Mel Gibson, right, plays Bill Long, father to Mark Wahlberg’s Fr. Stu in the film Fr. Stu. Photo by Karen Ballard, courtesy Sony Pictures

Actor deeply inspired by boxer turned priest

  • April 14, 2022

There is a pivotal scene in the middle of the new biographical drama Fr. Stu where the eventual boxer-turned-priest, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, tries to convince the rector of Mount Angel Seminary he is worthy of admittance.

The bespectacled, white-bearded clergyman (Malcolm McDowell) wears a mask of skepticism as Stuart Ignatius “Stu” Long (1963-2014), an agnostic until his early 30s, urges him “not to stand in the way” of what Long discerned as a near-death divine call for him to join the priesthood.

McDowell’s character seems well-grounded in his reluctance considering most of Long’s early life was defined by cockiness, womanizing and a penchant for self-destruction.

“There is nothing on your resume or your references that speaks to behavioural conformity to Catholic traditions,” said the rector. “You are a pugilist with a criminal record.”

Long responds without hesitation: “Look at St. Matthew, St. Augustine, St. Francis. Some of the most remarkable figures in the history of the Church are reformed men.”

Wahlberg, a two-time Academy Award nominee, was captivated when he first heard about this man of irrepressible spirit during a dinner with two priests at a restaurant in Beverly Hills back in 2016. One of them, Fr. Ed Benioff was determined to persuade the Catholic actor to portray this beloved pastor, who passed away at age 50 due to inclusion body myositis.

“His story really hit a nerve with me,” said Wahlberg in a pre-release interview with The Catholic Register (the film was released April 13). “I don’t know, but I just really responded to him. And then I thought, ‘this will be my mission to get this movie made.’ That is kind of how it all started.”

Production notes for Fr. Stu provided by Columbia Pictures shed deeper light on why Wahlberg was transfixed by Long, who was ordained in 2007. The Massachusetts-bred actor/producer felt his life journey paralleled that of Long, a product of Helena, Oregon.

“As an actor, I’ve always looked for roles that have a personal connection for me,” he said. “I transitioned from running the streets as a teenager and young adult to finding my faith. I now realize that my purpose is to help others growing up in situations like mine.” 

It took nearly six years for Wahlberg to guide his passion project through development to the big screen. He had to partially finance the film with his own money to mobilize production. 

But now his mission is complete. Wahlberg and writer-director Rosalind Ross premiered Fr. Stu in Helena on April 4.

Wahlberg is delighted that the general public is able to see the picture during Holy Week.

“There could not be better timing. There are so many people struggling right now, and Stu is so inspiring with how he dealt with difficulties with such dignity and grace,” said Wahlberg. “It’s really going to send people out on an emotional high note.”

A special guest at the Helena screening was the priest’s father, Bill Long, who is brought to life on screen by Oscar winner Mel Gibson, no stranger to the Catholic film genre thanks to directing 2004’s ThePassion of The Christ. (A sequel based on Christ’s Resurrection is still in development).

Bill Long is presented in the film as troubled, alcoholic and of no faith. The relationship changes between father and son as the narrative unfolds. Both characters are comfortable being combative with each other at the beginning of the film, which fits as he was then a Golden Gloves-winning boxer.

Montana Right Now news network did a brief interview with the elder Long who said he “was very happy” with how Fr. Stu turned out even though there were expected deviations from real life. He shared what he hopes moviegoers take away from the experience.

“Have faith. Hang in there and endure because you can, and have a little fun while you’re doing it,” he said.

Wahlberg hopes people enjoy the humour of Fr. Stu’s character, who finds himself in some fish-out-of-water scenarios when he doggedly pursues career dreams that appear obviously unrealistic for a middle-aged man, and then when he decides to attend Catholic Church mainly, at first, to woo a girl he met.

“It’s so funny. Stu was such a character. I could listen to stories about his upbringing forever. And he was so open to people and spreading love,” said Wahlberg.

Kathleen Long, Fr. Stu’s late mother, was central to his upbringing. Australian character actress Jacki Weaver, also an Oscar nominee, depicts Kathleen as loving, modest, but also a bit sharp-tongued and skeptical about Stu’s life decisions.

In some sense, Fr. Stu appeared to have inherited his mother’s trait.

“Stu was always challenging everyone to do better,” said Wahlberg.

Holy Week, especially Good Friday, viscerally reminds us that Jesus is the Suffering Servant of God. Despite being humiliated, tortured, disfigured and executed, His spirit soared and redeemed the world.

Fr. Stu suggests the late priest embraced the opportunity to suffer for his faith when his body began to deteriorate with the inclusion body myositis.

“He embraced his sickness as a blessing that brought him closer to Christ,” said Wahlberg in the production notes. “All the other distractions had gone away and his dedication to serving God was his sole purpose. I find it so inspiring.”

Gibson was unavailable for an interview, but in a joint television sit-down with Wahlberg and Ross on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, the Catholic actor reflected on the film’s message of growing through suffering.

“All of us are carrying some kind of boulder, some kind of cross in some aspect of our lives. When we are dealing with that stuff is when we are at our best. It was certainly the case with Fr. Stu. He became his best through suffering,” said Gibson.

Wahlberg has been sharing a quote from the movie on his social media accounts that gets at the heart of this theme.

“We shouldn’t pray for an easy life but the strength to endure a difficult one.”

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