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Leader of the pack

Times Staff Writer

THERE’S the chef, the trainer, the assistant who some call “E” and someone known as “Rasta Phil,” whose exact job isn’t precisely clear. Meet Mark Wahlberg’s posse, a tight band that is almost impossible to crack, as a visit to the set of the actor’s forthcoming movie “Shooter” illustrated.

It’s the real version of “Entourage,” the Emmy-winning HBO hit series inspired by Wahlberg, who also serves as the series’ executive producer.

The plan wasn’t that unusual: Send a reporter to visit Wahlberg in British Columbia during production of the film about an ex-CIA agent hired to kill and hang out with the actor for a day or so. Disney, the studio that released Wahlberg’s No. 1 box-office opener “Invincible” last weekend, took the proposal to Wahlberg’s managers, who approved the idea.

Or did they?

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Wahlberg is an avid golfer, playing to a 7 handicap at Wilshire Country Club and smacking out drives in any number of prominent pro-am tournaments. Wahlberg wasn’t scheduled to work on a recent Monday, so one of Wahlberg’s managers and the “Shooter” production team were asked: Would the actor be up for an interview over 18 holes?

Sounds like a great idea, was the answer.

Monday morning came and went, with no word from Wahlberg’s camp. Apparently, his personal assistant, Eric Weinstein, hadn’t responded to the request. Now, lunchtime was approaching. Weinstein was called again. This time, he answered.

What does Mark think of the idea?

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I don’t think he’d be into that.

Did you actually ask him?

No.

Where are you now?

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Well, we’re out here now. Playing golf.

Wahlberg did in fact show up alone, in a T-shirt and jeans, for a long dinner interview that evening and could not have been more engaging and interesting. Over several glasses of wine and a big steak, he talked about his career, his family, the mistakes he’s made, the opportunities that lie ahead.

Wahlberg seemed only vaguely aware of the golf tribulations, the way most people might know there’s been trouble in East Timor but with few specifics.

At the end of the meal, he suggested joining him for the 90-minute drive to a “Shooter” location in Mission, British Columbia, early Tuesday morning. But then came a late-night voicemail from one of Mark’s managers.

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Mark is probably going to sleep on the drive out to the set, so we’ll just meet you out there.

At 7:15 the next morning, when Wahlberg was scheduled to depart the hotel, the manager called again.

Where are you?

Pardon me?

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We’re downstairs, waiting.

Didn’t you say last night that Mark wanted to sleep in the car and drive out alone?

Well, yes. But there’s another car that’s following Mark ....

Wahlberg’s managers also promised that the actor would break for five minutes at the end of shooting Tuesday for a photograph. But he had to dash to grab the Disney jet back to New York for “Invincible’s” premiere. The photo never happened.

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Currently ‘Invincible’

It was never clear whether Wahlberg did in fact sleep all the way to the set, but he couldn’t be blamed if he did. He’s never been busier.

“Invincible,” based on the true 1976 story of Philadelphia Eagles walk-on player Vince Papale, was the nation’s top film last weekend, grossing $17 million. What’s more, it’s attracting praise for Wahlberg, who’s in nearly every frame and took a physical beating playing the part.

Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips wrote of Wahlberg: “He has been reliably strong for several movies now. While he’s not the only thing right with this better-than-average inspirational sports movie, as Papale he sets a tone of hard-won confidence.”

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“Hard-won” also can describe Wahlberg’s credits, which began with his stint as rapper Marky Mark of the Funky Bunch, evolved into a turn as a Calvin Klein underwear model, and started to take off when Wahlberg played porn star Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 movie “Boogie Nights” and followed that seven years later by playing against type as a troubled firefighter when he re-teamed with “Three Kings” director David O. Russell in “I (Heart) Huckabees.”

In “Shooter,” due out next spring, Wahlberg was cast by filmmaker Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) as a sniper in a long-in-development thriller that had attracted the interest of any number of A-listers, including Robert Redford and Nicolas Cage.

In addition to “Entourage,” Wahlberg is executive producing another HBO series, “In Treatment,” adapted from an Israeli series about a therapist.

He produced and helped secure the financing for “We Own the Night,” a mob drama starring himself and Joaquin Phoenix that was directed by James Gray, who also made one of Wahlberg’s finest movies, 2000’s little-seen “The Yards.”

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Wahlberg produced and narrated the documentary “Juvies,” about teenagers serving long sentences in adult prisons. He has a costarring role in October’s Martin Scorsese-directed “The Departed,” appearing opposite Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson.

And just in case he’s not busy enough, he’s scheduled to fly to Los Angeles this weekend to celebrate the third birthday of the older of his two children.

“On a personal level, he’s one of the hardest-working guys in the movie business,” says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who is producing “Shooter.”

He should know. As the head of production at Warner Bros., Di Bonaventura cast Wahlberg in “Three Kings,” “Rock Star” and “A Perfect Storm.” In addition to working with Wahlberg on “Shooter,” Di Bonaventura also put the actor in “Four Brothers,” a solid hit last year.

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“He wants to win badly, but he’s doing it with grace,” Di Bonaventura says. “Mark not only knows all of his lines in a movie, he knows all of the other characters’ lines. I’ve never seen anyone so prepared.”

Wahlberg is also tremendously loyal. Rasta Phil Thomas, for example, is a boyhood friend, and Wahlberg tries to hire him whenever he can. “Rasta Phil, Rasta Phil,” Wahlberg says, shaking his head in admiration. “He’s got a family and two kids in Toronto.”

The actor met Weinstein (who, just as Kevin Connolly’s character is called in “Entourage,” is called “E”) making “The Basketball Diaries.” “He was hired to teach us how to shoot heroin,” Wahlberg says. (Adrian Grenier plays Vincent Chase, the Walhberg-like “Entourage” star.)

Weinstein has been working as Wahlberg’s assistant almost ever since and also has an associate producer credit on “Entourage.” There’s also Chris Goosen, the chef; Brian Nguyen, the trainer; Lil Henry Penzi; and Jamal Weathers, who runs lines with Wahlberg every night and has bit parts in some of his films. “I love these guys,” Wahlberg says.

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“He makes all the guys around him happy and feel good,” says Doug Ellin, “Entourage’s” creator. “There are entourages all over the place, but with Mark, it always feels like everybody’s having a good time. It’s not stressful.” Adds Di Bonaventura: “It allows him to stay connected to who he was.”

Wahlberg may even owe his life to his desire to hang out with his posse. He said he was scheduled to be on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 but skipped the flight for a road trip with his buddies.

Wahlberg’s ‘Aquaman’?

On a remote farm on the outskirts of Vancouver, Wahlberg is crawling through dirt, his body covered in camouflage, his face smeared with green and brown makeup. In the movie adapted from Stephen Hunter’s novel “Point of Impact,” Wahlberg’s Bob Lee Swagger is a reclusive sniper. Asked to help deter an assassination attempt, he is instead framed. Just like “Invincible,” it’s pretty much all Wahlberg, all the time.

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The actor is convinced “Shooter” is the movie that will elevate his standing, that fans will quote lines from it for years to come. In other words, it’s his “Aquaman,” the film that turned “Entourage’s” Vincent Chase into a star. And just as Chase has his agent, Ari, in his corner, so too does Wahlberg -- except his agent, Ari, isn’t played by Emmy winner Jeremy Piven. It’s Ari Emanuel, the agent Piven’s character is fashioned after.

“For all the bad movies he wanted me to do,” Wahlberg says of Emanuel, “he brought me ‘Shooter,’ which I think will be better for my career than any movie I’ve ever done. It could be the movie guys call you on 10 years from now.”

“Shooter” concludes a busy cycle for the 35-year-old Wahlberg, who has said he wants to retire from acting by the time he turns 40.

“Before ‘Four Brothers,’ I hadn’t worked in 1 1/2 years,” Wahlberg says. “I just wasn’t interested in the stuff that I was getting. I wasn’t just interested in working with a cool director -- I was way past that. I wanted to play a character where I could go off a little bit. I hadn’t done that in a while.”

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Among the movies Wahlberg flirted with but didn’t make were “The Black Dahlia,” “Infamous,” “The Jacket” and “Ocean’s Eleven.” He says he doesn’t regret not making any of them but is a little more diplomatic when discussing some of the movies he did make, including “The Truth About Charlie,” the failed 2002 remake of “Charade,” and the similarly poorly received 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes.”

“It wasn’t a good experience, and it didn’t turn out very well,” he says of “The Truth About Charlie.” “And I didn’t love ‘Planet of the Apes.’ But I would go through that experience 100 times. The regrets I have are for the bad things I did to people.”

The youngest of nine children, Wahlberg served 45 days in prison at age 16 for assault.

His mean-streets toughness helped prepare him for “Invincible,” in which he was the real guy in the pads for many of the film’s most violent hits. “They would ice you down, and you felt good enough when you fell asleep,” he says. “But then you had to crawl out of bed the next morning.”

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Now that he’s a dad, the adrenaline he used to feel before doing big stunts like those he’s doing in “Shooter” has been replaced by a different feeling -- anxiety. He was particularly nervous about one of the film’s helicopter scenes. “The helicopter is sideways, and you’re looking down 7,000 feet,” Wahlberg says. But he still tries to use a stunt double rarely.

“He’s really been great,” Fuqua says. “No attitude, no problems. He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do -- a real pleasure.”

Says Wahlberg: “If I compromise, I will just regret it.”

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john.horn@latimes.com


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