The other evening, Mark Wahlberg occupied a small pocket of oxygen inside the Sky Bar. He was a short, hunky fellow who dressed himself up in the intellectual glasses of some brainiac engineering student and so was both cruelly handsome and kind of rat-looking. He had once been a two-bit thug. On another occasion, he had been Marky Mark, the hip-hop recording star. Yesterday was his 26th birthday. He could not believe this. He could not believe so much of his actual prime youth had passed by while he was being either a thug or a recording star, so that he went from one to the other with very little else in between. For instance, there was his senior prom and graduation. They should have been. Only, at the time, he was incarcerated and worrying greatly about the sanctity of his bung vis-à-vis his cellmates.
He asked for a beer, produced a pack of American Spirits cigarettes and a lighter, and looked around. When you got big in the movies in Hollywood, you went to the Sky Bar, on Sunset Boulevard; thus the place was altogether a riot of scantily clad, hopeful sluts. They had eyes like BB’s and precise aeronautic legs, and looked as if they would give up the miracle pretty quickly in the Sky Bar John. Wahlberg was having none of that, though. He lit a smoke and leaned back in his chair. “There are agents and studio people were talking about his performance: sweet, sexy, honest, raw, brutal and innocent, tender and mild, deep. “Mark is a great actor,” Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson once said. “He’s just great, fucking great. That’s kinda how I feel about Mark. I love him.” It was encompassing praise, and the movie would probably put him on the map in the way Fear and Traveller, his two previous leading-role flicks, had not. Then, once again, as during the epochal Marky Mark days, the skank would likely be up against him, pawpawing to see what he had down there. Of course, he was just Wahlberg, like a flood of new electricity at times, full of promise, but always to himself what he was, physically, and couldn’t change. He didn’t have a 13-inch dick. “Anyone who knows me can tell you that,” he liked to say. But that wouldn’t count for anything here. “I mean, certain girls that have just heard about the movie, like, they come here to the Sky Bar and…,” he said, abruptly ending his sentence there, his voice and eyes on the roll, indicating whatever he meant to indicate — no doubt the common-trash desire and the 4 a.m., hair-picking sadness of certain otherwise-stunning Sky Bar girls.
That’s the way he was, though: aslant in conversation and casual in action. If you were a stranger or a friend, he would light your cigarette, cupping his hand to the flame. He’d order some drinks. He would laugh softly and talk golf, and then talk girlfriends, of which he currently had none. “Wish I did have,” he said, so many good-looking women in the world, and there’s a lot of them right here,” he said knowledgeably. “But there’s probably not a good one out of the whole bunch.” Tapping his chest, he clarified himself. “I mean, good on the inside.”
That was important to Wahlberg now. He didn’t want skank. Certainly, skank would be all over him in a few weeks, after the release of Boogie Nights, co-starring the then-struggling but always great Burt Reynolds. It was a black comedy about life in the porn business during the disco-sweet 1970s, with Wahlberg as Dirk Diggler, porn-star guy with 13-inch penis. To summarize, what he played was basically a walking dick, but the role also demanded a lot of solid acting, and, around town, producers and thoughtfully stroking his chin. “Wish I did. I’d like to have a girlfriend. But I never had too many women in my life I could trust.” After a while his head would loll almost to one side. He’d tap the ash off his smoke. But mostly he would not do or say a lot. He could be quiet like that for a long time. It was OK. Maybe he had some stuff on his mind. Wahlberg was 26. He’d been around some and wasn’t the same as he once was.
If a Wahlberg nemy came into the Sky Bar — someone he had once robbed, say, or maybe Madonna, who he once said looked like Beetlejuice — that person would have a very hard time getting a clean drop on Wahlberg. He sat at a table in a corner, with his back to nobody. He looked relaxed. He said he had been going to church lately. “You want to know what I pray for?” he asked, grinning his boyish, open grin, solidly in the faith and feeling the raptures. “I thank the Lord for all the blessings he’s brought upon me. I readily acknowledge him as my creator and beg him to be my savior. I let him know that I realize I am weak but that I want to be strong and that my heart is open to being filled with nothing but the Lord’s love.”
Of course, some people would view this kind of talk as a curiosity or a sign of whimsical, schoolgirlish dilettantism. But Wahlberg was serious. He knew what was going on. There were still echoes around him from growing up the youngest of nine in a broken family, near Dorchester Avenue in Boston, such a place as you’d never want your precious ones to grow up in. It was wholesale ruinous. Barely a teenager, Wahlberg dealt drugs, stole cars and filched liquor-store cash-boxes. He was drinking, smoking weed, popping pills and rumbling. On Fridays he waited for the justpaid Irish construction workers to wobble from the bars and pass out; he and his pals would roll them, he said, “ripping their wedding rings off their fingers.” It was a time of terrible deeds, and there would be consequences. He assaulted a Vietnamese man, wanting just his beers, and in his spastic, delinquent fury called him a gook. This event lead to an attempted-murder charge and landed him in Plymouth Penitentiary, serving 45 days of a two-year suspended sentence. What he had to his name inside was given to him by his mom (a pack of smokes, a $10 bill) and a friend just getting out (a TV set, some Twinkies). Wahlberg was 16, going on 17.
Recalling this period in his life, Wahlberg took a drag on his cigarette. “This was when I first got in, on the first tier, new man’s section on the flat,” he muttered through the smoke. “I woke up. This dude was sticking his private area through the bars, letting some other dude lick on it.” He narrowed his eyes. “I was like, What the fuck?’ I mean, boy!”
He put out his cigarette and drained his beer. It was 1 or 2 in the morning, and the Sky Bar was shutting down. Wahlberg slid out onto Sunset, where he stood waiting for E-Factor, his driver and factotum, to pull up in the car. He met some fans there, maybe 10 or 12, all holding old magazines featuring his picture. He smiled and signed some autographs.
After jail, he’d tried to steer clear of serious trouble. He’d watched his brother Donnie grow fat with cash as a member of New Kids on the Block, what Mark says was a $115 million bonanza. He joined the group, too, but quit after a split second. To him, New Kids’ music was bubblegum shit, all baloney and humiliation. But in 1991, he got Donnie to help him get together his own act, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. At the age of 19, he released Music for the People. It was a hit, but Wahlberg didn’t become a true phenomenon until after a performance at Southern California’s Magic Mountain, during which, onstage, he dropped his pants. That pants-dropping thing caused quite a stir and led to a photo spread in Rolling Stone, which in turn led to a contract with Calvin Klein’s underpants division. Soon, posters of his torso were being slapped on buses nationwide.
“I didn’t know where I was going, I was just going,” he once said. “Bro, I was spending money as quick as I could make it. Clothes, rented jets, a boat, going to the Palm and ordering 4 1/2-pound lobsters, leaving $500 tips at bars — man, my credit-card bills ran from $70,000 to $150,000 a month!”
At the time, it seemed that this was beautiful. He had escaped his past, made a swift break to freedom. Girls fainted at the sight of him. He was on the cover of Penthouse. He shared TV time with Jay Leno. But, of course, it didn’t last. His second album, 1992’s You Gotta Believe, stiffed rather badly. Suddenly he was back to being Mark Wahlberg, a guy working on a new career: acting. Only here, tonight, the kids thought that he’d never changed, that it was still the early ’90s and that quite soon his pants would be flapping around his ankles.
Wahlberg shook his head. He didn’t seem to be angry or upset — just amused, as though he were thinking about what a bizarre world this was and how strange its sudden twists and many souls.
At one time, in The Early ’70s, no one really had a clue who Burt Reynolds was. Basically all he played was half-breed Indians on TV westerns. But then, in 1972, just as Mark Wahlberg would do so many years later, he dropped his pants for a magazine photo shoot — for the mainstream world’s first-ever nude-male centerfold — and suddenly became a raging star. In movies like Deliverance, White Lightning, The Longest Yard, the entire Smokey and the Bandit series and Semi-Tough, he was fabulous. Then he ran out of hits, and only the tabloids kept him in the public eye, over sad, personal matters. He tried to make comebacks, but they were often wretched. He was truly excellent in Boogie Nights, though, and he no doubt dreamed that it would return him to center stage. He was 60, getting old.
“I’d be sitting there thinking, Burt Reynolds!”‘ Wahlberg said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much of anybody in the movies as I have of Burt. I think of Burt: slicked-back hair, mustache, that smile, and the cops and the girls chasing him.”
Wahlberg was silent, playing back what he could remember, and smiling at his thoughts and musings. “If this Burt was 23 or 25, he’d probably be playing the part I’m playing in Boogie Nights,” he said finally.
This notion struck Wahlberg as something to think about. “I’ve thought about that a lot,” he said.
A month later Whalberg went into Canada with his boys E-Factor, Monk B (his sparring partner) and Rasta Phil (his childhood pal and sometime cook), and his bag of expensive Big Bertha golf clubs. For the past year, he’d spent almost all his time working on his golf game. He’d also taken to referring to himself as the Kid, as in, “The Kid’s been hitting the ball long and clean and straight.” Occasionally he would take a break from the game and call his manager.
“You know what?” he’d say, already beginning to yell. “Everybody thinks I’m running around beating the shit out of everybody. I ain’t beating the shit out of nobody. But I will come over there and beat the shit out of you guys if you don’t get me in there to meet the right guys. In the door — that’s all I want you to do.”
So he got in the door a few times, which was how he came to be in Toronto, about to shoot a movie with Lou Diamond Phillips called The Big Hit, about hit men. Boogie Nights had still not opened. For Boogie Nights he was paid somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000 — he’s not an accountant, so he can’t be sure, but in any case, it barely covered the bills. Because Boogie Nights was the movie that it was, though — a black comedy, way out there, with stunning, off-kilter performances by not only Reynolds but also Julianne Moore, William H. Macy (Fargo) and Heather Graham (Swingers) — he didn’t care. “If you’re in a piece of shit, and it makes some money, so what?” Wahlberg hissed. “That’s more embarrassment to deal with, yelling about being in some Speed or some shit.”
He was at an outdoor restaurant, loading up on chicken wings and barbecued shrimp, smoking cigarettes and enjoying a bottle of red wine. It was a cool evening, with lots of pretty Canadian girls passing by. He’d crane his neck in their direction, then go back to pondering Boogie Nights and his career.
As Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg starts off as a sweet, big-dicked kid, turns into an egomaniacal, big-dicked porn star, is reduced to a humbled, big-dicked, hand-job-giving former porn star and ends up finding peace in the porn family overseen by father figure Burt Reynolds, a porn director. From the beginning, Wahlberg thought he was perfect for the part: “I was like, Yeah, boy, I can do that.’ I understood the mentality of the kid, especially when he becomes this kind of egomaniac, because I, too, got thrust into this world.”
He paused briefly and said: “Whenever anybody asks me, If Boogie Nights could have been your first movie, would you have done it?,’ I’m like, Yeah — if I could kill everybody in it, I would have done it.”‘
Indeed, when he first got into the movies, he wanted to play only one kind of role, the tough guy, which he did in smallish parts in Renaissance Man and The Basketball Diaries, and as the star of Fear, in which he portrayed a murderous deflowerer of sweet teens. He was living up to some image of himself and his hoodlum friends back in his old neighborhood. Some of those friends were now dead, some in prison, some looking to him for jobs, as though he were the king of the universe. He knew what they would think when they saw Boogie Nights. “They’ll call me every name in the book,” he said flatly. “They’ll say, Why ain’t you beating the shit out of everybody and not getting the shit kicked out of you? And you’re jerking off people! What the hell are you doing?”‘ He sucked the meat off a chicken wing. “Whatever, man,” he said.
Just then, the waitress stopped by with the check and asked if there was anything else she could get him. Wahlberg said, “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Janet. I’d just rather say, Excuse me, Janet’ than say, Hey, yo, get over here!”‘ Wahlberg watched her go, smiling. “The whole macho thing killed me for a long time,” he said. “I remember my days at the China Club and everything else. I’d be saying, Where the fuck is my drinks?’ You know, on a stupid day, I was that guy. Now, fame has its advantages, like getting into a nightclub and even getting a girl. But you’re not getting the girl cause she likes you, and after a while, no matter what, unless you have no conscience at all, reality sets in. You stop trusting people. You don’t know what they want from you or why they really want it.”
He smoked for a while.
“Take Boogie Nights,” he continued. “Like was it, Who better to have in it than Marky Mark, the underwear kid, the kid who has no problems taking his clothes off?’ Or was it, they really think I can play the part?” He shook his head. “Man, having to look over your shoulder all the time is an uncomfortable feeling.”
The next day, Wahlberg and his boys drove down to the Toronto waterfront and spread themselves among the tourists and locals in the summer heat. They found a seafood joint in an old ship. Wahlberg ordered $75 worth of seafood for him and Rasta Phil to split. Monk B talked about cunnilingus for a while, acclaiming himself a kind of master tongue-smith. Rasta Phil and Wahlberg hooted at this. Neither of them was in favor of giving oral sex at any time on any occasion. Wahlberg himself had developed a little thing about germs. “You gotta worry about disease,” he said. “I mean, you can see my shit. It’s all right here. But you need a telescope to see how they’re doing. Dark in there, too.”
Rasta Phil was laughing so hard that seafood nearly ran out his nose. “If you ever saw me down there,” he said, “every time, I’d be wiping my mouth!”
“I’d be gargling,” Wahlberg said. “Alcohol. No — hydrogen peroxide!”
Rasta Phil nodded happily. He was Trinidadian but grew up in Wahlberg’s Boston neighborhood. As a young man, he was also known as DJ Phil, and in the poor parts of town, he was famous for spreading the good reggae beat. In fact, he was the first celebrity Wahlberg ever met. Phil had a house he called the Firehouse — “Ghetto palace!” said Wahlberg — and everybody hung out there, partying and listening to music: blacks, whites, all kinds of racist skinhead motherfuckers. It was a big, peaceful scene. Then the Firehouse burned down, and Phil was no longer a celebrity, and the scene died. “
“Phil had it all, banging in the system,” Wahlberg said. Phil’s eyes glowed at the memory. “Chicks always there,” he said.
“His custom van,” Wahlberg said.”The Love Van.”
Rasta Phil tugged a crab leg out of the pile of seafood. “I can tell you that Mark is one of the best friends I have,” he said, “Compared to a lot of the fellows who’ve been to the Firehouse, he’s the only man who stuck with me when I was down and out. I realize I’m black, he’s white, and they’re black, so I always expected more help from them than him. Do you understand? He’s the only one who always helped me.”
He eased into St. Basil’s Catholic Church on Bay Street, dipped his finger into a container of holy water, crossed himself, shuffled to a pew, knelt before it and took a seat. He was dressed in a clean white shirt and clean dark trousers. He sat there, one hand resting on the other. Overhead, way up high, three fans pushed the air around, mixing it up some. At the front of the church, the priest regarded his flock sternly. His voice booming, he said, “We have no idea of the consequences. Thinking ahead to the afterlife seems impractical, and so we don’t take Jesus’ words as seriously as we should.”
Wahlberg leaned forward a little. He had once been a thief, mugger, juvenile offender and drug-addled fool. He could have been a jailbird’s butt toy, but that wasn’t to be. Instead he became a rap star and was now, in his latest incarnation, an actor. But it sometimes gave him pause to think that as an actor, he was about to come out large playing a fellow with a 13-inch penis, a penis that in the final act of the movie suddenly shows up on the screen. Wahlberg worried about this and the moral and theological issues it seemed to raise.
“I just hope God is a movie fan or at least understands that the movie is just a movie,” he fretted. “I think it’s OK. But I don’t know if any of it is OK.”
He crossed himself. The church organ thundered, and he rose to his feet. It was time to receive the body and blood of Christ. He stuck his hands in his pockets and joined all the other sinners in line.
Afterward, he sat on a park bench outside the church and smoked. He had some things on his mind. “If you give it out, you gotta be able to take it,” he said. “I was thrust into this world and got all sucked up by it. I lived in a lot of places in a small amount of time, and I don’t know who I kicked dust up on or who I steamrolled. But I’ve had time to do a lot of good things to make up for it. And now, I think, is the first time I’ve ever had a clear conscience.”
He dropped his cigarette to the pavement and covered it with his shoe. “There’s a lot worse people out there,” he said. Then he got up and walked to the street, to the car waiting for him that took him to where he was going next.