Whenever Mark Wahlberg is a producer on a film he's starring in, he sits down with the director and the casting director (usually Sheila Jaffe) and comes up with a wish list of who he'd like to be in the cast — "Contraband" is the first time he got "our first choice for most of the parts in the film."
"We were so lucky to get the cast we got," Wahlberg said, rattling off his co-stars names: Kate Beckinsale as his wife, Ben Foster as his best friend, Giovanni Ribisi as the antagonist. "[Director] Baltasar [Kormákur] is an actor first, so his choices were really smart."
Kormákur originally brought the idea to remake his Icelandic heist film "Reykjavik-Rotterdam" to Wahlberg's agents for him to star as the lead character Chris and produce — and Wahlberg thought an American version would only work with the right cast. "At first, I was also concerned about Balt directing, that there might be a language issue," Wahlberg told The Playlist. "Will it translate? And I was concerned, is he going to want to refer back to the original film all the time, or will he let me do my own thing? But then I learned he was really smart, and really tough, and all his direction was spot on. There was a lot of room to improvise. And you know, if you can't get it right the second time around, you have no business making films!"
Wahlberg and Foster spent a lot of time hanging out together so their on-screen chemistry would be real. "Ben was adamant about that," Wahlberg said. "We had to look like we were friends for a long time."
"When Mark called up and said he had an interesting script, they originally wanted me to come in and play the brother-in-law at the beginning of the film," Foster said. "I said, 'Guys, I'm not twelve anymore!' So then I got the friend, Sebastian, who is a bit more of a curious character, a little less streamlined, and there's more of a history between them, so we had to hang out. Hanging out was a blast."
Mark and Ben's characters Chris and Sebastian are two friends who live at two opposite ends of a spectrum — both supposedly have given up the smuggling world to live a better life, Chris with his family, Sebastian with his own construction company, at least on the surface. "They are similar except in a difficult situation, Chris does what is right and Sebastian does what is wrong," Kormákur said.
Foster thought of Sebastian as an addict, whose addiction is consumption and status, in how he presents himself, as a man who is "successful and powerful, who needs to be liked by everyone." "You can see it in his home renovations," he said. "Everything's sparkling new. Finding the right truck was important. It had to be a very specialized kind of pick-up truck. His clothes had to be workman's clothes, but higher-end. It's all about skirting lines, and then it becomes clear that he's way over his head financially. His goal is the American Dream, but he's living beyond his American Dream."
His financial recklessness is part of what drives the plot, and leads to a series of smuggling operations, which pull Wahlberg's character back into the life, in order to save his family, who are now threatened by a hardened criminal, played by Ribisi. His character, Briggs, is fresh out of Angola prison, after serving a term of five years, so Ribisi prepped for the part by watching 40-50 hours of prison documentaries, including "Champion," about Danny Trejo's term at Holmesburg Prison, "Lockdown," "A New Hope," "The Farm," and "The Big House."
"It was just about understanding anything and everything I could," Ribisi said. "Prison is such an impactful thing on someone's life and their disposition. I remember this one guy, who was forced to be in isolation, and he was pacing. That's what they do. And in the first interview he gave, he was tripping. He was like, 'I haven't talked to anybody in two months.' You get a different concept about survival."
Ribisi used the technique of pacing in his hotel room before scenes to try to get in that space, especially before his fight scenes with Wahlberg. "He's so confident with his physicality, and I'm just the biggest wimp on the planet!" he laughed.
You can watch the two of them tangle when "Contraband" opens this Friday, January 13th.