In their new film, The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale team up for the first time and offer a virtual master class in acting manly. The film is based on the true story of a struggling fighter named Micky Ward and his rough relationship with his family. But it’s just as much about his older brother and fellow ex-boxer, Dickie Eklund, who had his own boxing career before an addiction to crack nearly ruined his life and those around him. The Fighter is an emotionally powerful tale of redemption, the transformative power of true love and second chances.
Speaking at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills recently, Wahlberg and Bale—along with their director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees)—opened up about the creative decisions that went into the film and their work together, as well as the deeper meanings they learned about life and love from playing these two larger-than-life characters.
Dickie Eklund seems like someone who would take a very active interest in the making of this movie. Was it at any point necessary to give him extra management, to have him as a resource but perhaps not given free rein to be on the set talking every moment?
Bale: There were a couple of times that I had to physically restrain Dickie from going and landing one right on the director. We had some initial interesting times when we were rehearsing in Mark’s house, where Mark very nicely put up Micky and Dickie, and actually they lived at his house for some time. And there were some script changes going on, and Dickie wasn’t initially totally understanding that sometimes in putting a whole life into two hours, a little bit of license has to be taken and mixing things up. He wanted everything initially to be absolutely how it was portrayed. And if it wasn’t, there was a couple of times he would say, “I’m gonna go and I’m gonna get him,” and you know, and that’s just a crazy dangerous thing coming from a pro boxer. So there’s a couple of times I’d be going, “No, no, no.” And then we’d talk and David [O. Russell, the director] would walk with him, and I’m not sure if you ever had to stop him from coming and laying one on me, you know? But it was an interesting time. But he actually came around, and seemed to really understand it. And after we showed him the movie, he didn’t punch any of us. I talk to him almost daily, so I think that’s a great achievement, to make the story of someone’s life and do that with them.
Christian, what was your take on Dickie, and do you think he is ultimately a good influence on his brother?
Bale: I think he was an absolute source of inspiration initially. And then I think he probably became an absolute confusion for his younger brother, because it’s an immensely loyal family and they’re immensely loyal brothers. But as you see in the movie, it took Charlene [played by Amy Adams] to convince Micky that it wasn’t him abandoning his family to be able to remove himself for a little while, in order to change the dynamics.
And really, I think very much that’s a part as well of what was drawing him to self-destruction. Once Dickie was able to initiate and say, “It’s no longer [my] time, it’s Micky’s time now,” and then convince the rest of the family of that, which took some doing, then after that, Dickie was no end of help for Micky. I don’t think it could have happened without the one or the other. This movie wouldn’t exist without that beautiful relationship between the two brothers.
Mark, I imagine you’ve had that Boston accent drummed out of you over the years. What’s it like trying to get it back?
Wahlberg: It’s a lot harder to get rid of it than it was to get it back. Every time I would leave Boston, it would appear that it’d be like nails on a chalkboard for people hearing that accent. And I’ve been in other movies that took place in and around that area, and the accents were god-awful. It’s almost to the point where it seemed like we were doing bad accents, to the people who were actually from that area. But no—everybody did a fantastic job and didn’t push it too far, even though you think these characters are so extreme and so broad. But they’re actually a toned down version of these larger-than-life characters.
Bale: I approached Dickie’s accent as—I mean, Dickie’s got his own thing going on, you know. He’s got—he calls it Dickinese, himself. And I think everyone will agree I really had to tone down his natural rhythm and voice because I understand him completely now because my ears are in with it. If I’d done exactly like Dickie, we would have needed subtitles, probably.
As boxers need confidence to compete and win, then at what point, Mark, did you gain that confidence to pull off those fight scenes in the film?
Wahlberg: Well, the movie was a go and then it fell apart and we just—I just continued to train. So after four-and-a-half, well three-and-a-half years, I felt confident enough to go in there and be believable as a boxer who could possibly win the welterweight title. Had somebody said, “Hey, you’ve got to train four-and-a-half years to make this movie,” I would have said, “Absolutely not.” But the fact that I was just continuing to do it and never wanted to stop because I figured if I stopped, I would be giving up on the movie, and I never wanted to do that. So for me it was well worth putting in the work. There were times obviously when it was harder and more difficult to get out of bed, and especially while making another film and training for a film that may or may not happen.
And what do you think made Christian so special for the part, Mark? As producer, you had a big voice in picking him.
Wahlberg: I said: “There’s the guy who’s not scared to play this part. Everybody loves the idea of it, but nobody really wants to commit and go there.” I had seen The Machinist [in which Bale nearly caused himself permanent damage by drastically losing 65 pounds for his role]; I had seen Rescue Dawn and I was like, “If he responds to the material, this is a chance for us to make the best possible version of the movie.”
I could see why people were so attracted to the part, but at the same time, it can be intimidating. But he’s a fearless actor and he responded to it immediately. And that was really kind of what got the momentum going, and everything else started to fall into place after that.