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Mark Wahlberg – Keeping the Faith with Father Stu

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

Mark Wahlberg

Keeping the Faith with Father Stu

by Jay S. Jacobs

You often hear the term “labor of love” bandied about for films. Well, for Mark Wahlberg, the religious drama Father Stu was indeed one of those aforementioned labors. In fact, he was so taken by the story of the late boxer-turned-actor-turned priest Stuart Long that Wahlberg himself financed the film and worked for six long years to bring it to the big screen.

Father Stu tells the story of Long, a small-time boxer and actor who suddenly found his calling in the church after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. However, when he joined the seminary to study to become a priest, Long faces the largest test of his faith yet – a debilitating and incurable disease which will quickly upturn his life.

However, Stu refused to allow his condition to stop him from finding his path. He accepted his fate with grace and became a beloved man of the cloth in his hometown. It also helped him heal the personal problems he had with his mother (Jacki Weaver of Silver Linings Playbook) and his estranged father (played by Wahlberg’s Daddy’s Home co-star Mel Gibson.)

It’s a bit of a new direction for Wahlberg, who has over his long career tended to do more work in big-budget action films (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Max Payne, 2 Guns, Planet of the Apes), slick dramas (Boogie Nights, The Fighter, All the Money in the World) and goofy comedies (Date Night, Entourage, Instant Family and Ted).

A week before Father Stu’s Easter-week debut, we were one of a few outlets who were able to sit down with Wahlberg in the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia to talk about the new film.

What was it that drew you to this particular story?

The story itself. Everything about it was for me the ideal movie to tell, part to play, journey to go on. It is a beginning of a new chapter and doing more meaningful and faith-based content. Lots of things. I couldn't find any reasons to not do it, other than the fact that I had cut a check myself. But yeah, that was okay too.

How did you first hear about Stuart Long and learn about his life?

From a priest friend of his who hung out with him in LA while he was out there trying to become an actor. When he decided to go to the seminary, he was pitching me the movie. It just seemed so weird. I've been pitched a lot of movies by a lot of people in a lot of places, but never by a priest. When it finally registered, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is absolutely amazing. This is something that I've been looking for.” It was a unique opportunity to do something really special.

You said it's something you were looking for. What does the story of story mean to you?

First of all, it's so inspiring. It's so relatable to everybody. Especially now, in these times we're living in, everybody who's seen the movie has a personal connection to it. To Stu. We've all been through so much stuff that they could personally identify with it. So, there was many, many things. That's a long question. I’d hate to waste all of your time on just that one particular subject.

You mentioned cutting a check for it. Is this the first time you've actually financed a film yourself?

Yes. It's one of those things where, for a number of reasons, you want to be left alone during the creative process, right? It's not the kind of thing where you want people coming in and giving you notes and demanding changes and things like that. It's not an easy sell. First off, there was a couple of people that I thought maybe they'd get it, so I slipped it to them. They were like, “Oh, it's too dark.” I'm like, well, there's a lot of humor in there. And it's very inspiring. They're like, “What? the guy died at the end.” Well, we all do. (laughs) It’s about how he went about it. He was inspiring others, embracing those difficult times. So, okay, let me just do this on my own. I'll bring in everybody after. Even with the church, it wasn't met with open arms, because of the language in the film, which I thought was bizarre, We've all heard the F word. People talk like that. This is a movie about tough grace and tough mercy. We want it to be authentic in the way we approach that. We’re not preaching to the choir. We're trying to bring in other folks.

Father Stu seems to never want to take “no” as an answer, both like as a boxer, in trying to attract Carmen, and just to become a priest against all of the odds that he was going through. Was that a feeling that you really aspire to, or you feel that you relate to?

I heard that a lot. I always just kept plugging away. I felt like I was in control of my own destiny. I attribute my discipline and my work ethic. I don't want to disappoint anybody who's crazy enough to take a shot on me and give me an opportunity to do anything. I take it very seriously along with having lots of gratitude, lots of gratitude. But I don’t like taking no for an answer. And Stu definitely [doesn’t].

Could you talk about preparing for the role? How did you go about getting to know Stu’s story and the family?

I heard the story and then I'd spent time with his family. His dad, especially. Friends from the seminary and fellow priests. People that he met and touched along the way. Then of course in myself, man, I've been kind of preparing to play this role my whole life. Within performing the duties of a priest or do masses every week. Well before I ever had a script, we just had an idea. We had a commitment from me that we're going to make this movie. I would continue to just do these things, in hopes that one day the movie would come together, and we'd be ready to go. As approaching it as an athlete or the way I did with the fighter. It was one of those things where we trained for six months. We thought we had a movie. The movie fell apart. But if I stopped that training for another six months, I'm starting over. So I figured let's just keep going. Let's just keep getting ready. You stay ready, so you don't have to go and get ready. That's how I approached it. We just would assume that this is all going to happen. I did that for six years. What have you been doing last year for the last four years? Oh, I'm doing this mass in hopes that this movie would come together.

Your physique changes a bit throughout the movie. You gained some weight for the role. How exactly did that work – with the way you look as a boxer compared to how you look at the end? Was there a break in filming at some point?

There was no break. Unfortunately, no. With the budget, we couldn't shut down. So, basically, I tried to get in as good a shape as possible for the beginning, preparing for the boxing. I had just done an adventure racing movie [Arthur the King], which was probably the most physically demanding film I've ever done. That hasn't come out yet. We shot the boxing on the first day. That night, we started the calorie consumption. I started 7,000 calories a day for the first two weeks and 11,000 for the final four weeks of the film. So, that was the first meal was the best meal and the only enjoyable meal. We were grilling porterhouse steaks outside the trailer. I'm taking off my gloves and the blood from the fights. We're eating baked potato and all this stuff. This is fantastic. Then three hours later I'm getting a knock on my door with another meal. Oh, man! I’m still full from the last one. That just continued on from day one until the end.

So it’s like the Raging Bull thing, except you didn’t take a break.

Yeah, we didn't go to Italy and eat pasta for six months.

This is Rosalind Ross’ first film, both as a screenwriter and as a director. Why did you feel that she would be the right person to helm this movie?

Her way into the story. Her really relating to a guy trying to find his purpose, the struggles of that. I had told many other people [about the idea]. I was developing this at one point with David O. Russell. We talked to various writers. We had drafts of the script written. Nothing was even close to what we wanted to make – what we thought the story could or should be. Then when I told her, she said she wanted to take a crack at it. I come back three months later. She handed me a script. I'm like, “This is the movie that I want to make. How did you do this?” I was really blown away when I read it. So I said, all right. I had to carve out 18 months myself to do it. I had three other projects lined up. Especially if I was going to go and finance the movie, it'd be nice to be able to go in and take some paying jobs to do that. I just felt that if she could put on the page, she could put it on the screen. We just have to surround her. She certainly had aspirations to direct. I just think the movie is that much more interesting because it's told from her point of view, really. How do you make a guy like Stu likable? Unless you really love this character, really love this guy. I think that's why it was it was so subjective in how you interpret it, reading it off the page because of that very thing. I know normally I read a screenplay, and then I'll try to picture it. It's never what I pictured them to be. It really never is. Set dressing, all of it, production design. Sometimes better, sometimes worse.

In the same vein of Stu not being likable and trying to make them likable in telling the story, the same goes for his father. Can you talk about that journey and the casting behind that?

Bill’s first choice, second choice and third choice was always Mel. It is amazing. He's just really got a kick out of the idea of Mel playing him. I’ve made a lot of true stories – real people at difficult times. It's always really hard. It's hard when dealing with those situations. The sensitivity and the respect, the approach that you have to take. Bill was just like, “Hey, it's a movie.” Hopefully, you get the essence of Stu correct, but he's really able to detach himself from that, which was nice. A lot of people aren't really able to do that. He just always got a kick out of it. It's such a wonderful relationship. One of the things that really registered with me was that parents aren't supposed to bury their kids. They dealt with the loss of the younger brother. The parents didn't have the skills to cope with that. I saw it firsthand with my mom. When my two older sisters passed, she was never the same after that. So, for his dad to get a second chance to come back and take care of his son the way that he didn't the first go around – I mean, he literally fed him clothed and bathed him. [Stu] only called him Bill until he came back to take care of him. Then he called him dad. Then of course, his dying wish was to have both his parents baptized. He got everything that he wanted.

Throughout your career, you've always put a lot of blue-collar characters. You played an oil rig worker, a lot of police, a lot of military characters. Is there something that's drawing you to that type of role? And how does that fit in with this movie?

I consider myself a bit of a blue-collar guy. If they let me play some sophisticated Englishman from the 12th century or whatever, I'd be more than happy to take a crack at it. I haven’t gotten too many of those opportunities. I want to play parts that I think people want to see me in. Roles that I would like to play. I’d like to continue to grow and change and evolve and challenge people. Challenge myself. This is not something that people would ultimately expect. But then when you look at it from a step back, and of course, it makes complete sense. Why wouldn't he do this particular thing?

Was there anything that didn't make it into the movie about Stu’s life that you wish you would have been able to get in there?

His journey in Hollywood was really fun and funny. So, there's lots of other stuff. There are moments where a lot of it was improvising, and it'll be on the DVD deleted scenes and stuff like that. But there are scenes where he's getting his makeup done for the first time. It really feels like he's made it and he's doing this thing in the mirror where he's talking to himself. He thinks he's kind of a cross between Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds. All these little fun moments that I enjoyed playing. I love the editors’ assembly, which is almost four hours. But we had to figure out how to tell the story in the most time-efficient way. There will be other things that will be on the DVD extras.

I have to ask you about your history in Philadelphia. You starred in Invincible. You shot some other movies here like The Happening and Shooter. And of course, you appeared with the Pope in 2015, right outside of where we are. What has Philadelphia meant to you over the years?

Let’s just put it this way. Philadelphia has welcomed me more than probably my own hometown (Boston). The love and the support that I've gotten from Philadelphia, I think the common thing about people being really hard-working people who are all about family. They are diehard loyal sports fans. People have always been nothing but kind to me and welcoming. Seeing how I honored Vince Papale, playing an Eagle, taking such pride in that. Really, I've been very fortunate to get to meet a lot of people. There are like a lot of people here that I consider family and friends.

Like you said earlier, it's been six years in the making. Now that it's finally coming out, how does it feel? And what do you hope that the audience will take from Father Stu?

It really feels fantastic. I take a huge sense of pride in making something that's been so moving for so many people. Everybody who's seen the movie – and I have to accredit COVID, and all the other things that are happening, being a theater for the first time in two years – but people from all walks of life talk about how much they related to and identify with Stu in a personal way. We've all been through stuff. It just touches everybody in their own personal way. That on top of Stu’s innate ability to challenge people to do more and to do better. There's lots of wonderful messages in there. I think people will ultimately feel inspired when leaving the theater.

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: April 12, 2022.

Photo #1 © 2022 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

Photos #2-8 © 2022. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.

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