October 16, 2006 12:00 PM

Mark Wahlberg’s got a bottle in his hand. It’s 3 in the afternoon, and he just rolled out of bed. Back to his bad-boy ways? Hardly. The bottle’s full of water, and he woke up from a nap moments ago.

At 35, 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 one of the show’s executive producers), 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,” he says. “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.

His youth was anything but. As a teen from Boston’s rough Dorchester neighborhood, he liked to escape northward to New Hampshire—”to steal and get beer on Sundays.”

“A lot of my friends are in prison. A lot are no longer alive,” he says. “I wanted more of a life.”

After spending 45 days behind bars for beating a man at 17, Wahlberg, a Catholic, has spent most Sundays at Mass. “My faith in the good Lord is the reason I’ve been able to accomplish so many things,” he says. “I think I’m close to having a level head on my shoulders.”

He credits his parents, Donald, now 76, and Alma, 64, and eight siblings—especially older brother Donnie (formerly of New Kids on the Block, now acting on The CW’s Runaway)—with helping to channel his energy into music. But he left that scene almost overnight to pursue acting. Could he toss acting aside in the next few years too? “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?”

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