Mark Wahlberg and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges have at least two things in common: They both got their start in the music industry, and they star together in Max Payne, a new action movie based on the popular vigilante videogame series. Wahlberg stars as the eponymous character, a grimly purposeful police detective seeking justice for the murders of his family and his former partner. In a much smaller role, Ludacris plays an Internal Affairs officer who's trying to stop him from bloody revenge. While in Chicago for the unveiling of three Max Payne-inspired graffiti murals, Wahlberg and Ludacris talked to The A.V. Club about the perils of making movies out of video games, getting past The Happening, and how to make the transition from the music industry to movies.
The A.V. Club: Movies based on videogames have a long history of being pretty bad. Where did they go wrong, and what convinced you that Max Payne would be different?
Mark Wahlberg: I don't know. I don't follow the history of movies that came from videogames. I read the script and I liked it. And then when I found out it was a videogame, I was like, "Wait a second here. What is the game?" Because I know about, like, Pac-Man. The only other game I played was SEGA Hockey, and I don't know if there's much of a story about that, either. But when I saw this, the story was extremely elaborate, and it's very cinematic in the way it plays out. So I thought, you know, I liked the character. I liked the story. That was more than enough for me.
AVC: Did you familiarize yourself with the game itself?
MW: Well yeah, I wanted to know how accurate it was. I didn't play it much myself, but my assistant played it every single day. He was completely addicted to it. I had to take it from him at the end of the shoot.
Ludacris: I played a little bit, but when I read the script, I was like, "Okay. They have the foundation in the videogame, but they're taking it to a whole other level." That's really why I loved the script and wanted to be part of the project.
MW: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of videogames in the movies?
L: Not successful. Not good.
AVC: There's been a million of them. Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Brothers, all those Uwe Boll films.
L: Lara Croft.
L: Street Fighter. Oh, man, that was definitely a bomb.
AVC: None of them work out.
L: Well it looks like we're going to change that.
AVC: The film is bound to draw a lot of comparisons to The Matrix and John Woo films. Do you welcome those comparisons? What sets this film apart?
MW: Originally, I think they took a lot of the bullet-time stuff that was done in Max Payne and used it in The Matrix. [Actually, The Matrix was released in 1999, so it predates the first Max Payne video game by two years. —ed.] I guess they were trying to make Max Payne for quite a while. I didn't find this out until after. A friend of mine, Brad Weston, who runs Paramount, was at Miramax, and they were trying to develop the project, and The Matrix came out with bullet-time first. So they really didn't know how to do it. But now, with new technology and what we were able to do with a thousand frames per second… We don't use much CGI in the movie aside from the demons and the explosion, which you can't do in downtown Toronto. Everything else was actually shot on film.
AVC: Mark, were you consciously looking for a role like this to follow up The Happening, which is a film where you're on the run most of the time?
MW: Yes. Definitely. Because I wanted to switch it up. I wanna do something different every time out. Even if you could say, "Well, there's some similarities to the Departed character or Four Brothers or Shooter," they're all different in different ways. But yeah, after being a science teacher and just kind of sitting there and saying [Adopts hushed tone.] "What's happening? I don't understand. What about the bees?" You know?
AVC: You can't combat the wind.
MW: It's nice to be proactive. Busting heads.
AVC: [To Ludacris.] What about yourself? How'd you get involved in this?
L: I read the script. I loved it. I went to audition for the part. It was actually written for a 60-year-old white man, so I was kind of hesitant. I didn't know if I was gonna get the part. And I got the call from the director, John Moore, saying I had it. Next thing you know, I was good. And when I knew I could point a gun at Mark Wahlberg, I was like, "Hell yeah. I'm down for the role."
AVC: Was that all that needed to be done? Did you study for the role at all? Follow a cop around?
L: This was the first time I've played a cop, and the first time I've been involved in any real action sequences in any movies that I've ever done. I was in 2 Fast 2 Furious, but I didn't really do much of the action. It was my first time. It was pretty much all I did. You tell me, when you saw the character, did you think it was supposed to be written for a 60-year-old white man?
AVC: No. Were you trying to play it like a 60-year-old white man?
L: Exactly. I was trying to play an asshole.
AVC: You talked a little about the look of the movie. Did you have an idea of what it was going to look like when you made it?
MW: I had a fairly good idea. I've been in enough movies to know that when you're on the set and you start shooting, you're looking at playback and you get a sense of what it's going to be like. I didn't know the demon aspect of it, the hallucinations, would play such a big part. It didn't really read that way in the script. But by the time I got to page 10 in the script, I was already in the headspace of the character. And as he was encountering all these people who were going through these hallucinations, he didn't buy any of it anyway. He just thought they were whacked-out and crazy 'cause they're on drugs.
AVC: How do you get into this character? He's lost his family and his partner. Did you have trouble getting into that headspace?
MW: No. I have three children now, and God forbid something ever happened to my kids. That's all I have to think about. "Something horrible happened to my family. Go bananas."
AVC: Both of you came into acting from the music business. Was there a big learning curve involved in making that transition?
L: I think it's a pretty easy transition, and a great transition. Just because we're so comfortable in front of the camera doing music videos, and it's almost a form of acting when we're doing music videos. We're acting out our own thoughts and what we've written down on paper. So to me, it was just the next big step, just being comfortable in front of the camera, knowing that we have to embody a certain character that we created on our own, so now let's see if we can embody another character.
MW: Well every moment, every project is different. I took a very slow approach to acting, trying to really work with people I could learn from. And I got something different out of each experience.
AVC: Do you have a philosophy for how you go about choosing roles? Are you looking to the filmmakers?
MW: Early on, it was all about the filmmaker. I would do a movie that I didn't necessarily think would be something I would go and see just to get the opportunity to work with a great director. And then when I got to the point where I felt confident in my abilities and I didn't have to rely on having an acclaimed filmmaker, then I started being selfish and choosing films based on the roles and films that I thought people would want to see me in. Because when you go into a starring position and you're carrying a movie, it's important that people like it. And I only do things that I can connect with in some sort of way, or that I can identify with.
AVC: Do you see yourself wanting to be front and center all of the time?
MW: No, not necessarily. It depends on the script, the role. Script, role, filmmaker, cast. Supporting roles, small roles, leading roles… It just depends. And you try to balance out things that are going to be more commercially successful with things that are going to be more artistic.
L: Exactly. Which is why RocknRolla [a Guy Ritchie film in which Ludacris has a supporting role] comes out this month also. That's the artistic one, for sure.
AVC: Coming from music, you both also know how to cultivate a fan base. Is that important in movies as well? Do fans expect certain things from you?
L: Absolutely. Your fans, they count on you to make wise decisions and wise choices. That's why they're your fan base. If you continually let them down, they're going to go find someone else to be fans of.
MW: And there's people that will want to see you in certain things and won't want to see you in other things. I think I've been able to… I haven't done a broad comedy yet, but I've dabbled in comedic things. I never want to be told, "Hey, this is what you do, this is what you do best, and this is the only thing you're going to do." And there are other people that are, you know, put into that box. Or unable to navigate through all the different genres. Some people insist on being a tough guy even though it's not happening. People only want to see them in leading romantic roles. Yet they continue to try and force something that doesn't feel organic to people.
AVC: Do you ever get offered roles and think, "People who know me, that's not really the sort of thing they expect for me or want for me"? Do you ever feel boxed in by their expectations?
L: That's the exact reason why I try and take a different approach, and try to take roles that are different from the previous one. Sometimes I read stuff and I say, "Maybe this isn't for me just yet." Because I'm gradually trying to make the step forward and learn as much as I can before I take that starring role. So we turn down stuff all the time. I have in my head what I want to do next, and when I read it, I'm like "That's it."
AVC: [To Ludacris.] Are you looking to strike a balance between music and film? Or are you going to be more aggressive in going after film roles?
L: Oh, right now, it's definitely about the balance. Because I still have a lot of music to get out. I actually have an album coming out November 25. Theater Of The Mind is the name of it. So I'm balancing both out right now—life is all about balance.
AVC: It's become very hard for musicians to make money in the record industry, and especially hard in the last year or two for hip-hop artists. How are you dealing with that?
L: I deal with it because I'm pretty okay financially. So I don't necessarily do anything just for the money. I do it for the passion and I do it for the love, because I'm still hungry. So if I want to do music, it's not necessarily motivated because of monetary value. Of course I have bills to pay, but at the same time, it's more about the passion and the love, and I think that's where music should come from, the heart, not necessarily just to cash a check.
AVC: What can people expect from the new record?
L: It's funny, because I've been doing so many movies, it's very related to cinematography and theatrics and all these different things. That's why I call it Theater Of The Mind, because the best way to explain it is that every song is kind of like a movie. For instance, I have a song called "Do The Right Thing" with Spike Lee talking on it. And I have a song called "Undisputed" with Floyd Mayweather on it, and it's like I'm in a boxing ring, being very competitive. So every song has a certain cinematic theme to it.
AVC: What's next for you? What are you working on now?
MW: I'm trying to figure that out. I've got a lot of stuff going on in TV that I'm producing. Trying to figure out what the next movie is going to be. I've been training to do Fighter for quite some time now, and hopefully that'll come together some time next year, and maybe do something before that.
AVC: What does that involve, the training?
MW: Getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning every day and going to the gym for two hours. Doing it all. Sparring, running, rope, net work, everything. I gotta play a guy who won the world welterweight title, so I've gotta look like—you know. [Points to arm.]
AVC: Entourage just got another renewal. How involved are you in that show at this point? How much input do you have?
MW: Well, they're kind of at a crossroads on that show, because this season has been so amazing. They've taken Vince down so far. Doug [Ellin] is calling me, asking me what's going on in my life, what I think he should do. But it was basically just getting the right people and the right pieces of the puzzle together and then allowing them do their thing. You've got really talented guys. So any time people are getting out of hand, or I've gotta put out some fires, or pull some strings to get someone to appear… Just when they need me, I'm in the bullpen. But shit, if I've gotta do everybody's job, what the fuck are they getting paid for?