Mark Wahlberg was already famous in 1997, but not for the reasons he wanted. At that point in his career, he was primarily known as Marky Mark, leader of The Funky Bunch, and as a three-nippled Calvin Klein underwear model. He had appeared in several films to mostly good reviews, but his role as a jacked, obsessive stalker of a boyfriend in 1996’s Fear and another as a volatile heroin addict in 1995’s The Basketball Diaries had not broken him out as a film star. It took Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s period piece Boogie Nights to do so. His performance as a shy Torrance, California high school dropout named Eddie Adams turned porn star Dirk Diggler turned desperate addict turned him into an A-lister fast. But according to an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson on the Smartless podcast, the role was not meant for Mark Wahlberg at all, but for Leonardo DiCaprio.
This actually makes a lot of sense. In the mid-1990s, Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo DiCaprio were both earmarked as up-and-coming leading men and had even co-starred together in The Basketball Diaries. Paul Thomas Anderson had seen the movie and offered the role of Dirk Diggler to DiCaprio based on the strength of it, but unbeknownst to him, the actor had also been offered another very important film of 1997: James Cameron’s Titanic. According to Anderson, DiCaprio struggled to decide between the two films, but ultimately chose the film that would launch him to mega-stardom. Here is what Paul Thomas Anderson had to say:
That is very true that I asked Leo to be in Boogie Nights, and he spent many, many months agonizing and debating about it…Ultimately, what I came to realize, about halfway into that long decision-making process, is that he had a choice to make—either to do Titanic or to do Boogie Nights, and he chose to do Titanic. Which, in the long run, catapulted him into this massive worldwide fame, but on the other hand, I think possibly—we laugh about it now—but he regrets missing the experience and doing it.
If you believe Paul Thomas Anderson, it was Leonardo DiCaprio that then recommended Mark Wahlberg for the role. While Boogie Nights made Wahlberg a star and directly led to acclaimed roles in Three Kings and The Perfect Storm (which led to uh, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes), it is not difficult to tell why Anderson originally envisioned DiCaprio in the central role. Even that early in his career, DiCaprio was known for shockingly visceral performances in A Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination at age 19). The role of a sensitive (if not too bright) on-screen prodigy feels like a potential Leonard DiCaprio role.
Conversely, at that same time period, Mark Wahlberg was known as something of a bad boy. His hip-hop career had positioned him as a tough-talking, ab-showing rapper (a phase in which he later described himself as a “train-wreck”), and his real-life history of violent crime and multiple arrests gave some actual cred to that. Positioning Mark Wahlberg as an initially starry-eyed innocent drawn into a strangely supportive yet dangerous world of 1970s pornography was casting against type, but like many other elements of the movie, worked unexpectedly well.
Boogie Nights ended up being the true beginning of Mark Wahlberg’s career as a leading man (and Paul Thomas Anderson as one of Hollywood’s new auteurs). Of course, it was swamped by Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, as were all movies for the next several decades, but still: interesting to imagine those iconic roles flipped.