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Leap of Faith: Mark Wahlberg on Father Stu

Mark Wahlberg stars in, produces, and finances the new biopic “Father Stu,” a faith-based story about a high-energy man named Stuart Long who went from being an amateur boxer in Montana to a wannabe Hollywood star, only to find his greatest passion in priesthood after a motorcycle accident. Through each chapter of his stranger-than-fiction story, Stu mystifies everyone around him, including his alcoholic father Bill (Mel Gibson), his worried mother (Jacki Weaver), the girlfriend he woos by constantly showing up at her church, Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), and later on the church officials who are skeptical of his seriousness. And true to the way that Wahlberg expresses himself, Rosalind Ross’ writer/director debut is the rare R-rated faith-based movie that isn’t precious about language or bad behavior, instead embracing them in a fashion more honest than a lot of glossier, Sunday morning-friendly silver screen fare. 

As Wahlberg is certain (and correct) to say himself, no one else could have played the role. The arc of Stu Long brings out the boxer, the sassy goof ball, the hyper-enthusiast of Wahlberg which we have seen in previous roles ranging from “The Fighter” to “The Other Guys” to “Boogie Nights.” His massive range in "Father Stu" is its own testament to Wahlberg’s unique on-screen gravitas, how he has become such a high-profile name in Hollywood because of the pushy, eye-grabbing energy he brings across genres. Inspired by Wahlberg’s own faith, as a producing project “Father Stu” concerns the past, present, and future of what Wahlberg brings to Hollywood, while offering a reflection that is not too dissimilar on Wahlberg’s own narrative as a star. 

Wahlberg spoke to RogerEbert.com about the unique pressures from the project, his faith, creating his own opportunities as an actor/producer, and more.

It’s very clear what inspired you with this role. But I’m curious what scared you the most about taking it on. 

What scared me the most? Disappointing Bill, disappointing Stu’s other family, um … all of his colleagues, the archbishop. Some of his fellow priests, the people who he touched. Helena, people who got to know him from all over, who were lucky enough to get to know him. You carry a big responsibility, and the responsibility to all of them, to make sure you get it right and do them justice. 

How did you fight through all of that, then?

You know it’s there, but you try to pretend it doesn’t exist. 

Does that help with acting in general, being present? 

Yeah, I think. When you’re wearing multiple hats—I’m the producer, the financier, I’m the star of the movie—I’m just in the moment. I’ve done the work and the preparation up to that point so I don’t have to think about it on the day, I’m just trying to make it as realistic as possible. But it’s always there, it’s always a good motivating factor for sure. 

Would you say there’s different pressure here than previous projects?

Absolutely. It’s also the first time I’ve ever stroked the check. Usually I get compensated when you do this. So there is that, there’s the ticking clock, the fact that we only have 30 days to make the movie, and had five and a half years to try and get to the starting gate. And then, all of the sudden it becomes this mad dash to get the movie on film. And then you’ve got a long way to go to cut the film, and then you’ve got to figure out a distributor and a partner, and then when you get a release date, all of a sudden you’re in a mad dash to go out there and try to educate people on the movie, and create an awareness and excitement around it. 

But the pressure of getting it right for them … and the first time Bill was going to see the film, the first time Archbishop Thomas was ever gonna see the film, Father Bart, all these people who have very, very high expectations, and very strong opinions. And if you don’t deliver, it’s a problem, alright? 

This is also to my mind one of the first times we’ve seen you play someone who talks about Hollywood, about acting. I was curious if that also intrigued you about this story. 

Yeah, I love that. I mean, I got to do a little bit of that in “Boogie Nights,” in trying to be an actor, an artist, a filmmaker. But here was a guy who came to Hollywood and mostly had bad experiences, and I think had he had good ones or met some people who recognized his talent, that things could have been drastically different, right? It’s the same thing with me. The people who were trying to cast me were only trying to cast me because I was a rapper, and trying to exploit that, would have never afforded me the opportunity to have a real career. But I was lucky enough to meet Penny Marshall, who saw something in me that actually gave me a chance. I think that was not Stu’s calling. Stu was meant to meet Carmen, and to get lured into the church, even if it was just to appease her, to get what he wanted from her, and out of that relationship, and the accident and everything happened. Everything happens for a reason. 

How much, then, do you want people to see you in this story? 

I don’t want them to see me. I think people who know my story know that there are lots of similarities, and I think hopefully people see the authenticity in the depiction that all of the sudden I am believable at playing a part of a guy who could be a boxer, who could have tried to make it as an actor, and who also has the faith and conviction to dedicate his life to serving God. But yes, I don’t want them to see me, I want them to see Stu. I also want them to say I don’t think anyone else could have played this part the way I played it. 

No, I don’t think anyone would think that. This role made me think a lot about you, and all your performances in the past. Were you trying to engage that at all? 

No. Because the part, for selfish reasons—can you get a better arc than this? Absolutely not. 

It’s an incredible story. 

Yeah, so there’s that. And when you’re an actor, and a producer, the thing is always about—and we discussed this early on—we started producing out of necessity, right? So when I started to go down this path, it was like, well, what’s going to put the movie first? You put your producing hat on first. It’s not about the individual performance, it’s about the movie as a whole. How would Warren Beatty approach something that he did? He’s the director, he’s the producer, he’s the star. But he’s not going out there and just pushing his performance, he’s pushing the movie as a whole. So that was always the approach anyway, and going back to just producing out of necessity, you know, these roles don’t get hand-delivered to you. And if they do, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so I was always trying to be proactive and say, “OK, if I love boxing movies and I think this is a great boxing movie to make, I don’t think it’s just going to come on my lap, I gotta find it and create it and make it happen.” 

So I’ve always done that, because I’m, y’know, getting material after Brad Pitt passes, or somebody else passes. So, why sit and wait around and hope something lands on my desk? I go out there and create my own opportunities. 

And when something does land on your desk, how does faith help make you feel a certain way about a project? Or does it? 

It doesn’t, really. I don’t let my faith dictate what I do as an artist, or as an actor. I do feel like now that I’m older that maybe I would have been a little more hard-pressed to do a movie like “Boogie Nights,” but I probably would have done it anyway because it was such a challenge, and I always look for a challenge, I look for something that’s unexpected. Something that is gonna help me as an actor. You know, challenge the way people see me, and every time they see me in something different, instead of trying to argue that I belong in the other box, they just put me in that particular box. 

And then from there, until I kind of do something else, it’s “Oh, he’s THAT guy!” Which is fine, I can’t control what people think anyway. But I’m constantly trying to change and grow. 

So you are thinking about what the box is, as someone with a star image, a high-profile Hollywood actor? 

No, I’m just aware that it exists. But I don’t think about it. It’s not what makes me choose the next thing. Like, [in playful voice, rubs his chin], “How can I get out of this predicament of mine?” No, it’s funny because I would say … I equate it more to that I want to do the complete opposite of the last thing I did. So I just did “Father Stu,” that was very, very emotionally draining but also super fulfilling. And then Kevin Hart and I just made this crazy, over-the-top comedy [“Me Time”], and that was a lot of fun. That was what I needed at the time, after making “Father Stu.” So now, I’m chomping at the bit, and we’re gonna do this other thing that I’m really excited about with Halle Berry ["Our Man from Jersey"]. And then I’ve got another biopic, true story that I’m excited about, where I speak another language for more than 50% of the movie, playing this wild and crazy character that people don’t expect, going down the road with Rosalind Ross again. 

Even with “Uncharted,” I was attached to play Nathan Drake, and I was in that role for however many years. I aged out of that role, and they were like, “Hey, do you want to play the old guy?” And most people would be offended, they’d be like [haughty voice] “Oh, I still got it!” Sucking in their stomach, flexing their muscles. It’s absurd! I like the fact that I got to play somebody older, and that was different, the kind of older guy, the savvy, slick guy who is barking the orders while this kid has got to go hang from f**king wires for four months! I’m like “Yeah, have fun! It’s good huh? You’re a tough guy!” I’d done it already. It’s just how I look at things, you know? 

How has your relationship with Hollywood changed as your faith has become a larger part of what people see when they see you in a movie? 

It hasn’t changed for me. I have always been super proud of my faith, I’ve never tried to jam it down anyone’s throat either. I just don’t deny what my faith is and how important it is to me. 

Do you see it as separate from how you feel about Hollywood, or how you feel about the business itself? 

No. Look—the business has been fantastic to me. So you’re not going to get any complaints. It continues to change and evolve, I like that now they’re giving and creating opportunities for other people, that’s fantastic, and part of the reason why, y’know, I thought about giving Rosie an opportunity—a young, female writer/director who has got so much talent, and why not? She was able to bring it to the page, why not give her that opportunity to bring it to the screen? 

What role do you think about the most from your career? 

This one. 

Other than this one? Before “Father Stu” existed. 

Well, the reason why I’d say this one is because this one has been the most important. This is the thing I’ve worked where I took the biggest swing, and it says a lot of the things that I want to do with my platform, with my voice, in the future. Because it’s bringing people together, doing a lot of good and it’s promoting a lot of positive things in a world where negativity is magnified to the highest level. It’s amplified and magnified. It’s like, “What is happening?” We gotta bring people together, we need great people to bring them together, and haver a world of support and love and inclusion. 

That being said, I’m also looking to find the next great challenge. But I would say the other ones ... it’s always been the true stories. Those are the things that have had the most impact. And then I go and do a comedy. Comedies have been very good to me too. I made “The Fighter” then all of the sudden I said I was going to make “Ted,” and everyone thought I was crazy. It was the most absurd thing they’d ever heard. That’s a hard movie to pitch, right? This guy’s teddy bear come to life. Turned out to be pretty good. Second one, not so good. 

"Father Stu" is now playing only in theaters.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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