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A role of his lifetime

Times Staff Writer

SURELY, it was a case of first-timer nerves. Mark Wahlberg was overjoyed to learn he’d been nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his work in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” Working with the director, he said early on nomination day, “was just a blessing in itself, and then to have all this happen on top of it, you just kind of pinch yourself.”

But did he call Scorsese to share his moment in the sun? Well, yes, eventually.

Two days later, the novice nominee finally connected with his director by phone.

“I was doing a photo shoot and I had tried to call him and then he called me back,” Wahlberg said. “And I said, ‘Marty, I guess I should have worked with you before. I work with you and then, bang, they nominate me for an Oscar and all this crazy stuff happens.’

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“He goes, ‘Well, you’d think that a kid who got nominated for an Oscar would [expletive] call me the day after.’ He’s just such a funny guy.”

Wahlberg unwittingly trained for his role as Bryce Dignam, an abrasive sergeant in Boston’s police department, for most of his youth. In the 1980s, he was a teenage punk who was getting arrested repeatedly in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood. Turns out he stored away those experiences with his hometown’s finest to create his volatile portrayal of a character who winds up as the ultimate agent of justice.

Also inspiring, according to Wahlberg, 35, was the experience of working with a cast that included Jack Nicholson, fellow Bostonian Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen.

You really nailed the Boston accent.

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I actually spent eight or nine years trying to lose it. Me and Matt were joking about it constantly, because we’re both trying to get away from doing the Boston thing, and the best roles that we’ve played have been Boston guys.

I did a combination of my voice, a little bit of my mom in there, especially the bad words, and my dad.

Most of your roles are leads now. With a smaller role, did you have to make an impression more quickly or vividly?

Not at all.... I was really just trying to make Marty happy. Whatever Marty wanted me to do and whatever part I was to play in his vision was really my sole intention.

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What did he want you to do?

He continued to encourage me to do more. He knew that being from that world that I really had slang that they probably hadn’t heard, and he said, basically, look at the script, don’t lose any plot points and, other than that, say whatever you want. Especially in the scenes like with Leo, when I was interrogating him, and the scenes with Alec and those guys, he encouraged me to kind of push the envelope.

Do you mean improvising?

Yeah, he encouraged me to improvise in every scene that I was in. And I think it was only one line that I did that wasn’t scripted that didn’t make it into the movie.... I’ve had tons of experience with the Boston police and I know who those guys are.... You know, Boston is a small town, and Dorchester is a small neighborhood. I grew up with the cops, I knew what shift they were on, when their days off were. It’s a very close-knit community.

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So to be able to tap back into that and to use all that real-life experience finally for some good was pretty awesome.

The other actors must have been improvising with you then.

Yeah. But like in the scene with Leo, he didn’t get to say all that much, which I really enjoyed, because it was eating him alive. You could just see the wheels turning. He wanted to get up and whack me.

The story is intense, the characters are all intense. How was the atmosphere on the set?

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Intense. Yeah. We never all worked together, so it wasn’t like we could all sit around and get Jack to tell his stories.... It was the most serious and professional set I have ever been on. And I was in character the whole time. Marty would come out at like 8 o’clock in the morning and I’d be yelling and screaming at somebody. And he’d be like, “Well, you really like to get into this thing.”

I’ve got a lot of great things happening in my life, and to get in that mind-set, it takes some working yourself up. I didn’t want to kind of go in and out of it and not be as sharp as he wanted me to be.

How would you describe your character?

He didn’t give a ... about anybody or anything. He didn’t care if you liked him or not. He was a no-nonsense guy, but he was a guy who did his job. And he’s got some morals. They’re not morally correct in everybody else’s eyes, but certainly in his eyes and the world that he lives in, the rules are different.

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richard.cromelin@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

You always remember the first time

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Receiving an Academy Award nomination has to be one of the film world’s most rewarding moments. Undoubtedly, it is something that never becomes old hat even when the nominations over a career start hitting seven, eight ... 10. But surely that first one is special. Here’s a look at this year’s crop of first-timers:

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Ryan Gosling: Lead actor for his role as a troubled junior-high teacher in “Half Nelson.”

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Forest Whitaker: Lead actor for his portrayal of Ugandan strongman Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.”

Penelope Cruz: Lead actress as the woman caught in a tangle of family secrets in “Volver.”

Jackie Earle Haley: Supporting actor as the creepy yet sympathetic sex offender in “Little Children.”

Eddie Murphy: Supporting actor for his portrayal of the tragic R&B; singer James “Thunder” Early in “Dreamgirls.”

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Mark Wahlberg: Supporting actor for his role as a bullying Boston police sergeant in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

Adriana Barraza: Supporting actress for her portrayal of the nanny who must abandon her employers’ children in the desert in “Babel.”

Abigail Breslin: Supporting actress as the girl who pulls her family together on a road trip to a beauty pageant in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Jennifer Hudson: Supporting actress for her performance as the rejected singer Effie White in “Dreamgirls.”

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Rinko Kikuchi: Supporting actress for her role as the alienated deaf teen in “Babel.”

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu: Directing nominee for the multithreaded “Babel.”

Paul Greengrass: Directing nominee for the Sept. 11 film “United 93.”

-- Elena Howe

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