He may have just scored a no.1 hit in the US with Max Payne, but Mark Wahlberg is more concerned with a recent send-up on TV.

There’s a rather fine imitation of Mark Wahlberg doing the rounds right now on the internet, titled ‘Mark Wahlberk Talks To Animals’ and the man himself is not best pleased with it.

It’s from Saturday Night Live, that long-running American TV satirical variety show which is currently enjoying something of a renaissance – and a ratings boost – thanks to the resemblance between the moose-hating, gun-toting Sarah Palin and one of its returning cast members, Tina Fey.

The sketch in question has SNL regular Andy Semberg (clearly the inspiration for the character of Josh Girard on Fey’s Emmy-winning, perfectly-formed sitcom, 30 Rock) pretending to be Wahlberg as he tries a little meetings of the mind with a chicken.

It is, of course, frickin’ hilarious. To everyone but Mark Wahlberg, that is.

“It is what it is,” says the 37-year old, Boston-born actor. “I just wish, you know, he’d made a better job of it. Got some more laughs from the situation. I’ve been doing an imitation of Andy imitating me, and that’s funnier, you know. It’s not just enough to take off someone’s voice – you have to come up with something funny to say…”

I’ll try and remember that. It’s always been difficult to figure Mark Wahlberg out as an actor. There’s little doubt that he was perfectly cast as wide-eyed and extra-limbed porn star Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, the 1997 film that launched the former rap star and underwear model firmly onto the big screen. Truth be told, that early breakthrough is probably Wahlberg’s finest hour. Or finest two hours and thirty-five minutes, to be precise.

Earlier, Wahlberg had played on his off-screen street thug image in Fear (‘96) and The Basketball Diaries (’95), and it would stand him in good stead when he became George Clooney’s best friend for two years, appearing in Three Kings (’99) and The Perfect Storm (2000) alongside the housewife’s choice.

Wahlberg’s first big-budget Hollywood leading role though almost derailed his burgeoning career, Tim Burton’s remake of Planet Of The Apes proving to be one of the biggest turkeys of 2001. Luckily, another remake, of another 1960s classic, The Italian Job, finally gave Wahlberg the box-office hit he’d been searching for.

Since then, he’s been solid when he calls upon that hardman history (2005’s Four Brothers, 2006’s The Departed, 2007’s The Shootist), and pretty darn embarrassing when he takes on a role that doesn’t involve shooting someone (2002’s The Truth About Charlie, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees, this year’s truly painful The Happening).

“I think I’m aware of what kind of roles I’m good for, and what kind of roles just aren’t me,” offers Wahlberg. “I don’t plan on doing any Shakespeare in the near future, or popping up in any Jane Austen adaptations. And that’s fine by me; I wouldn’t expect John Wayne to pop up in any of those things, or Gene Hackman, or Christopher Walken.

“Not that I would dare compare myself to any of those guys – they’re all true legends. It’s just that you use what you have; you work with whatever it is that you know you can bring to the part.

“That’s a big part of acting – recognising what it is that you can bring. I’m still getting a hold of that, and hopefully, as time goes by, I’ll be able to bring more, but you’re cast not only because you might be box-office or whatever, but, hopefully, because you fit the part. Literally.”

Wahlberg seems to fit the part of Max Payne, the aptly-named gun-toting anti-hero that’s just made the leap from the game console to the big screen, hitting the no.1 spot in the US two weeks ago. Not that the critics were particularly impressed.

As one reviewer quipped, Max Payne is ‘stylish, armed to the teeth, ludicrous to the extreme’. Which, you gather, is just what Mark Wahlberg and Dublin-born director John Moore had in mind.

“Absolutely,” smiles Wahlberg. “It’s not like we were trying to shoot an arthouse movie here. There’s a degree of craziness involved in any story like this, and we’re happy to go looking for the sublimely ridiculous, rather than trying to separate the two.”

Based on the highly popular videogame of the same name, there was always going to be a degree of expectation from those fans who actually made Max Payne such a highly popular videogame. Which must have made the film’s leading man feel ever so slightly nervous, right?

“Sure, you want to live up to expectations, you know,” he says. “That goes for any role you take on. You have to be aware of what people will expect, what people want, and, once you’ve taken all that on board, you really have to satisfy yourself.

“I’m my own worse critic, and I’ll spend just as much time after I’ve made a movie as I do beforehand, trying to figure out what I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong. Each new film hopefully teaches you something new. Makes you a better actor…”

Ah, but does Mark Wahlberg have what acting coaches like to refer to as ‘range’? He does, to be fair, seem very aware of the fact that he’s perfect for certain kinds of roles. And completely wrong for others (see: The Happening, or Planet Of The Apes – but only if you feel that you really, really have to).

For now, the 37-year old father of three (the latest addition, Brendan Joseph, having been born on September 16th) is sticking to what he knows best – the Irish-American criminal underworld. In Darren Aronofsky’s The Fighter, Wahlberg will play boxer ‘Irish’ Micky Ward, who rose to fame in the 1980s when he became the unlikely holder of the world light welterweight title. Having some Irish blood in there is obviously going to help Wahlberg find his feet here…

“Yeah, it’s very easy to understand Micky’s world,” smiles Wahlberg, “because, you know, that was pretty much my world too. The Irish-Americans are a tight bunch, and they tend to stick together, help each other out, move within their own little worlds. Having that to call upon definitely helped.

“Having said that, I’ll have to find out what made Micky Ward tick, figure out what it was that drove this guy – along with his brother Dicky, who was also his coach – to achieve this against so many odds.

“Which, again, is easy to tap into. My story really should have ended on the streets, or in that prison I was dumb – and lucky – enough to find myself in, but I found a way out. Not only a way out, but a way forward, a way up, and that’s something I’m thankful for every day.

“Even when some punk on TV is making fun of me, I know that I’ve got a blessed life, and no amount of bad gags – or bad reviews, whatever – is going to make me forget that…”


Words : Paul Byrne

Max Payne is now showing at Irish Cinemas nationwide.

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