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Mark Wahlberg’s Passion Project

Mark Wahlberg’s Passion Project

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A few years ago, Mark Wahlberg was getting dinner with two Catholic priests in Beverly Hills when one of them asked if he’d ever heard the story of Father Stu.

“The other priest didn’t want to hear it,” Wahlberg says. “He was just trying to order his piece of fish and had a long day. It was Saturday, so they had lots of confessions and all that stuff. End of the day, time for him to wind down.”

“But the other priest,” Wahlberg recalls, “was pretty persistent.”

Wahlberg was dismissive at first, but the more he heard, the more intrigued he got. “I said, ‘Start over.'”

That day began what Wahlberg calls a “holy quest” of his, his passion project “to bring Father Stu’s story to the masses.” And not just because it’s a great story — although it is — but because Wahlberg believes the story is an important one to tell. “We’re reminding people that nobody’s beyond redemption and you don’t want to give up on people,” he says. “You want to give people hope to know that it’s never too late to change and grow. They’re loved and they’re supported.”

Stu’s Story

In life, Father Stu was Father Stuart Long, a Seattle native who became a heavyweight contender in Montana. A jaw injury put his path to boxing glory on ice, but Long was a nimble dreamer. He moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor, but ended up making ends meet on staff at a museum when gigs dried up. It was during his time at the museum that a bad motorcycle accident motivated him to get serious about God. He converted to Catholicism — partly to impress his Catholic girlfriend — and then eventually was ordained as a priest.

His life had a few more twists and turns that we won’t spoil here but, suffice to say, it’s not hard to see why Wahlberg thought there was a movie here. “[Father Stu] was just such a colorful character,” Wahlberg chuckles. “I mean, all the things that it took him to find his calling and then when he did, how committed he was. Just knowing that, it certainly posed lots of challenges to me to do better, to be better.”

Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) in Columbia Pictures’ FATHER STU.

Wahlberg produces and stars as Father Stu, a role he admits appealed to him for the sheer challenge (“Where do you find a better role to show more range?”) but it’s more than that. He’s trying to be a better person now. He can relate to Father Stu’s struggle for forgiveness and redemption. “It was just all around great opportunity for me to start doing more of God’s work,” he says. “I really couldn’t find any reason to not make the movie, even though I knew it would be an uphill battle to get it made.”

The Struggle Is Real

Father Stu’s story is inspiring and engaging, but Wahlberg has been in Hollywood too long to assume that’s enough to get a movie greenlit.

“You try to pitch a movie about a guy who was a fighter. His parents had lost a younger child, didn’t know how to cope. He goes to LA to become an actor. Falls in love with a girl, just trying to manipulate her into a relationship. She manipulates him into getting baptized. He gets run over by a car not once, but twice. Then he sees Mother Mary and then he decides he wants to become a priest,” he says. “Tough, tough pitch.”

Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) in Columbia Pictures’ FATHER STU.

Franchises are the winning hand in showbiz right now and it goes without saying that there will be no Father Stu 2: Papal Vengeance. Wahlberg says there was a lot of skepticism about his early interest in a movie that’s “not like a superhero movie where you could build a franchise and then box office here and lots of potential for spinoffs and stuff.”

But instead, he went for the heartstrings, believing that this movie could find an audience beyond the blockbuster crowd. “I think it’s one of those things where it’s not an easy sell when you’re pitching it in the room,” he admits. “But once people see the trailer they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen anything like that before!’ And it will pique their interest and then will people want to see it.”

Some cuts had to be made — you can’t transpose an entire life into one film, and the nature of moviemaking involves taking some creative liberties. Wahlberg says he hopes audiences familiar with Father Stu’s story give him “the benefit of the doubt.”

“Stu handled [his troubles] with such grace and dignity,” he says. “He felt like it brought him closer to God, and inspired him to do more. Those were all things that I knew would be there, we just needed to get it right.”

Wahlberg’s idea is that Father Stu’s story is so unbelievable that it actually goes full circle to being universal. It’s the sort of story that finds its appeal in its depth. “I definitely felt like it was the kind of film that would touch anybody,” he says.

“Especially people dealing with the unknown, all the whys of the world,” he continues. “Mortality, the inevitable. How do people handle those things? And to see how Stu handled it, I think people find that very inspiring. We couldn’t predict that we’d be in a pandemic and people would be dealing with all of that. That’s just kind of where we found ourselves, when we were able to get the movie made which made it all that more important.”

Speaking Somebody’s Language

Wahlberg’s aware that this story doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mold. Without getting into details, this movie does not exactly conform to the sorts of sentimental scriptwriting tools that tend to guarantee a surefire hit. Wahlberg says the key for them was to lean into those tensions instead of trying to artificially resolve them.

“I just tried to tell the story in the most truthful way,” he says, and some early opportunities to show the film confirmed that was the right move. “It still left people on a very emotional high when the movie was over, which was fantastic. They felt inspired, they felt a little bit more hope and they also felt challenged to do a little more and to be a little bit better.”

Wahlberg says that’s the legacy of Father Stu’s story.

“Stu had that remarkable way of speaking somebody’s language, but then also challenging them,” he says. “He’s doing that now in very interesting ways to challenge me to do more and do better.”

Wahlberg brightens considerably on the subject of the personal inspiration he took from Father Stu, his general chill replaced with an urgent excitement. He relates to the priest and, it seems, if Father Stu could find redemption, so can he. “Oh my gosh, there are so many things!” he almost shouts, ticking off the similarities between himself and the man he plays. “I mean, there’s just the rough upbringing, the kind of continued pursuit of finding your calling, your voice. Finding meaning and purpose and giving yourself a reason to want to do better and be better. I found so many similarities.”

Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) in Columbia Pictures’ FATHER STU.

Wahlberg is sensitive to the moment Father Stu is being released into. It’s not just our pre-post-pandemic reality. People are frustrated and worried. Wars overseas and bitter cultural battles in the U.S. create an environment rife with division and suspicion. Wahlberg feels it too. “That’s not a good thing,” he says. “It’s not a good thing.” He believes Father Stu demonstrated a better way forward, and he hopes that telling his story can be part of turning the current national mood around.

“We need to continue to bring people together, despite our differences,” he says. “Support, love and acceptance is far more important and far more effective in creating progress, change and growth.”

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