The Mark Wahlberg Playbook Is The Oldest One In Hollywood

Mark Wahlberg has been churning out mid-budget genre films for 20 years — which is why it's surprising that his success is predicated on his old-fashioned attitude toward what it means to be a movie star.

In Mark Wahlberg’s 20,000-square-foot mansion in the exclusive, gated Beverly Park neighborhood of Beverly Hills, he’s hung portraits of four different stars of the old school: James Caan, John Garfield, Steve McQueen, and James Cagney. They're all men whose acting styles were straightforward, but no less powerful for it, in contrast to method actors like Marlon Brando. All four are untraditional masculine heroes, with busted, broken, or otherwise unremarkable faces; there are no pretty boys, like Paul Newman.

As a child growing up in Boston, Wahlberg would watch classic films with his father, and he’s spoken at length about the ways in which the men who starred in them have influenced his attitude and acting. But if you look closely at Wahlberg’s career, you see that he’s done more than simply emulate the style of these stars.

Over the last 10 years, Wahlberg has appeared in 24 films — 22 as leading man, one as supporting actor, and one in a bit role — averaging a film every five months and grossing a total of over $3.4 billion. He has producing credits on four of those films, as well as on four HBO shows, his family’s A&E reality series (Wahlburgers), and the Entourage movie. He’s a huge draw overseas, which helped him leverage a $16 million to $18 million payday for Transformers: Age of Extinction, but that’s the exception to the rule: His paydays, like the budgets of his films, are generally mid-level. And while he takes great pride in his productions, he’s a star without pretense — as clearly evidenced in Ted 2, in which his character is doused, unceremoniously, in sperm.

Like the classic Hollywood stars he admires, Wahlberg is a journeyman star: He works. And everything about Wahlberg — from his production strategy to the attempt to cover up hate crimes he committed as a teenager — not only resembles the strategies of those stars, but the no-nonsense approach of the studios that shaped their careers.

Wahlberg’s films can be derivative and predictable. His past is unquestionably vile. But his old-fashioned approach to acting, producing, and image management has made him one of the most instructive stars of the last two decades.

The period known as “Classic Hollywood” began in the late ‘20s/early ‘30s, with the gradual consolidation of the studios, and ends at a nebulous point in the 1950s. In the earliest days of the so-called “movie colony,” you could get a job in the moving pictures if you a) had a great face (Clara Bow); b) did an effective job of using exaggerated face and hand motions to make up for the lack of sound (Theda Bara); c) had a special vaudevillian talent, like slapstick comedy or dancing (Buster Keaton); or d) were in the right place at the right time (Loretta Young).

You could have a thick accent, you could barely speak English, you could have classic British elocution — it didn’t matter, because with silent film, the audiences would never hear your voice. Most stars came from nothing or next-to; very few had anything that we’d consider an education. In many ways, it was fame at its most democratic.

As the silent era gave way to sound, the studios began consolidating their power, forcing stars to sign restrictive seven-year contracts and significantly curbing their negotiation power. Stars were discovered on the vaudeville circuit (like James Cagney, who was a distinguished tap dancer, or Dorothy Dandridge, who performed a sort of teenage nightclub act) on exhausting tours that crisscrossed the country, via fan magazine contests, on the street, or culled from the hundreds who made the pilgrimage to the “movie colony” to make it in pictures.

Mark Wahlberg doesn’t have a studio contract, but he has an origin story to rival any classic Hollywood star. Like his idol James Cagney, he was born poor, Catholic, and Irish. Cagney was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; Wahlberg was born in the similarly rough-and-tumble Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Wahlberg never graduated from high school, started doing cocaine at 13, was arrested several times, and was convicted of a felony. Like Steve McQueen, who spent years in gangs and engaging in general disobedience, his trajectory was toward anywhere but stardom.

But Wahlberg also had an older brother, Donnie, who had happened into the late ‘80s boy band New Kids on the Block. Donnie had passable singing and dancing skills, but his real talents were brooding and looking good in ripped jeans. Mark had originally been part of the five-boy group, but dropped out early, instead amassing the “Funky Bunch” that would serve as his supporting cast. He signed a deal with Interscope and, in 1991, released “Good Vibrations,” which proceeded to go gold and dominate MTV.

Wahlberg’s origins, then, weren’t in the theater, or commercials, or television, but in music videos, the 1990s version of vaudeville. And while “Good Vibrations” had a catchy hook and Wahlberg was a passable rapper, the real draw was his body. Shirtless for most of the video, his physique was sculpted and hairless, yet softened in a way that deviated from the hard bodies of Schwarzenegger and Stallone that had dominated ‘80s cinema.

Still, the cult of Wahlberg’s body didn’t truly coalesce until he posed for a series of Calvin Klein ads in 1992. It was the glory days of the transgressive Calvin Klein ad — post–Brooke Shields, pre–heroin chic — and the series of Wahlberg, intermittently flanked by a topless as-yet unfamous Kate Moss, are a study in specific and incredibly American sort of masculinity.

There are some of Wahlberg in jeans, white boxer briefs showing, but the truly iconic shot is the one where he pulls slightly at the sides of the shorts, almost embarrassed, and his grin spreads wide and genuine. He looks blissful in his own body — unencumbered by the stresses of performing an identity. The campaign as a whole betrays Wahlberg’s formative age: At 21, he’s still alternating between the innocence and ebullience of youth and the put-on performance of machismo.

The images made Wahlberg into an early ‘90s icon and helped keep launch a number of side hustles, including this incredible workout video, and an autobiography, dedicated to his dick, that, in retrospect, underlines just how many layers of overcompensation Wahlberg would have to shed in order to come across as something less than an utter tool.

But his start also mirrored the way many Hollywood stars first gained renown in Hollywood: as pinups. The “pinup,” named for the action of literally pinning up an image of the star, was a designation for an actor who photographed well, had that certain oomph, and was known much more for her body than any sort of acting. (See: Betty Grable.)

It’s a feminized way to label Wahlberg — pinups are subject to the gaze and made passive as sex objects. That willingness to make himself vulnerable, even passive, would be the heart of Wahlberg’s breakout role in Boogie Nights (1998). But Boogie Nights didn’t clarify Wahlberg’s image so much as his talent. As Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg combines the gleeful innocence, pride, and self-objectification of that Calvin Klein shot with the perverting underworld of Basketball Diaries (his second appearance, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio) and Wahlberg’s own past.

The role of Diggler also required Wahlberg to swallow his conception of himself. As he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2013: “Boogie Nights was a moment for me where I had to say, 'You know what? I can’t keep worrying about what the boys in the neighborhood are going to think.'”

Put differently, Marky Mark was ready to leave the Calvin Klein boxer briefs behind and get weird. He acted sporadically over the next few years, but his willingness to commit himself to the vision of a then-25-year-old P.T. Anderson led to his involvement in the first studio films of two more indie wunderkinds: David O. Russell, with whom he made Three Kings (1999), and James Gray, who made The Yards (2000).

Both roles refined the star image that has stuck with Wahlberg since: the working-class guy who wants to do right, but happens to find himself in a situation that forces him to do wrong. It’s a take on the antihero that evokes the careers of McQueen, Cagney, and Garfield, whose films simultaneously glamorized the plight of the working-class man and evoked sympathy for his unwinnable plight.

Add in a role as a sea captain in The Perfect Storm (2000), letting his thick Boston accent run wild for the first time in years, and Wahlberg was beginning to feel something like a legit star, especially as the details of his childhood and background were recycled and amplified in various magazine profiles, highlighting the extent to which his working-class picture personality complemented his “real life.”

He diversified slightly, going back to his quasi-vaudevillian roots with Rock Star (2001), another film tinted with equal parts hope and despair, and playing action hero in Planet of the Apes (2001). And then, a string of performances against type: wearing a scarf in 2002’s The Truth About Charlie (a film that Wahlberg has long openly ridiculed), playing a sort of junior varsity Danny Ocean in The Italian Job (2002), and returning to work with David O. Russell, this time as an equal parts delusional and manic hippie, in I Heart Huckabees (2004).

Wahlberg acting against type in Rockstar and The Truth About Charlie

Historically, acting against type has served many functions. Back in the classic era, Cagney had developed a solid and highly marketable image as a gangster, but it wasn’t until his turn in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), showing off his still considerable singing and tap-dancing skills, that he won an Oscar. Working against type helps underline a star’s range — which might be part of the reason Wahlberg’s truly hilarious turn in Huckabees attracted so many plaudits. But working against type also helps, somewhat ironically, to refine the star’s established type: It’s as if seeing Wahlberg as a sophisticate or a hippie just reminds you that he’s acting, and his “real” and natural persona is, as one reviewer described it, “his bulldog blue collar thing.”

Which is precisely the persona Wahlberg returned to in 2005, with a dedication that can only suggest a frustration, or perhaps just a fatigue, with playing against type. Over the next five years, he starred in Four Brothers, Invincible, Shooter, We Own the Night, Max Payne, The Lovely Bones, and the ur-Wahlberg role of Sgt. Dignam in The Departed, in which he gets to lean fully into his Boston antihero persona — a turn that felt so powerfully right that he earned his first nomination for an Oscar. If the pre-2005 films were a quest to find his type, the post-2005 were evidence that he would now occupy it fully.

The vast majority of Wahlberg’s starring roles are in mid-budget films — between $30 million and $50 million — with slight variations on accepted genre formulas: gangster films, noir films, war films, boxing films. With the noted exception of I Heart Huckabees, these films have straightforward, logical narrative progressions; even the films he makes with auteurs like Scorsese are the among the most straightforward, the least artful, of their oeuvre.

They’re the best examples of a style of workaday Hollywood filmmaking that has become increasingly rare, in which each studio produced hundreds of films on relatively small budgets; some of these films would sink, others would soar, but no one film had the ability to sabotage a studio’s bottom line. When people say they love Mark Wahlberg films, they’re saying they love this kind of film — like their classic Hollywood antecedents, they’re basic, broadly palatable, and incredibly enjoyable, if not entirely memorable. They rank high on the “I’ll totally watch this on Netflix” scale.

Loving Mark Wahlberg movies also means appreciating what his image seems to stand for: hard work, resilience, simplicity, straightforward American masculinity. But for years, he was lacking two crucial components that buttressed the image of every classic Hollywood star: family and morality. Over the course of the 2000s, he rectified both. In 2001, he started dating model Rhea Durham; three years later, she gave birth to a daughter. The pair had two sons before August 2009, when they married in a small, private Catholic ceremony. A year later, Durham gave birth to a second daughter.

In the 1930s, no star could’ve openly fathered a child out of wedlock, and while Wahlberg was by no means scorned for doing so, his marriage made things “right” in a way that an unmarried relationship, no matter how committed, could.

Walhberg with his son, Michael; Wahlberg with the rest of his family

The marriage — and the importance of family in his life — has gradually become central to the Mark Wahlberg narrative. He’s a dad with a minivan who drives his kids to school — he just periodically wakes up at 4:30 in the morning to pack on muscle beforehand. In this way, Wahlberg proves that a guy can be a good father, a good husband, and maintain his masculinity. Last year, he was on the cover of man bible Esquire, his son on his shoulders, with the headline “Mark Wahlberg: The Modern Fatherhood of a Street Kid.”

Wahlberg’s also religious, and public about it in a way that few stars have been since the classic age. No matter that he and Durham had a child out of wedlock: Their first date was to mass at St. Patrick’s. Sometimes he tells reporters he goes to mass every day; others he avers that he simply sets aside daily time to pray. He told Parade that on Sundays, he’ll wake up, work out, go to early mass, let his wife sleep, make the kids pancakes, and then they’ll go to mass as a family. He has old-fashioned ideas about gender (he’ll let his boys see his movies, but not his girls). He turned down Brokeback Mountain but thinks gays should be allowed to marry.

Wahlberg also avoids films in which he has romantic entanglements, let alone sex scenes, so as to show respect for his wife, whom he describes as “very conservative.” As a result, his films have the same sort of suggestive glances and unconsummated romances as films made under the censoring guidelines of the Hays Code. F-bombs abound, everyone gets shot, but no sex allowed.

It’s an old-fashioned sort of morality that not only recalls the ways that studios helped fashion churchgoing, God-loving, family-devoted images for the stars, but also helps scrub Wahlberg’s image of scandal. Because pre–Marky Mark, Wahlberg was a bigot of the first degree. At 13, he was the subject of a civil action suit for throwing rocks and yelling racial epithets at black schoolchildren. At 16, he attacked two Vietnamese men and referred to them using racial slurs throughout police questioning. He was sentenced to two years for his crimes, but ultimately served only 45 days.

At 21, he avoided charges of assault; throughout his early twenties, he was involved in repeated fights; on the set of Three Kings, George Clooney would find him in barroom brawls on a nightly basis. Back in 1994, he allegedly called someone a "faggot" at a party of Madonna’s — for which Madonna very publicly threw him out — and seemed to endorse homophobic statements made by “Mr. Loverman” singer Shabba Ranks.

Wahlberg did standard damage control for his homophobia back in 1994, appearing on the cover of The Advocate, but the hate crimes went largely undiscussed for years. It wasn’t that they were covered up so much as elided from the narrative of his life, grouped in with his other bad behavior in a segment of his life that was distinctly “before.” Before adulthood, before fatherhood, before charity, before his commitment to Catholicism — which is precisely how the often shady histories of stars’ delinquent doings were situated, underlining a distinct, if somewhat implausible, narrative of penance and reform.

It’s also the rhetoric that Wahlberg himself used in his application for a pardon for his crimes from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: “I have not engaged in philanthropic efforts in order to make people forget about my past,” he wrote in his 2014 appeal. “To the contrary, I want people to remember my past so that I can serve as an example of how lives can be turned around and people can be redeemed ... receiving a pardon would be a formal recognition that I am not the same person that I was on the night of April 8, 1988.”

The board of appeals has yet to rule on Wahlberg’s case, but his crimes remain a footnote — instead of the guiding scandal — of Wahlberg’s career. No matter that he’s only seeking official pardon so that his family’s burger chain, Wahlburgers, can open in states with restrictions on felony ownership, or that he’s never sought forgiveness from his victims or the Asian-American community at large. He’s constructed a narrative of rehabilitation that rivals the most effective whitewashing of the classic Hollywood PR machine.

But image shaping and public repentance couldn’t make Wahlberg a star if he wasn’t also cranking out product. For most of the ‘30s and ‘40s, films were made in four months, if not less, and actors transitioned swiftly from project to project. There were some stars, mostly transplants from the British stage, like Laurence Olivier, who approached acting as an art form, but this was a decade before method acting and the notion that a star would somehow immerse themselves in a role. That’s an attitude that Wahlberg embraces. As he told GQ, “The James Cagney philosophy always made more sense to me. Prepare for the part. Be the part. And with no great effort, play the part.”

Some argue that Wahlberg, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in The Fighter, was out-acted by Christian Bale, who won an Oscar for his. Yet that’s a very 21st century understanding of acting, in which we reward the performances that are the most transformative. Bale was acting like a very contemporary and very showy method actor. He was doing it well. But Wahlberg was acting the way that classic Hollywood stars acted — and, arguably, doing it better.

Wahlberg’s classic Hollywood work ethic extends to the rest of his career, which, over the last 15 years, has made good on the diversifying, entrepreneurial spirit manifest in his early ‘90s workout video. His first producing role came in the form of Entourage, a series that would solidify the mythos of his past. The selling point wasn’t the stars, who were unknowns, but the life of success, girls, bros, and new money on which it was based: Wahlberg’s.

To produce, stars “self-incorporate,” forming a production company under their name. It’s a practice with roots in classic Hollywood. In 1942, Cagney was one of first to do so while rebelling against his studio. Then, as now, self-incorporation helps stars develop products they actually like, instead of simply following the studios' orders. Producing also allows stars a cut of a film’s profits; sometimes a star will have some modicum of say in the project, but more often, it’s more like an investment.

Which explains why Wahlberg has producing credits on In Treatment, How to Make It in America, and Boardwalk Empire. But Wahlberg also throws his weight behind products he wants made: When David O. Russell was blackballed after production on Nailed was shut down four times, Wahlberg agreed to co-produce and star. The Fighter became a critical and financial success, enabling Wahlberg to produce a slew of smaller yet no less Wahlberg-ian projects: Contraband, Broken City, Lone Survivor, the Entourage movie, and the A&E reality series based on his family’s chain of hamburger joints, The Wahlburgers.

Grantland’s Chris Ryan describes Wahlberg's films over the last five years not as “acting,” but “working” — precisely the attitude a studio head would take toward filmmaking. Some of his genre “work” has grown increasingly big-budget, but for every Transformers, there’s a film like Ted, which grosses over half a billion dollars...on a $50 million budget. Contraband: $96 million on a $25 million budget; Lone Survivor: $150 million on a $40 million budget; Pain and Gain: $86 million on a $26 million budget. So when a film like The Gambler only grosses $39 million worldwide, it’s easy to brush it aside — it only cost $25 million to make. That sort of consistency might not earn Wahlberg the same sort of payday as Robert Downey Jr., but it makes it all the easier to convince others to get behind his brand.

There’s a scene in the Entourage movie, widely ridiculed, in which Wahlberg makes a cameo and pimps Wahlburgers — while wearing a hat and t-shirt with the brands of his other business ventures. It feels obtrusive, but that’s only because it’s the most transparent display of the hustler attitude that increasingly befits a studio head.

It’s a point that Wahlberg himself embraces. As he recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “I want to build a great body of work; I want to build a great business. My goal is to finance my own projects, own my own material, maybe even have a studio.” He invests in the electrolyte-enhanced water Aquahydrate; he’s an “ambassador” for Indian Motorcycles; he developed a line of supplements with GNC called “Marked.” Back in 2012, he told Men’s Journal that “I’m more a businessman than anything right now. [...] My entire philosophy has changed. Acting careers are short-lived; a business will last a lifetime.”

That’s an attitude that has served Wahlberg incredibly well. With precious few exceptions, he understands the limits of his image and chooses projects that reflect the way others want to see him. Which isn’t to say he’s not a talented actor: He’s like the sixth man on a basketball team who, through hard work, consistency, and endurance, makes the Hall of Fame. In fact, there’s a solid argument, laid out by Adam Sternbergh in the New York Times, for Mark Wahlberg as the greatest actor of his generation.

Which, looking at Ted 2, might be a hard point to swallow. But study the filmography of any of the actors we consider “great,” and there are half a dozen forgotten genre films and genuine clunkers for every classic. Those stars, and the studios that guided them, were incredibly efficient at turning personalities into known and reliable products. Wahlberg may tire of playing the same type, but he also understands, in a way that select few do, that there are ways to stretch that type — by working with varied directors, by spoofing it, by turning it into a scene-stealing supporting role — without abandoning the brand that attracts and reassures fans.

Aside from Robert Downey Jr. and Brad Pitt, few actors rival Wahlberg’s production and global grosses over the last decade: He’s neck and neck with Matt Damon, pulling ahead of DiCaprio, and a billion dollars up on George Clooney. Tom Cruise makes a film a year, if that, and half of them have been financial disappointments. Will Smith’s dominance is waning. Denzel struggles to pull global audiences. Ryan Gosling hasn’t starred in a film that made over $100 million since 2011.

Wahlberg might not have those stars’ charisma or panache, but that’s not the Wahlberg way. They’ve got the mystique of the classic era’s foremost leading men, but he's got their strategy.

In a landscape increasingly delimited and defined by franchises, Wahlberg’s turned himself into one. Not by playing a superhero, or rebooting a sci-fi series, but by taking what worked about the classic Hollywood mode of production and adapting it to the current industry. And in an era in which the value of the movie star is continually, and often correctly, called into question, he’s established himself as something that Hollywood values even more than Twitter followers, magazine covers, or charisma, the very thing that the classic studios strove to create with each attempt at star creation: a sure bet.

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