Mark Wahlberg is no stranger to stepping into the role of a real inspirational figure. Between the underdog boxer Micky Ward in The Fighter, the football champion Vince Papale in Invincible, the veteran soldier Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor and the brave oil rig technician Mike Williams in Deepwater Horizon, Wahlberg has frequently shed his Hollywood persona to tell true stories of heroism.
There have been few projects that Wahlberg has been as passionate about as the title role in the new biopic Father Stu, which opens in theaters on April 13. The film tells the true story of Stuart Long, an untraditional preacher who found his calling late in life. Wahlberg says that as soon as he discovered Stu’s story, he was determined to see his legacy lived out on the big screen and to spread his message of faith.
“When I finally paid attention to what he was saying, I found it very moving,” Wahlberg says. “I thought it was an amazing opportunity not only to tell Stu’s story, but to utilize my platform to do more of God’s work.”
Father Stuart Long was a Golden Gloves boxer from Montana whose athletic career was cut short abruptly in 1986 when he suffered a broken jaw. Long traveled to Hollywood with the aspirations of becoming a movie star, but discovered that his true passion was the Christian faith, which he’d never taken seriously before. After working hard to become an ordained minister, he died in 2014 after struggling with inclusion body myositis, a progressive muscle disorder.
Wahlberg learned about the story in 2016 and immediately began developing it as a feature film. He produced the project and worked alongside director Rosalind Ross to develop the screenplay.
“I told her the story and she went off with a script we wanted to make,” he says. “We made some changes, but I loved what she did. It was pretty amazing. It all came together in a magical way, and you’re seeing that based on peoples’ reaction to the film.”
Father Stu has prominent religious themes, but it doesn’t shy away from the realities of its subject’s experiences. The film received an “R” rating from the MPAA because of its graphic language and drug content, which Wahlberg says were necessary in order to tell the story truthfully.
“It was just part of it to really tell the story in the most authentic way,” he says. “It was definitely necessary for the film. We wanted to be believable, and really wanted to show what Stu had to go through, and how he handled it with grace and dignity. That was just one of the many things that we had to do to prepare for it.”
Even before cameras were rolling, Wahlberg began committing himself mentally and emotionally to handle the sensitive subject material.
“When I came into making the movie even before the screenplay, I was doing masses on the Saturday with a priest and performing the duties of a priest and that sort of thing to get familiar with what that felt like,” he says. “When we had a script, of course, we started preparing for what aspects of Stu’s life we were going to show onscreen.”
Wahlberg may be one of the most popular leading men in the industry and recently has been topping the box office charts with his role in the video game adaptation Uncharted, but he says that prominent blockbuster roles give him the flexibility to develop smaller passion projects such as Father Stu.
“I make the big ones so I can make the small ones,” Wahlberg says. “I take pride in everything that I do. We’re always trying to make the best type of movie that we can make. With these true stories, there’s an overwhelming sense of responsibility to make it right and to be honoring Stu and his legacy. You’ll hear from the people if you don’t get it right. All I really want to do is make them proud.”
Wahlberg attached his name to the project early on and spent years preparing for the emotional and physical responsibilities of telling such a powerful yet tragic story. He says it was a personal goal to make the film as honest as possible.
“We did have to take some liberties,” Wahlberg says. “We weren’t there every step of the way, and there were things we had to dramatize a little bit. I think ultimately we wanted to make sure that we captured Stu’s essence.”
Wahlberg says that despite some of these changes and the film’s R rating, the response from Stu’s friends and family has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“Even the bishop that ordained Stu and members of the church who really didn’t want to be supportive of the film just because of the language realized why it was so important and gave an endorsement of the film, which was really nice,” he says. “I always had confidence in what we wanted to do, and that our intentions were in the right place.”
Wahlberg prepared for the part by speaking with many of the figures who are depicted in the film, including Long’s father, Bill, who is played by Mel Gibson.
“The most important thing is just speaking to people who knew him best,” he says. “We spent lots of time with Bill, lots of time with some of the people he went to seminary with and the people he touched.”
Bill and Stu had a challenging relationship. Bill was a recovering alcoholic who was coping with the death of Stu’s younger brother Stephen. Bill reemerged in his son’s life to help him deal with his IBM symptoms.
“Most of the relationship is the fractured relationship that you see in the movie,” Wahlberg says. “It also spends as much time seeing them come together, but it’s certainly something that we talked about. Bill really came back into Stu’s life when he really needed it most, and became the dad that he wasn’t able to be because of his inability to cope with the loss of his younger son.”
Bill Long gave his approval of the film, and Wahlberg is helping him develop a documentary about his son’s life. Wahlberg says that seeing “them be able to come full circle and repair their relationship” was “very special” for him, as he had also been very close with his own father.
“I had an amazing relationship with my dad,” he says. “He was my hero. My dad had a very tough life and did everything he could just to provide for us. My parents separated at a very young age, and if I wanted to see my dad I had to run two miles and five bad neighborhoods to go and see him, but I wanted to see him every day. When we did have time together, it was very special to me.”
Another surprising connection that Wahlberg found between Stu’s life and his own was their shared experiences going to Hollywood to pursue acting.
“… Everyone was saying Stu went to Hollywood and failed miserably, but he’s actually a big success in Hollywood right nowHe’s got a major motion … picture made about his life, and that put a big smile on my face.” –Mark Wahlberg
“In the right situation and under the right circumstances he could have had great success, but obviously that wasn’t his calling,” Wahlberg says. “I think had he met Penny Marshall or somebody like that, someone to take him under their wing, I think he would have been hugely successful. That wasn’t his calling. God had a bigger plan for him. Now obviously that was my calling, and now to utilize that to do movies like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Wahlberg says that he hopes to honor that side of Long’s life by making a film of which he’d be proud.
“It’s funny because it didn’t dawn on me until today that everyone was saying Stu went to Hollywood and failed miserably, but he’s actually a big success in Hollywood right now,” Wahlberg says. “He’s got a major motion picture made about his life, and that put a big smile on my face.”
A project such as Father Stu is emotionally demanding to begin with and the film’s production also began during a difficult period in Wahlberg’s life. He says he was coping with his own personal tragedy amid the development process.
“I had just buried my mom, so there was a lot going on personally, but there’s a lot going on for everybody as we were dealing with COVID,” Wahlberg says. “I had lost friends, and people were losing their livelihoods and their businesses. It was a trying time for everybody.”
The actor says that stories like the one in Father Stu can bring audiences together during difficult times.
“It’s nice to get confirmation from everybody that it’s such an important story and so moving,” he says. “Everyone can relate to it and identify with it in their own personal way. There isn’t a person that has seen the film that hasn’t been touched by it, and finds it profoundly entertaining and moving. That’s as good as it gets.”
While the positive word-of-mouth is nice, Wahlberg says the real reward is getting to be a part of Long’s mission.
“He touched so many people in a short amount of time,” he says. “It’s only right that we’re continuing to spread his word and his message and continue to touch so many more people, and continue his work all these years later.”