‘Father Stu’: EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo Talks With Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson and Rosalind Ross
Writer-director Rosalind Ross says that Father Stuart Long, whose life inspired the film, ‘learned that staying in the fight on your feet isn’t always as effective as getting on your knees and admitting that you can’t do it alone.’
Editor’s Note: Raymond Arroyo, host of The World Over on EWTN, spoke with actors Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson and screenwriter and director Rosalind Ross about their new movie, Father Stu. Originally conducted on March 22 at the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, California, the interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview airs on EWTN at 8pm Eastern Thursday, April 7.
Mark, you’ve been all over the country with this movie. I mean, screening after screening. What has been the reaction to those who are faith-based as well as folks who perhaps aren’t?
MARK: Just how moved they are by the movie. The story, how inspired they are, how much hope they’re finding in the story: It’s amazing to see people laughing and crying and in the midst of tears and more laughter. I haven’t been in the theater for a long time — and for the first time in over two years, to see it with a full audience and see their reaction.
MARK: It made all the risk worth it, for sure.
What surprised you as you watched it with them. … The audience always tells you something different than you imagined you put there.
MARK: When and where they laugh: the difference between the laughs that the movie gets when you’re watching it amongst industry people, as opposed to an audience in Boston or in Chicago or in Dallas, for that matter; but, really, people moved by the story in a way because obviously it affects everybody in a different way, but it definitely affects everybody.
Now, Mel, this movie is premiering Holy Week, which is familiar territory. If Johnny Mathis is Mr. Christmas, you may be Mr. Holy Week, and this guy is going to be chasing your tail.
MEL: I hope not.
Give me the importance of why this is premiering now during Holy Week and what that might accent in the audience as they go to see it.
MEL: Well, I think a lot of people at this time of the year, they kind of take stock of themselves, they are introspective about who they are, where are they going, what’s the purpose of their life, what’s their journey, where are they at in it. And something like this, I think it’s contemplation on someone else’s life. And it’s an exemplary life. It reaffirmed for me when I watched it because it said: No matter where you come from and no matter what afflicts you, you can triumph and you can grow through that and gain merit and hand it to other people.
Rose, you wrote, you directed this movie. You’re not Catholic, but I have to tell you, this may be one of the most Catholic contemporary movies anybody’s likely to see. How did you find that understanding of suffering and how, at times, the pain and the suffering in life can lead you to your ultimate destination? To what God intends for you.
ROSALIND: Father Stu was a living embodiment of grace and strength and suffering. And you hear it from anybody whose life he touched, that he was incredibly grateful for what afflicted him and had such dignity and strength in it. His life is such a beautiful example of humility. You’ve got this guy who was a fighter, who fought everybody: an opponent in a ring, a guy in a bar. He fought the hand that was dealt to him in life. He fought for his father’s approval, and it wasn’t until he found God that he realized he could surrender a bit. And I think he learned that staying in the fight on your feet isn’t always as effective as getting on your knees and admitting that you can’t do it alone.
Mark, I have to tell you, when we last talked, I know there was some concern about the language and that that might keep even religious leaders and dioceses at arm’s length. The Diocese of Helena just came out with a review. I’ll just read a little piece of this. They said, “…it’s our hope that the redemptive story of Father Stu’s conversion will invite viewers to faith and strengthen believers.” Are you surprised that they’re accepting of the authenticity?
MARK: I was a bit surprised that they had an issue with it initially.
MARK: Well, whoever got a glimpse of the script may have seen an F bomb or two in the first couple of pages and been turned off by that. But to have them see the movie and respond the way that they did was the most important thing. So to get their approval, most importantly, to get Bill’s approval, Father Bart, who is Stu’s best friend and Archbishop Thomas, those are the people that I was really concerned with. And to see them respond to the film in a way they did and realize how necessary the language was to be far more authentic and connect with real people, because you have this language everywhere you go, it was important.
Well, and the journey …
MEL: I think it was essential that Rosie didn’t intend to preach to the choir. It’s a story for everybody.
ROSALIND: Well, and also you have to do justice to the kind of rough character he was in order to underscore how incredible his transformation was.
MARK: You can only put so much emphasis on “oh shucks”!
Mmm … snakes in a bag!
MARK: Gosh darn it, I swear to you! But that being said, I mean, I do remember, like, after we’re kind of in post-production, you got to cut up some of these F-bombs. She’s like, well, a lot of these you just added along the way. I was constantly pushing the envelope, and we wanted to be as edgy as possible because we thought ultimately that would be the thing that people related to the most …
And draw a younger audience ...
MARK: And then, of course, when you see when he makes the real commitment and when he finds his purpose, and that’s unwavering, that people would be encouraged by that.
Mel, tell me about working on this role. Bill is part of, really, it’s his story, as well. This broken man leaves his family, his son he wants nothing to do with, and then they rediscover each other and he finds his role. What drew you to the role as Rosie wrote it?
MEL: You know, I mean I’ve got seven sons, right? And you don’t do a perfect job with everybody. And I’ve had to do that make-up stuff where you go by, you go back and do another flyby and try and right things that maybe weren’t perfect and talk about stuff. And those are the most fulfilling things for me, I think, because we’ve all made mistakes. And I think Bill is probably in that boat, too. I know I talked to him on the phone, and just a few little things he said kind of told me who he was. He’s not somebody who’s terribly demonstrative, but he’s very deep in his feelings.
There’s a piece of the tale that is left out here where, after Stu becomes a priest, he continues his ministry. His family not only reunites: They convert to the Catholic faith.
MARK: Yeah. They were both baptized at the same time. His parents were baptized by Archbishop Thomas, and Stu was literally on a gurney, tears streaming down his face. Assisted living, on oxygen at the time, and that was his crowning achievement.
The fulfillment of his mission. Yeah. Beautiful. Did you write Bill with Mel in mind?
ROSALIND: I did, yes.
ROSALIND: He had no choice but to play the role, Raymond.
The straitjacket was written for him. He had to assume it.
Tell me about the touch of God that only comes through pain and suffering. This is not something people necessarily want to deal with. It’s not something … even religion avoids [it] many times. Why did you decide that you wanted to take this head-on? Is that what appealed to you about his story?
MARK: I think I’ve been really focused on my faith for quite some time, and I had a very troubled past. It was my faith that allowed me to turn my life around and get back on the right road. I was always thinking about how could I give back and do more, utilize what has been given to me for the greater purpose and what God really gave it to me for. And I always really admired what Mel did with The Passion and that love letter that he created to the Lord. And I was like, wow, that certainly inspired me. And I always figured out, “Okay. There was going to be a point where I was going to have to focus a lot more on me doing God’s work and focusing less on trying to build up me as the kind of actor-producer or my entrepreneurial endeavors, what I was doing. And so this thing just kind of came to me. It’s the same thing about getting involved in church more and being a participant, as opposed to being a spectator, doing even little things like doing the collection and then hosting the Festival of Families …
MARK: And these are things that I always felt uncomfortable being a part of, but I knew I should be doing more. And so now this is just, again: Stu kind of took to me and utilized me to continue to amplify his voice and message.
So, it’s a personal walk of faith, in many ways, for you.
MARK: Oh, absolutely. And this is, literally, this is the starting point to me doing a lot more and, so yeah, you don’t put it out there and then just say, “Oh, well, I’ll get to it next time. I got these other three movies I don’t want to do, then I’ll do it.” I’m putting myself out there. I’m making sure that I continue to do it well.
Well, it’s a spectacular performance, and the movie is … its true. And let’s face it: There’s a lot of cheese that enters the marketplace that’s so-called faith-based. You don’t need faith when everything is perfect; when you’re a perfect individual, why do you need redemption? Mel, Mark mentioned The Passion [of the Christ]. It’s still such a seismic and iconic film for so many people. I know you’re working on the sequel. Almost every day somebody will come up and say, “Is the sequel done? Is he working on the sequel? What’s going on with the sequel?” What are you doing? Where is The Resurrection?
MEL: Well, it’s a huge subject, and it’s not a linear narrative, so that in order to have it mean something and resonate for almost anybody that watches it, again, you’re not preaching to the choir. You have to have … you have to juxtapose the central event that I’m trying to tell with everything else around it in the future, in the past and in other realms, and that’s kind of getting a little sci-fi out there. It’s a big story. It’s a difficult concept, and it has taken me a long time to focus and find a way to tell that story in a way that really delivers to somebody who may know nothing about any of the central story.
So when can we expect a script, Mel?
MEL: Well, I’ve got two scripts.
Randy Wallace did one.
MEL: Yes, and another fella did another one. So I’ve got the pair of them, and they’re both good.
And now you have to shuffle the deck.
MEL: Kind of. It’s a little bit like that. Plus, you have to add your own mojo to it, your own sensibilities. And there’s a lot of material to draw from, believe me.
Mark, as I watched this movie again, Father Stu, we’ve had your brother Jim on the show before. Tell me about the Wahlberg Family Foundation and how this all connects for you, the philanthropic work as well as your artistic work.
MARK: When I was able to kind of turn my life around and started to do good things, I just wanted to make sure that I could create opportunities for inner-city kids and at-risk youth growing up in similar situations and especially back home. I didn’t want to forget about kids back home because you’re in a big city. You have some of the best college institutions in the world right there. But you don’t feel like you have any access to any of that, right? You either kind of got one or two kind of opportunities to get out, and if not, you’re in for life. And so I just wanted to create opportunities and be an example. And then my brother, who has also had a very difficult childhood and upbringing, we just shared that in common. He has been now sober 30-something years. He has dedicated his life to serving God and serving people. And so we just decided it was going to be something that we did together. He’s very good at meeting and tapping into people who are in a position to be able to give; and then we utilize those funds and match them and do everything we can to create good opportunities for kids and let them see something outside of [their world] where we come from.
What’s next, Mark? What are you working on now?
MARK: We’re just going to continue on city to city, state to state, kind of showing people the movie and getting people to kind of experience Stu and his journey. And then, after that, I’m off to Europe to make a movie and then kind of figuring out something else.
All right. And what are you [points to Rosalind] working on next?
ROSALIND: Well, I’ve got a couple of other projects that I’ve neglected while making this film, but I have another project that I’m hoping Mark will inhabit.
MARK: She did such a good job with Father Stu that immediately before we had even really seen a director’s cut, we saw an editor’s assembly. We were trying to make a three-picture deal with Rosie.
Oh, wow. I can see why. She was a good gamble, I’ll tell you that. Mel, your final thoughts on: How do you think the various pieces that came together here [worked], the faith aspect as well as the artistry and the unexpected director; how all of that conspired to enrich this story that could have very easily gone in a very different way?
MEL: Yeah, well, it’s not an easy story to tell, and it’s not an easy story to tell well, so I think you start with the fact that you had someone who was able to tackle it, who’s talented at being able to express things, as you say, without actually expressing them fully and leading the room. That’s an art in one who is so young. I don’t know where she got it from, but she’s an old soul, and I’ve known her for a long time now.
ROSALIND: I hang around with old people.
MEL: Yeah, she hangs around with old people, she said. Yeah, good.
MARK: I’m definitely up there. We could play brothers as easily as father and son.
I’m glad she referred to only the two of you. Go ahead, Mel. You were saying?
MEL: I forgot where I was at. Well, how did it all come together? There’s a lot of providence involved. I mean, she’s a deep thinker. So she was able to bring all her skill and who she is as a person to it and then give us things, give us little gifts in the roles. I mean, the humor …
The humor is really. Yeah …
MEL: She’s hilarious. It’s funny because she’s funny.
MARK: Every step of the way, the powers that be have been at work, and intercession has been pretty clear and evident. And with the Stu story coming to me, kind of going down all these different paths and ending up with them, us; now kind of being in a situation where everything that I kind of hoped would happen has happened through a lot of hard work — and, again, a lot of intercession, and so we’ve been through lots of thought — and prayer — and then the magic.
Hmm. So you really prayed this thing into existence?
MARK: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
I’ll leave it there. It is a gift, as you said. It is a gift, too. I think viewers, and certainly me, it was extremely moving, and I think it touches people in ways they don’t expect. Congratulations.
MARK: Thank you.