Mark of distinction

He says so himself: Mark Wahlberg is all grown up. The former rapper tells M about his transformation from brawling bad boy to respected actor, producer and family man and how his labour of love, The Fighter, may prove to be the biggest film of his career.

The family man Mark Wahlberg has four children with his wife, the model Rhea Durham.
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He says so himself: Mark Wahlberg is all grown up. The former rapper tells Kevin Maher about his transformation from brawling bad boy to respected actor, producer and family man and how his labour of love, The Fighter, may prove to be the biggest film of his career.

Mark Wahlberg is a changed man. The 39-year-old Boston-born actor, former rapper and brawler and sometime model has never had it so good. After a series of critical failures (The Happening, Max Payne and The Lovely Bones) and a sense that he didn't matter anymore, Wahlberg has suddenly found his mojo again, starring in the US$100 million (Dh367million) comedy hit The Other Guys and, more importantly, producing, developing and acting in what might be the greatest movie of his career, The Fighter. On top of that he is fast becoming a heavyweight television producer, with both hit shows Entourage and In Treatment under his belt. He seems different in person, too, more focused, engaged and mature.

"What can I say? I've grown up," he admits, stretching back on the couch of a swanky London hotel, baggy blue T-shirt gliding over a body that still bears the sculpted muscular hallmarks from his role as The Fighter's welterweight boxing champ protagonist.

"Being responsible is important to me now. Taking care of my wife and four kids is what's cool now, as opposed to the dumb stuff that used to matter before. I am just glad I was able to realise in time, and change my outlook."

The last time we met, Wahlberg was in a different place altogether. He had just lost, some say unfairly, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Departed to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. He was also promoting the action dirge Shooter, the first of his many mid- to late-2000s stinkers. He also disparaged his own career and the behaviour of other actors, especially those who worked on his breakthrough Hollywood drama, Boogie Nights.

"That movie was a situation where you've got a load of people just jousting for camera time - actors who felt that they weren't getting the breaks that they deserved and were going to use this opportunity to really show their stuff," he says.

Similarly, he had dark thoughts about his past, about his multiple arrests as a teenage delinquent in blue-collar Boston, and about his 45-day prison stretch, aged 16, for assault. He says his adult life was "an everyday struggle to wake up on the right side of the bed and have a positive attitude and do the right thing, and not slip back into the negative way of looking at things."

Now the new and improved Wahlberg is beating the drum for passion projects. The Other Guys - a police comedy in which he parodies his Departed tough cop persona, and delivers his lines with his standard breathless earnestness - has been a chance for the world to see his less protected, less image-conscious side.

"I couldn't have done this movie five years ago," he says. "I was too self-conscious back then to let it all hang out and risk looking ridiculous. I come from a place where perception is pretty important, and being cool is right up there with being tough. I didn't really want to play with that too much."

The Fighter, meanwhile, has been nearly five years in the making. It is a labour of love that tells the real-life story of the brief flowering of the 1980s Boston boxing champ "Irish" Mickey Ward and his antagonistic relationship with his wild brother and trainer, Dickie (Christian Bale). The film is an exemplary boxing movie, full of the life-and-death agony and ecstasy that has made it such a beloved genre for Oscar voters and audiences alike. But it's also, away from the Sturm und Drang of the boxing ring, a quieter film about intense family bonds that bind irrevocably through life.

"It's a movie that I've been talking about for a long time," Wahlberg says. "I've been training with real boxers for four and a half years, to make sure I can look like a real boxer who can win the world welterweight title. I've been hell bent on getting this movie made, and now not only have I ended up getting it made, but it's probably the best movie I've ever been in."

The real kick about Wahlberg in The Fighter, though, is that although he produced the movie and thus holds a lot of sway over how it unfolds, his role is never flashy or look-at-me loud. Instead while Bale, missing at least 13kg as the crack-smoking Dickie, grabs all the shock close-ups, Wahlberg stays solidly in frame, never screeching and shouting, but nonetheless giving a masterclass in restrained screen acting. It's something he does in his best roles. Think of the reformed convict Leo Handler in The Yards, the adult industry legend Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights or the straight-arrow cop Joseph Gruzinsky in We Own the Night - all lead protagonists that are somehow played as contained character parts.

When I ask him about his approach to starring roles versus his approach to smaller supporting parts (The Departed) Wahlberg jokes, "It really doesn't matter what size the role is, it's the size of the pay cheque that counts! " He jokes again, then ruminates seriously on the financial aspect of the business: "If I wasn't making people money, then they wouldn't be giving me the parts." He then returns to the question and sums up his screen method: "I guess I'm always just trying to service the story, and not myself."

Wahlberg's less-than-pushy approach to performing has its roots in his beginnings in the business. The youngest of nine children born to Alma and Donald Wahlberg in the tough Dorchester district of Boston, Mark Robert Michael (his birth name) bounced from criminal pillar to drug-related post until his older brother Donnie, then an emerging New Kid On The Block, offered to help him get into the music business.

Immediately rebranded as a streetwise rapper called Marky Mark, he became known for his muscular physique, his hard-drinking and brawling ways (once, allegedly, becoming involved in a melee with Madonna's sizeable retinue) and an attendant career as a Calvin Klein underwear model. And for a while, even as giant billboards depicted him getting his briefs ripped off by persistent Yorkshire terriers, he happily coasted.

"I didn't care about what I was doing, as long as it was going to get me girls," he says. "I'd just come out of prison after being locked up with a bunch of guys. So it was a case of the more the merrier as far as I was concerned."

Luckily though for Wahlberg, the director Penny Marshall (Big) had spotted him in a Klein commercial, and wanted to cast him opposite Danny DeVito as a naive soldier in her movie Renaissance Man. "I met Penny and Danny, and the next thing I know I'm comfortable with them, and we're talking," he says. "And then I'm doing an audition, then a screen test. And from that very first film, where I spent the whole time on set, whether I was shooting or not, I really couldn't see myself doing anything else."

His rise was swift. From Renaissance Man to Boogie Nights to the starring role in The Planet of the Apes and beyond. He moved to Hollywood, dated the model Rhea Durham (the couple married last summer), fathered four children and became known not for his partying ways, but for his devout religiosity - a practising Catholic, he goes to confession three times a year, and to Mass whenever he can.

"God has put me in this position for a reason, and I want to spread the word and express how grateful I am about how blessed I am, but to do so without sounding preachy," he says. "It's a tough world out there if you don't have something to believe in, and an openly religious belief can be a beautiful thing."

From anyone else this might sound like self-serving Hollywood PR speak. But the new and improved Mark Wahlberg doesn't do cynicism. He jokes, yes, about being regularly mistaken for Matt Damon and about going bald ("I'm not going to do the wig thing when it happens").

But equally, and most notably, he is no longer concerned with protecting himself and his precious career - which, he now recognises, is a finite experience despite its rosy glow.

"I don't expect it to last forever, and I'm not going to fight the inevitable," he says with a shrug. "In fact, I've gotten a lot more out of this business than I expected. So now I'm quite looking forward to getting old, fat and forgotten about."

The Fighter just received six Golden Globe nominations, including for Best Drama and for Wahlberg as Best Actor (Drama). It is due to be released in the UAE on Thursday.

Five great boxing movies

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962) Originally a 1956 teleplay written by Rod Serling, the movie starred Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney in the tale of a washed-up boxer forced to humiliate himself as a professional wrestler.

ROCKY (1976) Forget its interminable sequels, Sylvester Stallone's rags-to-riches success story of the downtrodden Philadelphia pug Rocky Balboa broke no moulds but captivated and charmed for its earnestness.

RAGING BULL (1980) Directed by Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, pictured below, won a Best Actor Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of the real-life boxer Jake LaMotta in all his brutal glory. On many critics' list of the best movies of all time.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)The quiet but absorbing drama of a trainer and a female boxer won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Clint Eastwood, who also starred), Best Actress (Hilary Swank) and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).

CINDERELLA MAN (2005)Russell Crowe, no stranger to fisticuffs, plays the real-life James J Braddock, the Irish-American fighter from New Jersey who carried the hopes and aspirations of the US public during the Great Depression.

The Wahlberg file

BORN: June 5, 1971, Boston

SCHOOLING: Copely Square High School (never graduated) in Boston

FAMILY: Eight older brothers and sisters, plus a wife and four children

ODDEST POSSESSION: "I've kept the fake body part I used in Boogie Nights. I have it in a safe in my office."

LUCKIEST ESCAPE: "I was on the 9/11 flight United 93, from Boston to LA, but cancelled it to go to Toronto instead."

MAJOR REGRET: Tattoos. "You can get a tattoo in the time it takes to have two beers. But getting them removed takes at least 20 procedures. And a lot of pain."

OTHER REGRETS: "There's stuff I've done in the past that I've asked forgiveness for, many times. But I can't hold onto that forever. I've got to look to the future."

CAN'T STAND: Press overexposure. "No one wants to hear about how much fun George Clooney is having on Lake Como while they are dealing with reality."