"I'm an old weird dude. I play checkers and (stuff) all the time. If you knew how much I played checkers, you would think I was crazy."
That's funny, because the rest of us see Mark Wahlberg as an exciting, sexy movie star - not a "old weird dude," even if he is 41 and the father of four. The actor's latest project is "Broken City," a dark urban thriller that opens Friday, which he both stars in and produces.
Wahlberg plays a former New York City cop looking for redemption. He had resigned after a controversial shooting. Years later, he is hired by the mayor (Russell Crowe) to spy on his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who he claims is cheating on him. Director Allen Hughes had brought Wahlberg the script by Brian Tucker, which had been on the Black List, an entertainment industry catalog of what are considered the best unproduced screenplays.
"I said to Allen early on that there are two ways we can go with this - go the studio route or we can or figure out a way to do it on our own," says Wahlberg, whose successes include "Boardwalk Empire," "The Fighter," "Entourage," "In Treatment," "We Own the Night" and last year's "Contraband."
After persuading Hughes - who is going solo for the first time after making films with his twin brother, Albert ("From Hell," "The Book of Eli") - to go the indie route and find a studio later (Fox is releasing the film), Wahlberg worked on attracting some stars.
"We had to get very creative with the cast because we didn't have the luxury of paying them their quotes," Wahlberg says. He adds that he did what he could to sweeten the deal, but ultimately it was the material that attracted such a strong cast, which includes Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper and Kyle Chandler.
"Everybody loved their parts," Wahlberg says. "They felt like they had really juicy parts and a chance to act with some really talented people."
Wahlberg says he only knew Crowe in passing but was definitely a fan and remembers their first day on the set together where they went toe to toe in a crucial scene. "Allen asked if we wanted to rehearse, but we both said no. So we set up two cameras and just started going at each other."
In another scene, Wahlberg's character - a reformed alcoholic - goes off the wagon and on a drunken, destructive rampage in the streets.
Raised in the tough streets of a Boston slum, the actor - one of nine children - was often in trouble with the law as a youth, which partially explains his attraction to gritty urban thrillers like "Broken City."
"All the bad stuff that happened in my life, I always bring it to what I do," says Wahlberg, who has expressed regret for things he did as a youth. "It's part of my makeup, of who I am. I love finding roles that I can identify with on a personal level. And I think it just makes for a much more realistic portrayal."
There is another reason Wahlberg is attracted to gritty urban thrillers: family.
"I grew up watching movies like this with my dad, whether it was `Serpico' or `Chinatown.' These are the kind of movies I grew up loving, and they don't make them that often. So when you get an opportunity to make one, you got to jump at it."
Wahlberg's late father was a Teamster, and among his many projects, the actor is producing a reality show in Boston about the union. "When people hear reality shows they usually think `Jersey Shore,"' he says, "but we're thinking more like `Deadliest Catch'-quality material.
Wahlberg is involved in many projects as an actor or producer or both, and a couple of projects are waiting for the green light.
He's already finished starring in three films - "Lone Survivor," the true story of a Navy SEAL team sent on an assassination mission, for Peter Berg; the action-comedy "Pain & Gain" for Michael Bay; and the thriller "2 Guns" with Denzel Washington for Baltasar Kormakur, who helmed "Contraband" for him.
Having enjoyed working with Bay, Wahlberg has also signed on to do "Transformers 4." Does his participation signal a change in direction in the franchise?
"They don't want me to talk about it," Wahlberg says. But he adds that his character will have a kid.
Asked if he finds it hard to keep up with everything he's doing, Wahlberg responds, "I got to get more going on. I get my list every day, and I just got to stay on top of it."
When we talked, the actor was in Miami promoting "Broken City" but was anxious to get home for his youngest's third birthday. His other children are 9, 6 and 4.
"If I'm working in L.A., I come home every night, and if I'm on location, my family travels with me," he says about balancing being a family man and his career.
A big sports fan, Wahlberg took his oldest son to his first football game a couple of months ago. "It was awesome - a great experience that neither one of us will ever forget."
Wahlberg is such a Hollywood success these days that people may forget his early career as a rapper, briefly with his brother Donnie and the band New Kids on the Block and then with his own group, Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch. So what is the checkers player listening to these days?
"Normally, when I'm in L.A., I am listening to K-EARTH 101 or 103.5 (KOST-FM), all that kind of easy-listening kind of stuff," he says.
"But I just got an iPhone, so I started downloading some stuff. I got the Adele album and Jay-Z's and Kanye's `Watch the Throne' album on my iPhone. I've been a BlackBerry man for long time, but I gave it up. I'm feeling brand-new."