Mark Wahlberg has heard just about every eye-rolling movie pitch imaginable. So when one of his parish priests kept nagging him about making a biopic on an eccentric clergyman, Wahlberg’s first instinct was to remind him to stay in his lane.
Yet one night over dinner, the devout Catholic changed his mind about portraying Stuart Long, an agnostic and ill-tempered boxer from Montana who made an unlikely and devoted transition into the priesthood. Suddenly, Father Stu became a passion project.
“It dawned on me that this could be something special, and I should be doing more to acknowledge my faith and using the platform I have for good,” Wahlberg said during a recent visit to Dallas. “It’s like Stu finding his calling after going through so much and such a long journey, desperate to find it. When he did, he was so committed and dedicated to it.”
Wahlberg put money behind those convictions, funding much of the project himself. He even contemplated making his directorial debut before turning the reins over to Rosalind Ross, a first-time filmmaker who also wrote the screenplay.
One thing they both immediately agreed upon — ditching the traditionally wholesome approach to faith-based movies by not softening the edges just to preach to the choir.
“We wanted to make a movie that was edgy and real,” Wahlberg said. “I wanted a movie that spoke to everyone. The timing couldn’t be any better. It’s about tough mercy and tough grace. Stu was very unapologetic and straightforward. He spoke to people in a way they could understand. And they knew he had credibility and real-life experience.”
The film follows Stu as his amateur boxing career is halted by injury, prompting him to seek fame in Hollywood. Ostracized by his overbearing father (Mel Gibson), Stu meets a Sunday school teacher (Teresa Ruiz) who provides comfort when a near-death accident prompts a spiritual awakening. Eventually proving himself as a man of the cloth, his coarse charms make him popular among parishioners before he suffers another health setback in the form of a rare and debilitating muscle affliction.
Wahlberg gained 30 pounds during production to portray Long at different stages of his life. The film was shot mostly in sequence to help the 50-year-old star manage the physical transformations to his body and his facial hair.
“So much of Stu’s identity was predicated on his physical attributes,” Wahlberg said. “To really show what the disease did to him, I wanted to do the weight gain for that, to show how he started to deteriorate and how drastically it happened. It was important for the movie.”
Furthermore, doing justice to Long’s story proved challenging with an ambitious 30-day shooting schedule with pandemic restrictions in place. Yet for Wahlberg, the experience was also one of his most rewarding. Father Stu opens in theaters this week.
“He was a very colorful guy, so it was awesome to get an opportunity play him,” Wahlberg said. “Everything happens for a reason.”