Mark Wahlberg was interviewed in a recent article from USA Today.
BURBANK, Calif. – Mark Wahlberg stares at the motorcycle helmet at his feet, contemplating wearing it during an appearance on Conan O'Brien's talk show.
Someone backstage bet him $20 he wouldn't, and Wahlberg is weighing the shock value. "I ought to just run out with it on and freak him out," he says of the oblivious host. "He wouldn't know what to do."
A stagehand tells Wahlberg he's on in 10 seconds, and the star walks out sans headgear. But he was tempted.
"Especially in this business, if someone says you can't do something, you just want to do it more," Wahlberg says.
Even if it means dancing like a klutz, singing like a tone-deaf lounge act and wrestling a foul-mouthed teddy bear, all stunts he had to pull for Ted, a comedy that opens Friday.
The role seems an unlikely match for a guy who's cut like a boxer, swears like a sailor and did two months in a Boston jail for assault when he was a kid.
But the odd fit can suit Wahlberg. The 41-year-old father of four played a porn star in Boogie Nights, an anti-petroleum nut in I Heart Huckabees and a dense gumshoe in The Other Guys.
But Ted may be Wahlberg's largest on-screen leap yet. The story about a teddy bear who comes to life and becomes a fluffy nightmare (think Teddy Ruxpin on coke) initially struck Wahlberg as so outlandish that he declined on the concept alone.
"It was a little too out there," the two-time Oscar nominee says in Conan's green room, while waiting for Mitt Romney's five sons to finish their shtick. "I wasn't exactly looking to do a movie with a teddy bear."
But after meeting Ted director and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, his interest was piqued.
"Thirty pages in, and I was sold," says Wahlberg, who had never seen a Family Guy episode before taking the part. "It's really a story about friendship, relationships — you forget it's about a bear."
He grins, shakes his head, chuckles. He knows there's no escaping the film's hook. "Though (Ted) does do some crazy (stuff)."
That stuff includes snorting a lot of blow, inviting many a hooker to his apartment and getting randy with inanimate objects. Despite the tawdry antics, Wahlberg agreed to do the R-rated film as long as he didn't have to do three scenes: a clumsy dance number, singing a flat-note ballad at the Hollywood Bowl and a brawl with a teddy bear that leaves him with a crushed penis.
He wound up doing all three.
"What can I say?" Wahlberg says with a shrug. "Seth is a sweetheart and a smart guy. He's convincing."
Enjoy four clips from 'Ted'
A Hollywood multitasker
So, too, can be Wahlberg. For all the ridicule he's taken for being rapper Marky Mark and a Calvin Klein underwear model, Wahlberg has become one of Hollywood's most powerful fortysomethings.
Consider: Wahlberg has been nominated for two Oscars (a supporting-actor nomination for 2006's The Departed and a best-picture nomination for 2010's The Fighter, which he starred in and co-produced ). He's also produced more than two dozen titles, including HBO's Entourage and Boardwalk Empire. He's developing an Entourage movie, though no release date is set.
"He doesn't get enough credit for it, but Mark is a guy of a million different colors," MacFarlane says.
Still, MacFarlane concedes he was looking for the same hue most directors seek when they hire the Boston native: something dark.
"There really was a very short list of actors who could have played this part," MacFarlane says. "The idea of the bear's existence is ridiculous enough. The rest had to be realistic, and there aren't many guys who can pull off an R-rated comedy."
Adult themes, Wahlberg can do. He almost didn't get out of Boston's impoverished Dorchester neighborhood, where he clashed with cops and did two months on various theft and assault charges.
VIDEO: 'Ted' Hollywood premiere
Since then, Wahlberg has gained, if anything, a reputation as one of Hollywood's more conservative residents. He takes his family to Mass weekly, though he laments getting more scripts handed to him during service.
"The moment he comes on set, he feels like a big brother," says co-star Mila Kunis. "I just felt, if I ever needed it, he'd stand up for me."
After heavy turns as a boxer in The Fighter and a smuggler in this year's surprise winter hit Contraband ($67 million), Wahlberg says he was looking for lighter fare. He's a fan of hopscotching: After playing a soft-spoken mathematician in 2008's The Happening, Wahlberg says he took the action lead in Max Payne later that year "so I could blow (stuff) up."
Ted was nothing if not a change of pace, though its Hangover-style humor was a draw. He's done nearly three dozen films, not one of which he's allowed his children, ages 2 to 8, to watch. Though most of his films are too adult-themed for kids, one, he admits, is off-limits because he's embarrassed: 2001 remake Planet of the Apes remains one of his worst movie experiences.
"One of the kids saw it when we were flipping channels and said the monkeys looked funny," Wahlberg says. "I couldn't disagree."
Relating to a talking teddy
That's when Wahlberg swore off movies about talking animals.
But parenting, he says, has softened his view. His goal is to make a movie his kids can watch someday.
"The more I read (the script) and talked with Seth, the more I realized it's about trying to keep this balance between your friendship and your relationship," he says.
One of those relationships just happens to be with a computer-generated teddy bear. Wahlberg says that for all the film's silliness, Ted posed an acting first: working in CGI.
In every scene, the bear (voiced by MacFarlane) was inserted digitally after the rest was shot. Which meant nearly half of Wahlberg's scenes went without an actual co-star, including the heavily advertised fight between Ted and Wahlberg's character, John Bennett.
For that scene, Wahlberg gripped severed teddy bear arms and threw himself about a hotel room, emulating a brawl.
Wahlberg grins recounting the scene, one he thought he'd never do.
"It's a little freaky at first; I enjoy working with other actors," he says. "But you gotta push yourself. If you're not going to mix it up, you're not going to have fun."