In this year’s wide-open Oscar race, many of the contenders are films that traveled long and hard roads just to get made. By that measure, few put in more work than Mark Wahlberg did for The Fighter, the David O. Russell-directed drama in which he plays Irish Micky Ward, the welterweight who fought his way to an unlikely world championship. Christian Bale lost 30 pounds to play half-brother crack addict Dicky Eklund, but Wahlberg’s commitment was even more dramatic. The moment he learned nearly 5 years ago that he’d be starring in the movie alongside Matt Damon for director Darren Aronofsky, Wahlberg built a boxing ring his backyard, hired two trainers on his own dime, and trained hours each day to hone his skills. Wahlberg never stopped training, not when Damon dropped out and Brad Pitt came in, not when Aronofsky dropped out, Pitt left, and the project was nearly knocked out. Wahlberg joined David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman as producer so, when the project was on the ropes, Wahlberg helped rework the picture from a $50M studio film into a scrappy $20M indie:
Deadline New York Editor & Film Editor Mike Fleming: Micky and Dicky were the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. You came out of Dorchester. How far away were you from these guys and how aware were you of their story?
Mark Wahlberg: Lowell was 30 minutes away from Dorchester, we were on different sides of Boston. Lowell is more like a suburb, but not a rich one. These guys were big time legends. Dicky is older than me, he fought Sugar Ray Leonard in the 70s, so I wasn’t as aware of him as I was Micky, who was considered a superhero where I came from. I knew Dicky was supposed to be the great fighter but that he had his battles with drugs and I’d seen the documentary High On Crack Street. They filmed that in Lowell, about Dicky, and called it the biggest crack town in America.
DH: How did you become involved?
Wahlberg: I wanted to make a boxing movie, talked about a movie where I’d play Vinnie Curto and Bob De Niro would play his trainer, Angelo Dundee. I tried to make The Black Dahlia with Brian De Palma because there was an element of boxing in it. I’d already built a ring in my backyard by then. I first met Micky when I was 18 years old, and was a huge fan. I thought, this is the movie I should make. John Herzfeld and I want to Lowell to see Micky and Dicky and talk about the possibility. We found they’d already sold the rights 10 times over and it had become such a cluster fuck that it seemed there was no way we’d be able to sort it out. Then, five years ago, Brad Weston called me, said he had a script to send me. It’s about Irish Micky Ward, the boxer, he said. Do you know him? I was blown away by the script, and thought, we’re getting this done. I started training the day I got back from vacation. That’s how this whole thing began. Then we went from one co-star to another, different writers, directors, the whole thing.
DH: You grew up on the streets, in a tough neighborhood like they did. How did their story speak to your own experiences?
Wahlberg: There were so many comparisons to my life, my story, my upbringing. I am the youngest of nine kids. My brother was much more successful and was looked at as the chosen one, while I was the one in trouble. I had to play Micky. Dicky was a flashier role, but it wasn’t about that for me. It was about being believable as a guy who could win the welterweight title, and not look like an actor who could maybe box a little bit. Those four and a half years turned out to be the best thing for me, but if somebody had come to me and said, you’re going to have to train that long to make a movie, I’d have said, I’m fairly athletic and willing to work hard; I can do this in six months. Here, I never stopped training, even when I was making other movies.
DH: How helpful was having a genuine Boston guy as producer and star in gaining the trust of a family that obviously didn’t know what was coming when they participated in that documentary High on Crack Street?
Wahlberg: I assured them they would be portrayed in the light they deserved, that I cared about them, and was so proud of what they were able to do, in circumstances like that. That’s the only way I know how to do things. When I was doing The Perfect Storm, and portraying Bobby Shatford, I went to his family, and stayed with them. I wanted them to feel like we were going to protect him.
DH: It’s still a pretty raw portrayal of the family. What was the reaction of Micky and Dicky to the film?
Wahlberg: I showed it to them twice. First time, it was me and David, Christian and a couple other people, at Paramount. I realized how difficult it must be to see your life up there on the big screen, condensed to under two hours and I said, come see it with an audience. We did that in New Jersey and that was an experience. This movie is so down and dirty and real, but it has a lot of humor and emotion, and an amazing payoff at the end. To see the crowd’s reaction, I really felt proud. Micky got it the first time he saw it. For Dicky, it was harder to swallow. The fact is, he blew it. He was able to help his brother but felt like he’d ruined his own opportunity. That’s something that is never easy to fully accept.
DH: It’s easy to see why Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and then Christian Bale would spark to playing Dicky. By comparison, Micky is subtle and understated. Wasn’t there a moment when you thought, ‘I should play Dicky’?
Wahlberg: No. There was always one role for me to play, and that was the champ. I wasn’t giving up the belt. And look, who else was going to play that part and be as believable as a guy who could win the welterweight title? I love so many boxing films. What I wanted to do was to create the most realistic boxing in the movie and look like I could win that title.
DH: Which fight performances inspired you?
Wahlberg: There are so many. Raging Bull is so different than Rocky. Daniel Day-Lewis was very good in a lot of ways in The Boxer. Body and Soul. Robert Ryan, Kirk Douglas. We wanted to make one that was our own, but there was a little bit of the dark side of Raging Bull, and some Rocky. You see Micky Ward in any of his great fights, and they play like Rocky because of his style of fighting. And let’s not forget Hilary Swank. She looked good in there, starting out with no knowledge about a boxing ring. She’d never hit a speed bag, but she had heart and desire. She was fearless and was willing to get out there and go for it. Towards the end, she started looking pretty damn good.
DH: Micky worshipped Dicky and a major conflict in the story was the difficulty he had in placing his own career above family loyalty. What parts of that character appealed to you most?
Wahlberg: Micky is the most humble guy I’ve met in my life. He doesn’t feel bad that he only made a couple of seven-figure paydays when he was champ. He’s a Teamster now in Boston, takes pride in what he does, has a gym where he trains people. He’s a warm, caring guy. Then you get in the ring with him. You think, he’s my friend, I’m playing him in this movie, this’ll be fun. I’m very much like that, too. The guy who tells the story through his eyes is a much more difficult part to play, harder than the part that has the flash, and is big and in your face. That was Micky.
DH: When you first sign on, Darren Aronofsky is directing you and Matt Damon. Then Matt steps out but no problem, you’ve got Brad Pitt negotiating. Then Aronofsky leaves to make The Wrestler, and Pitt leaves to make Inglorious Basterds. And you’re left behind. When did you most fear that this movie wasn’t going to happen?
Wahlberg: I really couldn’t look at it like that. I’d already told Micky that we were going to get it done, and I was getting three or four phone calls a week from him. I knew it meant everything to him, and to Dicky, to have their story told. This movie had to get made. So I had to figure out. At Paramount, they had a certain idea of how they wanted the movie to be made, the filmmaker, the costar and the budget. We went down the road with a couple other people and it didn’t work out. I went to the studio and said, I think I can figure out a way to get this movie done. Can you let me take for a little while, and then bring it back to you? They entrusted me with that. I thought I had figured out a way to make the best possible version of this movie and I was able to go and get that done.
DH: When your picture is on the ropes, almost knocked out, how symbolically important was it for you to keep training? Would it have been conceding defeat?
Wahlberg: Yes, for sure. And from a practical standpoint, if you work out for two years and then you don’t do it again for six months, you’re back to square one. It’s not like riding a bike, where you get right back on it. That training process was as expensive as it was time consuming. It wasn’t like somebody else was footing the bill. I was dragging these guys around with me, everywhere we went, putting them up in apartments when I was in different cities, on different locations, making films and promoting films. There were times we were so desperate to make the movie that we almost made the wrong version of the movie. For whatever reason, we were protected. I was able to get David O Russell. After spending a lot of time with David, I just thought he could make a version of this movie we hadn’t been looking to make before. It would still be very real, but it would have more heart, humor and emotion.
DH: Thanks to the internet, we all know how intense Russell can be, as well as Christian Bale, and he lost 30 pounds to play Dicky. How was the intensity level compared to a movie like Three Kings, and how does that intensity affect your performance?
Wahlberg: People expected all kinds of fireworks, but you know what? That wasn’t going to go down. Christian felt like David had a really good take on the film and on his part, and we all felt that less was more when it came to the drugs and the addiction thing. Everybody was excited about making this, we all felt we were onto something special. I tried to set the tone early on and the vibe was good all the way through. We were telling a story important not only to us, but the real people involved, who were a big part of things. Dicky stayed at my house while we were training. Christian and David would come over every morning. We would write in the guest house, do casting there.
DH: Christian doesn’t look like Batman here, he’s a convincing hollow-eyed crack addict. What about his performance most surprised you?
Wahlberg: I wasn’t really surprised. I’d seen The Machinist and Rescue Dawn and knew that he was willing to go there. It was such a big commitment to the role, and a risky move in some ways, but I just knew he would be willing to go there.
DH: The Fighter went from a $50 million Paramount picture to an independent that cost around $20 million, even though it’s still distributed by Paramount. I’ve heard you gambled most of your salary on the upside. When you work hard to establish a quote, what goes through your mind when you consider taking a big cut to get a picture made?
Wahlberg: This wasn’t hard at all. If you make those kinds of sacrifices for a good movie, all that other stuff will continue to be there for you. I’m more nervous about taking a big salary on a big budget movie where, if it doesn’t succeed, you’re in big trouble because you take all that weight for its failure. I believed in this movie, that it was an amazing story that could inspire people. I thought those guys were so heroic. And I’d given my word and I didn’t want to be that guy who said, hey, we’re doing something, and then not. But I’ll tell you, I’ve learned not to count my chickens before they hatch. You have no idea. This movie was pretty much a go, back at the beginning. So I’m at a junket and when they ask what’s next, I say I’m going to do The Fighter with so and so. Then, you’re promoting the next movie and the question is, so when are you doing The Fighter? And you’re just like, oh, no. You say, we didn’t do it yet, but we’re going to get it done. And then it became this ongoing joke. Every time I promoted a movie, I’d see someone else I’d talked to the movie about with such enthusiasm. Now, I don’t like to talk about things until I’m on the set.
DH: Was this the most adversity you’d experienced in getting a movie to happen?
Wahlberg: By far. I’ve never had anything like this. I hope I never have to go through anything like this again, even though the results were extremely positive. It was nerve wracking, physically and mentally exhausting, right down to the final hours. But that’s symbolic of who Micky was, the guy who never gave up, who never quit. Playing him, I literally got into that head space. I’m like that anyway. I’d never be in the position I’m in if my attitude had been, if it happens, great and if it doesn’t, okay. I’m not one of those guys where they just opened the gate and said, come in and do whatever you want.
DH: Amy Adams isn’t the first actress you think of to play a scrappy Lowell barmaid. She is surprisingly tough. When did you know she could nail this?
Wahlberg: I’d met her a long time ago on another movie. I watched her rise and thought she was such a good well rounded actress. I knew she looked the part, that Irish Catholic girl from Dorchester, Southie, or Charlestown or any of those areas. It was more a matter of her wanting to do it, as opposed to any doubt she could. Charlene wasn’t as pivotal a role in the earlier versions. The role was actually very small, but David really wanted to beef that part up. It was part of the effort to make it more appealing to women. We thought all along that guys would love this movie, but how were we going to get women? Boy, did we get lucky there.
DH: Aside from the producing work you’ve discussed, you suggested Melissa Leo to play Alice Ward, the mother of Micky and Dicky. And having Micky’s actual trainer Mickey O’Keefe playing himself, and getting Sugar Ray Leonard to play himself. What part of producing most appeals to you?
Wahlberg: Whatever needs to be done, I enjoy doing it. I’ve always thought of myself as someone with street smarts to make stuff happen. I try to make people feel good about getting involved and being part of something and thankfully, the stuff I’ve produced to this point has been well received. When you get a track record, it’s easier to tell someone, this is going to be great. When it came to Mickey O’Keefe and Melissa Leo, there were a lot of other big names being talked about. I’d seen Melissa in Frozen River and didn’t really know who she was at the time. There were one or two other people I thought could have been real in that role, who wouldn’t come in and think, this is a chance for me to chew it up, because that would have taken away from the authenticity of the piece. With Mickey O’Keefe, I had to insist he be there the entire time. If we’d cast an actor, we’d have one more person who’d only been around a boxing ring a couple of weeks. I needed the real guy. Even if he wasn’t going to be good in the performance, he would be believable working in the ring with me during the training. He ended up being so good in his performance, because he is real. There were times he was nervous and looked like a deer in the headlights, but we got through it. I was able to use my relationship with HBO to get a pay TV window, and get them to give us the rights to all the fight footage, and the commentators. Thank God I had that relationship through our television series, because I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get that. I wanted it shot like a real fight, so we used HBO, their cameras, their operators. These same guys who shot our fights are going to go and do the Manny Pacquiao vs. Antonio Margarito fight. The guy who directed them shot the Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti fight.
DH: Did using those fight guys speed up the process?
Wahlberg: Some directors we talked to about doing the movie said, there’s no way you can do this in 33 days, you’ll need 30 days just to shoot the fights. I’m like, what are we going to do for 30 days? Rub oil on each other, put the dolly in the ring, and all this craziness? With real fights, they get shot in 12 rounds, with a minute in between. These guys don’t miss a thing and they don’t know what’s going to happen. We have the luxury of showing them in the morning what’ll happen, and to do it multiple times. We were using real fighters who weren’t messing around. I thought we could do those fights in a day or two but added a day to be safe. We got it done in those three days.
DH: A running theme is how even though Dicky lost to Sugar Ray Leonard, he was one of the few to knock Leonard down. How did you get Leonard to play himself in the film?
Wahlberg: I’ve known him a long time, we play golf together. I’d told him about the movie. He talks about his experience in Lowell as one of the most memorable in his whole fight career. It was such a hostile environment, he remembers it like it was yesterday. He was excited and I just had to stay on him. I’d been told, let’s get somebody else to play Sugar Ray. I said, why would you get somebody else to play Ray, when we can get Sugar Ray? He looks more like Sugar Ray than anybody else, and he’s still young and fit. It was amazing to see him and the real Dicky in the ring, in Lowell. After he shot a scene, Ray got in the ring and people gave him a standing ovation. He was moved by that, because he most certainly did not get a standing ovation when he fought Dicky.
DH: As you broaden beyond acting, would you like to direct?
Wahlberg: Definitely. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of talented filmmakers and I’ve tried to study them throughout the course of the production. I wouldn’t necessarily want to make a film I would act in.
DH: Is there another ambitious vehicle that as producer you’re crafting for yourself to star in?
Wahlberg: We’ve been developing the John Roberts story. Have you seen the documentary Cocaine Cowboys?
DH: The film about the two guys who transported cocaine into Miami from Colombia in the 1980s.
Wahlberg: We’ve the rights of those guys, John Roberts and Mickey Munday, and set it at Paramount as well. Evan Wright did a pass on the script and will have somebody else doing another. There are a couple other things we want to put together. It’s nice not waiting around for somebody to offer you a part that might further your career, give you an opportunity to do something great. You’ve got to get out there and create those opportunities for yourself.
DH: It certainly changes the way people perceive you. Entourage got this started and seemed formed out of your dynamic of the young star who comes to Hollywood with his buddies from home, and your relationship with agent Ari Emanuel and manager Stephen Levinson. The plot has broadened, but do you feed them some real life anecdotes of mischief that happens in Hollywood?
Wahlberg: Doug Ellin and I speak often, but my life has changed in a much more dramatic and different direction than the storyline of Entourage. I’m married with four kids. We certainly talk about things that have happened in the past, and to other people. With Entourage or Boardwalk Empire, what I do depends on what’s called for. Putting out fires. Getting people to take part. One of the things on Boardwalk was convincing Marty Scorsese that doing television could actually be a great thing and that HBO would be a wonderful experience for him.
DH: What about The Fighter made you most proud?
Wahlberg: Just getting it made, in what I think is the best possible version of the movie. Getting David to direct, getting Christian on board. The first time I screened the movie, I was just looking but not really watching. I was just so shocked we’d actually gotten it done. I needed to see it again, right away, because I hadn’t paid attention to whether it was any good or not. Then I watched it and thought, wow, we’ve really got something here. Keeping my word with Mickey was great, and having Paramount say, you were right, we love the way you did it. It’s as much their movie as mine. We all went down this road, along with David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, and Relativity was willing to step up to the plate and believe in it and me. To go through all that and then see people respond to the drama and the fights, and feel that buzz build. This doesn’t happen that often and I’ve been on the other side, where you had the best intentions going in and things just don’t work out the way you want.