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Man vs. ape

Friday, July 27, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri Post-Gazette Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- A funny thing happened to Mark Wahlberg on the way to "Planet of the Apes."

"I signed on to make a Tim Burton movie, and all of a sudden, it's turned into Mark Wahlberg's debut as a leading man and an action hero and all this other crap," he grumbles, good-naturedly.

At least that's what he learned during a long, sweltering weekend of interviews to promote the movie, which re-imagines the story of an astronaut -- played by Charlton Heston in 1968 -- who lands on a mysterious planet where apes rule. The 30-year-old Wahlberg quips that his stylish all-black outfit (with sunglasses hooked into the V of his button-down shirt) is because, "Tonight's my funeral."

Funeral. High-profile movie premiere in midtown Manhattan. Same thing, maybe, when your name is attached to a film the studio is banking on as a blockbuster.

But "Planet" is abuzz with buzz, one of the most anticipated movies of the summer. As always, though, time and box-office receipts will tell. In addition to Wahlberg, the movie stars Oscar nominees Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Clarke Duncan, all unrecognizable under Rick Baker's marvelous monkey makeup.

Making his way through a row of Regency Hotel rooms where he changes dance partners -- roundtables of reporters -- every 20 or so minutes, Wahlberg says, "I never really felt pressure stepping into the Heston role. I mean, it was like, OK, here's Tim Burton. He was interested in me and wants to work with me, and where do I sign?

"It was that simple. There was no pressure whatsoever. There was no script. I didn't need one."

Burton is one of the most talented directors in the business with a vision like no other, he says, to no objection. "The guy is amazing. I think that's why every actor signed on," in a statement confirmed by his fellow cast members.

"Very few people have had a real effect, a profound effect on me, and Tim is definitely one of them. And I don't even know if the guy likes me, I don't care. The kind of person he is, is the kind of person I aspire to be."

Wahlberg promised to do anything and everything Burton asked. But the onetime Calvin Klein model and "Boogie Nights" star secretly prayed that Burton would not ask him to wear a loincloth, as Heston did in the original. In that sci-fi classic, Heston even had to flash his bare, untanned behind.

"It was six long weeks, lots of sleepless nights till my first wardrobe fitting. I walked in the room, I looked around, there was a spacesuit." Still, he worried that someone wearing white gloves would make a grand entrance bearing the loincloth. When he relayed his fears to Burton, the director said, "Why the hell would I want to see you in a loincloth?" Some members of the female audience, of course, might think otherwise.

Had Burton known how nervous Wahlberg was, the actor imagines, "There would have been nothing but a loincloth in there. And when I came out -- it would have taken me an hour to come out of the dressing room -- George Clooney and everybody else would be there with cameras, and they'd get pictures of me and pass 'em around town."

Prankster and pal Clooney, of course, was his co-star in "Three Kings" and "The Perfect Storm," in which Wahlberg was drenched, deluged and nearly drowned in water. In "Apes" he was repeatedly thrown to the ground, kicked and generally beaten up for 14 hours a day.

Loincloth or not, there is no shortage of photos of Wahlberg around town.

He is featured on the glossy cover of the August issue of Vanity Fair wearing a Valentino suit, Polo Ralph Lauren shirt, Paul Smith tie and Hermes trench coat. The shot was taken by Annie Leibovitz in Paris, where a shirtless Wahlberg also posed on the Eiffel Tower. He had been in France making Jonathan Demme's "The Truth About Charlie," another don't-call-it-a-remake but a picture bearing a resemblance to "Charade" starring Cary Grant.

Wahlberg may have leapfrogged to the A list but he doesn't act like it. He spent a rare day off visiting the "Apes" set so he could meet Heston, who has a clever cameo as an ape.

"I heard the voice first. Here he comes. And then, I introduced myself to him, started talking and he paid me some really nice compliments that I didn't really believe, but I was going to take them anyway.

"He said he was honored to be in a film with me. I was, like, that's a crock ... but I'll take it, Mr. Ben-Hur. Then we just started talking. He was so uncomfortable in the makeup that he started to literally rip the nose appliance off, and then you start to see the face along with the voice. It was really weird. But so cool. I mean, the guy's a legend. It was quite an honor."

That hadn't stopped Wahlberg from delivering impromptu line readings after his scenes. "In between takes, I would do the Heston version of the scene, which was the complete opposite of what I did." As Wahlberg later notes, "I mean, he's always cranked up past 10 and I like everything to be kind of internal," which was fine with Burton.

The director had chosen Wahlberg because he thought he could be the perfect anchor for the story. "It needed somebody who, with just a look, could go 'Where the hell am I? Get me outta here,' " Burton had said earlier in the day.

"It's almost like old-style movie acting to me, which I find very rare. It's kind of a no-nonsense, very simple, razor" approach.

Unlike his co-stars, Wahlberg did not endure a stint in Ape School or three to four hours in the makeup chair every morning. And that did not endear him to the actors who were transformed daily into apes, gorillas, chimps or (in the case of Paul Giamatti) an orangutan.

"They'd be in makeup when I got there, and obviously they'd been there for hours. I'd say, hey, what's going on? What time you'd get here? They're, like, 1:45 [in the morning]. I didn't even get home until 2:30, I had a great time last night, slept till 8." He needed very little makeup and would be ready in five minutes.

"They got their revenge," he jokes, when it came time to thrash and pummel the U.S. Air Force pilot he played. And Tim Roth, who portrays the villainous ape named Thade, jokes, "Yeah, we roughed him up a bit."

Roth admires Wahlberg for learning as he did, on the job, but had no problems with greeting the actor as Spaceman Marky Mark. "I was told whatever you do, don't call him Marky Mark. That was the first thing out of my mouth," he says, cheekily.

This day, the tattooed British star of such films as "Rob Roy," "Pulp Fiction," "Reservoir Dogs" and "Vincent & Theo," is wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans, a far cry from his "Apes" outfit. "I loved having that makeup on. I didn't like spending the whole day in it, but I really, really enjoyed it, as far as what it gave me for acting.

"First of all, it got me to vanish completely, which is perfect. And then there's the costume, as well. It really helps you set the pace as far as how you want your character to be. It's really good stuff to act in, you're so liberated by not being yourself, as well. ... It gives you a chance to just go crazy and go wild and experiment."

In fact, the character of Thade wasn't quite so ferocious when originally conceived. The first script didn't quite have the "oomph" and Roth began talking to Burton about how to push him and make him more interesting. That he did, turning him into a combination Shakespearean villain and land version of a shark, which was one of the images that sprang to his mind.

Proving that movies can, indeed, make strange bedfellows, Roth found himself playing a scene with Charlton Heston, who is Thade's father. They are not exactly on the same social, cultural or political page.

"Obviously I had political problems with that guy. I was dreading it. That's another place of how Tim [Burton] is so eloquent. He made my day just go by so smoothly. I went in, I was in makeup, I came in, there's a guy on a bed with makeup on. We say hi. We rehearsed the scene, we shot the scene."

Roth did not engage Heston in any sort of potentially disruptive or disturbing discussion. "I had to be very careful. In the workplace, it wasn't the appropriate time and I was aware of that. I kept it very businesslike, we were both pleasant to each other and I moved on."

In the end, "Apes" proved a throwback to his childhood dreams of acting.

"One of the great things about this film for me, it was really like what I thought films would be when I was playing cowboys and Indians in the back yard at the age of 6. It kind of was like that. You deglamorize it, that's for sure. But it was like playing who's going to be the bad guy today, that kind of stuff."

And believe it or not, sometimes Roth was the good guy.

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