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In a Whole New Jungle

Cagney. McQueen. Wahlberg? It's not the leap it once seemed for the former Boston tough.

July 22, 2001|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | Rachel Abramowitz is a Times staff writer

There's probably no one else on screen today who can stare the way Mark Wahlberg stares. His eyes are hooded, and his smoky green irises alternately mischievous and watchful. He's not angry or insolent, but apparently feels no need to fill up dead air--or uncomfortable silence--with noise or motion or polite chitchat.

The 30-year-old actor is leaning back in a booth at the Palm, the West Hollywood steak joint, having just finished lunch at 5. At 5 feet 7 inches, he's technically pocket-sized, but his well-defined muscles seem to strain against the shimmery light blue fabric of a freshly pressed button-down shirt. Around his neck to his chest snakes a tattoo of a rosary, which has almost always been airbrushed out of his photos and films. He put it there almost seven years ago in the lull between his old career as a rapper-model and his new life as an actor, because "I kept losing my rosary beads." They're like a promise--a promise to be good that he needed to etch into his skin.

In person, Wahlberg manages to be both recessive and magnetic at once. "He doesn't give out a huge amount. It makes you go to him," says actress Thandie Newton, his latest co-star. His voice is low and sandpapery, the kind you have to strain to hear. Almost every trace of the broad Boston tones of his youth has been carefully polished, except for a few stray vowels that hint at his rough origins. Even his famous physique--now about 186 pounds--is a product of willpower, and he can make it fluctuate 40 pounds in either direction.

If his early career--the Marky Mark rapper through the Calvin Klein underwear-model phase--was about mass-marketing a kind of cartoonish masculinity for middle-class consumption, then this, the second phase, surprisingly hinges on the fact that Wahlberg is one of the few young actors who actually appears to be thinking on screen. Calm on the outside, churning on the inside.

"I had dinner with Mark a couple of weeks ago in London," recalls "Planet of the Apes" producer Richard Zanuck. "We talked a lot about Steve McQueen. He loves him. He knows every frame of footage that he ever shot. He idolizes him." When Zanuck headed 20th Century Fox, he made "The Sand Pebbles" with Mc-Queen in the '60s. "I told him, 'You remind me both as a person and as an actorof McQueen.' He's strong, silent, a few-words-says-it-all type of guy."

It must have been flattering for Wahlberg. As a kid, when he wasn't devoting himself to trouble or girls, he used to watch movies, "but old movies ... Cagney movies. I watched a lot of westerns with my dad. Everything with either Steve McQueen or John Garfield, then a lot of '70s movies, but mostly Cagney," Wahlberg says, uncannily picking out his artistic forefathers.

"I'm a fan of old movies and old Hollywood," he says. "The movie business I'm in is not like what it used to be. I'm not excited to be in the movie business like I would be if it were the '50s or the '60s."

It's been almost that long since there's been a blue-collar star like Cagney or Garfield. It's probably not accidental that Wahlberg has remade himself from the snarling punker who dedicated his beefcake autobiography literally to his penis, to emergent mega-star with the aid of a new generation of writer-directors who have eschewed the tinny fakeness of the Hollywood studio machine.

Wahlberg seems to emerge from a very specific time, place and economic class rather than the unreal ether of a classless America. His streetwise mix of aggression, naivete and sadness has provided great fodder for such directing talents as James Gray ("The Yards"), David O. Russell ("Three Kings") and Paul Thomas Anderson, who notably cast Wahlberg as striving naif Dirk Diggler in his star-making porn epic, "Boogie Nights." Wahlberg has only one guiding principle: The director rules.

"My loyalty lies to the filmmaker, only the filmmaker," he says. "Not the producer, not the studio. The filmmaker. That's who I am there with. That's who I'm going to live with and die with, and I'd go anywhere for. If I commit, I commit. Any filmmaker I've ever worked with will tell you that.

"The business I don't really have too much time for and I'm not that interested in. I think when I get interested in that, it's going to affect my work and the decision-making process. I'm not doing these other movies where you get paid a lot of money but you're working with some [expletive] video director, and it's a piece of [expletive].

"A lot of people think I've had an interesting career because of the choices I've made. It's a simple formula. I just want to stick with it."

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