Last week we had the opportunity to sit down with the one and only Mark Wahlberg to discuss his passion project, “Father Stu” Father Stu tells the inspirational true story of Stewart Long and his journey from a short-tempered boxer to a humble man of God. We ask Wahlberg how he brought this biopic to the screen and what drove him to do so.
Excerpts from the interview follow, or you can listen to the entire conversation below:
TCF: One of the things I was surprised about but appreciated was that the film was R-rated, with all the language in it. Especially for a faith-based, inspirational film, you don’t see that a lot. What led to that choice, and did you have any pushback from studios or anyone else?
Mark Wahlberg: We didn’t have any studio at the time; I financed the whole movie by myself. We always looked at “The Fighter” as a comparison in tone and what we wanted to do. I would say it’s much more of a biopic than it is a faith-based picture – it just has this faith-based component because of his calling, that he’s in this holy quest and relentless pursuit of becoming a priest. We met a lot of resistance from the church, for instance. When I slipped the script to the archdiocese and said, “I want to shoot in a church, I’d love to have all this access,” two f-bombs later and they said, “This is vulgar, we’re not doing that, absolutely not!” And I said, “well you didn’t read the whole thing, I can tell. You’ve gotta get to the good part, where he turns his life around and does lots of good work for God.” But that didn’t deter me from wanting to make it. Let me go make the best version of this movie and then bring it back to everybody and see where we stand. And now, of course, we have their unwavering support, we have them giving us the most glowing reviews. They realized that the language is necessary, the violence is necessary, it’s part of who Stu was. This is a movie about tough grace and tough mercy. People are having a really tough time right now, and the reason that Stu did so many good things is because he utilized all that real-life experience when communicating with people who were suffering through similar things. They knew he was authentic, that he had real credibility, that he had seen things in life. It wasn’t like he was booksmart and could find the best passages in the bible; he gave you the real deal.
Speaking to that, one of our favorite scenes involves Stuart going to the prison and speaking to the prisoners. Were there any anecdotes or stories that you really liked about Stu that didn’t make it into the film?
There were quite a few. I would’ve preferred to release the editor’s assembly, which was four hours long. Most of the fun stuff was in his attempt to become a success in Hollywood. There were some really great moments – a lot of that stuff will be deleted scenes on the DVD, bonus stuff.
You got to meet the real Bill Long to help flesh out Stu’s character. What information did you get from that, and how authentic is your character to the real Stu?
We tried to be as accurate as possible in the depiction. Obviously, we had to cram 20-some-odd years into a two-hour story. Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children, so when they lost their youngest child, they didn’t have the coping skills necessary to deal with that. They left Stu to his own devices, and he had a lot of resentment and a lot of anger, but his father was able to come back and take care of him. That was something that really grabbed me. Stu only called him Bill, but called him Dad when he came back and fed him, changed him, clothed him, and they were able to repair their relationship, which was really powerful. I loved the father/son story, I loved the love story between him and Teresa’s character. I was hard-pressed to find a single reason not to make the movie, even when it came down to having to do something that is not common – when you’re cutting the check to actually make the film. I produce a lot of films – I haven’t financed them. Financing is a totally different thing.
You mentioned Father Ed; he’s the one who told you the story. Can you give us a little background on when that was and how that motivated you?
Him and Stu were friends; he pitched it to me six years ago in Beverly Hills, after him and Father O’Ryan had just spent the day hearing confessions. I take him out to eat and all of a sudden he starts pitching me the movie. I change churches all the time because I don’t want to get pitched; I just want to have a meal! But when I heard the story I knew this was definitely something I should be a part of. What an opportunity as an actor to play a part like that. You don’t get to show that kind of range that often. And everything about it felt like it was going to inspire a lot of people – not even thinking that there would be this pandemic where everybody really needed healing more than ever. People need to go to the theater to laugh and cry together and be reminded of that connection.
Speaking of emotions, one of the scenes that really stood out was his near-death experience when he sees Mary. We were wondering if that was something that Stu had related to one of the priests?
Yes, Stu had communicated that. He was run over not once but twice while he was on his motorcycle on the 210 Freeway and left for dead. He had a visit, had a couple of encounters. When Stu was passing, lots of people who were close to him wanted to be there, they were all in the room. They knew it was going to be any minute when he finally passed. Someone said they saw his spirit raise out of his body, and then someone else said they saw it too. Everyone in the room started seeing it. But Bill said, “You guys are full of shit! I didn’t see anything!”
The film has a considerable amount of humor throughout, which was one of the most effective things. Was it difficult to balance the humor with the profound subjects also taking place?
I don’t think so. I always wanted to push the edge. If we’re going to make a rated-R movie, let’s make a rated-R movie. We’ll figure everything else out after. It’s still got a good amount of language in it, and we probably pulled out a hundred f-bombs in the cut. Even at the end, Rosalind was like, “what are you doing? He’s a priest now!” Have your choices in the editing room, but we gotta get one where we’re really pushing it. We wanted that final draft to be done in the editing room. We may have to make tough choices of what goes and what stays, but I always wanted to push the envelope.
You’ve been traveling around and getting to see the movie with live audiences. How has that experience been?
Yeah, the laughter, the tears, and early on, you get some cynical people but I said, “this film is going to touch you.” You would literally have to have no emotions to not react to things that happen in this movie. We’ve all dealt with loss, sickness. It’s touching everybody and it’s been really encouraging people to be the best versions of themselves, which is really nice. To see it with a Hollywood audience and then see it with a Catholic audience – the laughter is there, and it’s big, but it’s in completely different spots.
A lot of people have been talking about the weight gain you put on for the film, but there’s also prosthetics as well. Can you talk a little about the personal weight gain and the prosthetics?
Yeah, if I could have just done the makeup and all that, I would have. But with this guy, everything was predicated on his physicality. He was an angry guy, beating back at the world, wanting to fight anybody and everybody to show how tough he was. But then to see all that deteriorate, to basically turn to mush – which happened to my dad in real life; I’ve seen it first-hand – but then to see how his spirit grew and to see that transformation, I thought it was much more important for the movie and the story. It was really such an important part and I’m still paying the price for it to this day, because it had a pretty big effect on me and my health, but it was just that important to do it. I’m not looking to do it again any time soon. We didn’t really have the luxury of shooting in order, so sometimes we’d have a little bit on my face, but you wanted to see it and do it the real, practical way.