As Mark Wahlberg entered a Philadelphia conference room on April 6, for a press interview to promote his new movie Father Stu, he told the assembled reporters that he had just been texting with Vince Papale, the 1970s Philadelphia Eagles underdog who Wahlberg played in the 2006 sports movie Invincible. While not in town long enough to see Papale — who was in Florida at the time anyway — the actor made clear that he’s remained friendly with the local legend he once played.
Another member of Wahlberg’s eclectic circle of friends, a priest, is the one who first pitched him on Father Stu, his latest movie. The film, which Wahlberg also produced and co-financed, tells the story of Father Stuart Long, a boxer, aspiring actor, and occasional bar fight combatant who, in midlife, converted to Catholicism and then entered the priesthood. Father Long’s studies and ministry continued despite his diagnosis with inclusion body myositis, to which he succumbed in 2015.
Father Stu, which isn’t shy about depicting the sins of this future priest, is a rare faith-based movie to get an R rating. It also co-stars Mel Gibson, once again playing Wahlberg’s father after previously doing so in Daddy’s Home 2.
Wahlberg is a devout Catholic and even hosted Pope Francis for a mass during the World Meeting of Families in 2015. That event took place on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, which was visible from the window in the room where the interview took place.
We spoke to Wahlberg as part of a press roundtable; below are our questions and his answers to them only. We did not get a chance to ask Wahlberg about Boogie Nights — which turns 25 years old later this year — The Departed, or “Thai Cave Rescue: The Movie,” a locally famous Twitter thread imagining a fictional movie about Wahlberg traveling to Thailand to rescue the soccer team from the cave in 2018 (Ron Howard is making that very movie, Thirteen Lives, although it stars Viggo Mortenson rather than Wahlberg).
What is it that drew you to this particular film? What are the origins of it?
The story itself. I mean, everything about it was for me the ideal movie to deal, part to play, journey to go on, and the beginning of a new chapter in doing more meaningful faith-based content. Lots of things. I couldn’t find any reasons not to do it, except that I had to cut a check myself.
You mentioned cutting a check for it. Is this the first time you’ve ever financed a film yourself?
So this was special enough that you thought it was [worth it]?
It was one of those things where, for a number of reasons. You want to be left alone during the creative process. It isn’t the kind of thing where you want people coming in and giving you notes and changes and demanding changes and things like that. It’s not an easy sell.
There were a couple of people where I thought, maybe, they’d get it, so I kind of slipped it to them, but they were like ‘oh, it’s too dark.’ I’m like, ‘there’s a lot of humor in here, and it’s very inspiring, but they’re like, ‘well, the guy died at the end,’ but [I said] we all do. It’s about how he went about it and, you know, how it’s inspiring others, embracing those difficult times.
But [eventually] I said I’ll just do this on my own. Even with the Church, I wasn’t met with open arms, because of the language in the film. Which I thought was bizarre, we’ve all heard the F-word, and people talk like that. This is a movie about tough grace and tough mercy, and we wanted to be authentic in the way we approached that. We’re not preaching to the choir, we’re trying to bring in other folks.
Your physique changes a bit throughout the movie, and I know you’ve talked a bit in other interviews about how you gained some weight for the role. How did you go about doing that, between the part where you’re playing a boxer, and the way you look at the end. How did that work? Was there any break in filming?
There was no break. Unfortunately no, with the budget, we couldn’t shut down. Basically, I tried to get in as good a shape as possible from the beginning, for preparing for the boxing, I had just done an adventure racing movie, which was probably the most physically demanding film I’d ever done, and that hasn’t come out yet.
We shot the boxing on the first day. That night, the calorie consumption started. 7,000 calories a day for the first two weeks, then 11,000 for the final four weeks of the film. So the first meal was the best meal and the only enjoyable meal. I hadn’t had anything. We were grilling porterhouse steaks outside the trailer, I’m taking off my gloves and the blood from the fights, and we’re eating a baked potato and all this stuff, oh, this is fantastic. And then, three hours later, I’m getting a knock on my door with another meal. I was still full from the last one, and that just continued on from day one until the end.
So it was like the Raging Bull thing, except you didn’t get to take a break?
Yea, we didn’t go to Italy and eat pasta for six months.
In your career, you’ve always played a lot of blue-collar characters. You’ve played an oil rig worker, a lot of police, and a lot of military. Is there something that’s drawn you to that type of role, and how does it fit in with this movie?
I consider myself of a blue-collar guy, so sure, I think they’d let me play some sophisticated Englishman from the 12th century, I’d be more than happy to take a crack at it. But I haven’t gotten that many of those opportunities.
I want to play parts that I think people want to see me in, and that I would like to play. I like to continue to grow, and change, and evolve, and challenge people, and challenge myself. But, you know, this is not something people would ultimately expect. But then of course, if you look at it from any step back, of course, it makes complete sense, I mean, why wouldn’t he do this particular thing?
I’ve got to ask you about your history in Philadelphia. I know you starred in Invincible, and you shot some other movies here. And of course, you appeared with the Pope, in 2015, right outside where we’re sitting right now. What has Philadelphia meant to you over the years?
Let me just put it this way: Philadelphia has welcomed me more than probably my own hometown. The love and the support that I’ve gotten from Philadelphia, I think the common thing about people being really hard-working people who, you know, are all about family and are die-hard loyal sports fans. And people have always nothing been nothing but kind to me and welcoming.
And seeing how I honored Vince Papale, playing an Eagle, taking such pride in that. I’ve been very fortunate to meet a lot of people here, so I’ve got a lot of people here who I consider family and friends.
Father Stu arrives in theaters Friday, April 15.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.