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Having found faith and turned his life around, the Hollywood star tells Gemma Dunn how he hopes to inspire others with his passion project, Father Stu
Mark Wahlberg is used to being pitched all manner of film ideas, but even he was caught off guard by the proposal for Father Stu.
It was some six years ago when the topic of the biographical drama film, which marks one man's improbable journey from boxer to priest, first came up.
"I was sitting at a restaurant in Beverley Hills with two priests (from my parish)", begins the 50-year-old A-lister, who practices Catholicism.
"It was a Saturday, they had just done lots of confessions and one priest just wanted to eat, have a glass of wine and go back to the rectory and go to bed," he recalls. "And the other priest was adamant about pitching me on a movie he wanted to make with me.
"I'm thinking, you do your job and I'll do mine. I wasn't there to find the next script. I was looking for the things I needed to stay on a path in the direction of spiritual growth."
But something about the story stuck with him.
Based on real life events, the passionate pitch detailed the life of Stuart Long, a Montana-born-and-raised former boxer (think: abrasive, hot-tempered and rough around the edges) who moved to LA following an abrupt end to his amateur boxing career.
Dreaming of stardom, yet working in a supermarket, it's there he met Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a Catholic Sunday school teacher who was all but immune to his charms.
Determined to win her over, he starts attending church, but life is soon flipped on its head when surviving a terrible motorcycle accident leaves him wondering if he can use his second chance to help others by becoming a Catholic priest.
"The more I heard about Stu, the more convinced I was that I had to get this movie made," quips Wahlberg, who would play the title role and produce.
"I've always felt like, OK, what am I supposed to be doing? Because I am a man of faith and I feel like I've been very blessed and very fortunate, but what do I do with that? How do I utilise that for the greater good of God?
"And then it just dawned on me, this is a movie that will change people's lives and bring people closer together and reaffirm their faith," muses the Ted star.
"I asked Ed to tell me the story again from the beginning, and from that point on it was my mission to produce the film."
Joining him on his quest was Academy Award Winner Mel Gibson and Academy Award Nominee Jacki Weaver, who would in turn play Long's sceptical, estranged parents.
Friend and fellow Catholic filmmaker Gibson, 66, not only proved a source of strength for Wahlberg ("I wanted to talk to him about getting his film The Passion of the Christ made, which had really inspired me"), it also led him to land the feature's screenwriter - and eventual director - in Rosalind Ross, Gibson's longtime partner.
"The film looks like she's done it a hundred times, and it's the first time!" Gibson says proudly. "And she had 30 days to do it, which is not much, and she did it competently and intelligently. She's a very talented young woman."
What was it about this particular story that resonated?
"It was a real story about real people," answers the New York native. "They swear, they drink, he chases girls... He was just a regular guy, and it was just interesting to see how people like us relate to tragedy or infirmity and how they overcome that.
"His personal choice was to divorce himself from his own ego and realise there was something greater than him and gain humility. So it's a pretty good message!"
Wahlberg was equally moved, having felt the redemptive narrative (the Boston-born father-of-four went from jailtime to esteemed actor in less than a decade) paralleled his own life in many ways.
"I've always looked for roles that have a personal connection for me," he details.
"I transitioned from running the streets as a teenager and young adult to finding my faith. I now realise that my purpose is to help others growing up in situations like mine."
The one-time rapper-turned Oscar-winning producer is now the founder of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, a charitable organisation dedicated to improving the quality of life for inner-city youth.
It's never too late for redemption, he says, having quoted his Catholic faith as "the most important part" of his life.
"It's a huge disservice for us to turn our backs on people or to put ourselves on a soapbox and judge somebody else, that's not our place.
"Nobody is beyond redemption, so we're not going to give up on people, we're going to support them and encourage them to do the right thing.
"Even with this movie, you see Father Stu was on a path of destruction until he found his calling, and then he turned his life around in a way that he affected so many people in such a short amount of time," he reasons.
"I know Stu is challenging me now every day, to continue to echo his message: how am I going to step up and do more to help people? If people know that they are loved and that they're supported, it's a very powerful thing."
And seeing it played out on the big screen can only be a good thing, he shares.
As for the passion in bringing this vision to life, from cast and crew alike, "you don't get that in all these other actor-for-hire movies," he pleas. "This is something that's really special and doesn't come around that often."
Can he see himself doing more of the same genre in future?
"I am interested in doing a lot more in the faith-based space and just making more meaningful content that has substance and that I think could be helpful.
"But I'll still make movies that are comedies and senseless movies that will make people laugh and escape for two hours," he finishes with a smile.
"I want to do it all, but I always feel drawn to especially true stories and movies that have meaning. This by far is the most personal and, I think, the most important, so here we are."
Father Stu is in cinemas from Friday, May 13.