During his two decades in the movie biz, Mark Wahlberg has enjoyed astonishing success, both as an actor and a producer. He netted an Oscar nod for his turn in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and helped turn movies as diverse as “Ted,” “Planet of the Apes,” and “2 Guns” into hits.
He is a behind-the-scenes mastermind; according to the Hollywood Reporter, he’s “one of the few producers who can get things made.” Among his wins are “The Fighter,” “Prisoners,” and “Contraband” as well as HBO’s “Entourage” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
But Wahlberg says his latest movie, “Lone Survivor,” stands apart from his other projects. Based on a memoir by Marcus Luttrell, the film chronicles a botched Navy SEAL raid in Afghanistan, which left 19 men dead. Only Luttrell made it out alive.
Getting the story of the mission and Luttrell’s (Wahlberg) survival right was an assignment the actor took very seriously.
“Everybody involved in the movie really wanted to make a tribute to those guys who sacrificed their lives to protect us,” says Wahlberg, 42.
“Usually everybody has their own… priorities and their own motivations when making a movie. This wasn’t the case. Every single person was there to do the same thing – to tell this story.
“That goes for the people in front of and behind the camera. I’ve never experienced that, in my 30-some-odd movies that I’ve made. I’m just lucky to have experienced it this one time. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience it again.”
Wahlberg says that not even the Oscar-nominated “Fighter” can compare to “Lone Survivor.”
“[For ‘The Fighter’], I spent four and a half years in training while we were trying to get the movie green lit. Something would happen and then I would stop training, and it’s not like riding a bike. You lose those skills. In hindsight, it was a great thing because I got to look like a guy who could win the [boxing] title.
“But this was just different. ‘Lone Survivor’ meant so much more to everybody that was involved. Like I said, even on ‘The Fighter,’ people had their own agenda. This time it was all about telling a story and getting it right because if we didn’t get it right, it was a problem for so many people that were affected by the story.”
Eric Bana, who plays Wahlberg’s commander in “Lone Survivor” and also starred in “Black Hawk Down” about another doomed military operation in the Middle East, believes director Peter Berg’s decision to surround the actors with so many active and retired SEALs increased the camaraderie on the set.
“These guys share so much of their stories with you and their lives with you,” says Bana. “They’re respectful of what you’re trying to do for them. It’s a very unique relationship. … I have three or four really close friends from ‘Black Hawk Down.’
“It’s a different kind of experience. It’s not an acting experience. It’s a personal experience.”
Set in 2005, “Lone Survivor” (opening Friday, Jan. 10) begins with four SEALs being dropped by helicopter into the Kunar mountains of Afghanistan. Their mission is to capture or kill Taliban honcho Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), a man who might be responsible for the deaths of as many as 20 Marines.
The SEALs team consists of Lt. Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), and Petty Officers 2nd Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster).
Early into the mission, the SEALs are spotted by three local goatherds. The soldiers capture the Afghans quickly but are instantly faced with a moral quandary. Some members of the team think the captives should be killed while others believe their lives should be spared.
The Afghans are freed, but it’s a bad decision. The shepherds report the Americans’ location back to the Taliban. A vicious firefight ensues.
Director Peter Berg began working on the project more than five years ago. Back in 2010, he embedded himself with a SEAL platoon in Iraq. He also enlisted Luttrell to accompany him across the country so he could speak to the families of the soldiers who died during the mission.
The families were also invited to Albuquerque, N.M., near where the film was shot, to meet the actors who would be playing their sons. Wahlberg attended a dinner for the visiting families and, afterwards, met with each member individually.
Wahlberg is no stranger to docudramas. He played the real-life Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale in “Invincible,” sailor Robert Shatford in “The Perfect Storm,” and Boston boxer “Irish” Micky Ward in “The Fighter.”
“Obviously, you have a huge sense of responsibility when you’re playing a real person,” says the actor, who’s married to former model Rhea Durham with whom he has four children, ages 3 to 10. “My goal is to make sure they are comfortable with what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. And of course the magnitude of Marcus and what he experienced and what his team’s families experienced, that adds the pressure a lot more.”
The cast members took pains to make sure they were well prepared for the 45-day shoot. Real-life SEALs trained the four principal actors before and during filming. If the actors made a false step, the SEALs would let them know.
“If you weren’t getting it right, you were going to hear about it,” says Wahlberg. “They obviously had a green light to stop anything at any time and make us do it again until we got it right.”
For most of the shoot, the cast and crew spent their days high up in the New Mexico mountains, where comfort, let alone glamour, was in short supply.
“Everybody would just go up on that mountain,” Wahlberg told the Hollywood Reporter. “Nobody ever tried to go down. There wasn’t hanging-out-in-trailers or any of that stuff. You were up there at 14,000 feet, and you were up there all day.”
Authenticity was always the goal. “We wanted to make it as real as we could without real blood and real bullets,” says the actor. “We are pretending, but we made sure to surround ourselves with the best possible people, people who were willing to go as deep as we had to go, even to risk getting hurt, because there were some pretty hairy moments there.
“Filming those scenes, and those falls, and those gun battles, without taking a little bit of risk is hard. But we were all willing to do it.”
Wahlberg and company were not only willing to it, but they were willing to do it without much moaning and groaning.
“[Making the movie] was tough,” says Wahlberg, who will next be seen in Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
“But once you’d start feeling sorry for yourself or you’d be ready to start complaining, you’d look at Marcus and find all the inspiration and motivation you needed.”