I was blown away when I first saw it. It doesn’t even feel like I’m watching myself but somebody else, or a past life.

Photography by PAYAM @ Eason Management
Styling by Evan Simonitsch @ The Wall Group
1st Assistant: Haoyuan Ren
2nd Assistant: Calvin Hu

Bruce Thierry Cheung’s Don’t Come Back From the Moon, an adaptation of Dean Bokopoulos’s 2005 novel Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon, is anchored in a region hitherto most outsiders have the remotest knowledge about. Located on the shores of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach was once a thriving vacation hotspot in the 1950s. People like Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis had owned homes and speedboats there. Then ecological disaster hit and the resort community turned into a ghost town and never fully recovered, marooned by a dying lake in a Californian desert. Speaking to Anthem about her acclaimed quasi-documentary Bombay Beach in 2011, director Alma Har’el described it as “a place that makes you feel as though civilization is over or just beginning again after some horrible apocalypse.”

Don’t Come Back From the Moon is not only the story of those left behind who live in one of the most surreal places in America—it’s the story of those left behind, left behind once more. The film unspools through the teenage eyes and stoic narration of Mickey (Jeff Wahlberg) whose father (James Franco), like so many other patriarchs in Bombay Beach, abandons his family, including his wife (Rashida Jones) and their younger son (Zackary Arthur). The children of Bombay Beach have a saying for when fathers do this: they have “gone to the moon.” Despite the film knowingly capturing the abject misery that cripples the area’s shell-shocked “leftovers,” it’s also an impressionistic and dreamlike meditation on contradictions that coexist, limning the boundary between hope and despair, and life and death.

Holding the film on his up-and-coming, 22-year-old shoulders is Wahlberg. Still very much a new player on the scene, he has been most frequently described as the nephew of Mark and Donnie to date. (Like his former uncle before him, the newcomer has also modeled for Calvin Klein.) But that’s sure to change with his stellar turn in Don’t Come Back From the Moon, not to mention his most mainstream exposure on the horizon, James Bobin’s live-action Dora the Explorer, which will light up multiplexes this summer.

Anthem recently met up with Wahlberg in Los Angeles for our photoshoot and reconvened to share a deeper conversation about his first steps in acting, his famous uncles, and his promising future.

Don’t Come Back From the Moon is now playing in select theaters and on VOD platforms.

I haven’t read the source material, but I understand that the story’s setting was relocated from a small town in Detroit to Bombay Beach for the adaptation. It’s a fascinating place. My first exposure to the area was through Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach. Have you seen it?

I haven’t seen it, but I do know what it is. It’s about a bipolar boy, right?

Right, right. What was your impression of the place? Did you interact with the locals?

Oh yeah! I had tons of interactions with the locals. I still talk to some of them today. I was literally talking to one of the locals yesterday through Instagram and we talk quite a bit. We had a lot of the locals not only in the movie but working on the movie as PAs and transpo people. They welcomed us with open arms. I think Bruce [Thierry Cheung], our director, definitely wanted to get them involved as much as he could because, you know, there’s not a lot of work opportunities out there. They were so kind to us. Truly, they helped us with anything we needed help with. We were there for a while. We stayed in town. We slept and worked there. I hold Bombay Beach very close to my heart. It’s such a special place to me.

Did Bruce encourage you to read the book in your preparation?

It wasn’t really encouraged because I was told that it was very different, and when I read the book it was very different. Detroit is not the only thing that’s different. Sonya [played by Alyssa Elle Steinacker] is written pretty differently, too, and Mickey as well. I thought Dean’s [Bokopoulos] book was really good.

What was your approach to playing Mickey?

I just wanted to be as vulnerable as I could be and that goes back to how he was written. I also wanted to seriously consider the fact that he’s now pretty much the man of the house [after his father leaves]. That’s why he carries himself in a very grown-up way. He’s not like his cousin Nick [played by Hale Lytle] who’s laughing all the time and joking around.

You can sense Mickey’s advanced maturity even in the narration. It’s very stoic.

Yeah, absolutely. Me and Bruce talked about all of that. This movie happened very fast. I suddenly got the part and I was on the plane within the next few days.

It sounds like you didn’t have much time to bond with your co-stars if you were dropped into this project without much notice. I really enjoyed the family dynamic between you, James [Franco], Rashida [Jones], and Zackary [Arthur]. There was great chemistry.

Well, I will say that me and Zack got really, really close. We would hang out quite a bit when we weren’t working. I was actually with him last night because we all did a small Q&A and went out to eat. He’s such a smart and talented kid. You can just talk to him like you’re talking to one of your peers. We bonded instantly. That’s why the scenes where I had to yell at him or say goodbye to him were genuinely very tough. There was a scene that was cut—I’m not sure why—where I catch him smoking a cigarette. I just remember yelling at him and feeling so bad! [Laughs] As far as James and Rashida go… James isn’t in the movie that much so we only really worked with him for four, five days. I know it feels like Rashida might’ve been there throughout the whole shoot, but we got her stuff down in about three, four days. She definitely had a big impact on me. She’s very sweet and down-to-earth and easy to talk to. It was definitely very easy to just open up to her and be vulnerable. It felt like I had known her for a long time.

How many days did you shoot in total?

It was around 20 days. It was not long because we really didn’t have a lot of money. When you’re shooting ultra-low budget movies, you have to shoot very quick. There’s just no time to waste.

You must be so ecstactic that the film came out as great as it did.

I was blown away when I first saw it. I remember being very nervous to see it. Bruce had such a strong directorial vision and it really shows. For me, as someone who was there, it feels like a dream. It doesn’t even feel like I’m watching myself but somebody else, or a past life. It’s hard to explain! I don’t know if I can put it into words. But I loved the movie. I’ve seen it several times now and I love watching it.

I loved it, too.

Thank you, man.

You also worked with Bruce and James on Future World. Was that before or after Moon?

We actually did Moon first. I auditioned for Moon on self-tape because I was still living in Florida at the time. I was working at a car dealership. I was self-taping very, very frequently. I had a manager already who’s based here in L.A. and he was sending me all these auditions. Me and my buddies would just go to town on them basically. Self-tapes are so much fun! So I sent in a self-tape for Moon and ended up getting a callback. I actually had to fly myself out to meet with Bruce because they didn’t have enough money to do that. It was supposed to be local hire only, but I really wanted it. I was James’s first choice, too—he told me that. After the callback, I was back home for Thanksgiving and soon after I found out I got it and left right away to start shooting. Four months after Moon, I went back to the car dealership because I really didn’t make enough money to live on or anything. Moon was such a small movie. Then James emailed me and was like, “Hey dude, I have another project for you. Are you free in like two months?” I was like, “Of course! Of course I’m free!!” [Laughs] That was for Future World, which was filmed kind of in the same area as Moon. It wasn’t Bombay Beach, but in the same desert a little further out. That was a crazy shoot. I’m not as big of a fan of that movie personally, but I definitely have no regrets. I had so much fun and I learned so much. That actually came out before Moon did.

So when did you move out to L.A. permanently?

I just hit my two-year mark on January 9th.

I have to ask—I saw this article on Radar Online where it basically said that Mark [Wahlberg, his uncle] flew you out to L.A. to mentor you and put you up because he saw so much potential there.

[Laughs] I actually saw that, too! I was like, “WHAT?!” Where do people come up with this stuff? No, that’s completely not true. I don’t live with him. He didn’t fly me out. It also said something in that article about some million-dollar—I don’t remember. [Radar Online reported that Mark had “set aside $2 million for Jeffrey to option a script as a star-vehicle for himself.”] But I did see that article. Everything in that is completely made up. I mean, I wish! If that were true, I would probably take it. [Laughs] No, that’s not the case. But I can tell you a short story about my version of moving to California.

Yes, please set the record straight.

So I did those two movies with James Franco, right? That really motivated me. You get a taste of this and I wanted more. These were two movies where I was basically the lead in and they came so quick. It was so exciting for me. It really whet my palate, so to say, just making movies and acting. Obviously, I had already been self-taping for a long time before that, but now I really wanted it. After I did Future World and came home, a couple months went by before I decided to move to L.A. I moved in with my friend and slept on her couch for—I wanna say a whole year. I was simultaneously working at a restaurant as a server in Beverly Hills. I quit that job right when I got Dora the Explorer where I play Diego. We went to Australia for like three months for that. Now I’m back and I’m just trying to act full-time. Now I’m in a little more comfortable position where I can just take my meetings and do my auditions.

You’re definitely at an important crossroads in your career right now, and you have so much promise as far as I can tell having watched Moon. I was also gonna tell you—I met Donnie [Wahlberg, his other uncle] outside of Wahlburgers on the Upper East Side back in October.

Get out of town. Dude, that’s so funny! Uncle Donnie—that’s my guy right there. He’s so, so funny, man. He’s probably the funniest person I’ve met in my entire life. He’s the real deal. I love uncle Donnie. We spent this past New Year’s together when I went to New York City. I got to go to Times Square and had the absolute time of my life. It’s something I’ll remember forever and I’m so thankful for him. Being able to do little special things like that is so important to me and I don’t take it for granted. I had so much fun.

So do you ask Donnie and Mark for advice?

Not really. I kinda just do my own thing, Kee, to be honest with you. It’s something I purposely try to do. Not to say that I won’t one day… I’m 22 and I was 21 when I moved here. I was just trying to be independent, and it was hard to move to L.A. It can be very lonely here. I try and do my own thing as much as I possibly can and I think I’ve done a pretty swell job. But [being a Wahlberg] is something that I’m aware of. I’m definitely proud of it. They’ve accomplished so much it’s kind of crazy to think about.

Is your father working in film as well?

No, he’s not. But he’s so supportive [of me] it’s not even funny.

What’s his field?

My dad works in the rehabilitation business. He’s a big battler of the opioid epidemic in America so he goes around the country and speaks to young kids. He actually does shoot short films, but they’re all addiction-related with messages behind them. He’ll show them all around the country at different schools and meet-ups to thousands and thousands of people. He also gets thousands of people free treatment every year—to those who can’t afford it. He’s also the president of a charitable foundation. My dad’s a really good guy. He’s my hero, for sure.

That’s fantastic. He’s making a difference.

He’s the real deal.

Just circling back to Dora the Explorer, what was that experience like? It’s obviously on a totally different scale and register compared to something like Moon.

It’s like night and day, honestly. I guess the easiest way to put it is that, with a movie that big, it’s just more comfortable. You have more space to shoot the movie and you get to have weekends off. It’s just little things like that that make a big difference. But there’s nothing like making a small indie, going to the middle of the desert and meeting all these new amazing people and doing something together where it’s definitely about teamwork. It’s crazy because the people that I met doing Moon—our costume designer, Natasha Noor, has become one of my closest friends here in L.A. and I credit that movie with meeting her. And Dora was a blast! I’m really excited about that one. It’ll come out this summer. It’s got a lot of heart and it’s a really funny movie.

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