By Ashlyn Robinette
People come and go in life, but for Mark Wahlberg, it was no accident that a particular priest came into his.
The A-list actor and producer with more than 70 films (and counting!) under his belt spoke with me at a press event in Phoenix for his latest movie, “Father Stu,” where he opened up about his passion project and finding strength through spirituality.
Several years ago, Wahlberg, a devout Catholic, was having dinner in Beverly Hills with two priests from his parish. The 50-year-old actor was looking for spiritual guidance but instead found his next script.
One of the priests, the Rev. Ed, insisted that Wahlberg needed to make a movie about Ed’s former friend, the Rev. Stuart Long.
“I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is something that I’m meant to do’ and I think that it came to me for a very specific reason,” Wahlberg said. “With all my real life experience, and how much I could relate to and identify with Stu, and how I’ve been continuing to look for ways to utilize all the talents and gifts that I have for God’s greater good… I know He’s put me in this position for a reason and He’s got a plan for me. I have to trust those things when they come my way.”
Although the pitch caught him off guard, Wahlberg believes that God puts people in your life for a reason. And if Wahlberg was pitched by purpose, not by chance, then he had to share Long’s story with the world.
“Father Stu” follows the titular character (Wahlberg) on his path to priesthood. However, that road to redemption was pitted with potholes, forcing Long to fight every step of the way.
After a failed boxing career, a rough and tough Long moves to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a star. When scarce acting gigs can’t pay the bills, Long takes a job as a supermarket clerk. There, the longtime agnostic falls for Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a Sunday school teacher “as Catholic as the cross.” Determined to win her over, Long ditches his bad-boy ways for church. Then, a near-fatal motorcycle accident prompts Long to explore his faith. During his baptism, Long feels a calling to become a priest. While in seminary, he is diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a degenerative illness for which there is no cure. Despite a devastating diagnosis, dysfunctional family and skepticism from Church officials, Long pursues his vocation with dignity and grace, inspiring countless people along the way.
“It [Long’s story] has touched me in many ways,” Wahlberg said. “But also he’s challenging me to do more, to do better. Stu’s got his hooks on me and hasn’t let up. I think this is just the beginning. He’s still very much hard at work as we speak.”
The Sony Pictures drama, which also stars Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver, touches on several issues from finding purpose to facing adversity.
Identifying with Long’s need for redemption and believing that God was behind the idea drove Wahlberg to make the film.
Convinced that Long’s story could impact more than just Catholics, Wahlberg wanted to reach a wider audience by making “Father Stu” unlike any other faith-based film. To do so meant ensuring that no one interfered with the creative process, so Wahlberg financed the movie himself.
The first screenplay wasn’t good, Wahlberg said. So, Ed suggested going the traditional, faith-based film route.
“I was like, ‘this is only preaching to the choir, this is not going to bring anyone else in or challenge anyone else to pursue whatever their faith is,’” Wahlberg said.
Most moviegoers don’t want to see a faith-based film. When people hear the words “faith-based film,” there is often an expectation that the movie will be boring or that it will force religion upon its viewers — I was afraid of this walking into the theater. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that “Father Stu” is anything but sanctimonious or proselytizing.
“We wanted it to be real tough mercy, tough grace — just a raw, honest depiction of a person,” Wahlberg said. “It really felt like it was a biopic for us, it just so happened that he went to the priesthood so, therefore, it gives it a bit of a faith-based theme.”
Wahlberg wanted “Father Stu” to not only inspire, but to entertain in order to reach more viewers. The comedic film features expletives and violence, both of which are frowned upon by the Church. Even worse, it’s rated R.
Although the Church originally deemed the movie unacceptable, it is now fully supportive of “Father Stu.”
“Because of Stu’s diagnosis and then his death, people are like, ‘it’s so dark and depressing at the end,’” Wahlberg said. “I’m like, ‘no, ultimately it’s really uplifting.’ We’re all facing mortality but it’s how you deal with those things and how he dealt with it and how he really found his strength through his spirituality.”
“Father Stu” leaves its audience on an emotional high to inspire them to find their purpose, regardless of whether or not they think it serves a bigger plan.
At first glance, it may appear that the only thing that Long and Wahlberg have in common is their Catholic faith. However, their similarities go far beyond religion.
In the beginning of the movie, Long is portrayed as an abrasive and hot-tempered man who gets into several fights, drinks copious amounts of alcohol and smokes his fair share of cigarettes. It’s hard to picture the foul-mouthed boxer becoming the comforting priest we remember him as today.
In the same way, it was probably hard to imagine a young Wahlberg becoming the star he is now.
Before finding his faith, Wahlberg had a troubled past.
In a column he wrote for HuffPost, Wahlberg said that after dropping out of high school in the ninth grade, he struggled to stay on the right path as he was surrounded by drugs, violence and crime. He was arrested several times for racially motivated crimes, including assaulting a group of Black school children, in his native Massachusetts. When he was 16, Wahlberg beat up two Vietnamese men (one with a five-foot-long wooden pole, the other with his fist). Wahlberg served 45 days in jail for felony assault. Decades later, Wahlberg met with one of the victims to apologize.
Since then, Wahlberg has established the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of inner-city youth. It has raised and distributed over $10 million to youth service and enrichment programs across the country.
“I have not engaged in philanthropic efforts in order to make people forget about my past. 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 how people can be redeemed,” Wahlberg wrote in a 2014 pardon appeal for his 1988 assault and battery conviction, which he now regrets requesting.
Wahlberg identified with Long’s need for redemption as he credits his faith for saving him and found his purpose helping others who are growing up in a situation like his.
The two men also share similarities through their desire for stardom.
Wahlberg initially found fame as a rapper with the stage name “Marky Mark.”
“When people were coming to me saying that they wanted to put me in a movie, it was basically just to exploit what little success I had in music,” he said. “It wasn’t like they really saw or believed that I could eventually build a real, credible acting career that’s spanned three decades.”
Even though Long’s trip to California didn’t go exactly as planned, Wahlberg was able to bring Long’s story to the big screen.
“Had Stu met the right people or if that was meant to be his path, then that would have happened,” Wahlberg said. “But here he is all these years later — he’s a success in Hollywood and he’s got a movie made about him released by a major studio. Now the whole world is going to know who Stu Long is.”
Although Long passed away in 2014 at the age of 50, Wahlberg said that Long continues to influence his life.
“I’m still finding ways to echo his message and now pick up where he left off and continue to do those good works,” he said.
Wahlberg hopes that “Father Stu” encourages people to recognize the good in others, never give up and inspire them to be the best versions of themselves, similar to how Long has inspired him.
“Stu’s going to continue to point me in the direction that I go for quite some time,” Wahlberg said.
Wahlberg said that taking on the responsibility of honoring Stu’s legacy was a burden that he didn’t take lightly.
“Father Stu” was shot in only 30 days, which was a struggle considering how ambitious the filmmakers were in what they wanted to accomplish.
Independent films typically need more time, but Wahlberg and first-time director Rosalind Ross were up for the challenge.
All of the boxing scenes were shot on the first day, which Wahlberg had to be in peak physical condition for (resembling his Calvin Klein modeling days).
Later that night, Wahlberg started his physical transformation to accurately depict Long’s advancing inclusion body myositis look. This required gaining a significant amount of weight.
In between shooting five to six scenes a day, Wahlberg was eating — every three hours.
Gaining 30 pounds in six weeks was no easy feat. Wahlberg said that he consumed 7,000 calories a day for the first two weeks, then 11,000 calories a day for the final four weeks.
Wahlberg didn’t just experience a physical toll during filming, he endured a mental one too.
“I was dealing with the loss of my mom during the making of the film seeing how quickly her illness had taken over and she really kind of deteriorated pretty quickly,” he said.
As Wahlberg was acting out Long’s deteriorating physical state, he was reminded of his mother, Alma, and her deteriorating mental state. She passed away last April after a battle with dementia.
In “Father Stu,” Long is plagued by the death of his younger brother. With Wahlberg’s recent loss, it’s no surprise that his depiction of grief on-screen feels as completely genuine as it was off-screen.
Wahlberg recognizes that everyone is going through something, especially in these difficult times. He hopes that Long’s story will touch viewer’s hearts as much as it has touched his.
Wahlberg also plans to make more faith-based or true story inspired films in the future.
“Hopefully this movie will open up lots of opportunities for other folks, myself included, to make more films that have a faith-based component or just creating content that has a lot of substance and depth and is going to have an impact on people, especially in a time where people are going through a lot,” he said.
“Father Stu” debuts exclusively in theaters April 13, just in time for Easter.
All photos, including cover image, courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment