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Mark Wahlberg Is A Chance-Taker; One Of His Biggest Is ‘The Gambler”

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By Steven Zeitchik

Los Angeles Times

(MCT)

In 2003, Mark Wahlberg walked into the Santa Monica offices of HBO with an idea for a series. He’d already had acclaimed turns in admired movies — “Boogie Nights,” “The Basketball Diaries,” “Three Kings” — but hadn’t broken through as a leading man.

Yet that day, Wahlberg and his longtime manager — a tough-minded negotiator with an anxious streak named Stephen Levinson, whom everyone calls Lev — had an idea that went beyond acting. They wanted to produce a show based on Wahlberg’s life. The actor wouldn’t star in it — that would tax the meta-o-meter, and maybe his schedule, a little too much. But the beats of the characters would echo those of Wahlberg himself — a streetwise actor from the East Coast and his friends chumming around Los Angeles, trying to go Hollywood and remain who they are at the same time.

The executives liked the idea. But they were also cautious, in part because of one of the men who’d be driving it creatively.

“I think a lot of people, myself included, underestimated Mark as a producer,” said Michael Lombardo, the current programming chief of HBO, who was at the meeting. “It was hard for some people to see past the underwear model and white rapper.”

Despite the reservations, HBO bit. The show, under the hand of creator Doug Ellin, became not only a massive hit — with eight seasons, “Entourage” is one of the longest-running scripted series in HBO history and is one of only two modern shows on the network to spawn a film — but the start of an improbable career.

By now, most people have gotten past the idea of the 43-year-old Wahlberg as someone who’s simply managed to carve out a solid acting niche. Wahlberg is, after all, the reigning actor in the one of the few franchises to gross more than $3 billion worldwide (“Transformers”), the star of the most successful R-rated comedy in history (“Ted”) and someone who has achieved the rare feat of having at least one $100-million grossing movie in three straight years (“Ted,” “Lone Survivor” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction”).

What he hasn’t been thought of, at least among the wider public, is a Hollywood kingmaker. In an era when actors, even the best-known ones, have a hard time getting projects made, Wahlberg and Levinson are responsible for surprisingly large chunks of the zeitgeist — on television, such shows as “Boardwalk Empire,” “In Treatment” and “Entourage”; in film, with movies like “The Fighter,” “Lone Survivor” and an upcoming dramatization of the Cocaine Cowboys story called “American Desperado.”

What Wahlberg really hasn’t been thought of, though, is a serious dramatic actor. Perhaps his four best movies — “The Fighter,” “The Departed,” “Three Kings” and “Boogie Nights” — are all regarded for things other than his performance, even though “Departed” did land him a supporting actor Oscar nomination.

Wahlberg aims to change that perception with “The Gambler,” a drama opening in theaters Dec. 19. It is not an unreasonable hope.

The “Gambler’s” pedigree is unimpeachable: a remake of James Toback’s hard-bitten ‘70s classic, a new script by Oscar winner William Monahan and a director, in Rupert Wyatt, who after making the acclaimed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” walked away from that franchise and chose to make this film (or, more accurately, was chosen by Wahlberg and Levinson, the lead producers on the Paramount production).

But it’s Wahlberg’s screen presence that stands out most. As Jim Bennett, a compulsive blackjack player who also happens to be an English professor, Wahlberg plays someone he’s never played before: a dark, literate character with a streak of masochistic honesty.

“The Gambler” shows Wahlberg far from the kind of stoic masculinity he has evinced in most of his movies. Instead he moves with a hollowed-out, broken-down desperation. He has pages-long monologues that contain poetic turns of phrase (“Genius isn’t magical; it’s material”) and is in nearly every scene of what is, despite its packaging, not a casino thriller but an existential character study.

Even his troublemaking wisecracks come via a man who’s genuinely in dire straits, not the can-do savior of Michael Bay artifacts like “Pain and Gain.”

”What Mark and I talked about is you don’t have to like Jim,” Wyatt said. “You just have to be interested in Jim, which is an interesting challenge.”

As with “Entourage,” Mark Wahlberg once again hopes people underestimate him.

A FAMILY MAN

It is Saturday afternoon, and Wahlberg has just finished lunch at the Bar Marmont, enjoying a rare day off from shooting, in this case “Ted 2.” Wahlberg’s life is a mix of “Entourage” and the prosaic. He has a penchant for flying private in and out of Van Nuys, but when he drops a name it is as likely to be his pediatrician as a pop star.

Wahlberg, who these days attends church daily and says he keeps a prayer book with him on sets, has four children with wife Rhea Durham. When lunch is over he will hop in his sports coupe and peel off down Sunset, but it’s to hurry home to supervise a Halloween party for 15 kids.

The subject of a difficult director comes up, and Wahlberg sounds a skeptical note. “I think when you don’t have any success or expect any success, you protect it a lot more closely when you do have it,” a clear reference to himself. “You’re willing to go into the trenches a little more.”

He spent six months doing just that on “The Gambler.” He’d recite monologues in front of a mirror, at home and on the set of “Lone Survivor,” trying out different rhythms, like a rap song — a point he demonstrates by freestyling several pages, unsolicited. “When you think of someone to give these monologues,” Wyatt says, “you might not think of Mark right away, but his background as a rapper helped a lot with the musicality of the script. It was quite amazing to watch, really.”

The decision to make “The Gambler,” Wahlberg said, came about because it seemed the right moment, four years after “Fighter,” to get into something grittier. Most actors will say that they just react to scripts as they go and don’t have a larger plan, but Wahlberg and Levinson (now also his producing partner) have a strategy that’s either grandiose or smart — “it’s all very simple yet very well thought out,” said Wahlberg — involving a kind of deliberate jumbling of the pattern.

“We like to look at two or three films at a time,” Levinson said, spacing out dramas, comedies and action. He, Wahlberg and agent Ari Emanuel, the third leg in the long-standing entity of Wahlberg Inc., have designed his career with the explicit idea that an actor will be more bankable if he’s perceived as more versatile.

The strategic thinking began to coalesce in the early 2000s, a little before “Entourage.” After movies like “Planet of The Apes” with Tim Burton and “The Truth About Charlie” with Jonathan Demme proved disappointing, Wahlberg and Levinson shifted from the conventional method of allowing a director to be the determining factor in choosing projects.

The decision to produce, Wahlberg said, was born of another frustration. “I remember sitting there on these films when I was just an actor and you just see something melting down or the wheels coming off, and it’s like what the …,” he said. “Sometimes I would think about saying something, but I would just go to my trailer and lay down and watch ESPN.”

Closest to the Hole, as the Wahlberg-Levinson company is called, has become a textbook example for the actor-as-producer model. As the producing clout has expanded, so did the acting offers; as his performance range widened, he and Levinson gained access to better material. Wahlberg is apt to use the phrase “I want to do it all” in interviews, and with a kind of edgy defiance, a street belief that you take on an opponent even if there’s good reason to believe he might whup you.

Casting director Sheila Jaffe, who has been in Wahlberg’s inner circle since shortly after “Boogie Nights” and cast nearly all the movies he’s produced, says that kind of indomitability, even against good sense, has been key.

“It was one of those things where if one of his movies didn’t do that well, he just got up again and did another one,” she said. “There’s a steadiness to it. A lot of actors don’t have that. They get in their head about it and then get nervous and cautious and things start to come apart.”

“Lone Survivor” director Peter Berg thinks Wahlberg “plays like Derek Jeter — like he’s three runs behind at all times,” a description the Boston-raised sports fan Wahlberg would appreciate, perhaps minus the analogy to a legendary New York Yankee.

Wahlberg’s rise has also coincided and enjoyed a symbiosis with the emergence of Emanuel, a one-time upstart agent who rose to the top of the heap with a similar confidence and swagger; the Ari Gold and Vinny Chase “Entourage” comparisons are not idle ones.

Levinson, meanwhile, has his own “Entourage” analogue. The producer, whom Wahlberg met in the 1990s when Levinson was an assistant on the desk of a previous agent, partly inspired Kevin Connolly’s character, E, on the series. He functions similarly in the Wahlberg orbit — as the voice of reason with a small chip on his shoulder.

Meetings with the pair can often result in a tough-talking Levinson going quiet or flatly stating what Team Wahlberg wants. “Lev and I have a good cop-bad cop thing in the room sometimes,” Wahlberg said laughing. A producer who worked with them said this had a notable effect: “They’re good producers because, honestly, I think executives are a little scared of them.”

OVERCOMING CRITICISM

Over the years some skeptics have questioned Wahlberg’s decidedly nonclassical training; he has no formal acting education and only earned his GED last year. He also still lets flashes of his street past out, as when describing, with some enthusiasm, how he had to subdue Berg physically several times when the director came at him unexpectedly during the making of “Lone Survivor.”

But spend time with Wahlberg and an intelligence becomes apparent, as does a refreshing, often astute directness. In a conversation last year for his surprise hit “2 Guns,” he was asked by The Times what he thought of a string of expensive Hollywood bombs, particularly “The Lone Ranger.” He replied: “They’re spending $250 million for two dudes on a horse? Where’s the money going?” The comment quickly went viral and made Wahlberg a truth-telling hero of sorts in Hollywood.

His acting has also come under fire. To some, it’s too heavy-lidded, too lacking in dynamism. Many actors implicitly raise the philosophical question of whether it could just as easily have been someone else in their well-known roles if it had not been them, but with his lo-fi presence, Wahlberg seems to suggest it more directly.

Those who’ve worked with Wahlberg say audiences shouldn’t be fooled by a lack of histrionics. In an email, “Departed” director Martin Scorsese lauded his minimalism. “You can feel his intensity in every single shot in which he appears,” he wrote. “The way he moves, the way he communicates so much without a single word, is absolutely remarkable.”

Still, Wahlberg can sometimes seem less an actor than a symbol. To some, he’s a sign that extraordinary fame and runaway talent do not always go hand in hand. But it’s also reasonable to view him as an encouraging sign of Hollywood democracy — a sign that, perhaps more than in most realms of American public life, hard work and ambition can win out over bloodline or background (provided, of course, you look a certain way).

Wahlberg and Levinson have a similar take, still seeing themselves as outsiders. “We appreciate every day that we’re allowed to stay in this town, that nobody’s sent us home,” Levinson said with a laugh.

Added Wahlberg, “Yes, there’s a long-term plan I think about all the time. But if something doesn’t work, that’s OK too; we’ll just move on to the next. You have to understand where I come from. I grew up digging ditches.”

———

©2014 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Mark Wahlberg Is A Chance-Taker; One Of His Biggest Is ‘The Gambler”