Great movies must appeal to wide audiences. At the same time, it’s often important for the creative people involved in making the movie (both in front of and behind the camera) to have some degree of personal connection to the material. That personal interest in the story simply makes it easier to make a more authentic and emotionally effective film.
That may be one of the primary reasons why 2010’s The Fighter had such a tremendous impact on audiences. Although it belongs to a popular genre—the sports drama—it stood out in the crowd thanks to star Mark Wahlberg’s attachment and commitment to the project.
It’s worth noting that Wahlberg trained for nearly five years while trying to bring the true story of boxer Micky Ward to screen, even while he was occupied with other films. When the time finally came for the picture to be made, he wanted to be certain he was still in the proper shape to convincingly play Ward. That level of dedication clearly indicates this was a passion project for Wahlberg from the start.
Judging by interviews with the actor, it’s easy to understand why he felt so deeply about getting the film made.
A shared background and personal connection
Wahlberg knew about Ward’s story from a young age, having grown up not far from Ward’s hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. The two also grew up in similar circumstances: both were part of large families born to working-class parents. This shared regional connection to the material gave Wahlberg a unique insight into the lives of the characters. In interviews discussing the film, he claimed that many in his area regarded Ward as “a superhero.” He even had the opportunity to meet Ward as a teenager, long before he would get the opportunity to turn The Fighter into a major motion picture.
Later, when Wahlberg was a big enough star to develop film projects of his own, he approached Ward about the idea of a movie, only to learn that the rights to his story had been sold so many times that trying to turn it into a film would be a difficult process. He essentially focused on other ideas, until Brad Pitt contacted him to let him know a script for a potential film about Ward had been completed. Wahlberg stated he was “blown away” by the script. Still, it would take him several years before he could assemble the right team to make the film.
Again, the more one learns about Wahlberg’s connection to the material, the easier it is to understand why he was willing to work so hard and fight so long to ensure the film was finally completed. Like Ward, Wahlberg grew up the youngest of nine siblings. He also felt Ward’s relationship with his older half-brother, Dicky Eklund, mirrored his own relationship with his older brother. Wahlberg’s older brother was also regarded as the star of the family when they were first beginning their careers in show business. He could relate to a character who felt like he was constantly trying to get out of the shadow of an older sibling. This almost certainly helped him deliver such a strong performance.
The fact that Wahlberg’s life experiences mirrored those of Ward’s was also helpful as a means of convincing Ward and Eklund that the filmmakers bringing their life stories to screen would do them justice. Wahlberg knew he could assure them that he would bring a degree of authenticity to the project that might be lacking if the star wasn’t someone who understood their way of life.
A focus on family dynamics—and dysfunction
Again, because the story resonated so strongly with him, Wahlberg understood how to elevate the material. He stated in interviews that he didn’t see The Fighter as simply a boxing movie. If it had been a generic sports film, it’s highly unlikely that audiences would have reacted to it as strongly as they did.
Instead, Wahlberg insisted that the film was ultimately about family. This indicates he knew exactly which elements to focus on when the cameras started to roll. He knew that Ward’s story would resonate not because it showcased impressive boxing scenes, but because it delved into personal family dynamics that are much more relatable to general audiences. Most people don’t know what it’s like to be a boxer, but most people do know what it’s like to struggle within your family—to be part of a close-knit group of people who love each other and are bound together, but who also mistreat each other to some degree. Wahlberg and his team depicted Ward’s family drama in a way that was simultaneously authentic to the specific details of their lives, while also universal enough to have wide appeal.
Of course, it helps that Wahlberg worked with other talented people, including director David O. Russell, with whom he had collaborated in the past. Still, it was Wahlberg’s personal interest in the story and dedication that brought the film to screens. That connection is also the reason the movie feels timeless nearly a decade after its release.