Mark Wahlberg’s early-morning routine would shame the Divine Office of a medieval Cistercian monk. He gets up at 2:30am and then spends 15-20 minutes in prayer. “I read my daily devotionals and I then I go downstairs to exercise and try not to wake my wife or the kids,” he says. “Then I feel pretty good about accomplishing whatever tasks I have to do that day – until I wake up my 16-year-old. That could up-end all my plans, right?”
This sort of self-deprecating humour is at the feisty heart of the highly enjoyable Father Stu, Wahlberg’s film about a former Montana boxer, Stuart Long, who becomes a priest after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. He finds his vocation after falling in love with a young Mexican Catholic woman, Carmen, whom he ditches for God. It’s a deeply personal film in which Wahlberg has teamed up again with fellow Catholic actor Mel Gibson, who plays Father Stu’s alcoholic truck-driver father Bill with brilliant and touching restraint.
The rule of Hollywood is that there are no rules, but one should be: Thou shalt not invest thine own money in thy movies. But Wahlberg, 50, felt so strongly about his almost divine vocation to make the film that he invested his own funds, much as Gibson did with The Passion of the Christ. There is a missionary zeal to our conversation about the story of an ordinary man whose fighting qualities, faith and troubled journey touch many people.
The film has a clear message. When the cards are stacked against you – Father Stu faces health challenges and humiliation all the way to ordination – the moral is that suffering (he has a rare degenerative muscle disease called IBM) can be a blessing. Wahlberg thinks the timing of the film is right, as people are “starving” faith-wise and need purpose to their lives. He jokes that he is “talking to anybody who will listen about the importance of seeing the film”.
Although he never met Father Stu, Wahlberg first heard about him through two priests at dinner who wouldn’t stop talking about him. Wahlberg’s own faith was mentored by Father Jim Flavin.
“Father Jim has been such a positive influence in my faith and my life, but this story of Stu Long came to me as I was realising that God has been very good to me,” he says. “He puts me in this position not to ever forget about where I came from but to do his work. How do I utilise the talents, voice and platform that God has given to me?”
Wahlberg said the idea for a biopic about Father Stu’s roller-coaster life didn’t “resonate” with him at first but then he had a John Henry Newman hallelujah! moment and realised that God was telling him something.
Likewise, Wahlberg realised that making this film “is my next mission”. It also happened to be “one of the most colourful and interesting and inspiring stories” he had ever heard. The film – produced by Wahlberg and directed by Rosalind Ross, Mel Gibson’s partner – is a personal road movie about a man finding his calling, which in Stu’s case was the priesthood. Preparing for the role included participating in “little experimental Masses at my house every Saturday”.
The film sets out to be “brutally honest about who Stu was and all the struggles that he faced”. While it was a challenge to tell Stu’s life story in two hours, he thinks the film captures “his essence”. It’s a raw portrait of a battle of faith and Wahlberg feels the film is relatable to people who aren’t followers or are “lapsed Catholics” – or anybody who is “struggling in life and lacking in faith and hope”.
When we spoke, Pope Francis had just announced his reformation of the Vatican so that lay people can become more involved in the Church. Having played a priest, could he see himself becoming more involved in the Church on a ministerial level?
Wahlberg seems animated by the question. Does that mean actually becoming a lay minister, he ponders, administering Holy Communion, or just doing more “personal work behind the scenes”, shifting the tone of his creative work to more “faith-based” films. (Wahlberg is best known for roles in gritty films The Fighter and The Gambler, and first worked with Gibson in Daddy’s Home 2 ). He says the film has opened his own eyes to his true vocation as an actor and filmmaker of purpose. “I really plan on trying to find more interesting stories to tell and create lots of more faith-based content that will bring people together and tell a great story that will inspire people and give people hope. I’m going to do more films with substance and meaning which are a lot more purposeful to me,” he says.
Could he see himself becoming a papal cultural ambassador, taking on a more official role in the Catholic Church? “I haven’t really thought about that,” he admits. “I would hope that the film helps bring people together. The movie really is about inclusion, despite what people think are the rules of the Church. We want to know that people are not forgotten, that the Church is not turning its back on people and accepting people for who they are. It’s not my job to judge. We want to encourage people to have hope and know that they are loved. Anything I can do to facilitate that…”
Wahlberg believes a film like Father Stu can engage people spiritually, or “reignite” their lapsed faith.
Does he regard himself as a serving soldier of Christ at the moment? “I would definitely say that I am committed to serving God in whatever way he best sees to utilise me.” He admits that pitching a religious “faith” movie to a major Hollywood studio is no easy task these days. It requires faith, and guts. He hopes the film “really opens people’s eyes” and “becomes a bit of a movement”.
He and Mel Gibson talk privately “a lot” about their faith. “When I talked to Mel about the idea for the film, he really liked it as a redemption story and also a story of father and son, and the father, Bill Long, getting the chance to go back and right some of the wrongs and take care of his son in a way where he didn’t when he was young. Bill had to feed Stu, change him, bathe him. Stu’s crowning achievement was to get his mom and his dad both sober and baptised together while he was on a gurney with assisted breathing and tears streaming down his face. Archbishop Thomas baptised them both.”
Wahlberg has never made any claim to be a saint himself. As a Boston teenager in the 1980s, he served time in jail for race-related hate crimes. He was charged for violent assault and was served with a civil rights injunction. Although now entirely reformed, did he find making the film personally redemptive?
“I definitely want to make sure that everybody feels that they are not beyond redemption and that we are not going to give up on them,” says Wahlberg.
Do you feel you have a vocation to use your talents to reach a mass audience with a certain Christian message? “I want to make movies that challenge people to think about doing more and doing things better,” he replies.
Clearly, he was drawn to the figure of Father Stu partly because of his imperfections. There’s no shortage of unholy language in the film which includes a scene preaching in jail. “Everything about Stu was unconventional. He could easily have been an inmate. God selects the most unlikely of people and, you know, he wasn’t picked by the Church or his parents, God came and chose him.”
We go back to his ascetic morning prayer and exercise regime. Does he really need to start so early? “It’s what has worked for me. When I started to focus on my faith and be disciplined, good things start to happen,” he says. “That was something that I adopted very quickly and I don’t waver from that.”
Father Stu is in cinemas from 13 May
Credit: Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) in Columbia Pictures’ FATHER STU. (Courtesy of Sony)
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