated violent past and his "free speech" defense of a wildly homophobic comment by Shabba Ranks certainly didn't help his public image. He moved into acting in 1993, playing a doomed student in the USA Network TV-movie "The Substitute.” The role wasn't particularly challenging or interesting, and Wahlberg's career could have easily ended there, but attracted to the business, he persevered. In 1994 he co-starred with Danny DeVito in Penny Marshall's "Renaissance Man.” Marshall, impressed by Wahlberg's cocksure attitude and thick urban accent, cast the neophyte in his first film role. While he admittedly didn't show much in the way of acting skill in the film, he did comport himself with ease in front of the camera, and possessed a spark and charm that proved appealing to audiences. The following year he even managed to steal scenes from Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Basketball Diaries,” playing volatile Mickey, boyhood friend of DiCaprio's Jim Carroll. In 1996 he gave a remarkably chilling performance in "Fear" as a charming but mysterious young man who dates a sheltered 16-year-old (Reese Witherspoon) and shows his true colors as a maniacal and violent stalker. A starring role alongside Bill Paxton in the little-seen independent "Traveller" followed in 1997, but it was that same year's "Boogie Nights" that would establish Wahlberg as a serious actor.

Helmed by relative newcomer Paul Thomas Anderson, "Boogie Nights" told the story of an unusually endowed busboy turned porn star and his rise and fall in the adult industry from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Wahlberg was initially wary of the project, worried that Anderson had approached him because of the underwear ads he wished to forget. Luckily for all involved, Wahlberg was convinced by Anderson and his script to take on the project and slimmed down to get the appropriately hungry look for the part. Roundly acclaimed if a little disjointed and long-winded, "Boogie Nights" was an enjoyable and oddly old-fashioned fable, and the actor's mix of boyish innocence and brute sexuality made him a perfect Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler. In 1998 he cashed in on his renewed popularity in the action comedy "The Big Hit,” co-starring with Antonio Sabato Jr, Lou Diamond Phillips and Bokeem Woodbine as one of a group of suave and sexy, but somewhat bumbling hit men. The following year saw him take on a role opposite Chow Yun Fat in the Asian gang urban crime drama "The Corruptor". While his efforts in both "The Big Hit" and "The Corruptor" were solid, the roles didn't ring true as both were limited, two-dimensional characterizations, and Wahlberg's work, while capable, didn't add much. He would generally fare better with work that utilized his winning combination of youthful charm and worldly hardness and roles where his looks belied his actions.

In 1999 Wahlberg co-starred with George Clooney and Ice Cube in David O Russell's "Three Kings,” a hard-hitting but comedic chronicle of the Gulf War. Here he shone, making the most of a role as a man both terrified and tough, a young father and soldier desperate to get back home. He reunited with Clooney in the gripping actioner "The Perfect Storm" in 2000, a fact-based account of a downed fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts. A harrowing film with a grueling shoot, the Wolfgang Petersen project promised to be a summer hit, and would further establish Wahlberg as a performer to be reckoned with. He next starred in "The Yards" (2000), a New York City-set crime drama directed by "Little Odessa" helmer James Gray. Although co-stars included James Caan and Charlize Theron, the film was carried by the actor, unlike much of his previous ensemble-type projects, and would prove to be a make or break vehicle that could allow him to shake his rapper/model past depending upon the reaction of audiences and critics. Wahlberg next starred in the comedy "Rock Star" (2001) as a lead singer for a small-time cover band who is tapped to replace a superstar hard rock front man. An unlikely rags to riches story, "Rock Star" was actually based on fact, and a surprise success like Wahlberg could certainly relate to these themes.

Wahlberg also headlined the much-anticipated adaptation of "Planet of the Apes" (also 2001), directed by Tim Burton, a project which had some merits and garnered a great initial buzz but ultimately disappointed. If Wahlberg found it hard to fill Charlton Heston's sandals, it was even more difficult for him to step into the designer loafers of suave Hollywood legend Cary Grant for the 2002 remake of Stanley Donen's 1963 classic "Charade"—so hard the studio wisely attempted to avoid comparison by calling the new version "The Truth About Charlie." Even the steady hand of Jonathan Demme couldn't mold Wahlberg's usually in-over-his-head persona into that of the strong, confident mysterious espionage agent that made the original story work so well. Despite such missteps in the remake ring, Wahlberg again signed up for yet another modern update of a well-made movie, this time re-teaming with his "The Yards" co-star Charlize Theron for F. Gary Gray's take on "The Italian Job" (2003) this time stepping into a role first played by Michael Caine.

He then played a fireman drawn into the search for answers to deep philosophical conundrums in a retail superstore when he reunited with David O. Russell for the "existential comedy" "I [Heart] Huckabees" (2004). Wahlberg then took on a role that was close to tough, troubled man he used to be when he played the hotheaded Bobby Mercer, one of four troubled foster sons seeking to avenge the murder of their mother, in John Singleton's hard-edged, if sometimes implausible, revenge drama "Four Brothers" (2005). Meanwhile, Wahlberg enjoyed some behind-the-scenes success on the small screen as the co-creator and executive producer of the hit HBO comedy "Entourage" (2004 - ), which drew upon anecdotes from the inside Hollywood exploits of Wahlberg and his hangers-on to tell the story of rising star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his club-hopping crew.

For his next film, “Invincible” (2006), the true-to-life telling of improbable NFL player Vince Papale, a former part-timer bartender turned special teams star on the Philadelphia Eagles, Wahlberg made an earnest attempt to portray his character as realistically as possible, right down to rejecting the use of stunt doubles and taking his own hits. Besides wanting an accurate portrayal of Papale, who served on set as a consultant and trainer, Wahlberg didn’t want to be perceived as a wimp. Though his agents may have worried about their client getting hurt, Wahlberg earned the quick respect of the extras—many of who were Arena football players—after getting pummeled again and again on the field. But it was Wahlberg who harbored the most admiration after he met Papale, who impressed the actor with his passion and enthusiasm. The two shared similar backgrounds—both came from rough working-class neighborhoods—though Papale, unlike Wahlberg, managed to avoid falling into the trap of petty crime and thuggery. “Invincible” received strong reviews from critics, many of whom where pleased with its authenticity and heart despite rampant sports film clichés.

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