Andrew Cooper/Paramount

Audiences have known him on-screen as a street-smart con artist, a fighter, a lone survivor and now, a Transformer-battling hero, but Mark Wahlberg has never pretended to be someone he’s not.

Laurence Olivier once famously said that the key to being a movie star is to “play yourself — in deference to the character.” Mark Wahlberg, one of the world’s biggest movie stars, with a global box-office haul of more than $2 billion, is not a method actor suffering in the shadows for his craft, nor is he a chameleon likely to don a porkpie hat in a Lester Young biopic. Mark Wahlberg is Mark Wahlberg, which is not to say he’s not also a really great actor.

With untamable mahogany eyes; alpine biceps; an almost feral swagger that simultaneously evokes danger, confidence and yearning and a salty urban vernacular that’s often volcanic and darkly comic, Wahlberg at 43 leans back in a posh chair in a suite at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He knows exactly who he is and where he comes from: a blustering, contentious blue-collar upbringing in the powder-keg Dorchester region of Boston, the youngest of nine children, frequently running afoul of the law.

The Wahlberg of today speaks with a hushed, almost combustible intensity that nearly implores one to angle in to hear his every syllable. He is trim, handsome and roughcast, a hint of scruff framing his chiseled jaw, a beaded rosary playing peekaboo from beneath his muted V-neck T-shirt. He is a portrait of self-possession and awareness, radiating a total consciousness of how hungry he has always been, constitutionally speaking, and of how hard he’ll work to be the best that he can be; of the myriad lives he has led — from juvenile delinquent to one-hit wonder, underwear model to Oscar-nominated actor — and of how, with a stunning protean sequence of self-actualizing choices that would have Abraham Maslow dropping his jaw in awe, he potently combined desire, discipline and elbow grease to become America’s only working-class movie star.

“Mark is our most American movie star,” says Ben Foster, who has appeared with Wahlberg in Contraband and Lone Survivor. “He’s an everyman. He feels like your brother, your best friend. There’s something so true about him that you can’t help but root for the guy. And then he always delivers.”

David O. Russell, who gave Wahlberg an early big-screen break in Three Kings and enjoyed an abundance of Oscar love when the duo collaborated on 2010’s The Fighter, says Wahlberg has “a salt-of-the-earth core that will always be there. He has this authentic, no-nonsense quality and an intensity and a sincerity. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known.”

Mark Wahlberg (from left), George Clooney and Ice Cube in Three Kings
Everett Collection
This year, Wahlberg looks to tack as many as nine more zeros to his box-office tally, top-lining the just-released fourth Transformers installment, Age of Extinction, playing an inventor who becomes the unlikely defender of Earth against a Decepticon annihilation. In the fall, Wahlberg will likely delight in awards attention for his transformational, dramatic turn opposite Michael K. Williams (star of the Wahlberg-produced Boardwalk Empire) as a physically and spiritually degenerating college professor in The Gambler.

“Look, I’m very, very lucky to be in such a unique situation like I am today, which allows me to do what I love and has afforded me the opportunity to see the world and ­provide for my family and help others in ways I never thought imaginable; believe me,” he says. “But I am a blue-collar guy, and I love that part of myself. I’d go back to that life and those streets in a heartbeat, if that’s what life required.”

After his proverbial wayward youth, which reportedly included bouts of addiction and flurries of sudden violence that landed him in the slammer for a few months as a teenager, it was unclear what Wahlberg’s life would require. And then the rehabilitated, adolescent Wahlberg, returning to the Catholicism with which he was raised, suddenly reinvented himself, almost on a whim, as a new jack rapper, a working-class Casanova in the hip-hop jungle, charting on charisma and six-pack abs alone with the 1991 No. 1 hit, “Good Vibrations.”

Pre-millennial Wahlberg, also featured in ubiquitous, skyscraper-size Calvin Klein billboards in nothing but his skivvies, was catnip to Hollywood producers eager to cash in on his sculpted good looks and sudden street cred. (Cool as Ice, anyone?) But ­Wahlberg wasn’t having any of it. “I didn’t want to play ‘the white rapper,’ or do this dumb thing or that stupid thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to be exploited.”

When he was approached to audition for 1994’s Renaissance Man by Penny Marshall and Danny DeVito, veterans of TV’s Laverne & Shirley and Taxi, respectively, Wahlberg — a fan of the duo’s common-class boob-tube personas — decided to explore the opportunity, flying himself to Los Angeles to meet with them. “There were, like, 20 guys in the room and only five jobs available. When I saw all that competition, I thought to myself: ‘Man, I’ve gotta get this part!’ ” he remembers, electrified. In an act of sheer determination, Wahlberg did exactly that, locking in a small but memorable role that allowed him plenty of downtime to observe how a Hollywood feature is actually made. “After that movie, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he says. “I kept up the music thing overseas, just to pay for my acting habit.”

To hone his chops, the rookie Wahlberg — whose only real experiences with cinema came from Saturday matinees with his father, including their first film together: a viewing of Charles Bronson’s brass-knuckled 1975 Hard Times when Wahlberg was 8 — ­tailored a homemade film school for himself, drafting a handful of live-wire buddies to help him produce a series of shorts, some on VHS, others on Super 8. Wahlberg wrote and directed the projects and usually starred in them too. By Wahlberg’s own admission, the films were “a little whacked — kind of out there.” He showed them to his management team, who sweetly told him it would be best to ­concentrate on acting, at least for the moment.

Still, Wahlberg says the process was deeply useful for him, teaching him that the actor’s job is not necessarily to grandstand or steal the spotlight but to “serve the big picture.” With a primal charisma and effortless charm, Wahlberg quickly ascended the Hollywood ranks, serving up stellar ­performances in a career-making run of films — Boogie Nights, Three Kings, The Italian Job — that demonstrated a talent and allure that was not remotely cerebral or Methody, but visceral and instinctive. By the time Martin Scorsese called “action” on 2006’s The Departed, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination for his howling, invigorating turn as a scrappy, caustic Boston cop, Wahlberg was a box-office phenomenon, crystal clear on his vaulting position in the Hollywood firmament.

Wahlberg in Transformers: Age of Extinction
Andrew Cooper/Paramount
“I can’t do things that some other actors can do maybe, and they probably can’t do some of the stuff that I can do,” Wahlberg says. “Acting is just convincing an audience that what I’m doing is real, and if I’m not feeling it, it’ll never be authentic. So for me, I don’t really care if Christian Bale or Matt ­Damon or whoever gets to shine brighter than me in a movie. I’m there to serve the big picture; to do what I can do better than ­anyone else. That’s what I can live with. Those are the choices I make.”

Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who has worked multiple times with Wahlberg, believes the actor’s greatness has not yet been properly recognized — and wonders if it ever will be. “I don’t think Mark’s ever been given credit for how good he really is. He’s so good, you don’t even notice his acting. There’s this very authentic, hard-earned world-weariness and irrepressibility to what he does in the movies; a sort of simple, noble wisdom in his performances; this Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood thing,” di Bonaventura says. “He’s the kind of actor who holds movies together.”

Lest anyone think the reformed, almost impossibly successful Wahlberg has become a humorless workhorse in his 40s, the actor continues to find new articulations for his joie de vivre, launching a self-branded line of health supplements in 2012, taking an equity interest in a booming Barbados cricket league last year and producing a ­diverse slate of film and television projects, including HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Warner Bros.’ forthcoming Entourage feature and A&E’s reality jolt, Wahlburgers.

Wahlberg also has a playful sense of humor. Just ask Transformers: Age of ­Extinction co-star Nicola Peltz, who donned hair extensions for her role as Wahlberg’s feisty teenage daughter. “Mark thought the hair extensions were so funny, and every Wednesday when we were done shooting, he’d just yank them out of my hair and swing them around his head like a crazy cowboy. He called it Wild Weave Wednesday,” Peltz laughs. One Wednesday, while shooting on a tiny rooftop in Hong Kong, Wahlberg pulled the mane a touch early and had to do some quick repair work on his co-star’s faux tresses so production could resume. “He was just jamming all of this hair back onto my head, trying not to get caught,” says Peltz, also seen on TV’s Bates Motel. “It looked terrible. But it was hilarious!”

Wahlberg believes that the pleasures of play and connection are among the great privileges his work has afforded him, and he’s determined to never become, however unlikely, a very dull boy. “When I get a job, it’s the James Cagney philosophy: You get the part. You prepare for the part. With no great effort, you play the part. For me, all of the work is in the preparation,” he says. “When I’m on set, like on something super-heavy and intense like Lone Survivor, all these guys are preparing for the scene however they do — cranking up loud music or banging their head on a rock or whatever — and I’m throwing the football around with the grips. When it’s ‘go time,’ they’re rolling, the sound’s going, I’ll take one more pass, throw a long bomb, then dive in front of the camera and do my thing. You’ve gotta have fun.”

Wahlberg, who’s been married for five years to former supermodel Rhea (Durham) Wahlberg, with whom he has four young children, had zero reservations about stepping into the Transformers franchise, signing on for three films in the series’ operatic reboot, helmed by pal and Pain & Gain collaborator Michael Bay. “I’ll go anywhere with Michael. There’s no one better at this kind of movie than him,” Wahlberg says. “I told him: ‘I’ll focus on really bringing the human element, and you worry about all of the cool Michael Bay stuff.’ ”

The epic shoot spanned the globe, yielding, with bawdy wit, some unexpected corkscrew narrative twists and wall-to-wall action — one of this summer’s most anticipated blockbusters. While shooting the film, the boy from Beantown experienced an epiphany that he claims occurs only every once in a while. Standing on the narrow ledge of a 19-story building in Hong Kong, scanning the city’s seething skyline, Wahlberg became momentarily overwhelmed by the blessings of his charmed life — in other words, how far he’s come. In the sequence set to shoot, Wahlberg, kept safe from a fatal fall from the skyscraper by only a thin wire attached to his waist, is meant to sprint across the slim sill, pursued by fiendish robots.

Wahlberg played a body builder in 2013's Pain & Gain
Everett Collection

When director Bay called “action,” ­Wahlberg — ever hungry, always game, legendarily fearless in the face of hard work and a good sweat — stopped for a moment to consider what he was doing and the peril, however modest, of one false move. “When I was a kid, I was gung ho, the first to go, put me in, I’ll do anything. Twenty years ago, I would’ve let Michael throw me off the building, without the wire. Maybe a little airbag down there,” Wahlberg says.

But Wahlberg’s great strength is being Mark Wahlberg, in knowing exactly who he is and where he is, and today, that man is no more a young punk, a cocksure masher and purveyor of disposable pop, or just a movie star of great commercial adroitness, universally adored. He is more than that, and the thought overtook him on those eaves in the Pearl of the Orient.

“I stopped. I just felt so uncomfortable up there. And Michael’s, like, ‘Come on, man, run faster!’ ” Wahlberg says. “And I looked at him, and he knew I had something on my mind, and he asked me, ‘What’s the matter, man?’ I told him, ‘Dude, four kids, beautiful wife, perfect life. I’ve got a reason to live.’ It was one of the coolest moments of my life.”

Wahlberg leans back in his chair, strokes his chin once more, a glinting grin unfurling glacially across his face, then delivers the punch line that is, if you’re Mark Wahlberg, inevitable. “Once I had my little moment up there on the roof, my little meaning-of-life thing, I gave Michael exactly what he needed,” Wahlberg says. “You’ve gotta get the job done.” 

Lone Surpriser

He’s a world class actor who knows how to pull a stunt on-screen. But it’s the real Mark Wahlberg who may astound you the most. In his words and the words of some of the people who know him best, both personally and professionally, here are a few facts revealing even more of the mystery of the man once known as Marky Mark.

Everett Collection
Seth MacFarlane
, writer/director of Ted: “Mark’s a world-class ballerina. No, really, if you need someone to engage in a manic, fully committed, crazy, violent fight with a  talking teddy bear, Mark Wahlberg is your man. I don’t know another actor alive who could have done that so authentically, and I’m honestly not sure why he could.”

Michael K. Williams, Wahlberg’s co-star in The Gambler: “Mark’s got a very deep funny bone. Very deep. And very dry. Very matter of fact. He’ll hit you hard and funny.”

Lorenzo di Bonaventura, collaborator/producer on the Transformers series: “Mark is a great connoisseur of wine. He has a great palate for it. He’s very adventurous. Very sophisticated. And he gets a great deal of pleasure from it.”

Nicola Peltz, Wahlberg’s Transformers: Age of Extinction co-star: “It’s the checkers thing. He’s really, really good. Like, beyond. It’s pretty impressive.”

David O. Russell, collaborator on Three KingsI Heart Huckabees and The Fighter: “I’m not sure we’ll see Mark doing the pole vault in any of the Olympic trials soon. Cut to: Mark Wahlberg completes pole vault at Olympic trials. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Melissa Leo, Wahlberg’s The Fighter co-star: “Acting occasionally affords individuals the unique opportunity to imagine themselves as someone else, to develop the courage or compassion or depth of another human being in the roles that we play, and that oftentimes allows us — or invites us, at least — to become better people ourselves. Mark is a perfect example of someone who has seized the opportunities his life and career have presented and become a truly beautiful, remarkable person. I learned from him so much about what it is to engage with life at a higher level. I don’t know if that’s a secret about Mark Wahlberg, but it is a fact.”

Mark Wahlberg: “I tell you what: I’m probably the first one to cry in a movie. The Help? I cried like a baby. Frozen? Forget it. That movie kills me. My wife had shoulder surgery a little while ago and she was not a happy camper. I was trying to be brave and strong for her, telling her I was there and she was in a great hospital with the best surgeon, but as soon as they carted her off, that was it for me. I was just dying, crying like a baby. So yeah, I cry a lot.”

Despite being almost exactly the same age as Mark Wahlberg and a few inches taller, award-winning journalist and author J. Rentilly has never been asked to save the world from an alien-robot invasion, and he does not, regrettably, have six-pack abs.