Wahlberg is also a committed Roman Catholic (though he disagrees with the church on issues like abortion and homosexuality) who attends Mass every Sunday and says his prayers every night before bed. If he misplaces his rosary, he’s got another tattooed on his chest. “I was raised right,” he says. “I was influenced in some wrong ways and I did a lot of fucked-up shit, but I try to put that behind me. Look, I didn’t come to Hollywood to act tough. I came to act. So, you know, ‘Don’t worry, your $60 million is safe with me.’”

Of course, Wahlberg’s career has been built on a native ability to leverage his altar-boy appeal against whatever dark stuff might be lurking underneath. He’s always played the rough-trade pickup to Hollywood’s panting sugar daddy, taking up residence in the pool house and letting us ogle him, as long as we didn’t try to get too friendly. No doubt we’ll wake up one day and he’ll be gone—along with the good silver, the stereo, the Benz. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

David Geffen is the one who spotted the marketing potential in this finely calibrated dance of seduction and menace, urging Calvin Klein to hire the kid as an underwear model. To Wahlberg, the Herb Ritts photo shoot that turned him, overnight, into a poster boy for male prerogative seemed like no big deal—an easy paycheck, a free lunch, an hour or two making nice with a topless British girl named Kate Moss. Also dropping by the studio, he recalls, were a number of prominent Hollywood executives: enough of the so-called Gay Mafia to give Michael Ovitz the vapors. “I think it was always clear what I like, my sexual preference,” Wahlberg says, “so I wasn’t threatened by it.”

In the end, it was precisely Wahlberg’s nonchalance about his own sexual power that made the resulting pictures so subversive. This was 1992, and the sensitive male was in ascendancy. Wahlberg, with that dumb-ass smirk and willy-clutching joie de vivre, celebrated a side of the male libido that the rest of us were busy trying to stuff back into our Dockers.

Naturally, the frisson of danger merely increased his appeal. After Penny Marshall cast him in Renaissance Man, he went on to earn serious praise for his turns as the psychopathic dreamboat in Fear, the unhinged hood in The Basketball Diaries, and especially the well-equipped naïf turned porn casualty in Boogie Nights. Meanwhile, although he gave up his recording career, he continued performing on the sly in Europe, earning enough to be choosy about his acting projects. “I wasn’t going to do no role for the money, no fucking way,” he says.

For the most part, the strategy has served him well, but there have been a few missteps—most notably The Truth About Charlie. "Motherfucker’s got me running around with a scarf and a baguette!" Wahlberg says of the film’s director, Jonathan Demme. “But those are his choices. Look at the best actors out there: If they’re not working with the best material, it’s not going to be a good movie. I’m not a big fan of a number of movies I’ve done, but every decision has been about the filmmaker.”