Mark Wahlberg is known for starring in big blockbusters, as well as producing hit TV shows like “Entourage” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Now, the Oscar-nominated actor is combining those talents to bring “Father Stu” to the big screen, as both the producer and the leading man.
For the past six years, Wahlberg has been trying to make a biopic about Stuart Long, a troubled, foul-mouthed Montana boxer who dedicated his life to the Roman Catholic Church after he nearly died in a motorcycle accident. The priest died in 2014 after years of struggling with a rare autoimmune disease, inclusion body myositis.
Wahlberg was searching for a story to tell about his Catholic faith when a priest at 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 wasn’t easy.
After years of the project going nowhere in the development stage, Wahlberg chose to self-finance the movie with the help of two collaborators, finding inspiration from his “Daddy’s Home 2” costar Mel Gibson. Gibson—who, like Wahlberg, has dealt with controversies—put up his own money to make his divisive 2004 box-office sensation, “The Passion of the Christ.” Wahlberg even cast Gibson as Long’s father.
With “Father Stu” hitting theaters on Wednesday, Wahlberg still can’t believe his good fortune.
“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-finance the movie, the grueling process of gaining 30 pounds to play Long at the end of his life, and his plans to make more faith-based movies.
Wahlberg said 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 the rule to never break is to put in your own money.
So how did it get to that point where you decided to self-finance the movie?
Well, I’m always willing to bet on myself.
But was there a scenario where, if you didn’t come with money, it wasn’t getting made?
I slipped the script to a couple of people that I thought maybe would get it, and they didn’t. And obviously, it’s subjective. You have your own feeling of what the material is. Some people thought it was depressing because he’s sick at the end. They didn’t see the heart and the emotion and, ultimately, how inspiring it is.
So I felt Mel had done it with “The Passion,” maybe I try it.
And if I did find someone to finance, then that’s a whole other conversation because typically the person cutting the check also has notes and wants to be involved in the process.
So I felt, you know what, I think it’s better if I just step up and have complete control.
How much did you have to put in? Are we talking half the budget? More?
Let’s just say I put millions and millions of dollars into the film — and then incurring other costs because we went over schedule in production, and there are clearances for the music.
But I also had one friend come in who is not in the film business but believed in the project. And I had another friend who is in the film 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 get to a point where you would have directed the movie if it meant getting it off the ground?
Yeah. That was definitely a conversation. But for me to carve out 18 months of my life, and then put on hold all the other stuff I was doing, it just wouldn’t work.
I had a feeling that Rosalind would do great behind the camera. I wanted to give her that shot. To have a first-time director and get these results, it makes me look a little smarter than I am.
However, I cannot take credit for the movie’s success because this is God choosing me to make the film. He knows finally I get to utilize all the talents and gifts that have been bestowed upon me for his greater good and to serve my part in his big picture. I mean, I prayed every day about getting this movie made.
Mel Gibson introduced you to Rosalind, and along with also costarring in the movie you leaned on him for advice through this experience. How much of 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 him taking a chance and financing the film himself. That was something I 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 movie?
No. Rosalind really just put herself in that position. Her script really blew me away. And Mel also felt the same, that she was more than capable. He knew that I was at a place in my career where I knew what I wanted to do with this and do it the way I saw fit.
Wahlberg saw similarities between his life and Long’s with ‘trying to find your purpose in life’
So all this started because a priest from your parish pitched you a Stuart Long biopic. That has to be one of the most unique pitches you’ve ever gotten.
I mean, I would literally move around from church to church because I would get pitched a lot.
Yeah. I’m not at church looking to find material. I’m trying to find some peace and quiet to be able to worship. So he was the least likely person I’d expect to be pitching me, but he told me the story a couple of times and, finally, it registered for me.
I realized, “Wow, I have been looking for something like this.” It’s a fantastic role, a powerful and inspiring story. It felt different and original to get people’s attention.
This is no disrespect to the work that you have been doing recently, but there is just an energy from you in this movie that’s different.
Listen, these kinds of things don’t come around that often. Sometimes you have to really go out and seek things that will challenge you. It’s a blessing.
When you began to learn more about Father Stu’s life, did you see a lot of yourself in him?
There are similarities: difficult childhood, lots of problems trying to find your purpose in life, what you’re meant to do and meant to serve — all of those things. So absolutely I 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 might have been going through.
That is a major point in this movie: Father Stu wasn’t just talking about it. He had walked it.
You spent six years trying to get this movie made. Before having to put in your own money, was there ever a point where you were ready to shoot and the money fell out?
That never happened, thankfully. That happened three or four times with “The Fighter.” We would have a start date, and then something would happen. With this, David O. Russell and I were trying to develop it. We met with some writers, and a few took a crack at it, but we never liked what we got.
So I decided I was going to go off on my own and work on it. I had a sense of urgency in wanting to get the movie made, so I wanted to find the right people as quickly as possible. But that took a while.
When I finally met Rosalind and she handed me a script, I couldn’t believe how on point it was. I felt if she could put it on the page, she could put it on the screen. The movie is much better being told from her point of view.
To gain 30 pounds for the role, Wahlberg said he ate 7 to 8 meals a day made up of eggs, bacon, and steak
By the end of the movie, Long doesn’t just change 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 isn’t something I would want to jump at doing again.
But this was so much more important than just doing the actor “Raging Bull” thing. Everything about Stu was predicted on his physicality. To see him lose that but to gain the strength of a thousand men spiritually, he was unbelievable. I wanted the audience to see that and understand it.
Watching this, I thought about Sylvester Stallone gaining weight for “Cop Land.” Like you, here’s a star known for his physique completely changing his body. He has talked about how, mentally, it was hard to gain the weight. Can you relate? Mentally, how was it for you to have your body change like that?
I can definitely understand that. You have to force yourself to eat even after you’re 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 do it healthily. The first two weeks was a 7,000-calorie-a-day diet plan. And then the last four weeks was 11,000 calories a day.
Hold on. How is that healthy?
It’s not but more healthy than the other way.
What did you eat?
A dozen eggs, dozen pieces of bacon, two bowls of white rice, a cup of olive oil to start the morning. More eggs, a porterhouse steak. That’s seven to eight meals a day of this.
Then, towards the end, it’s a lot of starches and sodium on top of the protein to get that bloated look.
I would think by the end, you never wanted to eat a meal again in your life.
I didn’t love it.
Wahlberg has created a production company to make more faith-based projects
So this will be labeled as a faith-based movie. But it’s very top shelf in that genre with its high-end production design and, obviously, the talent involved.
We wanted to create the highest quality of cinema.
And this high-quality filmmaking mixed with spiritual storytelling, is that something you want to do more of now?
Absolutely. I’m hoping lots more will come to me now, not just stories that I can star in but also can help others get their works off the ground. I want to do more of this in the future, and there’s a huge audience for it.
Are you thinking of going as far as starting a production company that’s focused on faith-based stories?
We are already in the works: film, television, across the board, but putting the emphasis on quality.
The hope is I can intrigue other high-caliber talent to come and do what I did with “Father Stu”: bet on themselves, take a chance. It’s not always about the paycheck.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.