Mark Wahlberg is known for appearing in big blockbusters, as well as for producing hit TV shows like “Entourage” and “Boardwalk Empire”. Now the Oscar-nominated actor is combining these talents to bring “Father Stu” to the big screen, both as a producer and as a lead man.
For the past six years, Wahlberg has been trying to make a biopic about Stuart Long, a troubled, grim Montana boxer who dedicated his life to the Roman Catholic Church after he nearly died in a motorcycle accident. The pastor died in 2014 after years of battling a rare autoimmune disease, inclusion body myositis.
Wahlberg was looking for a story to tell about his Catholic faith when a pastor in his parish told him about Long’s life and how he redeemed himself through the church. Wahlberg saw similarities in his own life and decided to give Long’s legacy the Hollywood treatment.
But it was not easy.
After several years with the project nowhere in the development stage, Wahlberg chose to self-finance the film with the help of two collaborators, finding inspiration from his “Daddy’s Home 2” star Mel Gibson. Gibson – who, like Wahlberg, has been embroiled in controversy – raised his own money to create his divisive 2004 kick-office sensation, “The Passion of the Christ.” Wahlberg has even cast Gibson as Long’s father.
With “Father Stu” in theaters on Wednesday, Wahlberg still can’t believe his luck.
“There is a bit of divine intervention going on. The film has been blessed,” he told Insider over the phone last week.
Insider spoke with Wahlberg about his decision to self-fund the film, the grueling process of putting on £ 30 to play Long at the end of his life, and his plans to make more faith-based films.
Wahlberg said that Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was what inspired him to self-finance ‘Father Stu’
You have been producing for a very long time and you know that the rule of never breaking is to put your own money in.
So how did it get to the point where you decided to self-finance the movie?
Well, I’m always willing to bet on myself.
But was there a scenario where it was not earned if you did not bring money?
I gave the script to a couple of people who I thought might get it, and they did not. And of course it is subjective. You have your own sense of what the material is. Some people thought it was depressing because he is sick in the end. They did not see the heart and the emotions and in the end how inspiring it is.
So I felt like Mel had done it with “The Passion”, maybe I tried it.
And if I found someone to fund, then it’s a completely different conversation, because typically the person who cuts the check also has notes and would like to be part of the process.
So I felt, you know what, I think it’s better if I just go up and have complete control.
How much were you going in? Are we talking about half the budget? More?
Let’s just say I’ve put millions and millions of dollars into the movie – and then I incur other costs because we went over the production schedule and there are permissions on the music.
But I also got a friend in who is not in the film business but who believed in the project. And I had another friend who’s in the movie business who came in for a small portion.
The film is written and directed by first-time filmmaker Rosalind Ross, but before that choice, did it ever reach a point where you would have directed the film if it meant getting it off the ground?
Yes. It was definitely a conversation. But for me to put aside 18 months of my life and then put all the other things I was doing on hold, it just would not work.
I had a feeling Rosalind would do well behind the camera. I wanted to give her that shot. Having a first-time director and getting these results makes me look a little smarter than I am.
However, I can not take credit for the success of the film because it is God who has chosen me to make the film. He knows that I will finally use all the talents and gifts that have been bestowed upon me for his greater benefit and to serve my part in his great image. I mean, I asked every day to get this movie made.
Mel Gibson introduced you to Rosalind, and along with also starring in the film, you relied on him for advice through this experience. How big an effect did “The Passion of the Christ” have on you?
I remember seeing it on opening day. I was like, “Wow.”
I was really impressed with the quality of the film and that he took a chance and even financed the film. It was something I have always appreciated. It’s his love letter to his faith in God, and it inspired me to do this.
Did you ever think of him directing the film?
No. Rosalind really just sat in that position. Her script really blew me away. And Mel also felt the same way that she was more than skilled. He knew I was somewhere in my career where I knew what I wanted with this and do it the way I felt appropriate.
Wahlberg saw similarities between his life and Longs ‘trying to find your purpose in life’
So all of this started because a pastor from your parish gave you a Stuart Long biography. It has to be one of the most unique seats you have ever got.
I mean, I would literally move around from church to church because I would be beaten up a lot.
Yes. I’m not in church to find material. I try to find some peace and quiet to be able to worship. So he was the least likely person I would expect to pitch to me, but he told me the story a few times and eventually it was recorded for me.
I realized, “Wow, I’m looking for something like that.” It’s an amazing role, a powerful and inspiring story. It felt different and original to get people’s attention.
This is no disrespect for the work you have done recently, but there is just an energy from you in this film that is different.
Listen, that kind of thing does not happen that often. Sometimes you really have to go out and look for things that will challenge you. It’s a blessing.
When you started learning more about Father Stu’s life, did you see so much of yourself in him?
There are similarities: difficult childhood, lots of trouble finding your purpose in life, what you are meant to do and earn – all these things. So I absolutely did.
He had a lot of real life experiences and I really appreciated the way he was able to communicate to people and speak through his own experience to the things that people could have been through.
That’s an important point in this film: Father Stu did not just talk about it. He had gone it.
You spent six years trying to make this movie. Before you had to put your own money in, was there ever a time when you were ready to shoot and the money fell out?
It never happened, thankfully. It happened three or four times with “The Fighter”. We wanted a start date and then something would happen. With this, David O. Russell and I tried to develop it. We met with some writers and a few grabbed it, but we never liked what we got.
So I decided that what I really needed to do was learn how to do it right. I had a feeling it was urgent to get the film made so I would find the right people as soon as possible. But it took some time.
When I finally met Rosalind and she gave me a script, I could not believe how it was okay. I felt that if she could put it on the page, she could put it on the screen. The film is much better to be told from her point of view.
To gain £ 30 for the role, Wahlberg said he ate 7 to 8 meals a day consisting of eggs, bacon and steak
By the end of the film, Long changes not only spiritually but also physically due to his condition. You had to put on 30 pounds for the role. Would you ever go through that again?
The weight gain was bad. It’s not something I feel like jumping on to do again.
But this was so much more important than just doing the actor “Raging Bull” thing. Everything about Stu was based on his corporeality. Seeing him lose it, but gaining the strength of a thousand men spiritually, it was incredible. I wanted the audience to see it and understand it.
When I saw this, I was thinking that Sylvester Stallone was gaining weight for “Cop Land”. Like you, here’s a star known for his physique completely changed his body. He has talked about how mentally difficult it was to gain weight. Can you relate? Mentally, how was it for you to make your body change like that?
I can certainly understand that. You need to force yourself to eat, even after you are full. I tried to go the route that was supposed to be healthy.
So not constantly eating burgers and milkshakes?
No. I went to the doctor and tried to make it healthy. The first two weeks were a diet plan of 7,000 calories a day. And then the last four weeks were 11,000 calories a day.
Hold on. How is it healthy?
It is not, but healthier than the other way around.
What did you eat?
A dozen eggs, a dozen pieces of bacon, two bowls of white rice, a cup of olive oil to start the morning. Several eggs, a porterhouse steak. It is seven to eight meals a day of this.
So towards the end, it’s a lot of starch and sodium on top of the protein to get the bloated look.
I will believe in the end that you have never wanted to eat a meal again in your life.
I did not love it.
Wahlberg has set up a production company to do more faith-based projects
So this will be stamped as a faith-based movie. But it is very top shelf in that genre with its advanced production design and of course the talent involved.
We wanted to create the highest quality of film.
And this high quality film mixed with spiritual storytelling, is that something you want to do more of now?
Absolutely. I hope that many more will come to me now, not only stories that I can participate in, but can also help others get their works started. I will do more of this in the future and there is a large audience for it.
Are you considering going as far as starting a production company focused on faith-based stories?
We are already underway: movies, TV, across the board, but emphasizing quality.
The hope is that I can fascinate other high-caliber talents to come and do what I did with “Father Stu”: bet on yourself, take a chance. It’s not always about the payslip.
This interview has been compressed and edited for clarity.