More lives, already, than most of us can even imagine. And he’s not quite 34.

A few hours later, having worked out and then cooked and eaten a chicken, plus some rice and creamed corn, Wahlberg saunters into the low-ceilinged Italian joint that’s become his regular north-of-the-border haunt to grab a little dinner. He orders a half-bottle of red wine without specifying a type or even a region, which might sully the illusion that he’s still just some lucky bum out of dead-end Boston. But the manager is well acquainted with Wahlberg’s taste and brings out the good stuff, as becomes evident when the bill arrives.

Wahlberg’s troubled youth is an old story, he says, and has been told a zillion times. But somehow, as usual, he winds up telling it anyway, his eyes taking on a certain glimmer that’s absent when he touches on more heartwarming topics (the acting process, his family, Jesus Christ, his charitable work with poor kids). “We’d get on the train, the bus, and just go steal,” he says with a grin. “I mean, there was the occasional incident when somebody got hurt, and you always feel bad about that. But we used to have a fucking blast, are you crazy?” Mark was always the youngest, the littlest. “If you didn’t fight, you’d get shit on, no doubt about it,” he explains.

“There’s a lot of black celebrities that come out of that kind of world,” John Singleton points out. “Mark’s the only white boy that’s done that, if you think about it. He’s become a different man, he’s a mature guy. But he’s the same animal. You can’t change his stripes.” Hollywood, Wahlberg says, has never come close to depicting the environment he grew up in. “It wasn’t like some 8 Mile bullshit where you go and have a ‘rap-off,’” he tells me with a sneer. “Like West Side Story, where you all start dancing and shit.” He might make his own movie about Boston someday, but if he does, “it’s going to be about more than a fucking kid doing math, you know what I mean?”

Wahlberg smiles. He’s got no beef with Affleck and Damon, or anyone else, for that matter. Indeed, he hasn’t seen any off-screen violence in years. “I can’t remember the last time I punched somebody for no reason—’cause they just looked at you—but that happened all the time,” he recalls. “You catch somebody not in their neighborhood, it’s like, ‘Shit, here we go..." He runs a finger along a crease in his wide forehead. “The last, I don’t know, 50 fights that I was in, though, there was a reason.”

That line about “the last 50 fights” marks the point where Wahlberg’s bad-mofo swagger somersaults into camp. “I think that tough guy was the real Mark,” says Di Bonaventura, “but now I think it’s more playing around. He’s incredibly polite, very cultured, a real gentleman.” David O. Russell, who had Wahlberg listening to Uma père Robert Thurman’s tapes on Tibetan Buddhism to prepare for his turn in I Heart Huckabees, says he “truly is a sweetheart and a good guy—and he truly is a killer.”