updated 10/06/2006 AT 4:00 PM ET
•originally published 10/08/2006 AT 10:30 AM ET
These days Mark Wahlberg, the tough guy who once went to prison for assault and whose real-life entourage inspired some of the antics fictionalized in the HBO hit Entourage (he’s an executive producer), is more likely to hit the links than to hit somebody.
“Ten or 15 years ago, if you’d have told me that I’d be waking up at 5 in the morning to play golf instead of staying up till 5 (partying), I’d have laughed at you,” the 35-year-old actor tells PEOPLE. “I’d have bet everything I had that you didn’t know what you were talking about.”
Back then, most people would have bet that the Calvin Klein underwear model and ’90s dance-rapper known as Marky Mark could never hold his own on the big screen with Martin Sheen and Jack Nicholson. But that’s what critics say he’s doing as a brash, foul-mouthed Boston cop in Martin Scorsese’s new film The Departed (which costars Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio).
“You do a Marty movie, it’s gotta be real,” says Departed producer Graham King. “Mark is from there, so the accent was perfect, and he fit that character perfectly.”
As crass as he is onscreen, offscreen Wahlberg can be soothing. He’s thankful for compliments and looks you in the eye as he talks about why his priorities have changed: his children, Ella Rae, 3, and Michael, 6 months, with girlfriend Rhea Durham, 28, a model.
“I’ve been worrying about me and my career,” he says. “That’s going to take a backseat at some point. I want to do some great work now, some interesting movies, and then be going to school plays and soccer games – far from a camera.”
Wahlberg earned as many raves for August’s football flick Invincible as he has for The Departed. “But I don’t want to raise my kids in Hollywood,” he insists. He has a house there now, but is looking for something a little more tranquil for the future.
So could he toss acting aside in the next few years? “In a perfect world I’d make a movie a year for maybe a couple more years and then …” Then what? “I want to play professional golf. I ain’t Tiger Woods, you know? But I like the game a lot.”
He actually seems serious. And he’s managed to accomplish surprising goals before. But really? “I’m just starting to figure out (my life) now,” Wahlberg says, “so who knows where I’ll be in five years? Who knows?”
For more on Mark Wahlberg, pick up PEOPLE, on newsstands now.