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Mark on Mark: Naked Truth : From street thug to pop icon to actor, Wahlberg is hoping ‘Boogie Nights’ will revise his image.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you hit the magazine shops these days, you could easily conclude that only two people in the world matter: Diana, Princess of Wales, and Mark Wahlberg. Tragic fate and the vagaries of movie-release scheduling have thrown the people’s princess and the former prince of Boston’s mean streets, famously known as Marky Mark, shoulder to shoulder. A stranger couple of head-shot fellows would be hard to imagine.

But there’s a logic in this odd proximity. Wounded in his upbringing like the late princess and also having danced a love-hate tango with a heavy-stepping press, Wahlberg has made peace with his past and is now a man with a mission: He hopes to inspire wayward kids with his own story.

He’s also a man with a hot movie. After surprisingly impressive turns in a trio of unremarkable flicks, the onetime leader of the rap group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch cemented his acting promise when “Boogie Nights” premiered to rave reviews. Playing Eddie Adams, a dishwasher who cleans up as a porn star named Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg confidently commands a panoply of emotions as the character ages from wide-eyed boy toy to burnt-out celebrity.

Eddie’s story, which mirrors Wahlberg’s own in ways that he has no trouble owning up to, can be seen as an act of personal exorcism for the actor: It would take the role of a sex god to release Wahlberg from the chains of a pumped-up pop icon.

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Nursing a plate of fried finger food and a pack of Natural American Spirit cigarettes at a Manhattan hotel bar recently, the 26-year-old Wahlberg seems light-years away from the ripple-chested ruffian model of the Calvin Klein ads and MTV videos. His demeanor is as muted as the blues and greens of his interview suit; the impression is that of a once-unruly defendant trying to civilize his image for the judge and jury. He is penitent and contrite in the shadow of his past, humble and respectful in the face of his looming film celebrity. He calls you sir, even after you beg him not to.

So eager is Wahlberg to expunge the rude exhibitionism of his Marky Mark days--dropping his pants for the club crowds and fielding charges of racism and homophobia--he doesn’t even have a publicist. And when other stars are spurred by the death of Princess Di to contemplate the hazards of their own fame, Wahlberg’s thoughts are elsewhere.

“I think Princess Diana was a wonderful woman,” he says with a redolence of the Massachusetts working class, “but you also had this angel who took care of 90% of the world all of the time who also died and who [the media] just overlooked. That’s what affected me the most. Mother Teresa was one of the most amazing human beings who ever walked this Earth. You know where she went when she died.”

Wahlberg’s reverence springs from seeds planted in Catholic Sunday school 20 years ago, when he struggled to find a voice as the ninth and last child of a Boston Teamster. To say that life was chaotic in the apartment in which he shared a room with up to six brothers would be to force the obvious. “I got to get away with murder,” he recalls grimly. “I wasn’t spoiled, because my dad and mom were exhausted by the time I came around. And we didn’t have anything. Both my mother and dad worked two jobs.”

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Fleeing from the tempest of home life, Wahlberg took to the streets and gathered a resume as a holy terror. “I found myself blaming the environment. I always used that as an excuse--that I was taught to rob, to steal, by my idol, the guy who had the Cadillac and the girlfriend and the new clothes every time you saw him, who threw money around and could beat up everybody else. I always knew in the back of my mind it was wrong--I’m very spiritual, I communicate with God. But then you come to a certain age, and you realize you are responsible for you, no matter what your circumstances are.”

The turning point came when Wahlberg and his friends raided one of their mom’s freezers and found some “wacky tobacky.” The drugs made them ballistic, and he was soon charged as an adult in the beating of a man. He received a two-year sentence for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. He was 16.

“I think I hit rock-bottom,” he admits. “I found I was hurting so many people I loved and cared about, people I didn’t even know I was hurting. I didn’t have any right to do that. I didn’t want to carry that burden. So I just decided I had to change myself.”

He would serve only 45 days, during which he would meet the prison volunteer whom he credits with turning him around. He only identifies her by her first name. “I call Emily my aunt now. She goes to prisons, to churches, to elderly homes and prays with people. And I was the youngest person ever in that facility. She saw me and went,” he says, affecting a brogue, “ ‘God, you’re just a baby. Oh, darlin’, what are you doing here?’ She would come and pray with me, and pray for me. Once I realized I had taken the wrong route, then all my faith came back in a much more profound way than before.

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“When I left there I never thought I would see her again. And fate brought us back together. I was out in California, my record was about to come out, and I had gotten into some trouble . . . and my brother was worried about me. So he asked this guy from Massachusetts who was living in California to kind of watch out for me and keep me out of trouble. We were hanging out, and he asked me to take him home. We walked into this house, and Emily walked by, this angel who changed my life. I said, ‘Who’s that?’ And he said, ‘My mother.’ I said, ‘I know your mother.’ And she came back in and ran up to me and kissed and hugged me. It was so wild.”

Prison would have another effect: He began to develop the Adonis bod that would make the future Marky Mark the shirtless wonder of the pop world.

“I got locked up, and I didn’t have nothing else to do,” he says. “I could either go out into the yard and get high with these guys and drink home brew and shake people down, or I could stay in and work out and not get into trouble. Make it as quick a process as possible and get the hell out of there.”

Marky Mark’s physical assets would come to haunt Mark Wahlberg, aspiring actor. The 27-year-old director of “Boogie Nights,” Paul Thomas Anderson, recalls phoning Wahlberg after his first choice, Leonardo DiCaprio, opted to do “Titanic.” “I said, ‘All right, what do you think of the script?’ And he said, ‘Well, to tell the truth I’ve only read 30 pages.’ I was like, who the hell does this guy think he is? He said, ‘I’ve got a problem. I like it so much, but I need to know before I keep reading: Do you want me because I’m the guy who’ll get down to his underwear?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t know anything about that. I’m meeting you because you’re an actor, and I loved you in “Basketball Diaries.” ’ And he said, ‘Great, can I call you back after I finish reading it?’

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“He’s one of those natural talent boys--one of those jerks,” Anderson continued on a note of mock resentment. “The key thing about him is that he does have great instincts. His learning curve is not a curve, it’s a straight, vertical line.”

For Wahlberg’s part, it didn’t hurt to have a director who was his peer. “I remember some executive coming to the set,” the actor said with a grin, “and going, ‘How the hell did we give two 25-year-old crazy kids $20 million to make a movie?’ ” The answer may have lain in the safety net surrounding the kids: a cast of pros including Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore and William H. Macy.

“Burt and Julianne were very much like their characters in that they were very supportive,” Wahlberg says. “You know, it’s weird, because I’ve been confronted with the nonbelievers of the movie world. And the people that don’t have the right to look down on you do, and the people who have all the right in the world, at least in my eyes, don’t.”

As in “Basketball Diaries,” in which he played a Catholic school ne’er-do-well who turns to drugs and street crime, Wahlberg knew his character’s odyssey up close and personal: “How I was thrust into the limelight, didn’t know what was going on, I thought it was all because of me and that it was never going to end. Stuff like that.

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“I am a very emotional person. I am very sensitive and very human. I’ve never gotten to show that in the films I have done--the only emotion that I showed was anger, in a very aggressive way. I still feel like I’ve got so much more inside me. So much has happened to me in my life, acting is actually the way I deal with it. It’s my therapy.”

Wahlberg is so tender of speech and so nakedly forthcoming about the sins of his past that one is tempted to offer up a word of caution. But then he points three tables over toward his attorney and then to a corner table where his mother, a handsome woman with dark hair, is holding court, and you realize he has enough guardians. He also has a will of kryptonite, as evidenced by a recent claim in Interview magazine: “Anything I put my mind to, I can’t sleep till I accomplish it.”

“That comes from being in the streets with nothing,” he explains, “and knowing that the only way you are going to have anything is if you go out and get it. That’s why I hope somebody, somewhere gets some inspiration from what I’ve done. Because there are so many people capable of doing whatever it is they want, no matter what their situation.”

Which prompts us to wonder: If the lost 16-year-old Mark Wahlberg could meet his triumphant 26-year-old self, what would he think of him? Without hesitation, Wahlberg shoots back, “He’d punch me right in the face.”

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Why would he do that?

“He’s crazy. He’s crazy. But no, I think if I had a chance to talk to him, I think he would change right then and there. Because he was really a sensible kid. You just had to know how to talk to him. And nobody knew how. Nobody wanted to. And I know exactly what to say to him. I’d say, ‘Look around. Is this what you really want?’ ”


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