Mark Wahlberg discusses why he was determined to bring the story of boxer-come-priest Father Stu to the big screen and why he believes that everyone, whatever their beliefs, will be able to relate to his story.

Based on a true story, Father Stu tells the story of a lost soul who finds his purpose in the most unexpected place.

When an injury ends his amateur boxing career, Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) moves to L.A. dreaming of stardom. While scraping by as a supermarket clerk, he meets Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a Catholic Sunday school teacher who seems immune to his bad-boy charm.

Determined to win her over, the longtime agnostic starts going to church to impress her. But surviving a terrible motorcycle accident leaves him wondering if he can use his second chance to help others find their way, leading to the surprising realisation that he is meant to be a Catholic priest.

Mark Wahlberg: "It was my mission to get the movie made"

Despite a devastating health crisis and the scepticism of Church officials and his estranged parents (Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver), Stu pursues his vocation with courage and compassion, inspiring not only those closest to him but countless others along the way.

In a candid chat Mark Wahlberg shares the parallels of his life with Father Stu, discusses the physical changes he undertook to play the boxer-come-priest and admits he was nervous to show the movie to those who knew the real Father Stu best.

Why was it important for you to tell Father Stu's Story?
Mark Wahlberg: Stu’s story moved me in a lot of different ways and for different reasons; it paralleled my life in certain ways, certainly my teenage years and my young adult life, how I went from running the streets to finding my faith, my transition into my career, and now my purpose of helping others who grew up like me to push through, get out there and do His work.

Do you remember how you found out about Father Stu and what your initial reaction was?
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was at dinner in Beverly Hills with two priests from my parish. Father O’Ryan, who’s 90-something years old, and I are just trying to enjoy our dinner and Father Ed keeps talking about this movie that he wants to make with me. I say "Ed, you kind of do your job and I’ll do mine."

We need your consent to load this comcast-player contentWe use comcast-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

But, you know, he had told me the story once and he started to tell me the story again. It was something specific about an encounter that Stu had with a woman when he became a priest and how he never lost his edge and he was brutally honest with everybody that he met. Whether it was good news or bad news, he was going to give it to you the way he saw it.

My wife had also heard the story from Ed and she told me I should do it, so I asked him to tell me the story from the beginning. From that point on it was my mission to get the movie made.

Can you talk about working with Rosey and how she came to be part of the project?
You know, when I was developing this with David O. Russell originally, we were going down a different road and I just kept meeting different roadblocks and obstacles that we had to overcome. Ultimately, we mutually decided I was going to go on my own path and journey to make the movie as he was focusing on other things. It was amicable. Then, I was talking to Mel [Gibson] and just kind of picking his brain about his path in making The Passion of the Christ, which was something that really inspired me. I read Rosey’s writing – she had written Destroyer, which Mel was going to direct and I was going to star in - and Stu’s story wasn’t really her thing but she kind of raised her hand anyway.

You’d have to ask her why she felt compelled to raise her hand and throw her hat in the ring, but I said "okay, take your crack at it." Literally, three months later she handed me a screenplay that I wanted to make and I knew this is the movie that we were going to make and this is how we were going to make it.

Stu doesn’t start out as a saint and his journey to finding his faith is tumultuous, to say the least. Do you feel that there’s an appetite for stories like these?
I feel like people are starving for this, not just in the Catholic community but in every other denomination, people who don’t necessarily have faith or who don’t have something to believe in. We wanted to make a movie for everybody.

And I always felt like we had to make it very real. We wanted to touch people and we wanted it to ring true, to who Stu was and to how people are. People are faced with and dealing with a lot of problems. Real-life can be very difficult for everybody. I don’t care where you come from, how much money you have, that doesn’t make you happy. Those things aren’t necessarily fulfilling. You could live to 100 years old and life is still very short. I’ve dealt with a lot of loss, especially recently, and it’s very difficult to deal with but ultimately, I feel like I should celebrate those people that I lost because we’ve had nothing but wonderful memories. Even with the hard times, you never really remember them. You always remember the wonderful times.

The real Father Stu "felt it in his soul that this was what he was supposed to do"

Can you tell us more about Stu’s journey from championship boxer to actor to priest and how that unlikely path is part of what makes his story so unique?
It’s why I love showing the movie to people who don’t know what the story’s about because it is the least predictable movie that you will ever see. I showed it to filmmakers like James Gray and I didn’t tell anybody what the movie was about. I just said "I really need you to come watch this. Come sit down, tell me what you think. I need your help to guide me through the post-production process," and they could not believe what they were watching.

They started saying "oh, this is very similar to The Fighter." It’s a funny, family drama. Next thing you know, he’s in Hollywood. They’re like "oh, this is even funnier. This guy’s trying to make it. He’s so naïve thinking he’s going to make it in a week." He gets a mop commercial, falls in love… they’re asking "where is this movie going?"

That was very much his journey. He just thought "I’ll go to LA and I’ll make it." This guy was successful at everything that he had done, whether it was playing football, even at a collegiate level, boxing at an amateur level, and then going to Hollywood, and he realises that it isn’t happening.

Then he fell in love with this incredible woman. She introduced him to God. She was the one who brought him to the church. When she was out there, recruiting people, he was the first one to follow her lead but he didn’t follow her lead because he was looking for faith. He was looking for love and would do anything to win her over.

Stuart’s relationship with his mother is fundamental to his story. Why was it important to include her and how did she influence the Stu Long we see in the film?
Stu always maintained that connection, that relationship with his mom, and was always angry with his dad. People have had complex relationships with their parents. I’ve got three teenagers and a preteen right now and I’m dealing with that constantly. Trying to do a better job than my parents did, even though it’s still the first time for me.

Jacki Weaver stars as Father Stu's mother and Wahlberg says "she brought so much love to the part"

And one of my favourite scenes - I think it’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie – is when he tells his mother that he’s going to be a priest. And at first, she thinks he’s going to do something else like be in an adult film because he’s in LA trying to become an actor. He’s sitting in the roadblocks so she thinks that’s the path that he might go on. And then when she realises he’s talking about joining the priesthood, she thinks this is just the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard.

Jacki Weaver plays Stu’s mom, what was it like working with her?
If it wasn’t for what Rosey was able to put on the page and if Stu’s story hadn’t touched everybody who heard it, we wouldn’t have been able to get the cast that we got. Jacki is so sweet, so loving yet so tough. She probably thought I was weird because I was constantly hugging her! I don’t do the whole method thing that often, but with certain people, if it’s the right relationship, I want to keep that energy up. So I got her to hug me and she just brought so much love to the part.

Tell me about the character of Carmen and why she’s so important to Stu’s path?
It certainly wasn’t the path that he thought he was going on. He was looking for the path to pleasure with his very attractive young lady and was taken by her looks and her appearance. He had no idea that she was really committed to doing God’s work and serving God in the church and going out there, evangelising and recruiting people to come to the church. When he met her, he was just telling her whatever she wanted to hear. As she was convincing him that he had to be baptised and all these things, he was really torn and conflicted. Obviously, by now he had fallen in love with this woman for how beautiful she was on the inside. He had fallen in love with her for all the right reasons that would allow them to have a real, meaningful relationship.

Teresa Ruiz plays Carmen, Stu's "catalyst" for joining the priesthood

But he was so conflicted because of his calling. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he also knew that she was the catalyst for him now being in this place where he was so extremely committed to serving God. He was actually going to dedicate the rest of his life and become a priest. And she became the one who pushed to get him ordained. That was fantastic. There are many other ways to serve God than becoming a priest, but she was so selfless and knew that this guy really was committed in a real way and that it wasn’t just some crazy idea that he had. He felt it in his soul that this was what he was supposed to do and that she was the one to help him and support him… it’s a beautiful story and important in particular to cast Teresa Ruiz in this part.

Of all the people that you’ve shown the film to, how does it feel to show those who knew Father Stu best?
I’m both nervous and excited. You know, obviously, we had to take certain liberties and artistic leaps to be able to tell his story in a condensed two hours, but hopefully, we ultimately captured the essence of who he was as a man and as a son and a father and a teacher and a confidant to so many people.

So yes, you always feel an enormous sense of responsibility when playing a real-life person. But imagine depicting the story of people who dealt with such tragedy, but then also such ultimate hope and faith and inspiration. It’s tough, they’re equally important.

During the development process, Wahlberg frequently consulted friend and fellow Catholic filmmaker Mel Gibson

Can you talk about some of the physical changes you underwent to play Stu in the different stages of his life and illness?
Well, you know, in order to honestly depict the physicality, I wanted to play him as young as I could believably play him, so as a boxer. I didn’t want to cast a 20-something actor so we didn’t really put a number on his age as a boxer. Then we have him getting to Hollywood and then of course seeing him go to seminary - which was the most important part of the film for us - dealing after he was diagnosed with IBM, and then everything else that happened up until his passing. This was the first time that I really did it under the watchful eye of nutritionists and doctors. But it’s also the first time that it really affected me physically. You know, I’m 50 years old now.

I had made a movie right before this. I had gotten a parasite when I was down in the Dominican Republic shooting a movie, running through the mud in the jungle, had a bad bout with my stomach for quite some time, and then I had to go on to Father Stu. We shot the first scene… the first day we shot the boxing, which was Stu at his most fit and healthy. And that night, we started a 7,000 calorie a day diet for the first two weeks. And then after the first two weeks, went to 11,000 calories for the final four weeks of the shoot. And it just took a toll on me, you know.

And you’re talking to the 20-year-olds in this industry, right?
Exactly, or the 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds, but not the 50-year-olds. And you always want that. I mean everybody looks at Robert De Niro. "We’re gonna do the Raging Bull thing. We’ve gotta do the Raging Bull thing." If you’re an actor, you’ve got to be able to do that. You’ve got to transform. I always look at certain actors who never want to change and they never want to differentiate from who they are or what the audiences come to know as them. But me, I’ve always been able to defy the expectations or just prove people wrong that I could do different things and challenge myself on a physical level as well as an emotional and mental level.

Father Stu is in cinemas nationwide now