Exclusive Interview: Contraband Star Mark Wahlberg

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Actor Mark Wahlberg has done a number of crime-related thrillers and dramas over the past few years, but his latest movie Contraband is a little bit different as it allowed him to form a partnership with Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, who has established himself in his home country and the festival circuit directing films like 101 Reykjavik and Jar City. In 2008, Kormakur produced and starred in a relatively little-known heist-thriller called Reykjavik – Rotterdam, but when he decided to do an English language version of it, he joined together with Working Title Films and eventually Wahlberg and his production company.

In Contraband, Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a New Orleans family man–married to Kate Beckinsale, no less– whose brother-in-law has gotten in trouble with Briggs, a local criminal played by Giovanni Ribisi. With his friend Sebastian Ben Foster, Chris puts together a team to pull off one last job, smuggling counterfeit currency from Panama via cargo ships, but those plans quickly run aground as Briggs wants his money.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Wahlberg last week to talk about his latest venture. It’s actually cool talking to him now that he’s become more involved with the production side of the movies he’s in, because you can tell he’s a lot more passionate about a movie like Contraband than some of the past projects.

ComingSoon.net: I don’t think I realized when I did the press conference a few weeks back that Balthazar played the role you play in this movie in the original Icelandic film. How far along were they in the remake before you got involved as a producer and actor?
Mark Wahlberg:
Not very far at all. (Balthazar) is at the same agency as ours, so we saw the original and we said, “Okay, we’ll partner up with Working Title” and then we hired Aaron Guzikowski who had written something else that we were attached to, and we introduced Balt to Sheila Jaffe, who had cast both of our projects, and that was it.

CS: I haven’t seen the other movie but was it really obvious it could translate to the States from watching it?
Wahlberg:
Oh, for sure. It was so well done, and it was different. You know how many heist thrillers there are, but it was just different in the way it was executed and I just loved it. It was fresh and interesting and obviously, they weren’t smuggling counterfeit money or dealing with drugs. We had to change some things. The coolest thing was that the ending of that one… (At this point, he talks very specifically about the ending of the two movies and how they differ, but you’ll have to watch the movies since we’re not gonna spoil either of them. Sorry!)

CS: But otherwise, was it very similar to the original movie in terms of the characters and different beats? You’re playing Balt’s character basically…
Wahlberg:
Yeah, that was my only real concern that he was going to start making comparisons with what he did in the movie or what he would want me to do, but he really wanted me to do my own thing.

CS: I imagine they’d make a very different movie in Iceland, although you also have an Icelandic director.
Wahlberg:
Yeah, but I love his sensibility and his approach to making movies and how smart he is as a director with actors, because he’s such a great director, too.

CS: What about the casting of the other actors? Were many of these guys people you wanted to work with or that you knew from outside work?
Wahlberg:
I met Ben. I went up to Ben and introduced myself and I told him how fond I was of his work, and he read the script and then sitting down with Sheila and said “Ben Foster would be amazing in this part” and Giovanni was also on our wish list, and I didn’t think we’d get him, but we got him. And then Giovanni and I went on to work together again right after that on a Seth McFarlane movie.

CS: Giovanni’s an interesting choice. Again, I haven’t seen the original movie, but his character could be a more imposing physical guy and he’s not, but he still feels dangerous because he’s crazy. Can you talk about how you picked him in that role and making him feel imposing though he’s not physically imposing compared to you?
Wahlberg:
Yeah, but he’s so intense anyway, that you really feel it, and he’s really such a great actor that I thought it would be really powerful and you could see during the process of preparation and rehearsals and stuff, he was trying different things and playing with the accent and the look. He’s just such a talented guy.

CS: Absolutely. When Balt was talking about making the movie at the press conference, he gave us the impression that it wasn’t a very big budget movie even though it has a pretty big scale.
Wahlberg:
It was big for Balt. He never made a movie with that kind of a budget, but it was definitely small, and we wanted to scale it back, but he really knows how to stretch a dollar, and he was never used to having that kind of money. When he’d see a craft service table, he’d say “That’s not lunch, get that out of here!”

CS: He made it sound like some of the large ships were just filmed grabbing footage wherever he could, almost guerilla style.
Wahlberg:
Yeah, he just gets right in there by himself with the cameras and everything else. It’s good to see, because then you get on another movie and it’s back to people going slow, and things dragging. You get spoiled by working with a guy like Balt, because I like to work fast. I don’t like sitting around wasting too much time.

CS: It must have a very different energy on a movie like that, because for you, this is a fairly low budget movie I imagine, and I guess “The Fighter” was similar to that, so do these movies have a different type of energy
Wahlberg:
Yeah, but I like working like that. That’s the road we’re taking. We’ve got studios that are scared to make a lot of mid-level budget movies. They’re either spending the $250 million on the big spectacle then not wanting to make the more mid-level movies, so what we’re doing is we’re trying to figure out a way to scale the budget down even more, so they have a lot more potential to succeed and more profitable, and we still get to do our thing and once the movie is as successful as we hope, then we should be able to participate in the profit.

CS: Oh, absolutely, and you see all these movies coming out of Europe and Asia where filmmakers can make larger scale movies for less than an American movie would cost to make.
Wahlberg:
Yeah, we want to put the money on the screen, and we’ve been able to figure out ways to do that, and we continue to try to find interesting films that we think we can translate to US audiences and interesting filmmakers that we can work with.

CS: Very cool. You seem to always come back to the crime genre even if this movie is different than “The Departed” or “The Italian Job” or others, and I wondered why that world keeps drawing you back.
Wahlberg:
Well, certainly my own real life experience growing up the way that I did, that’s what draws me to it. I like things that I can relate to and identify with on a personal level. Those are also the kinds of movies that I grew up watching, too. I love all those older gangster pictures, street crime, criminals, danger.

CS: Lately, you’ve also been doing more comedy, creating a nice niche with “The Other Guys” and “Date Night,” so do you feel the need to do that to balance the gritty crime films?
Wahlberg:
Yeah, you want to mix it up all the time, too. I usually want to do the complete opposite of the last thing I did, you know? So we did “Ted” after “Contraband” and now we’re doing “Broken City” which is a crime-thriller but very dramatic, more serious film that could potentially be an awards contender.

CS: I like the Hughes Brothers a lot and I’m interested to see what they do on their own since they’ve done so much great work together.
Wahlberg:
Yeah, it’s been great working with Allen. He’s really talented and we get along really well, and we put together a great cast and a great team and it’s been fun. We both reacted the same way to the script, it was a Blacklist script.

CS: You’ve been having so much success as a producer between the movies and the stuff you’re doing with HBO, so do you see that as a key to the projects you do.
Wahlberg:
You’ll certainly be able to maintain a lot more control that way, so yeah, it’s important. We never wanted to sit around and wait for great scripts to come and great directors to hire us, so we were always trying to develop our own material in hopes of eventually producing and having more control.

CS: It’s been roughly a year since “The Fighter” so have you spent the last year developing all these different movies and getting them ready to shoot? How is it balancing the producing and getting projects rolling while also acting in movies?
Wahlberg:
I’m so hands-on anyway that it just works well.

CS: So you just end up working 15 hours day to get all of this happening?
Wahlberg:
Yeah, but I still find time to get my sleep and my rest and that’s just part of the gig.

CS: How many projects do you generally have on the table that you’re developing at any given time?
Wahlberg:
It really depends. If we come across something that we like or we have any idea, we just start developing it and putting it together. There’s no time limit and no amount of projects that we think is too much or too little.

CS: Is it hard keeping a lot of balls in the air when you’re focusing on “Boardwalk Empire” and “Broken City” and getting “Contraband” out there? How far in advance are you generally working and thinking ahead in terms of an actor and producer?
Wahlberg:
You know, there’s only so much time in the day, so it really depends. Every project is different, but I’m always on the ball, so I always like to get them going sooner rather than later.

And you can read about some of the projects Mark Wahlberg is currently working on here.

Contraband opens nationwide on Friday, January 13.