Mark Wahlberg’s climb to the top in Hollywood got an extra boost when he was nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actor in The Departed. In addition to holding his own with heavyweights Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, Wahlberg found new respect behind the camera by co-producing several HBO series, including the Emmy®-winning hit Entourage and the acclaimed Boardwalk Empire.
Now, he’s putting everything he has into a real-life role that he’s dreamed about: stepping into the ring in The Fighter to play welterweight champ “Irish” Micky Ward.
“Micky was a local hero that we all idolized,” Wahlberg says of Ward, who shares his Boston-area roots and fought to glory in the 1980s—a few years before Wahlberg found fame as rapper Marky Mark and then in his breakout role in Boogie Nights.
“There weren’t too many success stories where I was from,” he says. “Nobody had really made it out. So what Micky accomplished had a personal impact on me and what I believed was possible.”
Wahlberg is the first to admit that he almost missed his own ticket out. “I was arrested for everything from stealing cars to doing drugs,” he says, “and when I ended up in jail, one of my parents had to get on a train or a bus to come and bail me out. I remember my mom picked me up, and the conversation we had on the way home was about what I was going to do with my life, and that people actually did care about me, and that I was hurting myself. She was in tears and I think the light began to dawn and maybe I realized that I could be something.”
That’s why the 39-year-old actor was drawn to Ward’s struggle to leave his blue-collar roots behind and make it to the top in the grueling world of prize-fighting. “I want people to feel inspired and realize that if Micky can come from where he did and accomplish so much, they can too with hard work and determination,” Wahlberg says. “Micky had more heart than anyone else. That’s really what it’s about. It’s all about heart.”
Then he adds with a grin. “I’m also a huge fight fan. I fought a bit when I was younger and I’ve seen every boxing movie ever made. Some of the greatest ones like Rocky and Raging Bull, I’ve watched like thirty times. But the fight scenes in a lot of them weren’t as realistic as what we wanted to put on the screen. To show it, you’ve got to get in there and take it.”
Wahlberg, who also produced the film, pushed himself to the limit to portray Ward. “I trained for four-and-a-half years and it got really intense,” he reveals. “I ended up losing thirty pounds. I would be in the gym by 4:30 in the morning and I was probably working out ten hours a day. Me and Micky have become friends over the past ten years. He helped me when I was working on my punches and was on the set for the entire filming.
“I didn’t want to look like an actor who is pretty good in the ring,” he continues. “I wanted to look like a guy who could win the welterweight title. We hired real fighters to box with me and used the cameramen who shoot all the fights for HBO Sports. It’s amazing how real those scenes are; you feel like you’re watching archival footage.” Wahlberg may look convincing taking punches and unleashing his version of Ward’s devastating trademark left hook, he insists, but “anybody who has seen me in person knows that I’m not that tough. On the other hand, I’m not going to let anybody physically harm me. If they come after me, I’m going to defend myself. That’s the way I was brought up.”