Ape Appeal
The Evolution of Marky Mark
By Bert Osborne

Wahlberg and Estella Warren monkeyin' around in Planet.

He was very eager to shed his image as the ill-tempered rapper with a knack for rubbing feminists, gays and ethnic minorities the wrong way - and to cover-up for his, er, exposure as a brooding, muscle-bound model for Calvin Klein underwear - but when he first set forth on an acting career, he found two major obstacles blocking his path: One was (still is?) dealing with the perception shared by many in the industry regarding the insolent "name" he'd made for himself; the other was the moniker itself, which ultimately had to go before anyone might consider taking him seriously.

Thus did the hot-headed Marky Mark, frontman for an early-'90s rap band known as the Funky Bunch, apparently come-of-age, turning over a new leaf by getting back in touch with his own roots, reclaiming his given name, and becoming the serious-minded actor Mark Wahlberg. If anyone ever scoffed at his dubious beginnings or ever dismissed him as just another buff body or ever doubted his acting abilities (based on early roles in the likes of Renaissance Man or Fear), Wahlberg has effectively and systematically confounded his skeptics.

As a vulnerable teen-turned-veritable stud in director Paul Thomas Anderson's '70s porn-industry saga Boogie Nights (1997), he redefined his bad-ass image with a performance that was suitably tough and surprisingly tender in equal measure. More recently, coincidentally paired opposite George Clooney in both, Wahlberg scored with critics as a stalwart Desert Storm trooper in Three Kings (1999) and with audiences as an ill-fated New England fisherman in last year's box-office blockbuster The Perfect Storm.

Now, in director Tim Burton's reimagined Planet of the Apes (opening July 27), the 30-year-old actor seems to be taking a shot at mainstream superstardom. Loosely based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (filmed before in 1968), it's easily the most expensive and most hyped movie in Wahlberg's relatively short career. It's his first attempt at playing a bona fide action hero - he earned a reported $10 million for playing the "Charlton Heston role" of an astronaut mysteriously transported to a parallel universe where simians rule - and it's the first time Wahlberg has received solo above-the-title billing, to boot.

"I'm just glad it's not second to George Clooney again, because I've had enough of THAT," he quips during a recent interview in New York. But, seriously, Wahlberg continues, "Nothing else mattered to me except working with Tim Burton, you know? It wasn't about making a good career move or whether the movie was going to make a lot of money. I signed on specifically to do a Tim Burton movie, but all of a sudden it's turning into my debut as a big-time action hero or whatever. There's all this pressure on me right now, but I never thought about any of that at the time."

That Wahlberg would call Planet of the Apes the most physically challenging experience of his career is really saying something, considering he came into the project fresh from The Perfect Storm. "It's different. I mean, I guess I'd rather get beaten up by a bunch of apes than submerged in all that water. That was much more uncomfortable, but this was physically draining, too. In Perfect Storm, we didn't have to be in great shape. We were doing the fisherman thing, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. On this, I had to get beaten up for 12 or 14 hours a day, and then go work out for another hour," he explains with a laugh.

And that's not counting all the "verbal abuse" Wahlberg claims he suffered at the hands of his heavily disguised co-stars (including Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Clarke Duncan). As he puts it, "I guess I sort of asked for it. I'd always give them a hard time, because they had to show up at 4 or 5 in the morning to start getting into their ape make-up, and I'd stroll in around 8 or 9 bragging about what a full-night's sleep I'd had. Somebody like Tim Roth, who's such a nice guy OUT of his makeup, got back at me on the set by calling me Marky Mark all the time."

Will poor Wahlberg NEVER live down his past? "You know, for a long time I figured I deserved it, because I've done a lot of bad and stupid things, but by now I think I've just about paid for my mistakes," he replies. "It bothered me for a while, but it really doesn't anymore. I've certainly proven myself to the people it really matters to. Filmmakers and my peers, they seem to have let me live it down, so I don't mind it that much if I'm walking down the street and somebody says, 'Yo, Marky Mark, what's up?'"

What's up for Wahlberg is the romantic thriller The Truth About Charlie, which he recently finished shooting in Paris. Directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), it's a remake of the '60s classic Charade, with Wahlberg and Thandie Newton (Mission Impossible 2) in the Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn roles (and with Tim Robbins as Walter Matthau). And this fall he opens in Rock Star (with Jennifer Aniston), playing the lead singer of a "tribute band" struggling to find his own voice.

Wahlberg says he really related to the role - and, as the former hotheaded rapper continues to establish a legitimate acting career for himself, there's little reason to doubt him.