The Actor Who Turned Down Dirk Diggler and More Bright, Shining Secrets About Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights is turning 25 and the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed classic, starring Mark Wahlberg as an aspiring porn superstar, remains more than the sum of its parts.

By Natalie Finn Oct 10, 2022 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Mark Wahlberg Is Officially Family Friendly

Much like Jack Horner, Paul Thomas Anderson is all about the art of making movies.

And while the 11-time Oscar nominee's films may not have the praise-to-box-office ratio they deserve, he has still presided over some truly iconic cinematic moments—so many of which occur in Boogie Nights.

Tonally all over the place—Is it funny? Tragic? Smutty? Absurd? Brilliant? Yes—the 1997 film put Anderson on the map as the bard of the San Fernando Valley, now known for the homegrown writer-director almost as much as it is for being the Hollywood of the porn industry. And it turned Mark Wahlberg into a big, bright, shining star.

"It could have been really good, which it ended up being, or it could have been really bad," Wahlberg reflected recently to Kevin Hart on Peacock's Hart to Hart. "The subject matter was pretty out there."

Mark Wahlberg's Best Roles

It turns out a lot of people were into the nearly three-hour-long saga about the adult film business and the colorful characters who flock to it, and Boogie Nights—with its $43 million box office haul on a $15 million budget—remains one of Anderson's top-grossing films. (There Will Be Blood, which made $76 million, is the only one of his movies to cross the $50 million mark.)

And NSFW subject matter notwithstanding, Boogie Nights evolved into a classic, the still-groovy 1970s production design, all-star cast, memorable soundtrack (if you hear "Jessie's Girl" and think of anything else, well good for you) and the way Anderson treated borderline satire with utmost earnestness making for a timeless piece of filmmaking.

So in honor of the 25th anniversary of Wahlberg whipping out that much-talked-about fake penis, here are some behind-the-scenes secrets about the making of Boogie Nights:

The Other Bright Shining Star

As was the case with a lot of movies being made then (and now), Paul Thomas Anderson envisioned Leonardo DiCaprio playing Eddie, the guileless and preternaturally well-endowed aspiring star who gets discovered by an adult filmmaker and adopts the very glamorous stage name Dirk Diggler—a character loosely inspired by real-life porn star John Holmes.

"He spent many, many months agonizing and debating about it," Anderson said on a March 2022 episode of the SmartLess podcast. "Ultimately…what I came to realize, about halfway into that long decision-making process, is that he had a choice to make—either to do Titanic or to do Boogie Nights, and he chose to do Titanic. Which, in the long run, catapulted him into this massive worldwide fame, but on the other hand, I think possibly—we laugh about it now—but he regrets missing the experience and doing it."

True story: DiCaprio told GQ in 2008, "It would have been a different direction, career-wise. I think they're both great and wish I could have done them both."

No Pants, No Problem

Instead, 25-year-old Mark Wahlberg ended up in the lead role—which, in hindsight, seemed tailormade for the onetime pants-dropping face of the Funky Bunch.

"It was funny because Leo was kind of meeting with Paul and I was meeting with James Cameron," Wahlberg told ABC News in 2017. "I never got offered the part [of Jack in Titanic] or anything, but it was just meant to be and I was just lucky to be able to get that part" in Boogie Nights.

"I had to read with John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Thomas Jane," he added, and Anderson "offered me the part right in the room."

The Start of Something Good

"That was the moment I actually became a real actor," Wahlberg told Jake Hamilton in a February 2022 interview, "and I was no longer scared—to try stuff, to look ridiculous, to be vulnerable. And to just be fearless. It was like, OK, no pun intended, gonna go for it and let it all hang out, and know that I was in an environment where I was safe."

The studio left Anderson alone to do his thing, he continued, "and it was such a liberating experience."

But, already thinking like the multihyphenate businessman he is today, Wahlberg recalled on Hart to Hart that, after they wrapped, he told his team they needed to line up two "more commercial" films right away, just in case Boogie Nights didn't work.

Reluctantly Starring Burt Reynolds

Boogie Nights marked an acting resurgence for Burt Reynolds, one of the biggest stars alive in the 1970s and '80s but whose appearance in 1996's Strip Tease didn't exactly turn out to be a career coup.

Instead, he won a Golden Globe and earned his sole Oscar nomination for his performance as porn director Jack Horner—and he remains the suave, super-cool center of Boogie Night's chaotic universe.

But he turned down the role seven times before finally saying yes and, less than six months before he died at the age of 82, he said he had never even seen it.

"I have a hard time with that whole—I'd better use another adjective—I had a difficult just wasn't my kind of film," Reynolds told Conan O'Brien in March 2018, smiling slyly as his pun sank in. "It made me very uncomfortable—'cause I was afraid they might recognize me," he quipped.

It wasn't true, however, that he wanted to hit Anderson in the face after they were done filming, he said, clarifying, "I just wanted to hit him. I don't think he liked me."

Smokey and the Big Shot

"There was tension for sure," Anderson told Andy Cohen in 2017. "I was 26 years old and really full of a lot of vinegar and confidence, and barking directions at everybody—I think just trying to get this film made. And I think some of that probably got directed at Burt. He wasn't having it, nor should he have, but that's not to say there weren't great, great moments."

For instance, he said, "Directing Burt Reynolds in a jacuzzi, it was a great day...And there were plenty of those."

Performance Anxiety

Actually, add Wahlberg to the list of people who weren't sure they wanted to take their career in this direction.

"I wouldn't even read the script because I was turned off by the subject matter," he told ABC News in 2017. "Then you start hearing from everybody in town, 'No, no, you have to read this thing. Finally, I reluctantly picked it up, read 35 pages, put it down and said, 'This could be really good or it could be really bad.'"

A Welcome Change of Pace

William H. Macy, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Fargo (the movie that vaulted the already 46-year-old character actor to new career heights) recalled being a little shocked by the script for Boogie Nights

"The version I read was way sexy. I mean, there was sex all through the thing," he said in a 2016 interview with the Archive of American Television. "I called my agent, I said, 'Wait, this is porn. Is this what he's going to do?'"

He was assured that the movie was contractually obligated to have an R-rating, meaning it could only go so far. And once he saw Anderson's first film, Hard Eight, Macy really wanted to do Boogie Nights, so he showed up for his meeting with the director armed with "smart, intellectual things to say about the script," he cracked. 

When Anderson started talking, however, Macy was delightfully surprised to realize the filmmaker was trying to sell him on accepting the part of the relentlessly cuckolded assistant director Bill.

"That's the first time I felt the Oscar nomination," Macy recalled happily. "I'd never gotten anything without auditioning. Other than my wife and children, not auditioning is the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Cock of the Walk

Don Cheadle's first reaction to the Boogie Nights screenplay was, "Why are you handing me a 165-page script?" he joked on The Rich Eisen Show in 2020. "It was massive and really gave us an insight into Paul's mind...Because it was really very technical. It had every camera move that he wanted, it had speeds he was going to ramp the camera to. Snaps, zooms—things I hadn't been used to reading in scripts." 

The Oscar-nominated actor recalled being introduced to Anderson by Devil in a Blue Dress director Carl Franklin, who told Cheadle he thought the "super cocky" and "really smart" young filmmaker was going to be great.

However, when informed that Anderson's next movie was about the porn industry, Cheadle recalled thinking, "Both my parents are alive, so I won't be doing any of that." But when he met Anderson, the director told him, "'If you don't say yes to this movie, you're gonna be sorry, so, you should just agree to do it.'"

Eisen reacted with disbelief. "That's a quote," Cheadle assured him.

Crisis of Faith

While he certainly seems to appreciate the fruit of the Boogie Nights tree, in 2017 Wahlberg was sounding a little less #blessed about the experience.

"I just always hope that God is a movie fan and also forgiving, because I've made some poor choices in my past," he said at an event in Chicago. Naming names, he added, "Boogie Nights is up there at the top of the list."

To be fair, the devout Catholic was standing next to a cardinal during a faith-themed event. But his comments made the rounds, and when his co-star Julianne Moore appeared on Watch What Happens Live soon after, Andy Cohen obviously asked about it.

"Oh my God, I think he should thank God for Boogie Nights. It made his career!" Moore said. "Yeah, my God, it's a great movie. He was great in it."

Happily, Wahlberg clarified to Cohen soon after that he was, in fact, joking. "Boogie Nights is the defining performance of my career, it made me considered credible as an actor," the two-time Oscar nominee stressed. That being said, "there are times now, I'm married, I've got four kids. I know my wife would not love to see me pretending to have sex with random women."

When he made that crack, Wahlberg explained, he was "speaking to 5,000 young Catholic kids" and just trying to be funny. "I've failed at other attempts at being funny," he noted, "so it wasn't like I needed to go out and defend myself."

An Amber Glow

Asked how many people in her life advised her not to play a porn star, Moore, known for her fearless acting choices, told Bobbie Wygant in 1997 that her team was generally very supportive when she was passionate about a project.

She first met Anderson at a party, he gave her the script and "it was really terrific," she recalled. So from that first read, it was a yes.

That being said, she added with a laugh, "by the time I finished it, I was really ready to go." But giving her all paid off, and Moore received her first Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking turn as the rather tragic Amber Waves.

He's Got the Magic

Reilly, who played Reed Rothchild—porn actor, magician and, of course, Dirk's co-star in the Brock Landers action franchise—considers his breakout film to be more than meets the eye.

"It's not really about porn; it's about choosing your family," he told Vulture in May. "If your blood family doesn't love you, you can choose another family. I know people in my own life who have done that, and that's a very powerful, self-loving thing to do."

And, he told Yahoo in 2016 of making the film, "I just remember that as being the best summer of my life."

Seriously, What Is Even Happening?

"[Producer] John Lyons called me and just said, 'Look, we've got this small, little part, it's four or five days' work, it might be a lot of fun,'" Alfred Molina told Grantland in 2014. "He got me on the phone with Paul. And I said, 'What's the role?' And he said, 'Well, it's a coked-up drug fiend on a shotgun rampage.' And I thought, Well, I've never done that before."

So was born his unforgettable turn as drug dealer Rahad, who Dirk and Reed's even dumber friend Todd (Thomas Jane) tries extremely unsuccessfully to rip off. The surreal sequence is made even more so by the sound of firecrackers going off inside the dealer's house—which after a few days was driving everyone, except Molina, insane.

The English actor explained that he kept one ear plugged and there was an earwig in the other so he could hear the dialogue. "The guys were constantly jumping out of their skins," he recalled, "but Rahad, my character, was completely still."

Wahlberg told Grantland that the dealer part was originally supposed to be played by Sean Penn. Then, casting director Christine Sheaks said, they offered it to John Turturro, so Molina actually ended up being the last actor to join the massive ensemble. 

But "Alfred Molina can do anything," Sheaks said. "If I could cast Alfred Molina in every project I do for the rest of my life, I would be happy about it."

Tucked Away for Safe Keeping

Wahlberg still has the prosthetic penis Dirk flashes at the end of Boogie Nights, just when you were thinking, Well, the movie's over, guess we're never gonna see the huge penis everyone's talking about.

"It's in a safe locked away," he told Ellen DeGeneres in April. "It's not something I could leave out. All of a sudden my kids are looking for a spare phone charger and pull that thing out and go, 'What the heck is this?!' It wouldn't be a good look."

That being said, Wahlberg told Seth Meyers in 2014 it was the only prop he'd ever kept from one of his films. "It was down past my knee," he recalled of the unwieldy appendage. "The first one did not work, was not good, everyone thought it was ridiculous. I had to come out on set and show everybody...It was pretty embarrassing." And even once it was appropriately modified, wearing it all day was extremely uncomfortable.

Speaking of that first model, though, "It was the size of John Holmes's penis, but Mark is like eight or nine inches shorter [in height] than John Holmes," editor Dylan Tichenor recalled to Grantland in 2014, part of a very graphic breakdown of how the wire-and-clay organ was made and subsequently attached to Wahlberg. "It was more than one-sixth of his body."

Director of photographer Robert Elswit said appreciatively of the star, "Any actor would have a difficult time without trusting completely in Paul. He had to put a prosthetic c--k on his own c--k, you know what I mean? That's asking an awful lot of an actor, honestly."

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