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That isn't likely, given his ferocious appetite for work and the offers that are coming his way. When Wahlberg first decided to try acting, he wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms. His second album, You Gotta Believe, hadn't sold as well as the first, and he grew disenchanted with the music business. But the movie industry was openly derisive about his new aspirations, as Scott Kalvert found when trying to cast Wahlberg in The Basketball Diaries. "It was very hard to get him the movie, because of the stigma," Kalvert says. "To take yourself from Marky Mark the rapper to a serious actor-you have to will yourself to do that, because everything was against him being able to succeed. He had to work four times as hard as somebody starting from scratch, and he did it."

"If anything, he was driven by the obvious doubts about him," says James Foley, the director of Fear, the 1996 thriller that co-starred Reese Witherspoon. "That was a fight he took on: to wipe the sneer off people's faces and convince them he's a serious actor. He's kicked major ass."

In the process, Wahlberg transformed himself from a punk into a fiercely motivated, disciplined workhorse who wins effusive admiration from his colleagues. "He's the poster boy for redemption," says James Gray, who directed him in The Yards.

For many people, Wahlberg's breakthrough performance came in Boogie Nights. Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 film, in which he played the pathetically deluded porn star Dirk Diggler, complete with a 13-inch prosthetic penis. "I was totally blown away, because he was playing somebody so against type," says Kalvert. "That character is nothing like him. He's not vulnerable like that character. He has always been extremely sure of himself. He knew his power. He had confidence. He's smart as hell."

Others still weren't convinced. "I thought, Is this the dope I saw in Boogie Nights? What if he wasn't an actor, what if he was just good at playing a hapless kind of guy?" says David O. Russell. "But when I met him, I realized he was a serious actor-and his ambition is limitless."

Wahlberg has since shown such range that directors are lining up to work with him. Tim Burton, the director of Planet of the Apes, says he was attracted to Wahlberg by a masculine quality that reminded him of another era. "I met Mark and thought he had a certain gravity about him, a kind of Steve McQueen simplicity where you don't have to say much," Burton says. "I've always been fascinated by that type of acting where it's minimal. But you have to have it; you can't really tell somebody to do that."

Wahlberg underwent another metamorphosis to play the star of a heavy-metal band, losing weight and immersing himself in a musical genre he had never even listened to. "He was a large reason I wanted to do Rock Star," says Stephen Herek. "There's something really electric, something wild and unexpected about him on-screen. He's sort of a man-child. He has this mature, dangerous sexuality, but at the same time there's a boyish innocence, and the combination is rather lethal. He has this magnetic thing, for almost any girl and even guys. It's a vortex; people get sucked in. You see the way girls look at him, and it's literally like a rock star, where you could just pick and choose and basically take whatever you want. He'll be shy about it in public, but in private-look out!"

Older colleagues are both amused and amazed by the results. "Me and Spike Jonze went out with Mark one night to do it his way, which is go nightclubbing," reports Russell. "He's wearing some beautiful Armani suit, and he would stand up and just be surrounded by young, beautiful women touching him. I saw a woman touching his crotch! There have been movie stars who shall remain nameless who have found him at his hotel and had their way with him. Women adore him."

In his Catholic-alter-boy mode, Mark has claimed for years that he just wants to be married and have kids, and he purports to feel real guilt about his robust sex life. "That's one of my weaknesses: I've had sex out of wedlock," he says solemnly. "I'm 30; I wish I was already married and starting to have a family."

But he finds it difficult to let down his guard in intimate relationships. "Being thrust from one extreme into another, it's been hard to trust in this world in which I live and work," he explains. "Someone's who's grown up in a privileged, sheltered background with a small family and all the attention, compared to someone like me, who's grown up with nothing-I feel it's impossible for them to really relate to me. I don't make that very easy for them, because I don't reveal everything. I've had a couple bumps and bruises along the way, but because of that, I've also caused some bumps and bruises. I also know that if I continue to be this way, I won't allow myself to find all the things I need to be happy. I've had relationships, a couple years here and there, but I've never really lived with anybody. You gotta protect yourself, but when you do that, you set yourself up to miss out on unconditional love."

Wahlberg's past liaisons include Reese Witherspoon and China Chow, and for the last couple of years he has been involved with actress Jordana Brewster, but she's only 21 and a student at Yale. They recently broke up via long-distance telephone, although they've done so before and gotten back together again. Brewster's background - she is the granddaughter of former Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr.- is clearly a hot-button issue for Mark. "There's nothing wrong with being privileged," he concedes. "She's got great parents who are involved in every aspect of her life. I definitely think there might be issues I have with that."

When I push him to explain, he looks uncomfortable and starts to fidget, his eyes darting around the room. "It reminds me of how hard I had to work to get where I have," he says finally, staring off into space with a scowl. "I have a hard time hearing about living on Fifth Avenue and having housekeepers and going to Yale. I think I was better off growing up in the world I did. If people are able to survive that, then they can survive anything. Coping skills are big on the resume, in my book. I'm willing to learn about their world, but I also make sure I keep my world around me. I don't have famous friends. On the day-to-day basics, I still hang out with guys from my neighborhood. It's who I am. I'm not ashamed of it. I don't ever want to lose it or forget about it, because there are so many kids who can gain so much inspiration just by my giving a little time. They can identify with me and get a chance to see a larger world. Giving back-that's what it's all about. Helping somebody to help themselves."

These days, Wahlberg, whose personal assistant is a former drug addict turned drug counselor, is obsessed with the idea of trying to do good. Although the science credits continue to thwart him, he has struggled for years to earn his high-school equivalency degree because it will make him a better role model. "Right now I'm working with the Boys Club, donating my time as well as money, building a gym for Father Flavin's new parish," he says. "I was named to the board of directors, and I felt like I had finally done something I could truly be proud of. It was one of the best feelings in the world. We're sending kids on trips - the Boys Club sent 40 kids on a sports program to Texas. There is a lot of good to be done, and if I apply myself I can do some, and that's what makes me feel good about myself. I made millions of dollars by the time I was 20, and it didn't make me happy. I've done my share of bad, and when I get down on my knees every night I certainly don't ask for any pat on the back. But as long as people really look to God and ask for help, then I think it's there. Everyone can be forgiven. It's just a matter of going out and working for it. I've only lived a third of my life, but I think the rest of it is going to be pretty boring for most people. There won't be much controversy from now on. There will be a lot of positive things. It will be a challenge: hard work to do good."

The controversies of the past seem far behind him now: the hotheadness that provoked so many fights, the 1993 press firestorm in which he was accused of homophobia and racism, the catfight with Madonna at a Hollywood party. Wahlberg allegedly disparaged a member of Madonna's entourage as a "homo" - a charge he has always denied - and got into a scuffle with Guy Oseary of Maverick Records, who later filed a complaint. "Young testosterone out of control," was how one observer described it. (Wahlberg says Madonna still owes him an apology.)

The current Mark is politically correct and rigorously controlled. "I have never once witnessed Mark Wahlberg become angry-not ever," says James Foley. "I've never seen that toughness in his eyes expressed as anger - and I don't want to, unless it's between 'Action!' and 'Cut!'"

Much more religious than his parents ever were, Mark believes his Catholic faith plays a crucial role in grounding him. "I go to church because it's what I should be doing," he says. "It's pointing me in the right direction, making me a better person. There's still a lot of work to be done, and I still have nightmares about going to prison-'I didn't do it, man! Just let me go!' But I'm pretty sure I will do some good."

Those goals have fueled his determination not to be lured back into rap music. "I love making music, and I do it on my own, but I haven't recorded since '98," he says. "My record company calls me all the time now that I'm successful, but the business left a bad taste in my mouth-being pushed in a certain way for commercial success, rather than doing what I thought was right for me. What people have to do to sell records is just not good. It's always pushing the envelope, promoting negative stuff, and it has an effect. There's a lot of damage being done to young people across the world. What's wrong with giving people a positive image? I never thought that going to prison was something to brag about. I didn't want to glamorize being a thug."

Not that Wahlberg is adverse to exploring the dark side he knows so well in his acting. "I prefer to play the bad guy," he admits. "I'm always the one who roots for the bad guy. I don't think a movie works without a great villain."

And he does concealed menace so well-an attribute that inspired Foley to cast him as the homicidal boyfriend in Fear. "There was something in his eyes where you felt like it was the real deal-that forged-in-steel kind of tough thing where you don't have to act it out or pose it," says Foley. "This character had to be sexually attractive and dangerous. I've never seen Mark try to sell himself, try to convince anybody that he's tough or that he's smart. There's just an eerie calm. You know about his past and about the potential violence, and all that energy has been sublimated into the focus on being an actor. There's a certain unbridled volcano that lurks behind those eyes."

One thing Wahlberg avoids now is taking off his clothes for the camera. "I spent a lot of time doing it in the beginning of my career, and when I started to make films, that was what people expected of me," he explains. "It's not anything I'm really ashamed of, but I'd like to move forward. If people are constantly paying attention to that, they're going to miss whatever else is going on."

And what he wants them to pay attention to is his acting, although he is not one to make pompous pronouncements about his craft; the school of hard knocks has given him a philosophical attitude about his past as well as his present. "You always wish you could go back and do some things a little differently, but I learned a great deal, so it's O.K.," he says. "I don't take myself all that seriously, so I can look back and laugh."

Wahlberg has a lot to laugh about these days,a nd those who know him well think this is only the beginning. "You take somebody from the streets of Dorchester and he ends up in Paris, and that's a guy who's growing and transforming," says Russell. "He's a work in progress, and I'd like to think we ain't seen nothing yet."

And while some of his contemporaries succumb tot he pitfalls of fame, Wahlberg seems unlikely to lose his way at this late date. "Where he came from is the reason he has such a level head now," says Kalvert. "A lot of these kids in Hollywood reach a pinnacle and self-destruct. Mark can do anything he wants to do, and he's going to thrive."

Not to mention have some fun along the way. "Life for him is a big party, in terms of being happy with who you are," Herek observes.

Happiness? That's a tall order, and Wahlberg won't admit that he's achieved it, only he's getting closer. "I think happiness is around the corner," he says, and then flashes me a sly, knowing smile: the smile of a con artist, the smile of an irrisitable rogue who knows he can get away with just about anything he wants and get away with. A Cary Grant smile. After all, even Cary Grant had to invent himself.

"You just gotta shift those gears and get around the corner," Wahlberg says lightly, and then heads off to dance the tango with a beautiful girl.


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