In a Whole New Jungle

Rachel Abramowitz is a Times staff writer

There's probably no one else on screen today who can stare the way Mark Wahlberg stares. His eyes are hooded, and his smoky green irises alternately mischievous and watchful. He's not angry or insolent, but apparently feels no need to fill up dead air--or uncomfortable silence--with noise or motion or polite chitchat.

The 30-year-old actor is leaning back in a booth at the Palm, the West Hollywood steak joint, having just finished lunch at 5. At 5 feet 7 inches, he's technically pocket-sized, but his well-defined muscles seem to strain against the shimmery light blue fabric of a freshly pressed button-down shirt. Around his neck to his chest snakes a tattoo of a rosary, which has almost always been airbrushed out of his photos and films. He put it there almost seven years ago in the lull between his old career as a rapper-model and his new life as an actor, because "I kept losing my rosary beads." They're like a promise--a promise to be good that he needed to etch into his skin.

In person, Wahlberg manages to be both recessive and magnetic at once. "He doesn't give out a huge amount. It makes you go to him," says actress Thandie Newton, his latest co-star. His voice is low and sandpapery, the kind you have to strain to hear. Almost every trace of the broad Boston tones of his youth has been carefully polished, except for a few stray vowels that hint at his rough origins. Even his famous physique--now about 186 pounds--is a product of willpower, and he can make it fluctuate 40 pounds in either direction.

If his early career--the Marky Mark rapper through the Calvin Klein underwear-model phase--was about mass-marketing a kind of cartoonish masculinity for middle-class consumption, then this, the second phase, surprisingly hinges on the fact that Wahlberg is one of the few young actors who actually appears to be thinking on screen. Calm on the outside, churning on the inside.

"I had dinner with Mark a couple of weeks ago in London," recalls "Planet of the Apes" producer Richard Zanuck. "We talked a lot about Steve McQueen. He loves him. He knows every frame of footage that he ever shot. He idolizes him." When Zanuck headed 20th Century Fox, he made "The Sand Pebbles" with Mc-Queen in the '60s. "I told him, 'You remind me both as a person and as an actorof McQueen.' He's strong, silent, a few-words-says-it-all type of guy."

It must have been flattering for Wahlberg. As a kid, when he wasn't devoting himself to trouble or girls, he used to watch movies, "but old movies ... Cagney movies. I watched a lot of westerns with my dad. Everything with either Steve McQueen or John Garfield, then a lot of '70s movies, but mostly Cagney," Wahlberg says, uncannily picking out his artistic forefathers.

"I'm a fan of old movies and old Hollywood," he says. "The movie business I'm in is not like what it used to be. I'm not excited to be in the movie business like I would be if it were the '50s or the '60s."

It's been almost that long since there's been a blue-collar star like Cagney or Garfield. It's probably not accidental that Wahlberg has remade himself from the snarling punker who dedicated his beefcake autobiography literally to his penis, to emergent mega-star with the aid of a new generation of writer-directors who have eschewed the tinny fakeness of the Hollywood studio machine.

Wahlberg seems to emerge from a very specific time, place and economic class rather than the unreal ether of a classless America. His streetwise mix of aggression, naivete and sadness has provided great fodder for such directing talents as James Gray ("The Yards"), David O. Russell ("Three Kings") and Paul Thomas Anderson, who notably cast Wahlberg as striving naif Dirk Diggler in his star-making porn epic, "Boogie Nights." Wahlberg has only one guiding principle: The director rules.

"My loyalty lies to the filmmaker, only the filmmaker," he says. "Not the producer, not the studio. The filmmaker. That's who I am there with. That's who I'm going to live with and die with, and I'd go anywhere for. If I commit, I commit. Any filmmaker I've ever worked with will tell you that.

"The business I don't really have too much time for and I'm not that interested in. I think when I get interested in that, it's going to affect my work and the decision-making process. I'm not doing these other movies where you get paid a lot of money but you're working with some [expletive] video director, and it's a piece of [expletive].

"A lot of people think I've had an interesting career because of the choices I've made. It's a simple formula. I just want to stick with it."

It's at this moment that big Hollywood has come to cash in, casting him in more classic leading-man roles--such as the human who must save mankind in director Tim Burton's $100-million remake of the 1968 hit "Planet of the Apes," as well as "The Truth About Charlie," a big-budget remake of the 1963 Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn romance "Charade," directed by Jonathan Demme. Newton has the Hepburn role, while Wahlberg put on Grant's shoes. He learned to speak fluent-sounding French and tango for the role.

"Tim and Jonathan are artists," Wahlberg says. "I don't think they ever want to make a movie because it's going to make a lot of money. They want to make a movie that's cool and different and original. It doesn't matter the size of the budget."

Wahlberg hasn't seen the completed "Planet of the Apes," which Fox was hard-pressed to get ready in time for its Friday opening. After two sets of additional shoots, Burton just finished the film.

"I haven't been this excited about seeing a movie. I wasn't as nervous about doing any other movie either," says the actor, who signed on before there was a completed script. "Everything else I've done has been reality-based, and something I could relate to in one way or another.

"I freaked out the first day when I looked down and there were hairy feet hanging out of these sandals and then a gorilla spoke to me. I had a little talk with Tim. I didn't want to freak him out, so I kind of went and looked at him and made sure it was really him and not a look-alike. I had to remember why I was there in the first place.

"As long as he believed in me, I didn't have too much trouble believing in myself.

"I don't want to get too comfortable," adds Wahlberg as he slumps into a soft, beige chair. He manages to say this in a way that sounds cosmic rather than simply physical.

It's 11 a.m., in the lobby of the Wilshire Boulevard building where he's renting Milton Berle's condo. He's decked out in an expensive black suit, which hangs baggily when he stands, but bunches up uncomfortably around his biceps when he sits. A stylist with long blond hair keeps rearranging the pants folds around his crotch--a level of attentiveness that amuses Wahlberg, who grins. When the camera starts clicking, he tosses off effortless smiles and bedroom eyes and a kind of deliciously illicit exhaustion.

When the photographer is finished, Wahlberg still seems tired, but not that kind of happy tired. More drained and soul-exhausted--after three films back to back. Before "Planet of the Apes," there was "Rock Star," which is scheduled for release in September, meaning that for months he was working almost every weekend, either filming or looping or preparing for another part. Outside, a black limo awaits. In an hour, his flight leaves for New York, where he has business he doesn't want to discuss, and after that, he gets a six-week vacation. "I'll probably be bored to tears," he says. "I've never had that much time to myself."

Although his belongings are strewn in apartments he shares with friends in L.A. and New York, he claims as his official residence a room in his mother's home in Braintree, Mass. He made his first million dollars almost a decade ago, but he's finally going to settle down and buy a house in Los Angeles. He has one picked out, and plans to bring both his parents here to live with him. The only hiccup in this optimistic scenario is the fact that Wahlberg's parents haven't been married for 20 years.

"My mom is definitely coming. I have to talk my dad into the idea," he says, without acknowledging the peculiarity of the situation. "I have to get a big-enough house. They get along. The house--my dad can live in with me. Then I'll have the guest house for my mom."

In an interview situation, Wahlberg provides a testimonial to each parent at least once every 30 minutes, and indeed has embellished his shoulders with each of their names (along with a Bob Marley tattoo and a tattoo of Sylvester the Cat that covers up a gang symbol he and friends applied themselves at the age of 12).

His parents' separation was perhaps the most wrenching cataclysm of his young life. Not that the rest was particularly easy. His father drove a truck and then a bus; his mother worked as a nurse's aide. Wahlberg is the youngest of nine children who lived in a two-bedroom apartment in one of the most racially mixed neighborhoods in Boston, a veritable caldron of racial animosity. During the rage-filled Boston busing crisis of the 1970s, he was one of the kids who was bused an hour and a half away to a predominantly black school in the Roxbury area, until he dropped out in ninth grade.

Asked for a happy memory, he smirks. "My memories of a boy. Being 12 or something, driving to Maine with my mom. This is when my mom had remarried a guy from Maine, my stepdad." He stops, then admits he's kidding. "It wasn't a really fun time. I wanted to be at home with my friends in the neighborhood."

Even as a kid, he ran with grown men. His brothers first got him high on beer when he was 10, and by his early teens he had a serious cocaine problem. This was accompanied by wildness--stealing, selling drugs and getting into fights.

Today, Wahlberg doesn't want to go into specifics but simply sums up the time under the rubric of misplaced desire: "It was about getting what I felt I needed and wanted.... Not having money. Wearing what my brother wore the year before. If you want to go out there and get it, you could. I wasn't scared of much. If you don't have anything, you don't feel like you have much to lose."

It culminated in a PCP-induced rampage, in which Wahlberg and friends robbed a pharmacy, then tried to take a case of beer off a Vietnamese refugee as he emerged from his car. Sixteen-year-old Wahlberg swung a metal pole and took out the man's eye. He received a two-year sentence and spent 45 days in the Deer Island Prison in Boston Harbor.

Afterward, he moved in with his brother Donnie, who'd struck it big as a member of the teeny-bopper group New Kids on the Block. Donnie Wahlberg wrote and produced (with his own money) the debut album for his brother's new rap group, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Mark Wahlberg was in the first wave of white kids venturing into rap, and the record went platinum.

He became known for dropping his pants during concerts, which caught the attention of Calvin Klein, who put Wahlberg in his famous underwear ads, splaying his alternately grinning and snarling (and crotch-grabbing) image across bus stops and billboards in every American urban center.

The experience seems to have left a sour taste for Wahlberg, who says, "I try not to think about it. I try to avoid seeing it. It wasn't what I thought it was going to be."

Music, however, stills hold a flicker of appeal, mostly because it's more "personal" than acting.

"I liked the freedom of being a musician, but I need the discipline of being an actor in my life. If I stayed in the music business, in that world, and managed to remain at the level that I was, I'd do nothing but get in trouble," he says. "Show up when you want. Don't show up if you don't want. You can just do what you want. That's fun for a little while. But I need discipline in my life. Organization is good.""I spent six months with him, so I feel like I do know him quite well. But he has lots of different personalities," Newton says by phone from her home in England. "I would say to him, 'So who are you today?' "

"He's like watching a movie," "Rock Star" director Stephen Herek says affectionately. "He changes at the drop of a hat. He can charm the pants off you so completely and then hang with the homeboys. He's like a con man, but he convinces himself he's that person. At times he's a charming boy next door, at times the devil. We became great friends. I'm a great admirer."

Wahlberg is perfectly aware that the description of "con man" has been attached to his name, and it seems to give him a kind of jaunty pleasure, as if street survival skills--particularly important if you're the youngest and smallest--have proved useful.

He's had no formal acting training. "When people ask me if I studied, I say I spent 20 weeks at the Penny Marshall school of acting," he says with a laugh, acknowledging the director's idiosyncratic, performance-driven style.

She recalls seeing the crowd's ecstatic reaction to Wahlberg at a Calvin Klein event at the Hollywood Bowl. "I said, 'Who's he?' " says Marshall, who called him in to audition for "Renaissance Man." The 1994 movie, starring Danny DeVito, was about an ex-ad man who winds up teaching basic English to Army recruits. Wahlberg "talked like a regular person when he was reading. He wasn't talking like he was out of Juilliard, and we didn't want Juilliard. He didn't come with an entourage. I don't care what they've done before. I just asked him, 'Do you want to be Marky Mark or Mark Wahlberg?' Mark Wahlberg, fine."

At Marshall's request, Wahlberg wrote the rap--based on "Hamlet"--performed at the end of the movie. "I think he read the classic comic book," she says.

"She talked me into wanting the part. I just wanted to meet them. I was a big fan of Penny and Danny," Wahlberg says. "I had met a lot of people who'd wanted me to play the white rapper in this movie, the bully in that movie, the skateboard guy. I wasn't interested. They were just so much different in their approach and their personality."

Other roles followed: as Leonardo DiCaprio's thuggish best friend in the arty "Basketball Diaries," the 1995 film that infamously showed teenagers in trench coats shooting up a high school; as a hardscrabble kid with a psychopathic streak in "Fear" (1996).

"Mark is the least neurotic actor I've ever worked with in my life," says James Foley, who directed Wahlberg in "Fear" and "The Corruptor" (1999), and who also counts him as a friend. "When you're directing, it becomes about power. Mark has no need to defend his turf as a man. He's confident enough that he doesn't need to be defensive. He's never ever seemed needy. He's not needy for approval, acknowledgment or acceptance. He doesn't seem driven by that on a personal level. He seems driven by a desire to express a certain persona of male assertiveness, in the best sense of the word."

"What I did find quite surprising for [a star of that magnitude], he had absolutely no ego," says "Planet of the Apes" co-star Estella Warren. "He has a great sense of humility."

The only chip on his shoulder relates to the stint as a model: He doesn't want to appear as beefcake. Indeed, his only note to Tim Burton during the making of "Planet of the Apes" was that he didn't want to wear a loincloth.

He was reluctant to take on the career-making part in "Boogie Nights" (1997) because he didn't know if Anderson was interested in him as an actor or if he wanted "to see the underwear model finally take off the underwear. I didn't want to be involved in that." Anderson reassured him that "he really thought I could pull it off."

Wahlberg does love to do his homework, diligently grounding himself in a character's reality. For "Boogie Nights," he stalked the porn sets of the San Fernando Valley. For "The Perfect Storm" (2000), he spent time on a Gloucester, Mass., fishing boat. He even returned last Christmas, long after the film came out, to shoot pool at the local hangout, the Crow's Nest.

He spent almost five months working with a vocal coach to be ready for "Rock Star." The film is a groupie's fantasy, the tale of the lead singer of a heavy-metal tribute band who suddenly gets the opportunity to front the actual band he idolizes. It's one of those cost-of-fame tales and hits some of the same notes as "Boogie Nights."

Wahlberg has never been a metal fan, but the part, and getting ready for the part, seems to have satisfied his yen for mischief. "I met all of them. I hung out with everybody, went to every concert. I had the hair and everything. I basically lived the life for the six months I was making the movie. I rented a big house in the hills. The band would come up and jam and [neighbors] called the cops because of all the noise."

He traveled about town in character. "I had to be the guy. A lot of people who I knew would come up to talk to me and try to get me to break character. I couldn't, because I didn't feel comfortable being me with the hair. "

He took it upon himself--as his character--to heckle Whitney Houston when she was singing at an industry party honoring Arista Records founder Clive Davis. "I was screaming at her, 'Put on Santana! We want some rock 'n' roll!' " he recalls with relish. "She didn't think it was funny."

"I kept thwacking him in the back of the head," says Penny Marshall, who was there. "I'd thwack him and all his hair extensions. I said, 'Stop! Look around you!' These are suits. There's every head of every studio." She grimaces like a favorite aunt: "He's a doll. I love him dearly."

Wahlberg recalls the last two times he cried. One was when he broke up with his girlfriend. He split recently with actress Jordana Brewster, in a transatlantic call from the Parisian set of "The Truth About Charlie" to America, where's she's a student at Yale. The other was when he heard that a friend of his had been killed in a car accident.

"For the past eight or nine months, I had been working every day. Every day I'd go to work and think, 'This is who I have to feel today.' I was always in control of my feelings and dictating how I felt the entire time. When I got the news that he passed away, I lost it. I didn't want to make movies anymore. I didn't want to act. I wanted to leave Paris and just wanted to go home. Life is too short. I'm not really in touch with reality anymore. It was very hard to deal with."

Sadness so far has played a crucial element in Wahlberg's appeal: not flashy, Oscar-hungry pyrotechnics, but soft, weathered sadness, like dull rain on a rooftop, the kind of elemental hurt that calls out for the touch of a woman.

Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than in "The Yards" (2000), a film suffused with shame and regret, about a broken-down guy, returning from prison, where he alone of a crew of close-knit friends went down for a crime they all committed. It's about his struggle to be good.

Director James Gray says the film was "autobiographical" for Wahlberg, from the close-knit relationship between the character and his mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, to the "incarcerated guy who comes back home. In a way, he directed the opening party where he's returning from jail. We would talk about it so much. The opening had to be part-awkward. His embarrassment is horrifying. The shame involved. He knew exactly what to do there."

Wahlberg improvised a six-minute sequence in which his character, who's being chased by the police, returns to see his dying mother. "He ad-libbed, 'I know I'm not the son you wanted. I did everything I could to fit in. I know now I can't do it,' " Gray says. "He ad-libbed six minutes of footage. He's really capable of very big things, that guy."

"There's a lot of it that was close to me. We kind of made it that without actually saying that," allows Wahlberg, but then he demurs. "It's not so much like me, but like every kid that I know." Although the film didn't do well commercially, Wahlberg liked it so much that he rented a theater in the old neighborhood and invited all his friends.

Those years are a long time ago, although Wahlberg retains an intense loyalty to the people, the old Dorchester crew, he calls his primary friends. He has also set aside college funds for all nine nieces and nephews, and devoted himself to the Boys Club in the old neighborhood, the same one that banished him for life when he was 12.

He's even begun to go to church.

"He's very, very responsible," Newton says. "When I first met Mark a few months before shooting, he said he was getting up at 8 a.m. to go to church. I burst out laughing because I thought he was kidding. He so wasn't."

"I believe in God," he says. "It's important to go and pray. Important for me." He seems particularly happy to be able to go to his "home" parish in Santa Monica, as he did the day before the interview.

He'd also like to have kids. "I was home with my nieces and nephews. What I wouldn't do to have a couple of those," he says wistfully. "Hopefully soon.

"I'm not with anybody right now, so the only way that could happen is if I adopted. I don't want to do that. I want to have nine or 10 of my own. I'd take as many as I could get."

Who knows if any of this is real, but the delivery is effective, and winning. The only certainty in his future is a plan to make more movies. He's lined up one apiece with Russell, Anderson and Gray. The scripts aren't even ready, and Russell, scheduled to go first, is still weighing two options. "I'm game for either," he says. "They know me. They know what I'm capable of and what I'm willing to do for them as an actor."

Anything?

He finally smiles.

"As long as I don't have to hurt anybody."

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