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Mark Wahlberg:’You are what you are’

by George Hadley-Garcia

Before the telephone interview, I am advised by an assistant to the star not to mention the name Marky Mark, by which Boston-born Mark Wahlberg became famous as a rapper after achieving notoriety as a male underwear model for Calvin Klein. These days, I am informed, Wahlberg is trying to consolidate his serious image as an action star and talented actor — with a supporting Oscar nomination (for “The Departed,” 2006) under his belt. After all, he’s now in his late 30s (born June 5, 1971, the youngest of nine children).

As the interview opens, Wahlberg states that normally he is wary of “saying too much about myself, you know, revealing more than it’s good for me.” He explains why he’s doing this interview by saying, “I understand you’re writing it for Japan only,” stressing the latter word.

“It’s in your own backyard where you get judged the worst, you know,” he continues. “Other places, other peoples, they seem to appreciate you more, not to judge you or wait for a chance to try and shoot you down.”

Before I have the chance to ask who’s tried to shoot him down and why, he launches right into the focus of the interview: his new movie, “Max Payne,” an adaptation of the long-running video-game series. Before the question is asked about whether he thinks this film will buck the pattern of movies based on video games faring poorly despite the wide popularity of the games they’re developed from, he tackles the subject himself.

“There was that ‘Mario Bros.’ movie. Remember it?” he says, referring to the critically mauled 1993 film starring Bob Hoskins. “I just thought it didn’t go anywhere. Like, you can only blow up enough cars and places, have enough special effects. That’s not necessarily a plot. But we’ve got a plot. And also it’s so topical and real ’cause it’s about drugs, which is a huge problem in our society.”

In “Max Payne,” Wahlberg attempts to solve a series of murders in New York City as a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officer whose own family was killed as part of a conspiracy. The brutal deaths of his wife and baby provide urgency and motivation. He teams with an attractive assassin out to avenge her sister’s death. Yet the pair are hunted by policemen, complicating their lives and escalating the film’s conflict quotient. Costars include Mila Kunis as Mona Sax, fellow former heartthrob Chris O’Donnell and veteran Beau Bridges. The director is John Moore.

And while the film was broadly panned by critics upon its United States release in October, it performed fairly well at the box office, opening at No. 1 with a reported $17.5 million on its first weekend and becoming the ninth-highest-grossing video-game adaptation in the U.S. to date.

“It’s a hell of a ride,” enthuses Wahlberg about his movie. “It’s hairy, man. There’s thrills in there, there’s lots of suspense. And if anyone’s turned off by, like, superviolence, that’s not in here — we don’t need it. You know how sometimes a movie tries to make up for (the fact that) it doesn’t have enough story or development, so it has all this excess violence and special effects and explosions and stuff? But not here. We got the real thing. I know, ’cause when I read the script, I thought right away two things: This is fun, this is something to stick with. And the second thing was: This is a smart move for my career ’cause it’s probably going to be a hit — maybe a big one.”

Can Wahlberg tell how closely allied the film is to the game?

He hesitates, then admits, “I haven’t done a lot of stuff like this. But I know, and not just from my own experience now, that if your project is from a video game or from a TV series, people want to know how close it is. Right? And if you say it’s real close, then critics will say the movie has no imagination, got nothing new to offer. And if you say it’s not that close, then the critics say you’re taking liberties and stuff, and fans might be disappointed.

“Like I said about myself, it’s the same for a movie: It’s not smart to reveal too much about it. The public, they’ll find out about it and they’ll judge for themselves. It’s OK to judge a movie; that’s why they’re made. People vote with their dollars. It’s not like trying to judge a person, which can be kinda cruel.

“For a long time, I was almost, like, having to apologize for my past. For the (underwear) ads, then for the music. Also for my old name (Marky Mark); even for things I did in my past that had nothing to do with what I do for a living” — reportedly including physical violence as a street tough. “And then I pretty much got over it. I got into some good movies, I figured all of that was past and over with.

“But it wasn’t. There’s still always someone going to criticize for something that’s past, that you can’t change.”

Doesn’t that, however, go with the territory? Can’t he ignore it and just concentrate on his work?

“Yeah. I can. I do. But sometimes it gets to me. It’s the psychology. I’m not hotheaded like sometimes I used to be. I don’t go into that mode. But sometimes, still, there’s a little violence that goes on, only it’s inside me. If you don’t watch it, it can sort of eat you up inside until you just make up your mind and push, just push it right out of your mind. For the time being. But enough of that, who wants to get inside my head? Even if they do, I won’t let ‘em.”

Wahlberg also cautions against asking him about his next project, a movie based on the huge best-selling novel “The Lovely Bones.” He says he’s getting interview requests on the topic “all over the place” not only now that it’s in postproduction, “but even before we shot a foot of film.”

As for “Max Payne,” Wahlberg feels, “it lets me play a mature character who has a complex background but who’s not boring. He’s a man of action, but you root for him. You want him to do all the shooting he has to ’cause you know it’s for a good cause. It’s to round up all these rotten people, and it’s to close the circle on his own tragedy, in his own mind and heart.”

From an economically deprived background, Wahlberg moved upward via his ruggedly attractive looks — modeling, rapping, then landing a role in the TV movie “The Substitute” in 1993. The following year, via producer/director Penny Marshall, he played a private in “Renaissance Man,” a moderate hit, but his first major breakthrough as a thespian was playing a conflicted porn star in the acclaimed “Boogie Nights” (1997). He recalls, “Lots of people said not to do that one. Like, anything about porn is a no-no for Hollywood. They’re into porn, big time, but you don’t do anything about it in movies. And then to show, you know. . . . Well, they used that prosthetic (penis); that was real, um, daring, yeah.

“It was a showstopper, and it had a good screenplay, a real story. It also helped Burt Reynolds’ career, and now I can more sympathize with that, now that I’ve been in the business a fairly long time, so I can see how doing a comeback that’s popular and also critically liked is something rare and real special.”

In addition, he’s done remakes with varying success, such as “Planet of the Apes” (2001), “The Italian Job” (2003, and due a sequel in 2011) and “The Truth About Charlie” (2002), loosely based on the now-classic ’60s caper “Charade” starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Mark Wahlberg in Cary Grant’s shoes? I say it aloud (not too incredulously) and he replies, more quietly than usual, “Yeah, I had to really think on that one.

“In my movies, I’m not trying to erase any old image of myself, really. And also I’m not trying to imitate anyone or follow in their footsteps, ’cause I know — Burt (Reynolds) was just one of the people that told me this — I know how you can only last in this business if you got something special to offer, just by being yourself. Imitators don’t last, and I’d like to last.”

I ask whether he would like another Oscar nomination. “Sure as hell I would,” he laughs. “I’ll break my own rule just for a second to say that in ‘Lovely Bones’ . . . Well, I did a good job; maybe I might end up getting an Academy Award nomination for that. But that’s all I’ll say.”

Regarding “Max Payne,” an Oscar nomination is unlikely, but Wahlberg believes, “You can’t go around, in your career, trying to prove anything. People don’t care. Why should they? You are what you are, and with me, ‘Max Payne’ is a better version of what they want.

“Sometimes, outta the blue, you get something, well, like in ‘The Departed,’ where you can show what you can really do. And sometimes you get something like ‘Max Payne,’ where it has a chance to go globally big ’cause it’s really good, it’s really got their juice. That’s why I’m plugging it like I am. I believe in it, man.”

“Max Payne” opens April 18 in Japan.