The New Orleans-set, English-language remake of the film "Reykjavik-Rotterdam" was No. 1 at the box office when it opened this weekend.
In the film, Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a happily married father of two young sons, who has given up his previous life of crime, but is called out of retirement to run contraband to settle a debt his wayward brother-in-law owes to a ruthless drug dealer. Kate Beckinsale plays Farraday's wife, Caleb Landry Jones plays her brother, Giovanni Ribisi plays the drug dealer and Ben Foster plays Farraday's best friend, who helps him assemble a crew to smuggle counterfeit money into the country from Panama via container ship.
Wahlberg admits starring in a movie about family dynamics and moral ambiguity isn't that big a stretch for him. The 40-year-old actor grew up as the youngest of nine siblings in a Roman Catholic family in the Dorchester section of Boston where he became addicted to drugs and spent time in jail for assault as a teen and young man. Clean and sober for years, and married with four children of his own, Wahlberg credits his family and faith with helping him turn his life around.
"There were a lot of things I could identify with in the character and relate to," Wahlberg, who began his performing career as a rapper known as "Marky Mark," told reporters in New York recently while promoting "Contraband." "I remember seeing the original ['Reykjavik-Rotterdam'] and I just thought it was really cool because there have been so many heist films and it was just the way he was able to do it. [My character's] a guy who's pretty tough, but I think he's smarter than he is tough and he has to react to a lot of different situations and circumstances. He's a guy who's fighting to protect his family, so I can certainly relate to that."
Wahlberg explained he learned a lot of disturbing facts about what criminal activity takes place on some freighters and how hard it is for authorities to determine exactly what is on board the ships coming into and leaving the United States. But he insisted he tries not to let the knowledge he acquired during the course of making the movie influence the way he looks at the world.
"All I can do is make sure I'm doing the right thing in my own personal life and being as good a husband and father as I can. Those are the important things," he emphasized. "But it does make you wonder. You never look at things quite the same anymore."
An Oscar nominee for "The Departed," the star of "Boogie Nights," "The Perfect Storm," "The Italian Job," "Four Brothers" and "The Fighter" has enjoyed success in recent years producing the TV series "Entourage," "Boardwalk Empire" and "How to Make It in America," as well. He said he is also now working to produce a reality show set in the port of Los Angeles that would explore some of the issues touched on in "Contraband."
"It's pretty scary stuff," the actor confessed. "It's a fascinating world and, obviously, the whole smuggling thing, they can never really figure out how [to inspect all the ships]. The way they go about checking containers is a guessing game. It's really a cat and mouse game. You never know."
Asked if he thinks crime pays sometimes, Wahlberg replied, "It does for awhile, but everyone gets caught eventually.
"In this movie, my character's no angel," the actor noted. "He's on the wrong side of the law, as well, but he's doing it for the right reason. He's doing it to protect and provide for his family. And the other guys in the film are worse than me -- and they're not as likable. But those are the kinds of guys I like to root for. Those are the kinds of guys I can identify with. I could try to pull of the squeaky clean thing, but I don't necessarily think that's my cup of tea."
No matter how successful he might become in his career, Wahlberg said he intends to concentrate on what is truly important to him.
"I always talk about the things I think I need to be good at and that, first and foremost, is to be a good servant to God and my faith, a good husband, a good father, a good son, a good friend, brother, neighbor," he said. "Those are the important things I focus on. If I succeed in business and fail at being a parent or husband, then it was all for nothing. Then I've failed. I just try to do the best at everything I do and I don't like to lose. I like to win."
The actor went on to say he knows how lucky he is to have been able to start over, so he has been trying to help others do the same through the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation he founded in 2001.
"I'm still appreciative of all the things that I've been able to do and the things I've been able to overcome and getting a second chance in this life is not something that comes easy, so I don't want to do anything to mess it up," he said. "I'm so blessed and so fortunate. I start every day getting on my hands and knees, being grateful and working to do the right thing. If it all went away today, I'd be happy because of all of the things I got to experience and the things I've learned along the way. As far as my past, there's nothing I can do to change that. It is what it is, but I've been fortunate enough that I can apply a lot of those real-life experiences to what I'm doing now, to my work both in front of the camera and with kids that are going through similar situations. That's the best I can do."
"Contraband" is in theaters now.