Mark Wahlberg Talks ‘Father Stu’ With Raymond Arroyo
‘…As his physicality started to deteriorate, his spirituality just soared...’
Editor's Note: Raymond Arroyo, host of EWTN’s The World Over spoke with Catholic actor Mark Wahlberg about his upcoming film, Father Stu, being released on Good Friday. Please find a full transcript of the interview below that aired on Feb. 10.
I want to start with where you first heard about Father Stuart. I've never heard of this man. I cover this stuff for a living. I literally never heard of Father Stuart Long. How did you encounter this story?
Okay, I’m at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills with two priests and me, and one of the priests ... just trying to enjoy our meal and a glass of wine. And the other priest is adamant about pitching me this movie idea — and then my wife had heard the pitch [and] said, ... “You got to do this.” — and then he told me the pitch again. I said, “Why do you keep pitching me this movie? You know nothing about movies in Hollywood.” And then something just caught my attention about the story.
What was it? What was the one thing that you went, “I have to do this”? This is in, what, 2016?
Yeah, it’s been about six years in the making. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I just said, “Start from the beginning.” And then when I started to hear the story, it’s like everything happens for a reason. So I’ve always been kind of thinking about: How do I continue to pay for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon me? I know God didn’t put me in this position to kind of forget about where I came from. I’ve been doing lots of stuff in my own community where I grew up and worked with inner-city kids and at-risk youth. But he doesn’t give you the gifts and the talents until it’s time to utilize [them] in the right way — and for him and not for yourself. So I’ve always been kind of saying, “Okay, what is my mission? What is my purpose?” And planting the seed, letting it blossom, and then utilizing that to continue to spread his word.
You financed this movie yourself, as well. This was not easy to make. It’s not like the studios were yapping to get the Father Stu story.
Yes, I broke the cardinal rule: You never put your own money into a film. But I didn’t really go out to a lot of people. I didn’t send it to any major studios. I had a couple of friends who I had made kind of small independent movies with or people that I made a couple of true stories with, and they didn’t even really respond to it. So I said, “You know what? I'm just going to do it on my own.”
Father Stu is this priest. He’s kind of a wayfarer. He’s trying to find his way. He’s a roustabout guy. At one point he tells …
To put it mildly …
Well, to put it mildly, it’s a family audience ... he tells the rector when he’s denied access to the seminary, he says, “What the Church needs is somebody who will fight for God.” Do you agree?
Absolutely. I love the Church, but for me, it’s not about the Church so much as the guy who died to build it and his message. Everybody else [is] human ... working to serve God the best they can. We’re all weak. And I get that. But he found his calling, and he was really ready to commit to serving God in a very different way.
There are parallels here, Mark, between your journey and Father Stu’s journey, which is the first thing, on second watching, I went: “Wait a minute.” I mean, he had a few brushes with the law. So did you in your youth. Was it about finding, through suffering, your purpose and your direction and with faith?
Yeah, always. But it’s one of those things where, did I think it was a great part for me to play? Yes. But it was more important to tell the story and get the story out there and encourage other people to find their own faith and their own purpose in life and bring lapsed Catholics back to church. It felt like it was a story and a message that everybody needed to hear. And so, yes. Do I always try to find some sort of personal connection to a role? Absolutely. I need to identify with it some way. Is this something that I identify with more than anything else?Absolutely. Is this my mission to now continue to do Stu’s work and take on that responsibility? Yes.
I’ve spent 50 years working on Mark Wahlberg, whether it was the good part of Mark Wahlberg or the bad part of Mark Wahlberg, and now it’s about doing more, giving back.
What is Stu’s mission that you feel you have to continue?
Stu was one of the most brutally honest … I actually remember now, what the thing that stuck out to me [was]: Father Ed was telling me a story about how Stu was already in the assisted-living home. There was a giant line of people waiting. He was a very prideful guy, so he wanted to continue to take care of himself, even as his sickness [inclusion body myositis] worsened. And he was just trying to wash his face in the sink. And this woman barged in, and she basically cut the line. And she was a big contributor to the Church. So she felt like she had the right to access Stu at any time. I’ll give you the mild version. I won’t give you the hard-rated R language that Stu used at the time. But he was there. He was just trying to wash his face. And she was complaining her car window had gotten broke, and they stole her computer. And he looked at her and he said, “Good, you probably deserve that. And the guys probably need it more than you do. Now, give some more money to the Church, and get out of here. I got people that I need to talk to.”
And again, I changed the wording a little bit for our family audience. But I was like, he was a brutally honest guy, but he touched so many people; so many people could relate to him. And he told the truth. And …
And, it’s an amazing story of suffering, accidents, hardships that he can’t fathom or understand or make sense of, which I think everybody feels at some point or another.
Yeah. He ultimately embraced those things. And that’s what ... it gives me so much hope and so much understanding, because death is inevitable. Sickness, all of those things, are inevitable. We’re going to face those — but how you face those things and how Stu is able to embrace those things. And as his physicality started to deteriorate, his spirituality just soared. And people recognize that, and they recognize the truth in that. And it wasn’t like smoke and mirrors like, oh, no, he was glad that this happened to him. It allowed him to get closer to God through his suffering. And it gave him the ability to share that with other people in a very honest way that was very relatable.
You mentioned a moment ago the R-rated language that Father Stu used. You don’t shy away from that in this movie, which I have to tell you, at first I thought, “Oh, wow.” And then, as you watch it, the language really gives it its authenticity. That’s who these people are. And, frankly, who your viewing audience is, in many ways. Was that the thinking there? Because, a lot of times, they’ll sanitize this for a family audience.
Yeah. We had always talked about what the tone of the movie was. And Father Ed had told me a wonderful story about how Father Stu and his dad and a couple of the friends went to go see The Fighter … and how much they loved the movie, but also how much it affected them in a much more personal way because it really reminded them a lot about aspects of their own life. And you know …people swear. We wanted to be brutally honest. We want to make sure that this movie is not exclusive to Catholics and devout people. This is inclusive to everybody who needs people. You remember what God's mission was, right? He didn’t come to save the righteous.
And many hardened men became great people who did wonderful service to the Lord.
Yeah. Well, it’s not cheap grace. That’s what I thought when I watched it the first time.
No, cheap grace is the complete opposite: That’s somebody who’s asking for forgiveness without repenting, without confessing. It’s the complete opposite.
But this is a hard path. This guy’s journey is very hard.
But many people are having very difficult journeys right now.
And that’s who we want to touch. That’s who we want to inspire, to be able to [encourage to] overcome and to persevere.
I did a lot of research before we met today. During your teen years, you had a rough time in Boston. I mean, you were on coke; you were getting in fights. What were you angry at? … It seems that ties in some ways to what Stu is looking for in this story.
Well, if you kind of go back to what I was most hurt by or what bothered me the most, even though we didn’t have much at all, all we had [was] each other: the youngest of nine; my dad was a truck driver. My mom put herself through nursing school. My parents separated when I was 11. I was devastated. And then I went bouncing back and forth between my mom’s house and my dad’s house. My mom quickly got remarried, and my dad never got married again. My dad was my hero. That was difficult. At that time, I wasn’t a leader. I was a follower. And I was easily influenced by various people. And I looked up to the wrong people. But there were positive influences in my life that were there, that I just didn’t recognize them as being the people that I should listen to.
They didn’t have the cool car. They didn’t have people looking up. They didn’t have the sneakers. They have all the things that we didn’t have that we finally realized that we thought was important. Father Flavin, Jim Flavin, who has been such an influence in my faith, in my life, who was the consultant on this movie.
Your parish priest back home?
Yes. He would come out in the morning. He was surprised that 13-year-old kids were hanging out on the corner at two o’clock in the morning drinking beer. But he would, instead of chasing us off, he’d sit there, and he’d have a beer, and he’d have a conversation with us. And when all those guys that I looked up to, that I wanted to be like, when I got in trouble, when I got incarcerated, they never came to visit me. Father Flavin was there. Father Flavin was there when I went to court. He was there when I was incarcerated. He was there when I came home. And he’s still in my life to this day.
And that was a real turning point in your life … that was a wake-up call.
If that doesn’t turn you around and wake you up, nothing will; nothing will.
Father Stu’s story is really one of family … a shattered family in pain and wounded over the death of an older boy. And the family breaks up, and Stu, then finds his way. But the miracle of Father Stu, in many ways, is that he brings his family back together and continues his mission. It’s an incredible story.
His crowning achievement, which I think would have been too much emotionally … and we could have made a 20-episode saga … was that, on his gurney, he was in the church as his mom and his dad were being baptized. And they were both obviously very angry at God: They had lost their youngest son very early; [he] basically went to bed, took a nap and never woke up. And that really devastated their family. Obviously, it rocked their foundation, and the faith was not something that they were able to turn to. They turned away from. And it was Stu that brought them back to their faith.
How hard was it to make this movie? And first time director, we’ve got to say, Rosalind Ross does an incredible job; wrote this, directed it. How did you find her?
We had had a couple of people that we had to take a crack at a pass of the script. Nothing was really kind of registering for us — and even to the point where Father Ed got so frustrated with the process, he was like, “This is not going to work. We shouldn’t do this.”
And I was already so far down the road, and I prayed about it and prayed about it. And I said, “No, I have to do this. This is my calling. There’s a very specific reason why I’ve been called to do this.” And he said, “Okay, I hope you do the right thing.” And I asked for Stu’s intercession. I asked for the Lord’s intercession in Mary. And I prayed about it every single day. And I was able to find [a way] through again. Everything happens for a reason, right? So I asked Mel [Gibson] if I could sit down with him and talk to him. I was picking his brain about how he got The Passion made and all the obstacles … all the obstacles that he had to face and why he was compelled to finance it himself and all of those things.
And Rosie had written another script from Mel that he and I were going to make, that he was going to direct called Destroyer, which is this amazing, giant epic … World War II. But she just said, “I’d like to take a crack at it.” And I said, “Okay, why not?” I mean, I really loved her writing. I was a big fan of what she had done. Three months later, she hands me the script to the movie that I literally wanted to make. I didn’t want to change a thing.
And then I was talking about, do I direct it? Do I try to talk Mel into directing it? And I was like, “Why not Rosie? She could put it on the page. She could put it on the screen.”
Wow, that’s a big leap, though.
Yeah, it is, but you know …
She does an extraordinary job. This movie is incredible.
The emotional power of this, in your performance, how did you prepare for that? You see, this guy, the early part of the life, I could see where you could relate to that. You could find connective points. But as he degenerates, as his body succumbs to this muscular disease, how did you prepare for that part of it, which is very moving and powerful?
Well, again, I don’t want to get emotional. It’s just such a sensitive subject because my dad didn’t have IBM (inclusion body myositis), but my dad had cancer. My dad had strokes, and my dad was the strongest guy that I had ever seen. And then next thing I know, my dad was in a wheelchair, and my dad couldn’t walk, and we had to take care of him. He lived in an assisted-living home, so I understood that, but I also understood my search for my purpose in the big picture of what God is expecting of me.
Which is what?
To do his work, to serve him, to utilize the talents and gifts that he’s given me to help others and inspire others, no matter where the situation is, where they come from, what obstacles they face; that there is a purpose, and God will put them in the right place, at the right time, and will give them the right words or the right tools to accomplish the mission.
I lost my mom during the making of the movie.
And I kind of just, obviously, went to the services and everything, and I was able to digest it a little bit. But I kind of kept it bottled inside. And then I was here in this very church shooting the scene where I’m asking God, “Why?” before the crawling at the altar. … Yeah, and it was one take for probably about 15 minutes, and it all just came out.
I’ve never gone to acting school, but there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to prepare for a role. And I just feel like, because of all my real-life experience, it does give me an advantage as an actor to play the roles that I should be playing. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to go and try to do Othello next week. I would be a little out of my wheelhouse. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t spend years of preparation to go and try to do that; that would maybe be my next challenge — who knows? But yeah, this is what I’m meant to do.
You mentioned it a moment ago, that this is something new for you. Is this a career shift for you, where you’ll spend your career on this more redemptive fare and these more redemptive personal stories of faith?
Well, if I continue to act at the pace that I’m acting, I always want to do something completely different. So I want to do comedy; I want to do drama; I want to do action. I want to do those things. But in my personal life and what I utilize for my platform, I’m put to task and challenge to utilize my gifts to do great things for other people. And that also doesn’t mean that I necessarily need to do it where I’m waving the flag, look at me — because the left hand is not supposed to know what the right hand is doing in almsgiving, because it all comes down to the biggest Critic, the one Person that matters when you are judged for what you’ve done. Because I can be out here saying all these wonderful things, and if I’m behind closed doors, doing God knows what, it’s still going to end up very bad for me. So I have had a lot of real-life experience. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’m continuing to do the work, and not look for cheap grace, and do the mission.
The mission is to plant those seeds, to blossom and to do God’s work.
It’s an extraordinary movie.
I’m so excited. It’s one of those things where I couldn’t be more proud of the movie, everybody’s contribution to the movie. I’ve made a lot of movies, and a few times — there’s a handful of times where I’ve made a movie where everybody’s there to service the story and the vision and, of course, Stu’s work.
It’s crazy, because it took six years to get it there, and then we only had 30 days to make it.
It’s pretty ambitious, in its scope and size and what we were trying to accomplish. I remember one of the actors in the film, [who] just saw the movie, goes, “… I thought we were making this little independent movie.” And I said, “We were.” He goes, “I know, but it feels like a blockbuster.” And I said, “Well, we had high hopes for it.” And I think, with Stu’s journey, the character arc, all the stuff — I mean, how much he changed physically, and all those things and how much he grew spiritually and the humor in the movie — [it does].
But it’s hard to do these stories, Mark: an externalized conversion, because it, by nature, is something that happens inside; that is such a hard nut to crack.
I cannot wait for people to see it. I cannot wait to go from city to city, state to state, encouraging people to see it, showing them, having conversations and encouraging people. And if we get one other person, if we plant one more seed and one other person, the next guy to step up, and even if it takes him 50 years to get there, to impact somebody else, we’re doing our job.
All right, we’ll leave it there. Thank you.