- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

NEW YORK — Just who is Mark Wahlberg? The Massachusetts native certainly isn’t a pop star anymore. His Marky Mark persona has long since been laid to rest, along with the preening underwear ads. After critically praised performances in “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Three Kings” (1999) and a monster box-office hit with “The Perfect Storm” (2000), he emerged as an A-list movie talent. But now his reign as a leading man seems to be in jeopardy. He elicited critical yawns for his turns in “The Yards” (2000) and “Rock Star” (2001). Two much-hyped remakes in which he starred, Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” (2001) and last year’s “The Truth About Charlie,” both bombed.

Now comes yet another remake, “The Italian Job,” a cheeky heist film banking, in part, on Mr. Wahlberg’s bad-boy-turned-good appeal.

The actor, promoting the new film during a recent press gathering in Manhattan, sounds as if he isn’t sure himself about his acting chops.

“I still feel like I have so much to learn,” says Mr. Wahlberg, those telltale biceps bulging out from a plain white T-shirt. “And who better to learn from than filmmakers?”

The young actor’s list of instructors is impressive, from Paul Thomas Anderson to Jonathan Demme.

Not all those films turned out as he had hoped, the actor says, but that doesn’t mean he could afford to turn them down.

“Tim Burton calls me and says, ‘Do you wanna make a movie?’ I say, ‘Great.’ It turns out to be ‘Planet of the Apes,’ which I wasn’t a big fan of. My whole thing is doing stuff that’s reality-based. But how many times am I going to get the chance to work with him? The same thing with Jonathan,” he says, referring to “Charlie,” last year’s ill-advised “Charade” remake directed by Mr. Demme.

Working with “Italian Job” director F. Gary Gray gave him the chance to learn how to make a thief palatable to the masses.

Mr. Gray asked Mr. Wahlberg to get the audience on his side. “It was important for the film, in which the central character is a crook, that he’s likable,” Mr. Wahlberg says.

Mr. Wahlberg began his acting career with small roles in “Renaissance Man” (1994) and “The Basketball Diaries” (1995). He forever shed his rap image with his portrayal of conflicted porn star Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights.”

In his best performances, his movie-star looks are offset by an aw-shucks humility, making him a more accessible, human-scaled alternative to a strutting action figure such as Tom Cruise or a flawless statue such as Brad Pitt.

“Three Kings” and “The Perfect Storm” earned him critical and commercial hits, respectively, but clunkers such as “The Yards” and his somnambulant performance in “Apes” left some questioning his range.

“The Italian Job,” a remake of the 1969 British film starring Michael Caine, isn’t embarrassing, but it won’t win him many converts. The film finds him leading a crew of colorful thieves trying to steal a king’s ransom in gold bricks from a former confederate who nicked it from them. The film co-stars Donald Sutherland, Seth Green and Edward Norton as the turncoat.

If Mr. Wahlberg is still feeling his way as an actor, he sounds more assured about his personal life.

“I’m desperately trying to do the right thing,” he says.

The actor will be a father for the first time this August, with model Rhea Durham. The pair are expecting a baby girl, he proudly reports.

“I can’t wait,” Mr. Wahlberg says, later adding that he prays before going to bed each night.

He grew up in the working-class city of Dorchester, on the outskirts of Boston. His truck-driving father left his mother, a nurse, when he was 11, a split that propelled his life toward violence. He dropped out of school, hung around with a rough crowd and occasionally sold drugs. In his teens, he attacked a Vietnamese man while goosed up on alcohol and PCP, an assault that cost the man an eye. Mr. Wahlberg served 45 days in jail, a term he later said set him straight.

He later found a creative outlet for his passions in his rap persona, Marky Mark, a hip-hopper given a boost by opening for brother Donnie Wahlberg’s New Kids on the Block.

Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch scored a major hit with the single “Good Vibrations,” but the group’s popularity quickly waned.

Director Penny Marshall spotted one of Mr. Wahlberg’s underwear ads for Calvin Klein and cast him in a small role in “Renaissance Man,” which opened up a new career avenue.

These days, he says, his hedonistic lifestyle has gone the way of the Funky Bunch. The switch came months ahead of the baby news, he emphasizes. “I had already stopped going out and changed my whole way of life,” he says. “It was the right time. All of my friends and family have children.”

His former lifestyle proved unfulfilling. “It’s the same thing all the time,” he says. “You have a couple of drinks, then you start looking at women, and then you’re like, ‘Oh … they’re all out there.’

“When I was a kid, I couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to me,” says Mr. Wahlberg, the youngest of nine children. “Then I become famous, and really attractive women were all of a sudden interested in me. That was interesting for about a week. Then I realized what it was all about.”

“I still took advantage of it for another eight years,” he adds with a mischievous glint.

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