LOS ANGELES (AP) — Mark Wahlberg admits he's not Hollywood's go-to guy for teacher roles.
In "The Gambler," out on Christmas Day, he plays the brilliant but troubled English professor Jim Bennett. The role gave Wahlberg particular anxiety.
The 43-year-old actor-producer dropped out of school after the eighth grade, and he only recently went back to get his diploma.
"As much as (director) Rupert (Wyatt) wanted me to transform physically, to me, being a believable literary professor was the most important challenge," said Wahlberg. "These parts don't come my way that often."
To prepare, he visited lectures at UCLA and USC and watched videos of the late David Foster Wallace. One particular lecture on "Beowulf" stood out as the most memorable for its energy and the way UCLA students responded.
He also asked some of the professors to read the script with him. Screenwriter William Monahan's language "is so different. Having these pretty uptight literary professors read it was hilarious," he laughed.
Eventually he came to a sort of peace with the fact that performing a lecture in front of students isn't all that different from performing for a camera, and he was set.
"The Gambler," a remake of a 1974 Karel Reisz film starring James Caan, is a bit of a passion project for Wahlberg. He'd seen the original as a kid with his father, but it wasn't until he read Monahan's update of the slow-burning thriller about a privileged professor who's gotten in over his head with gambling debts that he knew this was something special.
Monahan and Wahlberg have a long-standing and fruitful professional relationship going back to "The Departed," for which Wahlberg received his first Oscar nomination. (Monahan won for his adapted screenplay.) Wahlberg trusts his scripts and his judgment. The two recently wrapped the psychological thriller "Mojave," which Monahan also directed, and Monahan is writing the script for a new project, "American Desperado."
For Wahlberg, stepping into the self-destructive shoes of a mostly despicable guy was the perfect change of pace after "Transformers: Age of Extinction."
His character, Jim, is "trying to be the underdog as opposed to the underdog trying to do the impossible," he said.
"At one point we were thinking about making him more likable and giving him more redeeming qualities, but we felt that would take away from who he really was and how we really interpreted the material," explained Wahlberg. "But, we also didn't want to make it so dark that people weren't willing to want to see it. We were never going to make him the most likable guy in the world, but at least people should find him interesting enough that they would want to go on the journey with him."
It's quite a journey to the bottom as Jim borrows and gambles away his and others' money. To prepare for that aspect, Wahlberg and Wyatt went to gambling dens, "high-stakes private poker games" and college sporting events.
Beyond the excitement of making the movie and stretching as an actor, Wahlberg is a businessman. Art and commerce are tied together in how he thinks about the films and projects he's producing, and he's not shy to discuss everything from tax incentives to release strategies.
Wahlberg knows that roles in blockbusters like "Transformers" help make films like "The Gambler" possible. "That's part of doing bigger commercial movies," he said. "You then get the opportunity to do a smaller one that you're more passionate about."
"The goal for us was to make a movie that as many people will see as possible. It's great that the studio had the guts to make this kind of movie, but the only way they're going to keep making more of them is if they can make a profit," he said.
Wahlberg said he wants to be involved on every level and may even go behind the camera, if he finds the time. "I'd rather have as much control as possible," he said.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/ldbahr