Taking a chance on ‘The Gambler’

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Mark Wahlberg wasn’t supposed to star in The Gambler. The actor, who has made several films for Paramount Pictures (The Fighter, The Lovely Bones, Pain and Gain and Transformers: Age of Extinction), was working with the studio to star in American Desperado, an adaptation of Jon Roberts’ memoir about his transformation from cocaine cowboy to government informant. But the project was delayed when the studio tapped the Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) to rewrite the script, which meant Wahlberg’s calendar was suddenly free.

So instead the studio sent him another of Monahan’s screenplays, The Gambler, about a college professor with a dangerous gambling habit.

“They had been developing it for a while, and various people were attached at different stages to both star and direct,” Wahlberg says. “I have a great relationship with Paramount, and we were in total agreement creatively.”

Although Wahlberg loved the script, which was based on James Toback’s 1974 film of the same name, the actor felt he needed to get the director’s blessing before tackling a remake of the beloved cult classic, which originally starred James Caan.

“We didn’t know each other before this,” Wahlberg says. “I know his agent, we sent him the script and he just responded to the material. We had endless debates because he didn’t understand how we could make this material our own. Toback’s a gambler, so he’s really alive in the moment. He gets off on the thrill of the high that you feel when you’re waiting for that card to be turned. He was supportive of me making the movie, and he was very impressed with what we came up with.”

Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), who was approached by the studio to direct the film, immediately said yes.

“I had wanted to work with Mark for a long time,” Wyatt says. “He’s one of those movie stars who is fearless as an actor and mixes it up a lot. When I read the script, I knew we would be doing it for all the right reasons. It’s a tough character to explore in the sense that in many people’s eyes, he has everything: Money, education, great job, all these things that we’re told by society are the pinnacle of happiness. That stuff counts for a great deal — it would be disingenuous to say money doesn’t bring you satisfaction — but in terms of what makes you happy at your core, that’s a very different thing.”

Wahlberg, who went on a strict diet for three months to lose weight, had his own take on the character.

“I just felt like he was a guy who was completely unhappy with his situation and decided the meaning of life was to get rid of all the things in his life,” he says. “That would allow him to start over. He doesn’t have a purpose or anything he’s passionate about. So he’s content to play these gambling games with these guys, and if they cause him bodily harm, he doesn’t care. We never tried to make him likable. We always thought people would hate him at first but would grow to like him and wonder how he is going to get out of this hole.”

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of The Gambler is the dialogue written by Monahan, which manages to be streetwise and poetic at the same time, posing a challenge for actors who need to make it sound real.

“We stuck very closely to the script,” Wyatt says. “Bill’s language is Shakespearean in a way, so it’s hard to deviate, even if I wanted to. It comes in a lyrical form. A lot of actors find their characters through the dialogue. Mark’s character uses language as a weapon, so he found it hard to go off page. There were times when we thought about editing some scenes on the set, but he was so immersed in the character that he couldn’t deviate. … There’s a heightened reality to this dialogue. It’s a challenge to approach the dialogue so that it didn’t become too artificial or pantomime in the performance. But I think that’s one of the things that makes the movie special.”

Rene Rodriguez