In Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg plays Jim, a hollow-cheeked college professor (Wahlberg lost 60 pounds for the role) with a compulsion to spend his nights throwing good money after bad on the blackjack table. A remake of the 1974 film starring James Caan, The Gambler hands Wahlberg his flashiest character in years, and as the actor told Vulture last week, he didn’t take that opportunity for granted. Here’s what Wahlberg had to say about his intense preparation, how he turned his career around, and what he makes of those Sony leaks blasting actors like Angelina Jolie.
Let’s talk about Jim’s self-destructive streak. Even when he’s up — or maybe I should say especially when he’s up — he keeps pushing himself until the point that he loses it all, the point where he can strip himself of everything he’s got.
In the original movie, the gambling was all about the thrill, and the character never really felt alive unless he was rolling the dice or waiting for that card to slip. With this movie, it’s more about a guy who’s trying to strip himself of anything that’s material in his life, and gambling is a tool to do that. He came from privilege, and he just knew that wasn’t what life is about. It’s hard, though: Ideally, we would have released the three-hour version with more backstory, his relationship to his ex-wife and child, the explanation for what happened with his dad, the relationship with his grandfather … but for the sake of making a movie that we were always hopeful that people would go see, you’ve always got to make some compromises and sacrifices.
Because of his family’s wealth, there’s always a safety net … and he seems to both want that and hate it. Do you see that sometimes with the very wealthy people you know, this simultaneous need for that wealth and resentment of it?
Oh, I know a lot of people who are extremely wealthy and don’t have any happiness and joy. And I know people who have nothing, who have a God in their life, who are the happiest people in the world. You know, I come from nothing, and where else but America can you turn things around in one generation to the point where I’m now worried about my kids having a work ethic and an appreciation for the things [they] have?
Can you relate to his self-destructive streak? Have there been times in your life where you were handed something on a silver platter and felt doubting or undeserving and realized you were trying to push those things away?
There have been times where I’ve been tempted by it. But with my career, it always felt like less is more. If you’re going to be in it for the long haul, then you might as well earn it and build it on a solid foundation, which takes more time but has a much stronger chance of lasting.
“Less is more” might describe your acting style, too, since you tend to underplay in most of your films. Is it fun to switch it up entirely for a movie like The Gambler, where you’re given all these flamboyant monologues?
For me, it was a lot of fun playing a character like this, especially coming off Transformers, which is this big, physical, action spectacle. Even though I wasn’t eating food for months at a time, I still felt completely energized by being in the moment. So I was excited about that, but I still wanted to make it realistic and believable, because there were plenty of times when we could have gone over the top with it. Rupert and I were both giggling about the fact that we were making a movie that would have a lead character who was never really likable, but as long as we could maintain people’s level of interest in him and keep them on this journey with Jim, wondering if he’d make it out the other side, that was enough for us.
I’ve heard that you sat in on a lot of university lectures to be believable as a college professor.
I’ve never worked this hard to mentally prepare for a movie. Even though I ended up losing 60 pounds for the movie, that was just something Rupert asked me to do. The real preparation was being believable as a guy in that classroom, knowing the words to the point where you didn’t have to think about it. The first thing we shot was the big classroom lecture, which was originally 15 pages. We cut it down to a six- or seven-minute scene, but that was the first thing we shot, and I started reading the script out loud twice a day to prepare for it. The first official read we did was with a couple of literary professors in the Midwest, and that was in August, even though we started shooting in January. I spent a lot of time preparing, and I loved living it, but I also can’t wait until it’s over so I can get my life back.
Did you get a chance to check out the huge Boogie Nights oral history that went up on Grantland this past week?
No! Not yet. I was just asked about it on The Late Show With Seth Meyers. I had no idea. He was telling me about it and it sounds really cool. I’ve got to check it out.
Do you keep up with Paul Thomas Anderson? Have you seen Inherent Vice yet?
I haven’t seen it yet, but we obviously spoke a few times after the tragic loss of Phil Hoffman. We were in the same hotel when he was here for the New York Film Festival, and I was staying there shooting Ted 2. We traded phone calls, but I ran into Joaquin and Benicio and a few people from that movie. They all stay up much later than me, though. I’m usually in bed by 7:30, and the phone starts ringing at 1 o’clock in the morning.
Why so early?
I’m doing a comedy with Will Ferrell right now, and I woke up this morning at 3 o’clock. I’m playing a special-ops guy in it, so after Ted 2, I had to stop eating, stop drinking, really start exercising a lot more. So I had breakfast at 3 a.m., went to the gym from 3:30 to 4:30, went to the basketball court from 5 o’clock to 6 o’clock, and had a roast chicken, tuna salad, egg whites on ezekiel bread, and a protein shake all by 6 in the morning. Then I went to do Live With Kelly and Michael and the Today Show, then came back here for another meal, then went to go help my wife pack the kids up — they went back to L.A. today from New York — and then did phoners and a meeting over at the Javits Center. I ran into a friend of mine in the lobby and he was like, “What are you doing for dinner tonight? Let’s have dinner at 8 o’clock.” I was like, “Dude, I will be sound asleep by 6:30, 7 o’clock.” And I’m perfectly happy with that.
When did that work ethic kick in for you? Because you’ve told stories in the past about how you showed up eight hours late to a meeting with Leonardo DiCaprio, and my sense is that modern-day Mark Wahlberg is more the guy who shows up eight minutes early for a meeting.
Oh, I am. It’s funny, because I was always prepared, but I just wasn’t making rational decisions then. I had every intention of being at that meeting on time, but I decided on Thursday to go to Puerto Rico, and that meeting was on Monday, and then it was raining and snowing in New York and I couldn’t get a flight in until later that day. If that was now, I just wouldn’t go to Puerto Rico — I’d just sit in my hotel room. But yeah, I was always prepared. I always felt like I had to be the most prepared guy on set, and there was never a day when I didn’t know my lines or I held up the process. I had just come from the music business, where the attitude is, you show up whenever you wanna show up, and when you realize how much discipline and responsibility it takes to be a lead actor … and some people don’t have that! Some of the highest-paid and most-rewarded actors in the business don’t come prepared, which I find extremely annoying. I’m so lucky to be in this position that I’m in that I’m not gonna do anything to mess it up.
I saw a quote about the Sony leak from Mark Ruffalo where he said it revealed to him how much executives and producers disrespect their talent. As someone who’s not just an actor but a producer himself, do you find that to be true sometimes, that actors like Angelina Jolie don’t actually get enough credit for what they do?
It’s funny, because I’ve been on lists of guys that the studios are interested in hiring, and then I’ve also been in the room where names of actors are brought up and they’re like, “Over my dead body.” They don’t even realize that I’m an actor and that I know they’d be having that same conversation about me, had I not been there. That was pretty jarring at first, but it’s the business. It is what it is. You’ve gotta have tough skin in this business, and you can’t take that stuff personally. If I was Angelina Jolie, I wouldn’t be upset if someone was saying I had minimal talent, considering how many amazing things she’s been able to do with her career, both onscreen and now as a director — and certainly as a humanitarian. She’s incredible. So listen, if you’re worried about what people think and you’re trying to control that, you’re gonna drive yourself crazy. We’re all lucky to be doing what we’re doing.