BEVERLY HILLS, California — Mark Wahlberg has portrayed a football player, a fisherman, a soldier and a dozen other disparate roles. These days, however, the Hollywood everyman is undergoing his most intense transformation yet, fueled by hopes of an Oscar knockout.
“For me, it’s a dream come true,” a shockingly trim Wahlberg told us recently, explaining his ongoing preparation for the 2009 boxing biopic, “The Fighter.” “It’s much like when I did ’Invincible’ ; I’d always dreamed of being a football player. For five or six months, to get the pads on and do the whole thing. This is [another] dream come true.”
Growing up on the working-class streets of Dorchester, Massachusetts, in the ’80s, Wahlberg became enamored with “Irish” Micky Ward, a perennial underdog with a devastating left hook who’d emerged from the mean streets of nearby Lowell. For 12 months, the “Departed” star has been immersing himself in Ward’s mindset, in preparation for the film to be directed by acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky and co-starring Brad Pitt.
“It will be a year, on October 13, that I have been training,” explained Wahlberg, whose noticeably lean face reveals his drop in body fat. “I have another six to eight months of training before we actually start shooting. … We’re running, we’re watching fights. … I’ve got a full ring set up at my house.”
“[We’re shooting] in Philadelphia now, so it’s a bit of a ’Rocky’ thing. … I am up at 4 in the morning. We go to the gym at 5 when it opens. I’m jumping rope, hitting the speed bag, the double-end bag, the mitts, and we’re sparring a little bit,” Wahlberg said of the intense schedule he’s maintained, even throughout the shooting of other films like his upcoming thriller, “The Happening.” “But I’m not doing too much sparring while working because I don’t want to show up with a black eye. I don’t think [’The Happening’ director] M. Night Shyamalan would appreciate that too much.”
Which only seems appropriate, since Ward was considered a real-life Rocky Balboa during his 20 years in the ring. ” ’Irish’ Micky Ward was, in my opinion, one of the greatest champions of all time, and the biggest heart that ever stepped into the ring,” Wahlberg said of his role. “I am committed to making him proud, and I know that Brad feels the same way about portraying his brother Dickie. We are going to make it real.”
Pitt is filling in for his “Ocean’s” co-star Matt Damon, another Boston-area native who had once hoped to fit the Ward story into his busy schedule. The character is Micky’s older brother, Dickie Eklund, a fallen professional fighter who once battled the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard.
“We want to do it together, as brothers,” Wahlberg said of discussions he’s had with Pitt, which will eventually have them combining their training programs. “We are going to figure out where it makes the most sense to just dive in. … Not like, ’OK, I’ll do my thing, and you do your thing, and we’ll kind of compete.’ This is about us doing it together.”
Wahlberg’s longtime fans undoubtedly remember the ab-tastic body he rocked during his underwear-modeling, “Good Vibrations”-rapping early days. Now, hoping to maintain the momentum of his first Oscar nomination while fighting back time as he enters his late 30s, he’s committed himself to getting into the best shape of his life for the role.
“I was never involved in the Oscar-hype thing until last year,” he said fondly. “And that was a surprise out of left field.”
If Wahlberg is indeed fishing for a little gold statue, he could do a lot worse than working in a film genre that previously gave us such Oscar contenders as “Raging Bull,” “Ali” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
“We want to outdo all those other movies, as far as the boxing,” Wahlberg said of discussions with Aronofsky, who has previously turned seat-squirming into a national pastime with grisly flicks like “Requiem for a Dream.” “If you go back and you watch those movies [you’ll see they’re different from] when you watch a fight like Bernard Hopkins fighting Kelly Pavlik [recently] for the middleweight title. … The reaction to the way people are hit, the way their faces react and contort — we want to capture that.
“It dramatically is very much a story like ’Raging Bull,’ ” Wahlberg said of the script about Ward, who returned from retirement in the early ’90s with a vengeance, winning nine straight fights against some of boxing’s biggest names. “The life that these guys live is extremely difficult and hard. … We want to get in there, like ’Invincible,’ and take the shots and make it real. We don’t want to do the big, over-the-top reactions when you can clearly tell that people are selling [the pain] but not really taking it.”
And if the pugilist performance earns Wahlberg an Oscar, as it did for names like De Niro and Swank? “If all that stuff happened,” Wahlberg smiled, “I’d be the first one to get up there and thank everybody.”
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