CHICAGO (RNS) — The setup looks like a “bad joke,” admitted actor Mark Wahlberg.
Wahlberg, who is Catholic, had been out to dinner with “two priests and a bottle of wine,” in his account, when one of the priests pitched the idea for a movie to him.
Normally, a priest might approach him for a financial contribution or to help with a food drive. It’s not a problem, he said. But a movie? Which he wasn’t so sure about.
It took the priest to tell him the story twice — and some encouragement from his wife — before Wahlberg had a vision to turn the life of Reverend Stuart Long, a boxer-turned-actor-turned-priest, into a movie.
“I couldn’t find any reason not to want to do it once I was actually smart enough to realize it was an amazing opportunity to not just tell a story, but to do something that would be more focused on my faith and give back,” he told reporters last month at a downtown Chicago hotel.
“Father Stu,” starring Wahlberg in the title role, opens Wednesday, April 13 in theaters.
The film is based on the true story of Long, who went through a dramatic conversion and then faced a serious illness before his death at age 50 in 2014.
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Long had enjoyed some success as a boxer in Montana before an injury convinced him to move to California to break into the film industry. Instead, he had a brush with the law and then, after a motorcycle accident, with death.
It was then that he felt the call to the priesthood.
Overcoming his past wasn’t Long’s only challenge to becoming a priest. During his ordination process, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare and incurable autoimmune disease called inclusion body myositis, which mimics the symptoms of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
He was ordained in 2007 alongside his friend Reverend Bart Tolleson at St Helena Cathedral. In Montana, he served several parishes before moving to and ministering at the Big Sky Care Center in Helena, where he lived when he died.
That’s more or less how it happened, according to those who knew him.
Long’s motorcycle accident was a little different from how it plays out in “Father Stu.” So did his relationship with his girlfriend, which eventually led him to the Catholic faith, Long’s father, Bill Long, told Religion News Service.
“It’s not like a documentary, but they cover the basics, and they get to where they need to be by the end of the movie,” said Bill Long, now 83.
Bill Long is played in the film by Mel Gibson – something he said he “never could have imagined in a million years”. He would have chosen Nick Nolte or Jeff Bridges for the role, he said, but he was impressed by Gibson’s portrayal. He nailed the Montana accent.
“I actually think Stu is involved” in the making of the film, Bill Long said. “I don’t think he’s done playing with us.”
Bill Long said he and his late wife, Kathleen Long, did not raise their children in any religious tradition. Both were later inspired by Long to join the Catholic Church.
He described his son as funny and “the life of the party”. But he was also determined, always focused on what he wanted to do.
With a similar sense of humor, Bill Long recalled how his son had a flash of inspiration when he was baptized that he would become a priest. Bishop assured him that many baptized men come away with the same idea and told him, in the words of Bill Long, “Don’t worry. It will go away.
This was not the case.
The film also rang true for Tolleson. He recognized himself and the others somewhat in the composite characters who are Long’s friends in the film.
He also recognized the “great storyteller” he had known in the diocese of Helena.
Long always encouraged and challenged, Tolleson told Religion News Service. He inspired everyone who heard his story – and still does.
“Stu Long was a guy who had great joy, great sense of humor, determination, energy from places I don’t know where he got it from, and he did it all in the middle suffering without complaining, knowing that God was increasing his ministry through that suffering, and that was a powerful thing,” Tolleson said.
Long also had an ‘adventurous’ streak that once, on a whim, took the two priests across the Canadian border to have a beer together – only to learn they were in a dry party from Canada and did not have the passports they needed to return to the United States. Luckily, he says, the border guard recognized Long as “the church guy” he had heard of.
Long walked away from the border, calling over his shoulder, in Tolleson’s words, “See you at Mass on Sunday!”
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Wahlberg, who also produced “Father Stu,” said he saw the parallels between Long’s faith journey and his own — “in his childhood and his upbringing and all those things, all the obstacles he faced. faced and the things he had to overcome.” The actor recalled the family priest who was there for him when he had his own brushes with the law – when he was “13, standing on the corner of a street at 2 a.m. with a beer in hand”.
“I had a lot of tough times, and once I started focusing on my faith, good things started happening,” he said.
Bringing Long’s story to the big screen reaffirmed his faith and commitment to serving God, Wahlberg said, describing the film – which he himself financed – as his “love letter to God”.
This dedication included a rapid gain of 30 pounds to portray Long in his later years, when he lost his once powerful physical appearance to illness even as he gained a deeper spirituality that inspired those around him. .
“As an actor, I’ve never found a part that had more arc and (allowed me to) be able to show more range,” he said.
It was worth it, Wahlberg said, to share such an inspiring story at a time, after years of the pandemic, when people’s faith has been tested — when they need to feel loved and included, to remember that no one is beyond recovery.
“It’s a wonderful film that reaffirms my faith,” he said.
Wahlberg didn’t want “Father Stu” to be the kind of faith-based movie that only preaches to the choir, he said. Rather, he wanted it to feel grounded and realistic — or, at least, as realistic as possible for Long’s story, when, he said, “It’s hard to make this stuff up. .”
“It’s a wonderful story that I think really leaves people leaving theaters feeling hopeful and optimistic about the future and how to handle the tough times, certainly watching Stu handle it with grace and dignity.”