Mark Wahlberg brings faith front and center in “Father Stu”

By Kharisma McIlwaine

Mark Wahlberg’s film career has spanned almost 30 years. After his 1994 “Renaissance Man” debut, Wahlberg became a household name starring in a string of blockbuster action films including: “Planet of the Apes,” “The Departed” (which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor) and “The Fighter” (which earned him a nomination for a Golden Globe).

Now Wahlberg is shifting gears to tell more personal stories that reflect his faith in God. Written and directed by Rosalind Ross, Wahlberg stars as Stuart Long in “Father Stu”. “Father Stu” tells the true story of Stuart Long, an amateur boxer who was led to become a Catholic priest after a terrible motorcycle accident. Despite insurmountable obstacles, including a debilitating, degenerative muscle disease that severely limits mobility, Stuart refuses to give up on his journey to priesthood. “Father Stu” also stars Mel Gibson, Jackie Weaver and Teresa Ruiz. Wahlberg visited Philadelphia and spoke to the SUN about his very personal journey to create Father Stu.

Set in the 90’s, “Father Stu” gives audiences a glimpse into Stuart Long’s life, which is in a perpetual state of downward spiraling. His amateur boxing career is in shambles and quickly ends, he drinks too much and continues to find himself in precarious situations. After a failed attempt to become an actor, Stuart begins working in the meat section of a grocery store. During his time there he meets Carmen (Ruiz), a devout catholic Sunday school teacher. His interest in Carmen brings him to the church where he gets baptized, initially as a way of earning her trust. After surviving a terrible motorcycle accident, Stuart has an epiphany that his second chance at life should be spent doing God’s work. His faith is tested when he is diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disease that threatens to take away his ability to become a priest.

Wahlberg’s introduction to “Father Stu”, which he co-produced, came during dinner with two priests. This film acted as a catalyst in many ways for Wahlberg to pursue content that aligned with his faith and mission to be a blessing to others.

“I think all the pieces kind of fell into place.” Wahlberg said, “I really feel like the big guy was at work pulling the strings here from the time that I was pitched the story by a priest in a restaurant. Then when I listened to the story. I realized oh my God, I’ve been looking [for this]. I know I wasn’t put in this position to just forget about where I came from. It’s like, how do I utilize my talents and gifts for God’s greater good? This story was an opportunity to do that — to do something that really has some real substance and meaning.”

He added, “I want people to know and understand how good my faith has been to me and for me. Everything good in my life personally and professionally I attribute to my faith because it’s all deeply rooted in that. That’s where it kind of starts, that’s my center of gravity and I want people to be able to feel that. Certainly, if I can overcome the obstacles and odds that I faced, there isn’t anything anybody can’t do.”

Wahlberg invested his own time and money into creating “Father Stu”. The film, which he financed with two friends, took six years to make. At the center of both “Father Stu” and Wahlberg’s respective journeys are perseverance.

“I thought it was really powerful. He (Father Stu) wouldn’t take no for an answer and he wouldn’t give up. Anything I’ve wanted to achieve in life or anything I set out to accomplish, I had to do it the old fashion way — hard work, straight-forward, no-nonsense and being disciplined. It all started from my faith, making that commitment and everything being grounded in that. Then it allows me to do everything else that I want.” he explained. “When I’m successful, fantastic, I know it’s about the work. When I fail, I know I put my best effort forward so I can still hold my head high in the amount of effort that went into it. Father Stu was relentless, and when he found his purpose, he was so powerful in what he did.”

“Father Stu” does not shy away from the truth. It reveals some of the fallacies that can be found in church. Unfortunately, many have been turned away from the church when they need God, grace and fellowship the most. Wahlberg addresses tackling the topic in the film through the lens of Father Stu’s experience.

“You’ve got the church, but then you’ve got the guy who died to build it… that’s my guy! Everything else is human beings making mistakes. We’re all weak in the flesh I get it. Rules are crazy and things have to change. If you want to bring people in, why are you chasing people away? This is supposed to be about us bringing people together. God wanted to help everybody, especially the less fortunate.”

Father Stu did just that — he helped people. Through Wahlberg’s portrayal of Father Stu, we see his unique ability to reach people where they are, which allowed him to do more in a short time than some people accomplish in a lifetime.

“I remember talking to the archbishop and he said, ‘You know why I really ordained Stu?Because I could see the impact that he had on people when he talked to them. All of his real-life experiences afforded him the credibility to communicate in a way that they knew was very true, very direct and they could relate to that. Then to have him say, Stu did more in his four short years as a priest, than the bishop did in his 40 years is pretty remarkable,” Wahlberg said. “I didn’t really get it until I went to Helena, Montana and saw all of the people there waiting to see the movie. They were all saying, ‘Oh my God if you don’t get this right, you’re in trouble.’ Just seeing how many people he impacted and touched was really powerful.”

Father Stu’s message was so powerful because he served as an example that everyone deserves grace — a message that also resonates with Wahlberg.

“I just want to encourage people too in this day at age. This is not a time to be giving up on people. It’s about the good in people, supporting them, encouraging them, accepting them for who they are and knowing that they should have hope, that we care and we’re rooting for them. That’s the only thing that’s going to bring everybody together.”

“Father Stu” ultimately is a heartwarming story about a man on a journey to find his purpose. The film highlights aspects of life that are equally hilarious and heartbreaking… reminding us all that life is truly about doing what we can for the greater good. “Father Stu” is currently running in theaters nationwide. Check your local listings for showtimes.

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