There’s a lot of excitement about Mark Wahlberg’s new movie, Father Stu, which will be released in theaters tomorrow. The film is based on the true story of Fr. Stuart Long, and follows his journey from a bad-boy amateur boxer to actor to a much-loved priest.
The film is an emotional homage to a man who never did things in half-measures, and whose journey to redemption is not only inspiring, but reminds each of us to answer “yes” to God, even when we’re at our lowest points in life.
If ever there were a person to tell his story, it’s Mark Wahlberg — the devout Catholic actor whose own wayward past included fighting and getting arrested and then led eventually to becoming the best version of himself. He spoke with us about the movie he was so personally involved with — both financially and professionally– in order that Father Stu’s story could be seen by all.
Cerith Gardiner: Why do you think Fr. Stu’s story is so relevant today?
Mark Wahlberg: Because everybody is going though such a difficult and hard time and we’re all going through it together, and Stu’s mission was to bring everybody together and closer to Christ.
Has his story made you consider things differently in your own life, and if, so how?
Well, certainly, I prayed for his intercession, especially in making the movie and getting it right, and doing him justice and bringing people to their faith. But he’s also, you know, challenging me to do more of my own personal work to bring people closer to God, and bring people closer to each other. And just to promote love, inclusion, acceptance, and support and encourage people to have hope and to have faith.
So, he’s at work in many, many different ways. His message is continuing to echo and grow and reach more and more people, but he’s also challenging me every day to say ‘OK, what are you going to do after the movie is over? Now you’ve got to keep walking the walk.’ So, I’m excited about that because it’s so much more fulfilling. You know it can be challenging at times … it’s okay to take a day off, it’s okay to lay your head down and say, “I need a break” and then come back hopefully stronger. But just to do more, be more involved, be more proactive.
In the space of two hours, the viewer accompanies Stu on many highs and lows and there’s a lot of comic relief. At the end I was emotionally exhausted, yet there was a feeling of exaltation because it’s such an incredible story. How were you able to maintain that level of energy to keep on going? And of course, your mom passed away during the filming. How did you deal with that?
This is one of those things where this is what I’m supposed to be doing. This is the task that was handed down to me, and then you get to continue to do that. So, I was able to go home during a break from filming to say goodbye to my mom, and then I had to go home again for the funeral. But certainly, I was drawing on my real-life experience when playing a part that was difficult, but also at the same time the overall responsibility of making the movie and spearheading it was enough to keep me going.
After watching the movie, I came out of it with a huge sense of relief, in the sense that, OK we can all make mistakes, but there’s so much hope in doing good work. How do you take that into your daily life?
That’s the thing that gives me my barking orders every day … that I get down on my hands and my knees and start expressing my gratitude and I ask for the ability to go out and execute in the ways that God would want and to do the things that He’s expecting of me, utilizing the talents and the gifts that were given to me in the ways and areas that He wants. So after that and reading my daily devotional I usually kind of feel like, “Wow, I’m going to start off my day in a really good way.” And then if I go on and get some exercise I’ll feel even better. And that gives me the courage to go up to the kitchen, or in the bedroom, and wake up the kids and hopefully they’ll get out of bed on the right side of it.
They’re at a challenging age now aren’t they; they’re in their teens?
Very, very, that’s what I’m saying, that could also put a dampener on things pretty quickly, depending on the attitude …
Do you think it’s hard for them because, well, we’ve seen your daily routine — which seems totally crazy – do you think for them it’s like, “oh, we’ll never be able to live up to that?”
Well, you know, look, sometimes I’m on that particular routine and sometimes I’m not. I’m going to do whatever my day job requires of me, whether I’m actually in the middle of a movie doing principal photography, or in pre-production and prepping for a movie, but I definitely always want to be the best version of myself. So, whatever they decide to do, just give it 110%. That’s all I really expect, you know?
They may want to go down a completely different path and I’m a supporter of that as long as it’s positive and productive. And so, I don’t expect them to try to outdo everything that I do — even though I know my son and my daughters are competitive in certain ways.
You’re one of nine siblings and have four children. Do you have crazy family get-togethers, where all the cousins are there?
We usually do. My aunt and my uncle were normally the ones who would orchestrate that. But now their children, and my brothers and sister, try to keep on that tradition, but we’ve lost both my godfather, my aunt and my mom recently, and so many other people … It’s been tough, and with COVID and all that, it kept everybody apart. But to see people come together, even at my mom’s passing, the funeral and everything, it was amazing to see how many family members we have and how nice it is when we all come together.
As Fr. Stu’s physical health deteriorated (from inclusion body myositis IBM), he put on a lot of weight. You gained 30 pounds in a very short space of time, around 6 weeks. Did that change your attitude towards your own fitness?
I would rather stay fit to feel good, as opposed to looking good. And putting on that much weight in a short amount of time at my age was not good. I’m definitely still feeling the effects of it, not so much now but certainly for quite a bit of time after.
I’ve noticed that you and Mel Gibson (who plays the role of Fr. Stu’s dad) tend to have these strained father-son relationships in your movies together. Do you think you’ll ever manage to act together without throwing insults at each other?
Yeah, maybe, I don’t know (laughter). With this movie Mel was Bill’s (Bill is Fr. Stu’s dad) first, second, and third choice to play him. But yeah, we could play brothers, we could play colleagues; I mean there’s many other things we could do but you know it’s pretty darn funny seeing us in action.
If you weren’t a family man, could you ever envision being a priest yourself?
(Deep breath …) You know what, I don’t know, I never really thought about that. I think I’m finding my own way within the lifestyle that I live, and chose, to do God’s work.
You did pull off the cassock pretty well.
Well, thank you. I performed quite a few Masses over the years in preparation to play the part.
Well, didn’t that help?!
Absolutely! If you want to be believable in the role you’ve got to become the part. So doing your homework, taking that kind of athlete approach where you’re doing everything you can on the practice field, so on game day you just kind of go.
It was interesting to see that you went for Rosalind Ross (to write the screen play and direct the movie), who probably wasn’t overly familiar with the Catholic faith, because she wasn’t raised a Catholic. Do you think she brought some different energy to the story that made it more relatable to a broader audience?
Absolutely! She’s such an amazing writer … She has a toughness and grittiness about her, but she also was seeing it from a point of view of appreciating a flawed guy who was trying to find his purpose, and so I think it being told from a female’s point of view really kind of makes it, I don’t know, a little bit more relatable.
The greatest people that I’ve ever met and that have been involved with me, helped shaped me, have all been very strong women. The first person to ever give me a job as an actor was a woman, Penny Marshall. You know I wouldn’t be in this business, in this position, if it wasn’t for her. And the first woman who really came and touched me and pointed me in the direction of my faith was Emily Alves (the mother of Wahlberg’s friend and bodyguard, Johnny Drama, who helped him in his 20s when he came out of prison). My mom, the toughness and the grit that she showed in raising nine kids with all the struggles and challenges she faced … I’ve been very blessed to meet, and be touched, by a lot of great women.
Stu went to great lengths to woo his girlfriend, by getting baptized. Did you have to go to drastic lengths to woo your wife?
I will tell you this. I know that when I prayed for God to give me a good woman, He only brought her into my life when I was prepared to, or really in a position to deserve that, and to know how to cherish that. But yes, I did go out of my way … I met her in New York through some mutual friends while we were out and the next day, we were doing a press junket, similar to what we’re doing now, for a very different kind of film, and I wanted to see her again right away, so I asked her to accompany me the next day. I said I had an hour, and she goes “to do what?” and I said, “Well, why don’t we go to church?” So, I invited her to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
So, I made a good first impression. And took one step forward and a couple of steps back after that but that was kind of where our relationship started so that was a good way.
Why do you think you’re one of the rare Catholic actors that has found great success in Hollywood?
I don’t know. I attribute a lot of my personal and professional success to my faith. But I don’t know to necessarily call it within Hollywood, I don’t jam my faith down everybody’s throat, but I don’t hide it. I just kind of live and exist with lots of people from lots of different walks of life. And I think, you know, I’m judged on what I bring to the table with each individual role that I play, and every movie that I produce and make, and the success of what I’ve brought to each project that I do.
At the end of the interview, I mentioned to Mr. Wahlberg that interviewing him was the one thing I’ve done that has truly impressed my kids. After laughing out loud he reassured me “they’ll learn to appreciate all the little things you do later on.” It’s this very notion of gratitude that seems to dictate a lot of the actor’s life, leading him to champion a man who showed deep spiritual gratitude at a time he was physically diminishing and facing death.
Father Stu is rated R for its colorful language. But it should appeal to anyone who loves an inspiring story full of love, laughter, and forgiveness. It will be in theaters beginning April 13.