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On the PR trail with 'Broken City' star Mark Wahlberg

Say hello to ya mutha for me, OK?

Mark Wahlberg gets that a lot.

Five years after Andy Samberg's "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals" skit on "Saturday Night Live" (if you've never seen it, the title says it all), five years after Wahlberg went on Jimmy Kimmel's show and said the next time he runs into the comedian he's going to "crack that big (expletive) nose of his," five years after Wahlberg and Samberg presumably made up when Wahlberg appeared on "SNL" and talked to an animal ("Say hi to ya mutha for me, OK?") — let's put it this way: Google "Mark Wahlberg," and the third auto-fill suggestion, after "Mark Wahlberg" and "Mark Wahlberg movies," will be "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals."

Probably because, despite the left-fieldness of the premise, as with any smart satire, there is truth there.

It's still easy to imagine Mark Wahlberg — so seemingly earnest and unable to suffer fools, but with a quiet-tempered loopiness in his performances that rarely shows itself in his real-life persona — wishing well to a donkey's mother. And so, five years on, we find this: Following along behind Wahlberg recently as he walked through the ShowPlace ICON Theatre on Roosevelt Road, shouted between calls of "Mark, I love you!" and "Mark, can I get a hug, Mark?" were a few shouts of "Mark, say hello to your mother for me, Mark!"

It's hard to say if he heard.

He was in town for a couple of days promoting "Broken City," the new big-city-corruption noir he made with Russell Crowe, and his face retained that gloomy, affectless Wahlberg expression — no one pulls off a blank expression quite the way Mark Wahlberg pulls off a blank expression. At least in public.

The next morning, as he welcomed a reporter at his River North hotel, his face was bright and welcoming — so uncharacteristically chipper that we dared not ask if he talked to animals, risk a punch in the nose and spoil the mood. We did not do our job. We jotted down that black Escalades seem to be parked outside every building he is in. We noted that Wahlberg had fabulous, buoyant TV-news-anchor hair. We noted that his watch appeared expensive and very gold and was likely worth more than our savings account. We noted that the guy is short (5-foot-7), that he plays a tough cop in "Broken City" and that nothing about it surprises.

But the man himself?

Wahlberg sat at the edge of a couch, stood as we approached, smiled wide, shook hands and turned back to his phone call, holding up a finger as he finished. He tugged the microphone on the ear buds closer. He was talking to an assistant to Ari Emanuel, his agent. "I'm doing an interview," he said into the phone. His voice rose. "I'll call after I'm done! Tell him to stop ducking me! Tell him to close on 'Avon Man'! Tell him to send Rahm over for lunch! I'm in Chicago!" He hung up and said, "What's it like the Capone days with this guy?" Meaning, we think: How many hoops you gotta jump through to get a lunch with your agent's brother?

We asked what "Avon Man" was.

"'Avon Man,'" Wahlberg said, turning overly serious, "'Avon Man' is about a mechanic who loses his job. He is forced to sell Avon products for a living. In the process he becomes objectified by all these older women."

You're your own genre, we said.

Yeah, he said, he is.

If Wahlberg is his own genre, let's call it an Eastern: A series of situations in which a squat, scrappy, unassuming city boy soldiers against impossible odds through improbable scenarios only to emerge (here's the twist) unchanged. He overcomes the temptations of a slovenly teddy bear ("Ted"). Overcomes the unlikelihood of a boxing career ("The Fighter"). Overcomes the unlikelihood of an NFL career ("Invincible"). Overcomes the unlikelihood of a heavy metal career ("Rock Star"). Overcomes the long odds of smuggling a bundle of counterfeit currency out of Panama ("Contraband"). Overcomes multiple layers of institutional corruption to emerge the last man standing ("The Departed"). Overcomes being implicated in a governmental conspiracy ("Shooter"). Possibly overcomes being duped by a corrupt mayor ("Broken City").

We didn't say any of this to him, though. Instead we asked if he's a friend of Rahm Emanuel's. He said he only met him a few times. "But I've been working with his brother Ari for I don't know how many years, and Rahm is a good name to drop."

We said that in a way he reminds us of Rahm: watchful, seemingly passive, tightly wound.

He replied: "I don't mind being quiet; that way people see me. Especially in a movie like 'The Fighter,' where everything depends on a quiet guy and a flashy larger-than-life guy. At one point people were telling me, early on, 'Why play that part?' First and foremost, I want that championship belt around my waist. I trained like four and a half years to look like a fighter. Also, I think being quiet is a good challenge for an ..."

Allen Hughes, the director of "Broken City," walked in. Wahlberg brightened, then turned back to us:

"We're having a production meeting on ('Broken City'), and I meet this guy and he's 'Dude, you're fat.'"

"I never said that," Hughes said.

"You did, and so I had to get skinny for you, Allen. I literally went from 185 to 165 by the time I finished this movie, then the next movie I'm in, 'Pain & Gain,' started and I had to get up to 212, I had to get as big as possible. Then I had a month to lose it and get back to 180 to do this other movie with Denzel, '2 Guns.'"

Hughes sat and said, "Look, what I said was you looked ..."

"OK, Allen! And then three weeks later, Allen, I was in Navy SEAL training for a different movie, Allen, with real Navy SEALs who — these guys don't give a (expletive) about Hollywood or nothing. You go in, say your back hurts, these guys don't care. That was the most physically demanding of (all the upcoming movies). I was down to 170. But to go back to my silent thing: The character actors I grew up liking, there was always something going on up there" — he waved his hands around his head — "you were always watching wheels turn in their heads, and I think actors, they like to hide behind big flashy personas and I just don't." He said that he approaches every new role the same way: "This is real, even when it's a talking teddy bear."

Do you make lists, we asked Wahlberg, randomly. You an organized guy?

He stopped, intrigued. "I am," he said, hesitating. "I do make lists. Makes my wife crazy."

"You ever heard of a guy who reads the entire script of a movie twice a day, every day?" Hughes asked.

"He's right, I do," Wahlberg said. "I like a routine. I have four kids. I'm up at 4:30 a.m. I have the workout, have the meal, take (the kids) to school. I'm in my office, reading my script out loud. At least twice a day. I want to be prepared. I want to know the whole entire script beginning to end before I get on the set. I don't ever want to be the guy who shows up not prepared. Two weeks before one movie is over I start thumbing through the next script. I'm being paid. It's my job. I have to be professional. But you know who outdid me?"

"Who?" Hughes asked.

"Denzel. We had this scene where I'm watching him in an apartment and I have to talk him through this thing and get him out of there. So I'm doing my lines, then they do my coverage of me watching Denzel. So I said, 'Denzel, you don't have to do this, Denzel. We're going to be here all day.' And he said, 'It's my job.'"

"Really?"

"No (expletive.). Denzel just stood there all day off camera."

Wahlberg is 41. Hughes is 40. Both found breakout success in the early 1990s: Wahlberg as Marky Mark, leader of the Funky Bunch, an edgeless hip-hop act that scored a No. 1 single in 1991 with "Good Vibrations"; Hughes as co-director (with his brother Albert) of the indie gangster drama "Menace II Society." They lived youths of excess: Wahlberg's is very loosely accounted in his old HBO series "Entourage," on which he was executive producer; Hughes' was spent "smoking weed and buying boats," he said.

But Hughes' career sputtered even as Wahlberg's acting steadily took on a recognizable shape.

"There was something interesting in Mark as he did the transition from music to movies," Hughes said. "You could tell as an actor this guy had experienced things, which is rare in a movie star. You could see it in his eyes. It gave him this underdog feel, this Steve McQueen thing, even though he's pretty scrappy in real life."

Wahlberg stared off into the distance as Hughes talked, then we asked: Your dad a short guy?

Wahlberg laughed: "Yeah. Short, stocky, the kind of guy who could handle himself in a fistfight. I grew up watching movies in Boston theaters with my dad. First movie, 'Hard Times' with Charles Bronson."

"My dad took me to movies," Hughes said. "He took us to the famous Fox Theatre (in Detroit) to see this Bruce Lee movie, and he was notorious for being like borderline narcoleptic, so he passes out like right away, and it turns out the movie was actually 'All That Jazz' from Bob Fosse." Wahlberg throws his hands in the air and wiggles his fingers in a show of spontaneous jazz hands. Hughes continues: "And people are trying to nudge him awake because there's these kids in the theater next to this man watching all these (naked body parts)."

They laughed.

"You know," Wahlberg said, "I remember seeing 'Menace II Society' with a rowdy Times Square audience."

"40s rolling down aisles ..."

"Didn't have an experience like that again until 'Borat,' which I saw with college kids, and they're screaming during the 'Apocalypto' trailer. Like (expletive) crazy (expletive), though 'Ted' in Amsterdam was epic too."

"Hey!" Hughes said.

"What?" Wahlberg asked.

"I should have been there!"

"Yeah, well," Wahlberg said, leaning back, "it was epic." His phone rang. He leaned forward and pressed "answer." "Hey," he said, "Hey. Yeah. No. I'm at work. No. I don't know. I'm doing an interview right now. I'll call you in a hour? OK? OK. Bye." He clicked off the phone and sat back. "My wife says hello," he said.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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