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The Ferocious Drive of Mark Wahlberg

This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Mark Wahlberg grips the wheel of his black Mercedes S600. His eyes scan the streets, alert to danger. We're driving through the hilly part of Beverly Hills. He's fast but not furious. He makes you feel safe.

Then he pulls up abruptly to an elegant megamansion in the final stages of construction. The place is enormous -- it's 30,000 square feet and three stories tall (if you include the basement), a modern-day Versailles, so huge it dwarfs many of the gargantuan houses around it.

Dozens of workers scurry around, racing to finish the building before Wahlberg moves in at the beginning of 2014. But there's a massive amount to be done -- wooden and marble floors to be laid, walls painted. And the front yard looks like a construction site.

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"We got the doors yet?" Wahlberg asks a foreman as he gets out of the car.

"They're being shipped," the man replies with a shrug.

If the answer isn't quite what Wahlberg wanted, he shows no sign of irritation. He's long gotten used to dealing with obstacles like these, and worse -- money that fell through for films; producers who didn't believe in him; even thugs who jumped him in jail and gangbangers who tried to keep him on the gritty streets of Boston. None of it gets to him anymore. Because he knows he's going to win.

He leads me into the house and shows me around. "When I built it, I didn't necessarily know if this was something we were going to live in," he acknowledges as we move through the two-story foyer. "[But] I knew it was a smart investment; after the market crashes, I don't want some stockbroker calling me, saying, 'Hey, by the way, you lost everything.' "

He leads me to the garden and a grottolike pool, dug into a covelike setting with hills blocking out the neighbors. (Well, most of them: Wahlberg jokes that WME agent Adam Venit, whose home is perched above, keeps asking in frustration, "When are you going to get it done?")

We head upstairs, past bedrooms for Wahlberg and his wife of five years, former model Rhea Durham, through the kids' rooms, and over to a two-level study, with a spiral staircase that takes you down to the basement below. It's the basement that thrills Wahlberg the most, especially an immense screening room that likely will top any belonging to his peers. "You can have 3D, everything," says Wahlberg, without gloating in the least, almost lost in the wonder of it all.

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Cast all doubt aside: Mark Wahlberg has arrived and is determined to stay.

At 42, he's reached the pinnacle of the entertainment world, with Oscar nominations for The Departed and The Fighter, blockbusters such as Ted and Planet of the Apes, and a reputation as one of the few producers who can get things made. "He has an incredible perspective on the business," says Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley. "I adore him."

Others note that neither The Fighter nor Boardwalk Empire nor Prisoners would have been made without him -- and yet he remains widely regarded as one of the most decent men in town.

"He's obviously extremely talented but also very humble," says Ted creator Seth MacFarlane. "He comes in with the same energy and humility as someone starting out. There's just zero entitlement and an enormous work ethic."

Wahlberg got $10 million for starring in last summer's 2 Guns, and sources say he'll make even more than that for Transformers: Age of Extinction, which opens June 27. He is that rare actor who can still play action roles in his 40s during this post-Stallone, post-Schwarzenegger era that has had so much trouble grooming action stars.

But he'll work for next to nothing if it's a labor of love -- like David O. Russell's $11 million biopic The Fighter, which he starred in and produced (and which grossed $129.2 million worldwide), or his upcoming war drama Lone Survivor, a roughly $40 million drama that opens Dec. 25 and tells the real-life story of American soldiers caught in a firefight in Afghanistan. Wahlberg resurrected the project when Universal decided not to finance it.

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Investors now are coming to him with cash ("We have no shortage of people trying to give us money," he says) and pleading with him to join their business ventures (in addition to filming, he owns two restaurants in Boston, one of which will be the basis of an A&E reality show, Wahlburgers).

But with all this; with enough wealth that he can afford this new house (after selling his old one for a reported $13 million); and with friends ranging from billionaire Nelson Peltz to rapper-mogul Sean Combs to WME's Ari Emanuel, he hasn't forgotten his roots.

Wahlberg created the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation in 2001 to help at-risk youths. "I set it up with my brother, James, who also has had a very difficult past -- sober for 27 years. He runs the foundation. And we've been able to do amazing things."

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He has accomplished so much, he could retire right now if he wanted. (In 2005, he said he was thinking of retiring by age 40, though he now jokes, "I was probably really tired.") But rather than step away, he's stepping it up.

He has two back-to-back movies ready to shoot: a remake of the 1974 drama The Gambler and Ted 2, which should shoot in April. He's bouncing from one meeting to another, including a lunch with Emanuel just before we meet ("He's a very serious, focused businessman"), and a pitch to NBC's Bob Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke later this Nov. 14 afternoon, when he'll try to sell them on a reboot of the Michael Landon series Highway to Heaven.

His energy is boundless, his ambition insatiable. He may just be the hardest-working man in show business -- a man who lives for a mission that is just now taking shape: to be a movie star-mogul.

"I want to build a great body of work; I want to build a great business," he says. "My goal is to finance my own projects, own my material, maybe even have a studio."

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Wahlberg's average day is enough to make you reel.

He gets up around 4.30 a.m. then hits his home gym, where he works out for an hour or more with a trainer.

By 6 a.m., he's eating breakfast, then he and Durham get their four kids, ages 3 to 10, dressed, fed and off to school. After that, Wahlberg heads to church. He prays almost every day, still loyal to the Roman Catholicism he grew up with, which became more and more important to him in his late 20s and 30s. "I don't go to Mass every day," he says. "But I like to start my day by going to get my 15 to 20 minutes of prayer, getting focused and giving thanks."

He is nonjudgmental about others who don't share his beliefs, but still prays that they might find God, as he has. He says he's impressed with Pope Francis ("He's pretty awesome") but rejects the church's stance on gay marriage, which he supports "absolutely."

After church, the actor-producer heads home or to meetings and spends the day reading and working and endlessly rolling calls (unlike most celebrities, he picks up the phone and calls this reporter directly whenever he wants). He consumes both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times; reads a massive amount of scripts and some books, though usually ones he is thinking of making into movies, like David Sheff's 2008 memoir Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction. ("I've met with Cameron Crowe about possibly doing that," he says.)

He then picks up his kids from school, makes sure they've done their homework, has dinner with his family and finally, around 9 p.m., gets to bed.

He doesn't have a Facebook page. He doesn't have time to watch much TV -- he likes CNN and the local Fox affiliate for news, and consumes ESPN -- or read things he's not thinking about producing, or listen to much music. "I have two albums on my phone, Jay Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne and Adele, but [otherwise] I just flip the radio around," says the former Marky Mark.

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He is unabashed in his love for the films of Russell and Martin Scorsese, both of whom he has worked with on multiple projects. Getting the chance to collaborate with filmmakers like these was one of the factors that led him into producing -- first with HBO's Entourage and In Treatment, then with movies such as 2007's We Own the Night and 2010's Fighter. The turning point came after 2002's The Truth About Charlie, which saw him running around France "with a baguette and a beret."

"I always felt like the only way I could get where I wanted was by producing, by finding my own material, developing my own stuff," he says. "The only way to do it was to get more control."

Wahlberg partnered early with his friend and manager Steve Levinson, and the two are constantly on the phone, with Levinson usually doing more of the script development and Wahlberg using his unrivaled people skills. "Lev is great at developing," he says. "I'm much more hands-on with the people."

Nowhere was that more evident than with the upcoming film version of Entourage, which stalled when negotiations fell apart. Wahlberg blamed himself for making rash comments, accusing the cast of being "greedy." Afterward, he says, "I called everybody and apologized. [They] came back to the table and a week later it was fixed."

His producing skills were equally apparent with Fighter, a film about Boston boxer "Irish" Micky Ward that received seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. It was Wahlberg who pressed for his friend Russell to direct (the two had teamed on 1999's Three Kings and 2004's I Heart Huckabees). "I fought for him," he acknowledges, "when everybody involved said 'no' or 'over my dead body.' I slowly but surely convinced one person at a time."

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Because of that, he confesses he was hurt when Russell didn't offer him the lead in Silver Linings Playbook, which instead went to Bradley Cooper. "We did have a little bit of a parting of the ways," Wahlberg admits, saying that the two have since patched things up. "I was upset for a while. I'm not anymore."

The Fighter almost got made with director Peter Berg before Russell joined the project; instead, Berg persuaded Wahlberg to board Lone Survivor.

"I was trying to get him to do The Fighter," Wahlberg recalls, joking: "I reminded him a couple of times later that he made a mistake by not doing it. But he showed me this script and I fell in love with it."

The movie tells the true story of Operation Red Wings, when a group of Navy SEALs was tasked with capturing a Taliban leader in Afghanistan in June 2005 but got caught in a firefight. Wahlberg agreed to play one of the SEALs, Marcus Luttrell, then came aboard to produce when Universal opted not to fund the picture.

He then took it to his one-time assistant Randall Emmett of Emmett/Furla Films, which covered the budget. "I didn't know any of the history," Emmett says. "Mark just said, 'This is the movie you are going to do!' He was very aggressive. He said, 'This will change all of our lives.' Mark is a mentor to me; he's really guided me in the business a lot. And when he's passionate, he's generally not wrong."

Still, Wahlberg knew that audiences had shied away from many modern war films; even the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker earned a mere $17 million at the domestic box office. "I always felt [this] movie had more commercial potential," he says, noting, "We want to make a movie that people are going to see."

His first priority, though, was to the soldiers, and that was reinforced during an emotional dinner that he and the crew had at the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque with families of those who died during the Afghan raid, shortly before a 45-day shoot began Oct. 2 in Albuquerque, N.M.

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There he listened, overwhelmed, as several dozen people spoke of the soldiers. While Berg addressed the gathering, Wahlberg remained silent but visited each family member individually. "Everything that everybody said just hit me hard," he recalls. "I remember thinking, 'My gosh, we've got to do the right thing.' "

So he plunged into the work, even though he was coming off three back-to-back films, Broken City, Pain & Gain and 2 Guns.

"I remember the first day I got there," he says. "I was standing on a gun range with live ammunition. I had done gun training before and played soldiers before, but for me this felt like another level of intensity. These guys, some are very unassuming. But you would not think for a second, 'Oh I could kick this guy's ass,' knowing what they are capable of physically and what they can endure. It takes a very, very special individual."

If training was exhausting, the shoot was even more so -- though he downplays his efforts compared to the real-life men: "I was tired after Pain & Gain, losing the weight, gaining the weight, and then we went right into [this]. And this is not like, 'Hey guys, I'm going to get a coffee.' No. You're there. You're following orders. I mean, the [military advisers] literally had the OK in the middle of a big action sequence to say, 'Cut! Stop! Bullshit! This is how it's supposed to look.' "

Despite Wahlberg's physical fitness, injuries he's sustained in the past made the extensive action work challenging. "I have three herniated disks," he explains, though he says: "I'm not in pain anymore. I've been able to repair them through corrective exercises." He also has labrum tears in both shoulders, along with a shattered knuckle.

Throughout the shoot, cast and crew remained high up a mountain where there were no trailers, no facilities and nowhere to get away. "Everybody would just go up on that mountain," remembers Wahlberg. "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."

The realism of it all proved so moving that, at times during the shoot, "I'd turn around and see these guys, these Navy SEALs, with tears just streaming down their faces."

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Born in 1971, Wahlberg was the youngest in an Irish-Catholic family of nine kids, brought up in one of the poorest parts of Boston.

His father was a truck driver, and it was he who instilled his son's love of film, often taking him by train to Boston's Park Theatre, and watching reruns of movies with the likes of Kirk Douglas and Steve McQueen. "Spartacus was his favorite movie," Wahlberg says.

But Wahlberg's parents had a difficult relationship ("There was a lot of yelling and screaming"), and they eventually split up when Mark was 11, after which he divided his time between them and started getting into trouble. He was arrested by the police a number of times and eventually pleaded guilty to assault after blinding a man in one eye. He served 45 days in Boston's Deer Island House of Correction.

The experience shook the high school dropout profoundly, he says. "I'd been in there 45 minutes and I was already in a fight with two guys who were trying to jump me and take my cigarettes and the lighter my mother just gave me," he says. "It was like, 'This is not what I want for my life.' There was that wake-up call, but there was also the desire to have things that I didn't have."

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Before being incarcerated, he had been one of the original New Kids on the Block, following the lead of his more musical brother, Donnie. But he had left the group before it achieved major success. Now, out of prison, he started rapping and quickly found fame as part of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, even though, he says, "I didn't want to sing and dance." His dazzling abs drew the attention of Calvin Klein, and he became perhaps its most famous underwear model ever.

All this led him to acting, and he found early work in the 1993 TV movie The Substitute, without really taking it too seriously at first. Then one night, he was in his hotel room on location, watching A Few Good Men on pay-per-view, and he was staggered by the quality of the acting: "I just started watching it over and over and over."

He started to dream big, but others found his aspirations laughable -- not least Leonardo DiCaprio, who was openly hostile when it was suggested Wahlberg should appear opposite him in the 1995 drama The Basketball Diaries. "Leonardo was like, 'Over my dead f---ing body. Marky Mark's not going to be in this f---ing movie,' " says Wahlberg. "Because we'd had a thing -- I didn't even realize it, [but] I was a bit of a dick to him at a charity basketball game. So he was like, 'This f---ing asshole is not going to be in this movie.' "

Thanks to the perseverance of casting director Avy Kaufman, DiCaprio reluctantly agreed to read with Wahlberg. "So I come in and I do the audition and I kind of look at him and he kind of looks at me, and then we do a scene, and they're like, 'Hmm, this f---ing dude's pretty good, right?' " Wahlberg says, laughing. "The next thing you know, boom, we're hanging out."

It was Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 drama Boogie Nights -- about the late 1970s porn industry -- that cemented Wahlberg as a legitimate actor, and one prepared to take the kinds of risks many shunned.

"Boogie Nights was a moment for me where I had to say, 'You know what? I can't keep worrying about what the guys in the neighborhood are going to think. I'm an actor. I gotta go for it.' "

That's been Wahlberg's mantra ever since, with films from 2000's The Yards and The Perfect Storm to 2006's The Departed.

"He's got an intelligence and a real love of this business," says Berg. "It's love of the game. And if you've got love of the game, there's no limit to what you can do."

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His work onscreen remains his top priority, but it would be wrong to think it's the only thing that matters in his life. His family remains crucial, as do his efforts for his nonprofit foundation and his entrepreneurial endeavors. He also has been furthering his education, and spent much of the past year studying to take the exam for his high school diploma, which he finally earned in June because it mattered to him to set an example for his kids.

He acknowledges his wife would rather he did less, especially when it comes to entertainment. "She doesn't necessarily love what I do," he says. "I have to share so much of myself with my job and with other people. And you know, she'd prefer we have our privacy."

But that remains a distant dream. Even though he says, "my head is in a good place and my heart's in a good place," he seems possessed by a ferocious drive, propelled by the notion that, with all his success, everything could vanish.

"That's my attitude," he says. "I think it could all be gone tomorrow. If I don't work hard and stay focused and do the right thing, it could all go. And you know what? I've had such an amazing run, I'd be OK with that. Because nothing lasts forever."