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Vanity Fair
Rogue Star
August, 2001

Rogue Star
How did a hip-hop punk who made his name modeling Calvin Klein underwear end up in Paris playing the Cary Grant role in Jonathan Demme's upcoming remake of Charade? Mark Wahlberg, formerly Marky Mark, turned to acting with all the determination, grit, and bad-boy charm that helped him survive Boston's mean streets- and a stint in prison for taking out a man's eye. On the eve of Wahlberg's $10 million leading-man debut in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, Leslie Bennetts and the 30 year old star try to reconcile the darkness of his past with the brilliance of his future.

Gilded and opulent, the George V is a bastion of huate luxury just off the Champs-Elysées where crystal chandeliers twinkle in the lamplight and white orchids spill from vases in breathtaking profusion. At Tea time, the air is infused with the sounds of privilege: The delicate clink of silver spoons against fine porcelain, the tinkling of a piano playing the theme from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," the murmur of refined voices softened by damask and brocade. It's the kind of hotel where you can easily imagine Cary Grant sauntering by.

Indeed, Jonathan Demme is in Paris at this very moment directing a remake of Stanely Donen's Charade, the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn romantic Thriller, and it's star has been living at the George V since March while he works on his French, takes tango lessons, practices a duet with Charles Aznavour, and gets used to wearing a berets. Here he comes now, strolling jauntily past the potted palms toward a late lunch in the dining room, Le Cinq

Oops. The scene isn't going quite as planned. The actor is being turned away cause he's not wearing a jacket. He looks down at his outfit-sneakers, baggy pants, a black sweater with his white T-shirt hanging out-and offers a sheepish smile. The maitre d' lifts an elegant gallic eyebrow. We retreat to a tea table near the piano, where a flustered hotel representative soon rushes up, full of anxious assurances that the George V is so happy to have Monsieur here, and if anything Monsieur needs, he has only to ask. Monsieur nods calmly.

For Monsieur knows that outside the hotel, adoring fans wait around the clock, ready to shriek and swarm around him everytime he comes out the door. Monsieur knows he's the star of the movie everyone's expecting to be a summer blockbuster-and that every director in the business is clamoring to work with him, not to be mention waving millions of dollars at him. Monsieur is not about to get ruffled over a little thing like a jacket.

Monsieur says he's enjoying Paris, so I ask him how he likes the Louvre.

   "What's the Louvre?"

Trying to figure out Mark Wahlberg is like putting together a puzzle whose pieces simply don't fit; he is a walking case study in extreme cognitive dissonance. Of one thing there's no doubt; he's hot. In June, he turned 30, and July brings his debut as a bona fide action-adventure hero in Planet of the Apes, the new TIm Burton version of the hoary man-against-monkey saga, with Wahlberg (who pocketed a cool $10 million for his trouble) starring as the stranded astronaut and Helena Bonham CArter portraying a winsome simian. Although he has previously played second Banana to heartthrobs George Clooney (in The Perfect Storm and Three Kings) and Leonardo DiCaprio (In the Basketball Diaries), this time Wahlberg has to carry a $100 million picture himself. This will obviously constitues a major test of his box office clout, but Wahlberg says his only real concern was that he not have to wear a Charlton Heston-style loincloth.

Wahlberg's well-muscled shoulders will also carry Rock Star, which is scheduled for fall release and costars Jennifer Aniston. This time he plays a rock fan so obsessed with the famous band he idolizes that he forms a "cover" band to imitate it to local audiences. When he unexpectedly tapped to replace the star of the real band, he is catapulted into the high-flying life of a genuine rock star-with dismaying consequences.

The Charade remake, retitled The Truth About Charlie, is due to arrive next year, with Wahlberg recreating the mysterious character played by Cary Grant in the original. He seems unfazed by the shoes he's expected to fill. "If Thandie Newton is playing Audrey Hepburn, why I can't I give Cary Grant a crack?" he says with a mischievous grin. "I probably won't realize what it means until it's over and I get bashed for destroying a great part. But I'm not really scared of taking risks."

To put it mildly. It seems like only the other day that Marky Mark was a hip hop punk better known for dropping trou and flaunting his underpants than for his success as a rap star, since it is doubtful that his band, the Funky Bunch, despite some undeniable hits, will ever make it into anyone's pantheon of the all time greats. An insolent ex-con whose main claim of fame was the awe-inspiring six-pack that landed his career-making stint as a Calvin Klein underwear model, Marky Mark combined the face of a choirboy with the body and attitude of a particularly of a nasty piece of rough trade, an explosive admixture that reduced screaming girls and gay guys to begging for mercy.

But even that angelic face was usually twisted into a sneer, with curled lip and squinting eyes (Not to mention the hand whose signature gesture was squeezing his crotch) conveying one unmistakable message, loud and clear: Fuck You. Wahlberg's 1992 book, Marky Mark, begins, "I wanna dedicate this book to my dick," and continues with such pearls of wisdom as a full diagram of the location of his infamous third nipple, an anatomic irregularity which doesn't bother him because "it's dope. And bitches like to suck it."

Marky Mark? Cary Grant? Excuse me?

As he tells me earnestly about his churchgoing habits, his voice is low and smooth as butter, with no trace of his Boston accent and few vestiges of the mean streets that spawned it in the rough part of town known as Dorchester. It's a long way from Dorchester to the Avenue George V, where Wahlberg faithfully attends services every Sunday morning at the august American Cathedral. This is today's Mark Wahlberg, you understand,-the one who gets down on his knees and prays every night, as opposed to the old Mark Wahlberg, who spent his nights roaming the streets and took out a man's eye with a metal hook when he was 16. The new and improved Mark is polite, soft-spoken, and well-mannered as well as pious, the kind of young man any girl would be proud to bring home to Mother-as long as Mom never got a glimpse of the tattoos that crawl across his rippling abs and delts. (She might buy the tattooed rosary beads and cross hanging from his neck, or even his parents' initials on his right shoulder, but would she make of Bob Marley on his left shoulder, not to mention Sylvester the cat and Tweety Bird on his left ankle?)

So which is the real Mark Wahlberg? Ahhhhh, yes-zat is zee question. "He's a chameleon," says Stephen Herek, the director of Rock Star. "He can charm the pants off the president, and then he can be with his crew and all of the sudden he's a Southie street kid from Boston. I think it's all a part of him. Who is he? Who knows. He's all those things. Is it a con? Maybe. Is he sincere? Maybe. That's the thing that's exciting and dangerous about him."

While filming the Perfect Storm, Diane Lane was stunned when two of Mark's old friends showed up at the set and Mark, before her eyes, turned into a completely different person. Wahlberg himself shrugs off such instant metamorphoses. "Two guys I'd grown up with, who'd just done eight years in prison, came up and said, 'Hey, what the fuck.' So I have to speak their language," he says. "I've never tried to hide where I come from. Since then I've tried to educate myself. For those guys, the fact that I speak the way I do now was a complete shock to them. It's like growing up in New York and moving to Paris and speaking the language. It's not about forgetting where you came from; it's about adapting tot he environment you're in and learning to communicate."

When he talks like this, he is so irresistibly sincere. He turns those puppy-dog hazel eyes at you, and gives you the sweetest smile, and it is possible to imagine that this dear boy could ever tell you anything other than an Eagle Scout's version of the truth. It is useful to remember that Father Flavin, Wahlberg's former parish priest and the man who probably knows him better than anyone else, says that Mark is the greatest con artist he's ever met. "He could be in a fight and come and tell me with those big sad eyes how the other person started it and he was just defending himself. He could turn on those tears like nothing you've ever seen, and you'd feel so bad for him," Father Flavin says. "He'd get in a courtroom and you'd think he was just the best 16 year old walking the street, out there helping old ladies. He could con anybody."

When I ask Mark about that, a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth until it turns into a dazzling grin. "That's a big compliment, con artist," he says, his eyes twinkling, his teeth gleaming perfect and white. "That's what acting is about. Once you believe it, it's not hard to convince the rest of the people."

His friends have to adjust to his shifting personae. "He enjoys fucking with people," says David O. Russell, who directed Three Kings. "There are times when he's present and real and gentle, and then there's times when he's doing more of his street thing and it's hard to get a straight answer from him."

Growing up in a poor family, scrapping hard for everything he got, sleeping in a room with five older brothers, Mark learned very early to get over on just about everyone, including the sister whose pink bike he stole and repainted brown. (No one guessed until the brown paint started to chip off months later.) When one brother was incarcerated in a youth facility to which Nike and Converse donated defective products, he sent sneakers home to other kids. "They'd be four sizes too big, but we were actually happy my brother was locked up, because we would get free sneakers," Mark recalls.

Back then he thought he was the youngest of nine children, but the truth turns out to be more complicated. Mark's mother had three children out of wedlock, six with Mark's father, Don Wahlberg, and none with her second husband, from whom she is now separated. Mark's father was married once before, but Mark isn't sure how many children he may have sired. "There are a couple kids floating around that I just met at Christmas," Mark reports. "I thought it was funny. I was like, 'Jesus, how many kids do you have?' Now there's 12 in all, but there's probably a couple more; my dad was in the army and spent a lot of time overseas. There's a lotta people in my family."

Mark's Swedish-German father was a teamster who drove a truck and then a bus; his mother, an Irish girl named Alma Donnelly, who was still a teenager when she had her first child, worked many odd jobs while going to school at night and later became a nurse's aide. "It was always about trying to provide," says Mark. "Now that we've got that figured out. I can start asking questions. There's a lotta things I don't know. It's time to put all of the pieces together. Before it was always: 'Why did you do?' "I didn't do it!"

Mark was 10 when his parents split up and he remains fiercely loyal to both: "I love my parents to death, and I think they did a remarkable job, considering the circumstances in which they lived," he says. "My mom has regrets, but god knows she shouldn't. She definitely held herself responsible for all my mistakes I made, even if the mistakes was allowing me to convince her that it wasn't me when it was me."

The divorce hit the youngest Wahlberg hard. "I was preoccupied with my own pain," Alma Wahlberg says. "and when Mark started to get into trouble I really don't think I was seeing what was happening. I was just trying to get back on my feet. He was adorable, and everyone babied him, but when the family structure was falling apart, he was kind of lost. There was a lot of peer pressure, and he wanted to be part of the crowd."

"I was climbing out the window and staying out all night when I was 12 or 13, and by the time I was 13 or 14, I stopped going to school," Mark recalls. "My older brothers taught me how to get high when I was 10, and gave me a couple beers. They thought it was funny to see me stumbling around. A lot of my family is now in A.A. But I don't blame anybody. I took it upon myself to take it to the next level. I was getting fucked up every day and committing violent acts. When I was 13, 14, 15, I had a pretty serious cocaine problem. I was sniffing and freebasing, but I never tried heroin-never saw it, thank god. If the cool guys in my neighborhood were doing it, I would have. Being the youngest and the smallest and the most eager, I was always trying to impress the older guys. And I wasn't scared of much at all."

No one seemed able to control him. "I first met Mark around two in the morning, selling marijuana on the corner," Father Flavin recalls. "He was about 15. I'd often see him drive by the church in a different car. He'd beep and wave. He'd stolen it, of course. He ran with a tough crowd, and had a chip in his shoulder. he always played in Catholic Youth Organization basketball, and I could always count on him getting into a fight during a game. The other kids would tower over him. He'd get frustrated and haul off and clock somebody. Being small , he had to try to harder than everyone else to show he was tough, or you would get beat up by other kids. I used to use a story about Mark in my sermons, about one time he got in an awful fight on the street. I said, 'Why did you get in a fight?'- and he said because a kid looked at him. He was always a fighter."

Then one night Mark and his friends smoked the angel-dust joints they had found in somebody's freezer. They hit the streets in a rampage, robbing a pharmacy and then a liquor store, where Mark swung a metal hook at a Vietnamese refugee that gouged out his eye. He ended up serving 45 days of a two-year sentence at Deer Island, an adult prison.

"That was a dirty, rat-infested place that smelled like an old cellar, out on an Island in Boston Harbor," says Father Flavin. "Mark was scared to death, but you don't let anyone know you're upset or scared or hurt. I felt terrible for him, but he played that tough game very well."

"I had to convince grown men that I was tough and dangerous when I was 16," Mark says, not without pride. "When I was locked up, I was able to take care of myself, even though I was maybe five feet three inches and 125 pounds."

Prison marked the turning point in his life, prompting him to do some serious soul-searching as well as to begin working out. "When I got to jail and saw all these guys I grew up with and emulated, it was a wake-up call. I should have gotten a long time before," he says. "That was it: I was one of them. I had accomplished what I set up to do. Being chased with knives and shot at-if that's not going to wake you up, what is? A lot of people have died. A kid I know stole a police officer's car; they blocked off the street and he smashed into a tree. One of my best friends killed his older brother-stabbed him twice-and his brother died. I know kids doing life with no parole. I thought, There's got to be something better for me out there. I have to believe God knew that I was capable of doing good and working to show people there's something better than being the toughest kid in the neighborhood-being the one who's willing to pull the trigger or rob the store. I remember being 17 and thinking, God, if I could snap my fingers and be 50, I'd do it. I didn't know if I'd make it that far. I'm very lucky to be alive."

His salvation was abetted by his brother Donnie, who struck gold with New Kids on the Block and believed his kid brother could make it, too. Mark, who had considerable difficulty carrying a tune, had rejected the opportunity to be part of New Kids, so Donnie composed some hip-hop arrangements, helped Mark organize a group called Marky mark and the Funky Bunch, and produced their first album, Music for the People, with his own money. Propelled by the hit singles "Good Vibrations" and "Wildside," the album went platinum.

"When I met Marky, I'm like, 'He's gonna be a star.' You could just tell," says Scott Kalvert, who directed The Basketball Diaries as well as many Wahlberg videos, starting with "Good Vibrations" in 1991. "He just had an explosive Charisma. I said, "You should act."

Success wrenched Mark out of the parochial world he had inhabited all his life. The first time Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch went on tour, he says, "I hated Europe. I didn't know how to deal with being on my own. I never realized any world existed outside Dorchester. I thought everyone knew the same things, spoke the same language, stole from each other. Once I realized I was welcome in the rest of the world, then I just took it on myself to try to educate myself."

Even now, even in Paris, he still yearns for his mother's cooking. "I've been working so hard that all I want to do is be home," he says, looking suddenly like a tired little boy. Home is Massachusetts, where he lives with his mother in the house Donnie bought her in Braintree: "I'm still paying rent. I don't own a house anywhere. That's the next big plunge. I have to figure out where first, whether in Massachusetts or on the West Coast. If it's in Massachusetts it's only a matter of time before I'm hanging out in the neighborhood again."

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