Stuart Long tried many things in life: football, wrestling, boxing, acting in Hollywood, bartending, even managing an art museum. Then, perhaps not entirely unlike Saul being knocked off his horse, his life was radically changed when a motorcycle ride ended with him crashing into one car and being run over by another. Around the same time he was also metaphorically knocked off his feet by a young woman, a Mexican Catholic named Carmen.
The convergence of these two events led the one-time nonbeliever to a deep Catholic faith. The next step in Stu’s journey was more counterintuitive: He began to pursue a vocation to the priesthood.
Even that wasn’t the final twist in Stu’s story. As a seminarian he was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called inclusion body myositis. Although his physical decline threatened his formation, he persisted—and for nearly seven years after his ordination, as his body continued to deteriorate, Father Long brought the love and grace of God to countless people.
The story of a foul-mouthed boxer turned priest dying of an unphotogenic degenerative disease isn’t a pitch likely to open doors either in Hollywood or in the faith-based film community, where the R-rated language was an issue. But Mark Wahlberg, who heard about Stu’s story from one of his parish priests, persevered for six years—almost as long as Fr. Long’s ministry—ultimately partly funding the film itself.
Wahlberg’s costars include Jacki Weaver and Mel Gibson as Stu’s estranged parents and Mexican actress Teresa Ruiz (Narcos: Mexico) as Carmen. I recently spoke with Wahlberg and Ruiz via Zoom about making the film and what it meant to them. Father Stu opens in theaters April 13th.
SDG: So, Mark, after years of trying to get a movie made about Father Stuart Long, you’ve been touring with the film and seeing how audiences respond to this story. I’m curious what you’ve learned, either researching or playing the role, or even from people’s responses to the film, that has changed you in some way.
Wahlberg: Well, we’re all going through it. These are unprecedented times. And Stu’s message is giving people new hope and faith. I don’t think I necessarily learned it, but it’s been reaffirmed to me that everything happens for a reason, and the Big Guy is pulling all the strings. This was part of my destiny and Stu’s destiny. For Stu, who went to Hollywood, wanted to become successful, but found another path chosen for him by God, here he is 25 years later, the subject of a major motion picture being released by a big studio. He’s smiling down, and he’s happy that his message is continuing to be echoed, and that now I am doing everything I can to continue to promote that message.
SDG: So in a way Stu did actually make it in Hollywood!
Wahlberg: This dawned on me as I was doing an interview! A woman said, “Stu was pretty successful as a boxer; he failed miserably as an actor; but then he found his calling as a priest.” And I was like, “You could put it in a nicer way.” Then I realized: We’re here talking about Stu, and a big motion picture. So, no, he did not fail. It was just a different path.
SDG: If you had known the real Stuart Long at that point in his life, when he was thinking about going to Hollywood and trying to break into movies—being familiar with that world as you are—would you have had any thoughts or advice for him?
Wahlberg: I think I would have been able to give him some good solid advice. It’s also being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. Had he met Penny Marshall [who cast Wahlberg in Renaissance Man], he probably would have had the same career success that I had. I had somebody who was really smart and talented, and took me under their wing. But God had very different plans for Stu. And everything happened for a reason.
SDG: Obviously, in the space of two hours, you can’t tell a story like Stuart Long’s in its entirety. Was there something about his story that really stood out to you, but for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the film?
Wahlberg: There were lots of things that we actually shot, but you’re trying to condense a couple of decades into two hours. So that’s really difficult. I wanted to show more of his interactions in Hollywood—I just thought they were all so funny, though a lot of those didn’t make it into the film.
I think the most important thing, and a story that I love to share, is that not only did he reconnect with his dad and get his mom and dad back together, he also had both of his parents baptized while he was on a hospital bed. And he had tears streaming down his face when the archbishop who ordained him baptized both of his parents. I think that was one of the last things that he wanted to accomplish.
SDG: I have to ask, as a Catholic deacon: Was there anything that you learned making the movie about clerical formation, or seminary life, or ministry that surprised you or made you think differently in some way about the clergy?
Wahlberg: You know, I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of really special people who have dedicated their lives to serving God…you’re the first one that’s asked me that, Deacon! Hopefully something will come to me…something will come up later, and I’ll say that in the next interview, and people will be like, “Why are you telling me this?”
SDG: Is there a particular sequence or moment in the film that you’re especially proud of?
Wahlberg: I am proud of every single frame of the film. When I sent it to various people who were reluctant to give me support because of the language, after seeing the film, they gave us all the support that we could ask for, because they understood the importance of tough mercy and tough grace. It’s one thing to make a faith-based movie that preaches to the choir, and another to really touch everybody and to bring people to faith, to the vocation of priesthood. To remind people that it’s not so much about the Church—it’s really about the guy who died to build it.
SDG: Mark Wahlberg, thank you very much!
Wahlberg: Thank you for your questions, Deacon.
SDG: Teresa, your character Carmen in Father Stu, Stuart Long’s devoutly Catholic love interest, is a very different part for you from the role that American audiences probably know you best for: Isabella Bautista in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico. You’ve talked about what you enjoyed about playing Isabella: about her journey, her strength, her ambitions, and so forth. Can you talk about the presumably different experience of playing Carmen?
Ruiz: Yes, very different, like day and night, right? But at the same time, they’re not. Carmen seems to be so well put together, to have it all figured out: a really good God girl. And she has a very strong faith. But then something happens with Stu that shakes up her whole world, and she has to revisit who she is. And she has to go through a journey of self-discovery.
In that sense, I feel like that’s where that would parallel with Isabella, because she also thought she was going one way and she had to reroute in a very different way. But I like this part so much, because it seemed to be on the surface, but it really was challenging. It was like walking the tightrope again.
SDG: Some actors find playing bad characters more interesting or enjoyable or challenging than good characters. I take it that’s not your experience?
Ruiz: No, not at all! I love playing Carmen. My experience was so lovely. When I played Isabella Bautista, it was very dark, very difficult. Of course there were days [playing Carmen] where it was very tough, where [she’s] questioning [herself], but it’s a different kind of struggle. This movie brings so much light and joy and love. It’s really enjoyable to be inside a story that has those themes, because you are surrounded by those themes as well.
SDG: Did you happen to learn anything at all about the real woman that Stuart Long thought about marrying?
Ruiz: We couldn’t track her down. There was only a voice message from Stuart that said, “There was this girl, her name’s Carmen, I was so in love with her. She was Mexican, and I was gonna marry her. It was so hard to give her up.” And that was really only the only thing I had to go from.
But I could imagine who she could have been in my community. I know the people in my town and my community — how kind and generous we are as Mexicans, as immigrants. So I try to bring a lot of that beauty and generosity to this part.
SDG: So Carmen is initially resistant to Stu’s interest in her, but not completely resistant, even from the beginning. Would you say that’s fair?
Ruiz: Super true.
SDG: And as you say, she’s a very serious Catholic. And when she meets Stuart, not only is he a complete heathen, but he doesn’t really seem to know what he wants out of life. What do you think Carmen sees in him initially?
Ruiz: What I like about Stu is he just has a funny personality — everything is going wrong, and he’s still making jokes about it. I think that’s what Carmen really liked about him. When we were on set, Mark would say something that was funny, but it shouldn’t have been funny — the way he said it was funny. So that charmed me. I think that’s also it: He was very charming to her because Stu was so pure in his heart. So I think that’s what really attracted Carmen.
SDG: Is there a particular moment in Carmen’s journey, or a scene in the film, that’s especially meaningful to you?
Ruiz: I really, really like the very end of the movie, where he sees the community that he built through being honest and pure and kind and that it is there, it is his community, that makes his dream come true without him even knowing. Where we come closer to him at the end, I really liked that moment. I feel like it really encapsulates a sense that we are not alone even in our worst times.
SDG: Teresa Ruiz, thanks very much.
Ruiz: Thank you!
Based on the unlikely true story of an amateur boxer turned priest who died of a rare degenerative disease, Father Stu leans on Wahlberg’s mischievous charm and buoyant aura of invincibility, with hints of something darker and more fragile beneath the surface.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.