Gabrielle Donnelly speaks to Hollywood superstar Mark Wahlberg about his family, his faith, and being sent to jail as a teenager
In the modern world, we are told, religion is being pushed to the side. Church-going is down, cynicism is up, and old-fashioned Christianity is not so slowly going the way of the penny-farthing bicycle. And nowhere, we are told, is this more apparent than in Hollywood, land of the superficial, the catch-a-passing-trend, the every-man-for-himself.
And then there is Mark Wahlberg.
“Being a Catholic is the most important aspect of my life,” the A-list actor tells me firmly when we meet for tea in a posh hotel near his home in Beverly Hills. “The first thing I do when I start my day is, I get down on my hands and knees and give thanks to God. Whenever I go outside of my house, the first thing I do is stop at the church. The kids will be mad with me. ‘Daddy! It takes too long!’ I’m saying: ‘It’s only 10 minutes and this is something I really need to do.’ Because I do. If I can start my day out by saying my prayers and getting myself focused, then I know I’m doing the right thing. That 10 minutes helps me in every way throughout the day.”
If anyone has learned the benefit of a spiritual life, it is Mark. A troubled young man from a rough area of Boston, the youngest of nine children of a delivery driver father and a bank clerk mother, he grew up delinquent and drug-addicted, a high school drop-out and gang member, always in trouble with the police, living constantly under the threat of jail. When he was only 16, that threat became a reality. High on the drug PCP, he robbed a pharmacy, knocked one man unconscious, left another blind in one eye, and attacked a security guard. He was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to jail at Boston’s Deer Island House of Correction.
It was, he says now, gratefully, the beginning of the rest of his life.
“There’s nothing scarier than being 16 years old, hearing the jail house door close behind you, and knowing that you’re not going to leave. I’d brought it on myself. A lot of bad things happened to me when I was young, and I did a lot of bad things too. I was too cool for school, I’d made my mistakes and I was paying for them. I’d lost sight of my religion. My parents were Catholic but not devoutly so, and once I’d started venturing out on to the street that wasn’t important to me at all. But, of course, once you get into trouble, you start praying! ‘Oh, my God, just get me out of here, and I swear I’ll never do it again!’ Well, I did get out of jail, and I did make sure I never went back there. The recidivism rate for people going back for jail sentences is through the roof, but not me. I did not want to be another statistic. I wanted to live my life instead.” His first port of call when he left the House of Correction was to visit his parish priest, Fr Flavin of Boston, who is still a good friend. With Fr Flavin’s help he left his street gang, cleaned up his act and devoted his attention to putting his spiritual house in order. And for the first time, he says, his life started to make sense.
“Once I focused on my faith wonderful things started happening for me,” he says now. “And I don’t mean professionally – that’s not what it’s about. These days, I’ll be in church and people will come up to me and say: ‘Do you mind if I sit and pray with you?’ And they’ll start praying and it’ll turn out they’re praying for their new movie to be a success or whatever, and I’m like, this is not what I come here for. For me to sit down and ask for material things is ridiculous. It’s a much bigger picture than that. I want to serve God and to be a good human being and to make up for the mistakes I made and the pain I put people through. That’s what I’m praying for, and I recommend it to anybody.”
Which is not to say that material success has exactly been hiding from him. One of the original members of the popular boy band of the 1980s New Kids on the Block, he branched out on his own to become pop music-singing sensation Marky Mark, and briefly became very famous indeed on the side as an underwear model before turning his attention to conquering the world of acting. (“When I do something,” he has commented with some understatement, “I am very focused.”) He started out in Hollywood by rather cleverly sending up his beefcake reputation playing a porn star in Boogie Nights before moving on to the action films which are of more interest to him, and made a name for himself in movies like Three Kings, The Perfect Storm and The Italian Job before winning worldwide acclaim and an Academy Award nomination playing a heavy-swearing detective in Martin Scorsese’s blockbusting thriller (set, incidentally, in Mark’s own Boston) The Departed.
These days he is in the fortunate – and in Hollywood, extremely rare – position of being able to do more or less what he wants. Last year he played a grieving father in the family drama The Lovely Bones; earlier this year, he hammed it up as an over-the-top action hero in the comedy Date Night. Right now he is to be seen playing “Irish” Mickey Ward in The Fighter, the bio-pic of the renowned Bostonian boxer, a project that has been close to his heart for some time. Meanwhile, he has also made his name as a highly successful producer of popular television shows like Entourage, In Treatment and Boardwalk Empire. Not bad, you will agree, for a kid who didn’t even make it out of high school.
“But that’s not what it’s about,” he insists. “Being a good actor or a good producer: that’s not going to help me sleep at night or get me into heaven. The most important thing from where I sit is to be a good father, a good husband, and a good human being – a man who helps his fellow man and raises his kids to be good human beings too.”
Mark and his wife, model Rhea Durham, have four children, Ella, seven, Michael, four, Brendan, two, and Margaret, nearly one, and are expecting another next year. “Every single aspect of my family life is joy,” he smiles now. “And the most important thing to remember about being a father is that you can’t leave anybody out. I get up really early in the morning but the baby is usually up before me because my wife feeds her at five o’clock and then puts her into the swing so that she and I can have our own little time together when I take my wife a coffee before the day begins. Then the day is taking my older kids to school or to karate or whatever they have. The youngest boy is already trying to get in with the bigger kids so we make time for him too. At five in the evening we all sit down and have dinner together and after that it’s pandemonium for a couple of hours until we can get them into bed! It’s great!”
Although Rhea and he have been in a committed relationship since 2001, it was only in August 2009 that they made their wedding vows at the church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. The reason for this, he says, was not lack of the will but simple logistics.
“Rhea grew up Baptist but she wanted to be baptised and confirmed as Catholic before we got married, which took some time. Also, we wanted to get married here in California but we wanted Fr Flavin from Boston to do it, so we had to work out that timing. Then there were my movie commitments. Then Rhea got pregnant and she didn’t want to do it when she was bigger so we had to wait till the dress fitted again… it was a number of factors really.”
Now that they are good and hitched, he says, they could not be happier.
“My wife is gorgeous but if you’re going to have a real relationship with someone it’s going to have to be based on what’s inside as well as out, what kind of person they are and what kind of values they have.
“I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world because I met one of the most beautiful women in the world who also is very nice and approachable, very comfortable to be with and has a great sense of humour. And… well, I don’t know which one of the lines I used on her was the one that actually got her but she fell for one of them! And all these years later we have four beautiful children and each other.
“I’m just a very lucky guy. In so many ways.”