Interview: Actor/Producer Mark Wahlberg on Discovering the Story of Father Stu and Finding the Time and Team to Make the Movie

Since we’ll be focusing on ra film about a spiritual man, I’ll open this interview with a confession: I did this interview so long ago that I basically forgot to transcribe, edit, and get it ready for publication. So here we are, a couple of weeks late. But it’s still good material for such a relatively short conversation between me and Mark Wahlberg, the star and producer of Father Stu. The film is the real-life story of Stuart Long, a boxer-turned-actor-turned-priest who inspired countless people during his journey from self-destruction to redemption, with a whole lot of obstacles, including a crippling illness, in his way. And as much as the movie feels like Wahlberg perhaps trying to make up for some bad behaviors early in his own life, his very clear passion for this story and person is so evident that Father Stu rises above your usual faith-based material. It doesn’t quite get to the level of Inspirational, but it’s still a fascinating journey that includes as much humor as pathos, and more four-letter words than either I or the faith-based journalists I saw this movie with were expecting.

The film marks the writing and directing debut of Rosalind Ross, who just happens to be the significant other of Wahlberg’s co-star Mel Gibson, playing Stu’s father, Bill Long. If my math is right, this is the third time I’ve sat down with Wahlberg over the years, and as focused and intense as he can be at times, he’s also an honest and straight-forward interview, and I think that comes through here. I realize many of you would never see Father Stu, but I’m here to tell you it isn’t nearly the message movie you think it might be, and Wahlberg’s performance ranks as one of of his better ones in recent memory. Enjoy our talk…

I’ve heard the story of how this film came to you. Was one of the things that hooked you about Stu’s journey that there were parallels to your own story, of both a misguided youth and the journey you made toward a more faith-based life?

I would say, I didn’t make the movie because I wanted people to see me in the role. But I would challenge you or anybody else to find somebody better suited to play this role. So yes, there are similarities; I always look for things I can relate to and identify with on a personal level to play a part because I want to be at my most authentic and real for an audience. I want people to think “That’s the real guy.” But I don’t want them to see me; I want them to see Stu. But I was hard pressed to find a reason not to make the movie, for many reasons.

That being said, for a guy who stays in shape to play a character whose body is breaking down fairly rapidly, were those parts of Stu’s story that were nothing like your own, did they make you nervous to take on the role?

No. I watched something like this happen to my dad, and my dad was my hero; I watched it happen to my mom. The thing that I loved about Stu…his physicality and physical attributes were his defense mechanism—they were everything for him. But when those started to deteriorate, his spirituality just soared. If you’re lucky to live long enough, those things are going to happen to you too. How he handled it and embraced it, how he did everything with dignity and grace, it was very inspiring to me. I didn’t get to know Stu, but I met lots of people who knew him and saw photographs and interviews with him, I talked at length with his dad and other family members and friends, and I utilized a lot of what I saw happen to my dad, which is hard to watch and see. So to be able to tap into that, I embraced it for sure.

Stu is a guy who just couldn’t catch a break, and the bible is full of stories of people like that, of people being tested in their lives and their faith. But you don’t often see modern stories like that in film. Was that something that intrigued you about his story?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of those things that felt too out there to be true. But it really happened, and I thought it would ultimately touch people. I didn’t think about the timing; there was no forecasting that there would be a pandemic and everybody would be riddled with fear of the unknown. It just happened that way—you can call it timing or divine intervention. It’s a movie that seems to be touching everybody and people can relate to and identify with for their own personal reasons.

This felt like a nice companion piece to Joe Bell—both stories of men who had to overcome a lifetime of thinking a certain way in order to see the light, different lights. Do you see that connective tissue between these two stories?

I do now that you mention it. Joe Bell came to me, and it was already a wonderful story, and they were like “Would you be interested in making this?” and it just really touched me because it’s such an important story to tell. And Stu was something I was developing long before Joe Bell was brought to my attention. But I never really saw the connection between the two, but I do see Joe’s mission and journey being similar, in creating opportunities for people to open their eyes to what bullying and intolerance can do to people, and the tragedy of this beautiful little boy who had so much love to offer, but came to the conclusion that death by suicide was more tolerable than the suffering he was enduring from the people around him and the lack of acceptance in his own home. So there are lots of parallels and connections there with Stu, which I was on my own mission to get made.

I’d like to know about the importance to you of having Mel Gibson in this film. He’s directed the most successful R-rated film of all time, and it happens to be a story about Jesus. Did you talk to him about the tone of Father Stu and how best to handle R-rated material?

We didn’t talk about that really. I was down the road with David O. Russell, talking about getting this movie made. We had one person write the script that was not close to what I wanted to make. So I didn’t think he had the same sense of urgency to get the movie made as I had, so I decided to go off and get it figured out, maybe he’ll come back, maybe he won’t. I did pick Mel’s brain about how difficult it was to get Passion of the Christ made and why he decided to do it on his own. 

And then, because we’d done Daddy’s Home 2 together, we were talking about making another film together that he was going to direct, which was written by Rosalind Ross. So she came to me and said “I’d love to take a crack at writing this script,” and I was going off to make another movie, and this was going to be limbo for the next three or four months while I was off doing something else, and I said, “Okay.” I sat down and told her the story, and she went off and wrote the movie that I wanted to make. So I had to decide if I was going to carve out 18 months of my life to take my swing as a director and pull all other projects that I had on hold, or wait? So I said to her, “Maybe you have aspirations to direct,” which she did. I believed that if she could put it on the page, she could put it on the screen, and we made sure she was surrounded by lots of great talent.

And then Bill, Stu’s dad, said to me he’d get a kick out of Mel Gibson playing him, and I was like “So would I. We’ve done it already, but let me take a swing.” And he really loved the story and loved the part, and he was obviously helpful in his own way, but Rosie really knew what she wanted to do and how to do it. She and I had conversations about tone and pushing the envelope too much or when to push more, and where we needed in infuse humor, and the shift in the movie after Stu’s accident and how it was still important to have humor in there to let the audience off the hook and not stepping on everyone’s neck emotionally. It was all getting that balance.

Do you have other stories in this vein that you’re contemplating as well? Might this be a genre you return to?

I don’t have anything in this particular vein right now. She and I do have another story that’s also a true story about a very colorful individual, who speaks many languages, but I believe a good portion of the movie will be spoken in another language. That should be a wonderful challenge [laughs]. We’re working on that now, but hopefully because of Stu, other things might come my way that are in this vein, and I’d be really happy to tell really interesting and powerful stories that have an impact.

You mentioned the humor earlier, and it is a very funny movie at times. Was that key to capturing Stu? Did a lot of people you spoke with tell you that was a driving force in him?

Oh yeah, for sure. Some of the stories that really got me are either in the movie or inspired me to make it. One in particular: he was always brutally honest with people, but he would never turn anybody away, even when he was at his sickest. His dad was back, taking care of him in a way that he couldn’t take care of him before. He had a line of people waiting for him, and this woman, because she was a big contributor to the parish, she thought that she was entitled to cut any line and get Stu’s attention whenever. And he’s in there just trying to wash his face in the sink, and she barges in and says, “I need to talk to you right now. These asshole broke my window and stole my computer.” And he said, “Good. You deserve it. You’ve been nothing but a pain in my ass since I met you. And they probably needed it. Go pray for them. Make another contribution.” And he goes back to washing his face. I was sure that was a guy who I could relate to, and that’s why he had a lot of people waiting for him. And that’s why he touched and impacted so many people in the short time he was a priest.

Best of luck with this. Good seeing you again.

I appreciate it, thanks.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.