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When you see Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon, the $150m movie based on the true story of the tragic oil rig explosion in 2010 which cost 11 crew members their lives and created the worst environmental disaster in US history, it’s hard to imagine any other Hollywood actor in the role.

It’s not so much that he resembles Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician who was the last to escape from the burning rig and on whom Wahlberg’s character was based: Williams’ face is rounded, whereas Wahlberg’s has the lean definition of someone who has spent a lifetime staying in shape. It’s more that you can absolutely believe in Wahlberg as the devoted father who jeopardises his family life by helping his wounded colleagues, and as the honest blue-collar working stiff, with a mind like a steel trap.

Wahlberg has spent more than two decades climbing to the top of the Hollywood tree. His breakthrough role in Boogie Nights came in 1997; his first Oscar nomination came 10 years later, for Scorsese’s The Departed, followed by another in 2011 for The Fighter.

You could forgive Wahlberg if he let success go to his head. He grew up poor, the youngest of nine siblings. His father was a delivery driver who left when Wahlberg was 11. He got involved with drugs and gang violence not long after, and only cleaned himself up after a spell in prison made him determined to turn his life around. He followed his brother (Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids on the Block) into music, finding success – and even a Calvin Klein modelling contract – with his hip-hop group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch before turning to acting.

Yet he has never allowed the stylists, personal assistants and all the other pampering that goes with A-list stardom to go to his head. He runs several businesses alongside his acting career, including a burger chain called Wahlburgers with his brothers, as well as the charitable Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation. If you thought Wahlberg had anything in common with the bong-smoking waster he plays in the comedy Ted, think again. His formidable work ethic includes getting up at 4.30am each morning to work out before his beloved children wake for school.

To prepare for The Fighter, Wahlberg installed a boxing ring in his house and trained for four years until the film was eventually given the green light. “I didn’t want to look like an actor who could box, I wanted to look like a boxer who could win the world title,” he said at the time. And although he reportedly stayed in character between takes while on the set of Deepwater Horizon, he has never gone in for the more luvvy-ish indulgences of the acting profession.

In an interview with the Guardian, Wahlberg recalled a rehearsal he attended with a “very famous actor” in which a “very famous director” asked them to think of water, the colour blue and a place they used to go hide as a kid. “I thought: ‘This is a practical joke!’ So I opened my eyes – and they were all just sobbing their hearts out! I was kind of in shock. And that’s when I thought: ‘OK, I guess I’m pretty lucky I have a lot of real-life experiences to draw my sad emotions from so I didn’t have to think about where I wanted to be alone as a boy.’ Give me a break.”

No-nonsense his approach may be, but it pays dividends in Deepwater Horizon. Wahlberg shares the screen with a heavyweight cast that includes Kurt Russell and veteran scene-stealer John Malkovich, but you only have eyes for him. “What Mark brings is honesty and a real sense of blue-collar integrity,” says the film’s producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

In the midst of all the explosions a $150m budget can bring, it’s Wahlberg who gives the true-life story its human heartbeat and makes it a fitting legacy to both the brave survivors and the 11 who lost their lives.


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