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Q&A: Mark Wahlberg on His Journey From Hip Hop to Hollywood to Hamburgers

How the multi-talented star has learned to balance his brand

Wahlberg says every businesses he's involved with represents who he is. Photographed by Randall Slavin at Powerplant in Los Angeles

Mark Wahlberg took the advertising world by storm in 1992, thanks to his provocative, indelible Calvin Klein underwear campaign, which was shot by the late Herb Ritts. He's been surprising us ever since, transitioning from Marky Mark, the rapper behind the '90s hit "Good Vibrations," to one of Hollywood's biggest stars, thanks to films like Boogie Nights, Ted, Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Departed (which landed him an Oscar nomination).

A decade ago, he made yet another bold pivot, branching into producing projects for both television (HBO's Entourage, which was based on his life, as well as the premium cable channel's series Boardwalk Empire and Ballers) and film (Lone Survivor, The Fighter and Patriots Day, his forthcoming drama about the Boston Marathon bombing).

As he helps engineer the steady rise of the Wahlburgers chain, Wahlberg talks with Adweek about why he initially hated the name of the restaurant, his approach to working with brand marketers and what he learned from posing in those boxer briefs back in the day.

Adweek: Where did the name Wahlburgers come from?
Mark Wahlberg: We had already done Alma Nove (named for their mother, Alma), which was a big success, and I was grateful I was I able to help [my brother] Paul see that dream come to reality. But once he mentioned the idea of Wahlburgers, I said, "Are you out of your mind?" I spent 20-some-odd years building my brand and going from the music world to being taken really seriously as an actor and a producer. I said, "There's no way. Call it Paul's Place, whatever you want. I'll fund it for you, but this is not going to happen." Then I thought, wait a second here. If we could really build a business, a real business, then that's something that I'm interested in. But we're going to do it in a big way. I want to be around to enjoy it. And so things kind of happened.

Wahlberg is excited about the "triple-A flagship" Wahlburgers location in L.A. Photo: Randall Slavin

Was the plan always for you to be this heavily involved in the show? You're featured as much as anyone else in your family.
Originally it was like, OK, we're going to put my brother Paul and my mother and [my friend Johnny] Drama and those guys there. But I just said, you know what? I think to really give it the best chance to succeed—and again, we're talking about the business—I should be involved in every aspect.

You've been savvy about featuring the other brands you're involved with on the show, like AQUAhydrate fitness water and Today I Can Do Anything (TICDA) apparel.
At first, the network was like, "You're being a little blatant with your promoting your other business interests, and even the [Wahlburgers] business itself." I said, "Well, that's why I'm doing it." So then they were like, "Well, if you'll actually do more, then we should embrace it." And then we also have a lot of fun. Anytime I get to hang out with Drama and the guys, I'm having fun. Creatively, I was just saying, OK, I've got to really focus on storylines that I'm interested in and things that I want to get out there.


 

The actor is savvy about marketing himself. Randall Slavin

How do you decide on which businesses and brands to get involved with?
The theme is that all the businesses I'm involved with are businesses that represent who I am and how I live my life. Even if I knew there was a big upside monetarily, I wouldn't get involved with a vodka brand or something like that. It's just not who I am.

You've maintained the same hectic filming and producing schedule. How do you squeeze in filming for Wahlburgers?
We just work around it and plan accordingly. I was [filming Deepwater Horizon] in Louisiana, so we did the whole Drama video and all that stuff in Louisiana. At times it can be hard. When I was shooting the movie, we had a tough schedule. But we were shooting nights, so if I went to bed right away and then I'd get up, I'd have a couple of hours before work. We would go and shoot.

As Wahlburgers continues to expand, is there any location that you're particularly excited about opening?
All of them, but I'm really excited about L.A. We've got a triple-A flagship location, and I can't wait to share the story once we're done and locked. I have so much history at this particular location, so it's really, really special.

One of the big moments on the show this season is your meeting Pope Francis when you hosted the Festival of Families celebration last September in Philadelphia. Did you actually speak with him?
Yeah, briefly. You talk about a busy guy. I've been around presidents and everybody else, and there's never been so many people from so many walks of life so excited to just get a glimpse of somebody. It was really amazing.

What does one talk to the Pope about?
I was just thanking him because he's doing so many great things that are out of the box for the church. He's really bringing people together and moving the church into this new century. He's not one to watch television or go to the movies, so I don't think he knew who I was. It's nice to meet somebody who doesn't want to ask you a bunch of questions. He was probably annoyed by me, but it was an honor.

You've become a prolific producer in the past decade. What prompted you to try your hand at that?
I wanted to have more control, especially if my name is going to be above the title. And producing television really prepared us for making movies in this climate where people are complaining that things are difficult to make money, and the middle, $40 million to $50 million budget movies don't really exist anymore. But in television, you have less time and less money, so we just applied that to movies.

A lot of actors say they want to get involved with producing, but few have been as successful at it as you have been. How tough was it initially to get people to take you seriously?

It was hard, but I don't really pay attention to it. I think once they see my attitude, commitment, drive, focus and ability to make things happen, they just said, "OK, let him go and do his thing."

You were involved with one of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the '90s. What did you learn about the power of advertising from Calvin Klein, and what do you think about it now, looking back?
When I was in the middle of it, I wasn't thinking about it at all. It served its purpose and what I was interested in at that time in my life. But you see with the success of the show how powerful it is. You've got to continue to find creative ways to get eyes onto your brand. As a 44-year-old father of four and a happily married man, I would prefer to do it with my clothes on now! But it certainly served a different purpose for me then.

And now, you're really savvy about marketing yourself.
I've always tried to pick the minds of the great ad and marketing guys, both in film and television. If we have our way, eventually we're going to start our own kind of mini-major studio and finance our own projects and own our own content. And there are three key elements there: You need a numbers guy, you need a material guy, and you need a great advertising/marketing guy. I already have those guys picked out, and I think the only way to move them away from the big job that they have is to give them real equity in the business. Which I have no problem doing.

Do you want to transition to producing full time, or will you keep acting?
Acting's my passion, but it would be nice to be able to slow it down a little bit, to have a little more influence in where they're shot so I'm not so far away from my family. But I absolutely love the business side of things as well. It's very exciting to get things going.

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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