There are some roles actors will do anything to pull off.
For Donnie Wahlberg that was Vincent Gray, the disturbed former mental patient who propels 1999's "The Sixth Sense" into darkness after he breaks in and kills his former psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), before shooting himself.
The 28-year-old Wahlberg, who jumped to fame as a founding member of New Kids On the Block, had to fight to convince writer/director M. Night Shyamalan that he could take on the pivotal part – Gray serves as the tragic predecessor to Cole Sear (11-year-old Haley Joel Osment), who sees "dead people."
Shyamalan's leap-of-faith casting compelled Wahlberg to take an all-consuming journey, losing 43 pounds, to enter Gray's disturbed mindset.
As "The Sixth Sense" turns 20 on Aug. 6, the three-minute Gray scene remains utterly unforgettable, more so in light of how perfecting it haunted Wahlberg.
"This was a game-changer for me. Every day for years people would say, 'Dude, I didn't know that was you,' " says "Blue Bloods" star Wahlberg, now 49. "At that time, I did exactly what I needed to do for the role. I had to look like I was going through hell. I went to a really dark place."
Here's Wahlberg's story:
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He cried when he read the 'Sixth Sense' script
Wahlberg, who starred as a kidnapper in 1996's "Ransom," picked up the "Sixth Sense" script during a 1998 flight and was consumed as he turned the pages. "I totally started crying on the plane," he says. But he was convinced there was not a part for him, especially not heroin-abusing, emaciated Gray.
"Nothing about me was right for the part, except for my total enthusiasm for the script," says Wahlberg, who was too old for the character and too physically fit. ("I was really working out at the time.") But he flew to New York City to meet with Shyamalan, even just to profess his script love.
The director calculated that conceivably Gray could be 20, a workable number. After another meeting six months later he offered Wahlberg the part. When his agent balked at the low pay offer for the day of filming, Wahlberg overruled him.
"I said, 'I don’t care, I’d do it for free,' " says Wahlberg. "So I took the part and I subsequently fired my manager for telling me to pass."
Wahlberg wanted to play Vincent nude
During a film workshop with Willis and Olivia Williams (Malcolm's wife, Anna), Wahlberg proposed playing Gray nude rather than the goth clothing detailed in the script.
"If Vincent is coming to stop his suffering and end his own life, then why is he wearing anything? To me, he strips down and is in the bathroom fully naked, clothes on the floor," says Wahlberg. "Bruce thought that was awesome and pitched the idea to M. Night, who was like, 'That's insane. I love it.' "
Wahlberg now had to fully look the part. "I had to become emaciated and change my physical appearance."
The actor went mad method preparing
Wahlberg left his then-wife, Kimberly Fey, and two kids, moving to a sparse New York City apartment to get into the Vincent Gray mindset, bringing no credit cards.
"I starved myself. I would fast for two days then only eat steamed cabbage and drink beet juice. I would chew gum all day and I would literally walk around the streets to burn thousands of calories. I didn’t shower for weeks," says Wahlberg. "I just wasn’t taking care of myself and I was a loner. That was as close as I could come to this guy. I definitely had to suffer in the only way I could."
"I was so hungry. I was depressed," he says. "I cut off my life to get ready for the role."
Five weeks later, he showed up to "The Sixth Sense" set having dropped 43 pounds to a scary 139. "I passed Night and he didn’t recognize me. He just walked right past," says Wahlberg.
Sent to wardrobe, the actor found out that the film would be rated PG-13, so that would require clothes after all.
"I was like 'Oh (expletive), I just lost 40 (expletive) pounds. And now I have to just wear clothes.' I was so conflicted," says Wahlberg. He struck a quick compromise: wearing Vincent's "tidy whiti" underwear.
"I asked to make (the underwear) look like I hadn’t changed them in, like, two years," he says. "They soiled them up. That became the wardrobe."
The scene wowed Willis, Shyamalan
Shooting the first take where Vincent confronts his former doctor, Wahlberg was told to cut before Vincent's final act – putting the gun to his own head. But "out of my mind" in emotion, he pulled off the whole scene. To perfection.
"I fell on the floor, and I remember Bruce was like, 'Whoa!' and I was bawling my eyes out. M. Night came running over and was hugging me. He was like, 'That was so unbelievable.' I was thinking that I’m done. And M. Night was like, 'OK. Can you do it again?' I was like, 'What?' "
In his consuming preparation, Wahlberg had forgotten the filmmaking process, which required a full day of specialty shots. "I thought I had to nail it in one shot," says Wahlberg. "But I had, like, eight hours of work ahead of me."
He pushed through and Willis gave a speech thanking him at the end of the day. Wahlberg still looks in awe at pictures from that time. ("I looked like a crazy person.")
He has never had to dig that deep for a part since. But Vincent Gray lives on with "The Sixth Sense."
"The movie is such a great source of pride for me. Not just my work but to be part of that group," says Wahlberg of the film that would go on to earn six Academy Award nominations. "Everyone brought it so hard for that movie."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Sixth Sense' at 20: Donnie Wahlberg starved for Vincent Gray's hell