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Mark Wahlberg On ‘Tough Grace,’ Mel Gibson, And The Holy Week Premiere Of ‘Father Stu’

man with ashes on forehead
Image CreditSony

In scenes reminiscent of arthouse cinema, Wahlberg cries out to God about his life’s many limitations and losses.

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Reached in a phone interview, Mark Wahlberg, known for action blockbusters like “Uncharted” and “Planet of the Apes,” said a significant gap separates his new biopic “Father Stu,” in theaters nationwide on April 13, from other entries in the inspirational genre.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen a lot of faith-based movies, but I have,” said Wahlberg, producer and star of this Sony-distributed faith-conscious drama. “They all seem to be preaching to the choir and not really converting too many people.” 

With a trailer that employs Johnny Cash’s iconic “The Man Comes Around,” it sets the tone for a rough-and-tumble narrative centered on Stuart Long (Wahlberg), a statewide heavyweight champion (Montana, 1985) who’s hit over and again with devastating blows in life. 

An injury and reconstructive jaw surgery sidelines the amateur boxer, who decides to move to California to be an actor — despite an admonition from Stu’s mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver): “You don’t belong with those L.A. folks. They’re a bunch of fascist hippies!” 

It’s perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to Wahlberg’s own six-year journey of bringing this unlikely story to the big screen. “Studios today are looking to make tentpole, franchise movies,” Wahlberg told me. “Only at the end of the year do they roll out thoughtful films for adults to watch, angling for awards. To see Sony step up and support this movie and distribute it in a major way, that says a lot.” 

Like the man himself, “Father Stu” doesn’t fit easily in any boxes. Long ended up with few acting credits in SoCal and worked in a dead-end supermarket job. He strikes up a relationship with an attractive Latina woman, Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), whom he learns is also a Sunday school teacher. To pursue her, he starts to attend Catholic mass and even gets baptized. 

Multiple crises strike Long, a theme many will relate to following recent difficult years. Despite skepticism from his mother and father Bill (Mel Gibson), former prizefighter Long decides to enter seminary, his messy romance with Carmen a casualty of that move.

“He challenged a lot of people,” said Wahlberg about Stu Long. “More importantly, he had a lot of real-life experience that helped him communicate to people in a way that really rang true and resonated with them.”

When A Priest Pitches His Producer Parishioner

In 2016, following his acclaimed role in war biopic “Lone Survivor” and taking over as lead in the big-budget “Transformers” franchise, Wahlberg shared dinner with Father Ed Flavin — who presided over Wahlberg’s wedding ceremony — and another priest at a Beverly Hills restaurant.

“I was looking for wisdom to stay on a path in the direction of spiritual growth,” he said. “But one of them starts to tell me about Stuart Long and actually pitching it to me as a movie idea. I’m thinking, You do your job and I’ll do mine. But something caught my attention about it, and a light went on.”

The world’s highest-paid actor in 2017, Wahlberg took on the project despite no script and few source documents for a figure known in many Catholic circles but without a written biography. 

He considers the opportunity providential, despite the challenges. “God puts things in your life for a reason, when you’re ready to handle those things,” he told me. “And I don’t think this is any different.”

On the set of “Daddy’s Home 2” that year with Gibson, he chatted with the actor-director about the remarkable story of a boxer-turned-priest. When it comes to brutal, unconventional faith films, award winner Gibson has helmed the most successful of all time: “The Passion of the Christ.” 

Dogged by controversy since 2006 — when Gibson made offensive anti-Semitic comments during a DUI arrest, for which he has made several apologies — Wahlberg treads lightly in addressing his friend’s involvement and advice that helped get “Father Stu” off the ground. 

“He has been through lots of struggles and challenges but wants to continue to do good,” Wahlberg told me. “We consulted Stu’s dad Bill about who to cast, and Mel was his first, second, and third choice. He frankly brought a lot to the part.”

An emerging talent in the biopic genre, and Gibson’s romantic partner since 2014, Rosalind Ross took on the script. Wahlberg and his team were so impressed, she ultimately landed the job as director. “Stu’s story is about overcoming the darkest parts of a person’s self to find the light of personal salvation,” said Ross in a statement. 

The Brawler Who Can Break Skeptics

Known for pouring his influence and millions of dollars into nonprofit youth initiatives, along with cause-oriented films like “Instant Family,” Wahlberg has brand ID with faith-and-family audiences. Still, it’s a gamble that an R-rated faith biopic will find a wide audience even during Holy Week. 

With that rating based entirely on coarse language, mostly in early scenes, Wahlberg responds: “Stu was a tough guy who spoke the language of the people. This story is about mercy and tough grace, and we wanted to make a movie that was brutally honest.”

The film takes wild swings in tone. Viewers meet Long when he’s a foul-mouthed brawler, and his interest in Carmen isn’t mostly platonic. Once he enters seminary, “Father Stu” becomes more comedic, as Long throws a swing at someone who brings booze near their hallowed walls. During a prison ministry scene, his fellow seminarian struggles to relate but Long has a casual rapport with inmates. 

And, in scenes reminiscent of arthouse cinema-like “First Reformed,” Wahlberg cries out to God about his life’s many limitations and losses. The actor-producer recalls speaking with Archbishop George Thomas, who ordained Long. “He said that Stu did more in his four short years of priesthood than the bishop did in his 40 years of service. That’s pretty remarkable.” 

Used to Hollywood cynicism about faith, Wahlberg says he’s gotten plenty of “Yeah, whatever” responses upon telling a test audience for “Father Stu” that they’re going to be moved. “Afterward, those same skeptics come out and share some intimate story from their past, and connect it to how this movie touched them,” Wahlberg told me. 

He says he has other authentic, faith-conscious stories in mind to tell. “Somebody’s got to be first. And if this movie works, I guarantee you’ll see lots more — including a few with me at the forefront.”

Rated R for coarse language throughout, “Father Stu” opens in theaters nationwide on April 13.