I sat down with Mark Wahlberg and writer/director Rosalind Ross to talk about their new movie Father Stu. Based on a true story, Father Stu is an unflinchingly honest, funny and ultimately uplifting drama about a lost soul who finds his purpose in a 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 realization that he is meant to be a Catholic priest. Despite a devastating health crisis and the skepticism 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.
Father Stu is a passion project of Mark’s who put his own money into getting the movie made. He talked about what made him want to tell this story. Mark, “Everything about it was exciting and appealing. Stu was such a colorful guy who did so many amazing things, overcame difficult circumstances. Also, I had been looking to do more things that are a reflection of my faith and where I’m at today as a person. When you think about it, it was the movie choosing me to shepherd this story. It was a tough thing to push up hill to get made. It was an undertaking for sure. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get to a place where Ok what do I do, how do I utilize this platform, whatever influence I may wield in the industry for the kind of stuff I want to make.”
There are many emotional scenes in the film, but one in particular stood out to me. Stu is diagnosed with a rare illness that would eventually put him in a wheelchair and Mark does a great job in the scene asking God why him. I asked Mark what he drew on to get to that emotional level, “I have plenty of real life experience to draw on, but in particular I lost my mom during the making of the film. We have all lost people because of COVID. I know people who lost their livelihoods and businesses, there’s certainly enough to draw on. But also that moment was just supposed to be that, he had just been diagnosed and he’s asking why, but I wanted some clarity in that moment too. It’s a time you can manipulate the audience, they’re pretty vulnerable at that point. The guy’s been through so much and you don’t want to hammer them that much. You want it to be a little light and see a little humor with him trying to struggle with what to say, what not to say, but ultimately deciding this is what he was going to do, to use it as a gift and a blessing to continue to do God’s work. He touched so many people in such a short time.”
After Stu is diagnosed with his illness his health got worse and Mark gained a lot of weight for the role. He talked about what it took to go through that physical transformation. “It wasn’t the typical actor thing where you gotta have something physical to do, the gaining weight, the losing weight. It was Stu’s journey as a whole that you want to see in real time with an audience. To see the debilitating effect that disease has in such a quick amount of time. But he’s also the type of guy everything was predicated on his physical attributes. The guy was a fighter. He was a football player. For him to lose that, but gain the strength of a thousand men through spirituality, his ability to touch so many people utilizing his real life experiences, gave him a lot of credibility to people. People knew whatever he was helping them cope with he had been through himself. It was as unpleasant as possible, but that’s what we did. We did use some make-up and stuff to enhance it and sometimes I did wear a suit. We didn’t shoot in chronological order so we had to figure out how to get around certain things. We had 30 days to shoot it and the movie is pretty ambitious in its size and scope spanning a couple of decades.
“I started eating 7000 calories a day for the first two weeks then 11,000 for the last four weeks. People are like ‘Oh my god it has to be so much fun’. I’m not sitting on the couch eating Doritos, popcorn and cinnamon rolls. I tried to do it as healthy as possible, but between all the heavy proteins and the starches and the sodium, it was not fun. First meal was a blast. I was training to do the boxing, we did the boxing on the first day. We had the barbecue going outside the trailer, we made porterhouse steaks, baked potatoes. That was great. Ate that about 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock. Then about 2 o’clock the doorbell is ringing and there’s another meal to eat and I’m still full from the last one. I’m not trying to find the next physical transformation role any time soon that’s for sure.”
Being a faith-based film I asked Mark what he hopes people take away from the film especially non-religious people. “Well they can’t help, but be inspired right? The great thing is it’s a redemption story. It’s many things, but hopefully it encourages people to start looking at the good again in everybody. Stu is unique in the way he posed challenges. He’s still challenging me to do more, be better. I think the movie, considering how much he went through and how he handled it with so much dignity and grace, it has to challenge other people to do more. The fact is everybody can identify with it in a personal way, we’ve all struggled, we’ve all dealt with loss, it touches people in a lot of ways. That’s a beautiful thing, We definitely wanted to make a movie that’s accessible to everybody.”
Biopics are known for taking certain liberties to tell its story so I asked Mark about the Carmen character played by Teresa Ruiz, if she was a composite character of different people in Stu’s life or one particular person. Mark, “That’s inspired by a real person. She was the reason why Stu was so attracted to church, it was really her. God puts everybody in your life for a reason. She was very good at drawing him in, but nobody thought he’d go to the extent of it, a little extreme (laughing). Which is what I loved about the story. I remember sitting there with an audience and I’m Mr. Pick-It-A-Part, I always know what’s coming and I made the movie and I still couldn’t believe the direction it was going. It was really hard to believe it was a true story.”
I talked with the film’s writer and director Rosalind Ross next. She talked about how she got involved with the project, “I had written a couple of other scripts so he (Mark Wahlberg) was familiar with my writing. He called me out of the blue one day and pitched me this idea, this story that didn’t sound like it could be true and asked if I was available and if I’d be interested in writing it. I took a little time to think about it. Then I met with Stuart’s father and his best friend to get a better understanding of who he was to see what my personal connection to the story would be. In talking to them I figured that out and I signed on and here we are.”
Stu’s father in the movie is portrayed by Mel Gibson who is Ross’ partner in real life. She talked about their similarities and differences. “They are very different men, but they both have in common the experience of being a father and at times an imperfect one. I think from that Mel was able to draw a lot in playing Bill. Mel spoke to Bill on the phone quite a few times so he did the best he could to capture Bill’s unique way of speaking.”
I asked her as well what she hopes people take away from the film. “If there’s one thing I hope people, religious or not, take away from the film is that it’s never too late to change. Whether that’s change your course in life, find your purpose or improve yourself or redeem yourself. The positive aspects of having transgressed and then being able to come back from that and acknowledge your faults, work on them, address them, it’s something I really admire in people. It’s probably the thing I most admire in people, their ability to take stock in where they are and what they’ve done and address that. Maybe in a quiet and unglamorous way, but you address it nonetheless.”
Her and Mark recently visited Montana where Stu is from and she talked about being able to visit the people Stu touched in his life. “Every time I speak to somebody who knew Stu they come out with another anecdote that’s so funny and I think ‘Where were you when I was writing the script?’ (laughing). There’s tons of stories. It was so overwhelmingly wonderful to hear from all these people. Especially the people who had received help and spiritual counseling from him. There was a woman we met who talked about how Stuart performed a miracle on her husband. He was given six months to live and cut to 3 or 4 years later, he’s still alive and doing well. So that was really cool to hear.”
As a first time director she spoke about working with award worthy actors like Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver. “It’s intimidating. It was an incredible opportunity, but it’s a real blessing to work with veterans, ones that are so humble and trusting. There was never the attitude of ‘We know what we are doing, let us do our thing’. I was really blown away by that. It was an incredible opportunity and one I’m really grateful for. Certainly lots of pressure on it especially with Mark investing his own money in it and this is his passion project, but I think he’s pretty happy with what we did.
“Jacki is such a sweetheart. She made me laugh so much on set which is such a gift because that’s such a pressure cooker, high stress environment. Every time Jacki would wander over to video village she would make me laugh and smile and make me feel so comforting. She really has that sweet, maternal energy and nature. You see that in the film, the chemistry between her and Mark is so pure and sweet. That’s her.”
I asked her if there were aspects of Stu’s life that she wished they used in the film, but just didn’t fit the story. “There were so many scenes that I wrote that I couldn’t include in the script. Instances where he helped people, touched people, you could write a dictionary length book with stories like that. But I believe the most important thing, which I believe we did, was capture not just the spirit of the man, but his legacy. We tried to do in a concise, but effective way.”
Father Stu is in theaters April 13, 2022
Written for the Screen and Directed by: Rosalind Ross
Produced by: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Jordon Foss
Executive Producers: Miky Lee, Colleen Camp, Rosalind Ross, Patrick Peach, Tony Grazia
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz