Rosalind Ross Discusses Directing Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson in 'Father Stu' and Dramatizing Finding a 'Purpose in Priesthood'

Rosalind Ross makes her feature directorial debut with 'Father Stu,' a passion project from actor-producer Mark Wahlberg.
by Scott Huver — 

Mark Wahlberg in 'Father Stu'

Sony Pictures

As writer-director Rosalind Ross discovered, when Mark Wahlberg asks you to do something — even if it's something you hadn't been expecting — you should say yes. 

Although Ross doesn't have a long list of produced credits, she's been working as a screenwriter, pushing various projects forward, including working on some as-yet-unrealized projects with Wahlberg. Meanwhile, Wahlberg has long been dedicated to bringing the inspiring, if unusual, true story of Stuart Long — a slightly over-the-hill prizefighter who briefly reinvented himself as a Hollywood bit player until a near-death motorcycle accident resulting in both a conversion to Catholicism and a call to the priesthood — to the screen.  

When a planned collaboration with David O. Russell, Wahlberg's director on The Fighter, stalled, the actor moved forward by financing the film himself, hiring Ross to craft a script, and ultimately — much to her surprise — inviting her to make her feature film directorial debut on Father Stu.

Father Stu features Wahlberg tackling a role that not only tested his acting chops, but also one that required him to sacrifice his very famously sculpted physique by adding an extra 30 pounds. Ross had her own challenges with the project, including a 30-day shooting schedule, but it's a trip she's glad she took.

"At the end of the day, a great character is a great character, and I like characters that are compelling and nuanced and complicated. And that is not exclusive to the quote-unquote faith-based territory," she tells Metacritic. "When you have the chance to tell a story that you think might be able to move people or inspire them or comfort them, or in some way, change them, that's the most rewarding kind of story to tell." 

The film also stars Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver and Mel Gibson, who also happens to be Ross' longtime romantic partner in real life.

Here, Ross talks to Metacritic about how she connected with the material and what it was like to embark upon such a personal story with Wahlberg and Gibson.

When this material made its way to you and you started entertaining what you might do with the possibilities you saw in it, give me a sense of how Stu Long's story hit you and what got you creatively energized to tell this story cinematically. 

Well, a number of things. The prospect of writing a role for Mark that was unlike anything he'd ever done and would require him to access parts of himself and of his skills as a performer that he hadn't before was really exciting to me. But on a deeper, more personal level, I saw Stuart's story as really one of a person searching for purpose in their life and trying to find the light in the darkness. And I think that's something that certainly I can relate to, and that I believe a lot of people can, and it felt like it would be an interesting exploration of that, mostly because it had so many facets and was so unusual. And it was so satisfying in its result, in a very unconventional way. To find your purpose in the priesthood is quite unique. 

And it wasn't your typical kind of Hollywood ending either, in that it was bittersweet. He was diagnosed with this muscular degenerative disease that ultimately he knew would claim his life. And the story then took on another really interesting facet, which is, how does one deal with suffering in its most extreme form? And I was so inspired by the way Stuart handled that and the way he suffered and the way he found gratitude in his suffering and grace. It was a combination of all of those elements that got me excited and made me feel like it was something I could tackle, a story I could tell. 

The story, obviously, has a lot of weighty aspects of faith and spirituality and also some bittersweet issues at hand. And yet you also tell it with a lot of humor, charm and light touches. What inspired you to come at it from that direction? 

I really took my cue tonally from the man himself, and by all accounts, he was a very vivacious, mischievous, quixotic, irreverent guy. I knew that needed to be in the DNA of the film. And I think it is: It's not just in the dialogue, it's not just in the character, it's in the music and many stylistic choices. That was important to me because I felt it also gave it the best chance of being something that could be accessible to people and could be entertaining. Biopics get the bad rap of being a bit languid and mired in the minutia. And I didn't want this to be that because it's too important of a story, and I hope that it can reach many people. 

Tell me about working with Mark because I know that this was a passion project for him and a story he wanted told, but also something that was going to push him as an actor. What was interesting about collaborating with somebody who was so dedicated to telling this story and testing his own boundaries? 

He held it to a very high standard. I mean, he invested his own money in the making of the film, so I knew he wasn't messing around and was not going to settle for anything less than great. He was so committed — not just the weight gain: He was so committed to embodying and inhabiting that character, and it made the whole process really intense, but also more seamless. 

I wouldn't call him a method actor, but to an extent, he doesn't really break the character, at least between takes. You show up and you know that when the leader of the ship is that committed, it makes everybody rise to the occasion. And so, it was a very intense, but also a really fun experience. Everybody, I think, fed off of that commitment and that passion and found their own reason for being a part of the film, which was very personal and unique to everybody. But I was very grateful for it. 

Did you have a conversation — or probably multiple conversations — with Mark about why Stu's story got so deeply under his skin and why he was so compelled to tell it? 

Yeah. He had a very personal connection to it, having been through some sort of darker moments — periods of his life when he was younger — and having found faith and that having been something that pulled him out of that way of life. That certainly spoke to him, and I think allowed him to depict this character with an authenticity that somebody else might not have had. 

For you to handle a project where the lead actor is dramatically changing his physique, give me your perspective on watching over that and watching it be done in a safe and healthy way, seeing somebody who's so known for being so fit, transform himself this way. What was your inside take on that process? 

I can tell you it was not a fun process for anybody involved. As much as people say that starving yourself makes you uncomfortable and grumpy, the same goes for forcing yourself to put on a ton of weight in a short amount of time. It was hard. I think he felt physically ill most days from having to wolf down a dozen eggs and then half a cup of olive oil and ribeye, whatever he was eating. Between setups, he would go back to his trailer and just eat. And it made him tired. It made him feel sick. And so, it was a balance of, "OK you got to a point where it's like, you feel like s--t. Well, we can't let that impede the performance, right?" But we worked it out. And I was just in total admiration of how committed he was to it. There was something about losing some of his physicality that I think did help him access a side of that character. He wanted to go on that journey to the extent that he could with Stuart and feel what that was like. 

You have a personal collaboration with Mel off the screen. Did this project come to Mel first, or to you first? 

To me. Mark and I had our own relationship independently of Mel, from two other projects that I had written that he was attached to star in. And he called me to pitch me this story and ask if I would be interested in writing it. And once I signed on, we had been having discussions all along about maybe it'd be interesting for Mel to play the father, but by no means was Mel committed to anything before he got a script and read it and signed on. I think he loves me, but he wouldn't do me that kind of favor! It had to be good. 

Tell me about getting to do such an intense collaboration with Mel on screen. He brings a searing intensity to this role, as he so often does, but still lands the light moments. 

It was wonderful. I think there was a lot about this character that he could pull from personally. He's a master with both comedy and drama. He's so dexterous as an actor in that regard, both he and Mark, which is why it was so fun to write these roles with both of them in mind, knowing the range they both had and how within a single scene, they could break your heart and make you laugh at the same time. That is not easy to do as an actor. And I feel confident that both of them do that many times over in this film, so I'm very proud of them both. 

Tell me how this experience writing and directing this particular film changed you coming out on the other side. 

I think Stuart, as a man, had a profound influence on me — getting to know his story and trying to understand him. There's no way, I think, you can walk through that journey with somebody and hold them in your heart and not walk away from the experience changed in some way. I mean, gosh, I hope so. 

One of the things that I most admire about him is his humility and his ability to surrender. And if there's anything I could take away from what he has taught me and what the process of telling his story has taught me, it would be to surrender some control and some ego, and have a little more humility about everything in life.