“It’s no pressure, coming after our two highest-rated episodes since the pilot. No pressure for me at all.”
So says Donnie Wahlberg, wryly, about his directing debut on CBS’ “Blue Bloods” Friday (Jan. 31). He also remains very evident as an actor as his weekly character, NYPD Detective Danny Reagan, and partner Maria Baez (Marisa Ramirez) probe the murder of a reality-show-star drag queen. Meanwhile, Danny’s prosecutor sister Erin (Bridget Moynahan) is kidnapped by a woman who wants a new investigation of her son’s drug-related murder case.
“It was a challenge, but it was a lot of fun,” Wahlberg tells Zap2it of working both sides of the camera. “I’ve kind of known that I would eventually direct at some point … but I guess I’ve just watched so many directors go through so many challenges, I’ve always thought, at the end of the day, ‘Maybe I’m more of a producer than a director.’
“It’s something I was always angling toward, regardless, and I just asked if I could do an episode this year. Once they said, ‘Yes,’ I was in. I was on the schedule and locked in, and I just started wrapping my head around doing it. And it was just an awesome experience.”
It also satisfied Wahlberg’s taste for trying something else, though he allows, “I do a lot of different things with my time. I’m still in my band (New Kids on the Block) and we tour every summer and still make albums, I produce a few other TV shows, and I still have different interests and businesses.
“Sometimes when I’m on the set, working a 14-hour day as an actor,” Wahlberg adds, “I get a little antsy and fidgety. Just playing the part isn’t always enough, because quite frankly, I’m sitting around more than I’m on camera.
“What I didn’t know is that those days would fly by as both a director and an actor. I didn’t feel bored for one second; I felt completely invigorated, and I think this may be another calling for me on some level. Really trusting the cast and the team around me is what made me able to come through this episode as well as I did.”
Indeed, Wahlberg is glad he waited until the fourth season of “Blue Bloods” to occupy the director’s chair. “It was a big help because I’ve established great relationships,” he reasons, “but with that said, it could have been a detriment. When you know somebody a certain way, and you’re suddenly asking them for another take, it can be like, ‘Wait a minute. You’re my peer, you’re not my director.'”
Still, Wahlberg reports, “It worked out. We all have a great rapport, and with nearly four seasons under our belts, I know how to speak to my castmates. I wasn’t sure exactly what I would say between takes, but I guess I did it the right way because everyone was very responsive and things seemed to make sense. And I feel like I got really awesome performances.”
Wahlberg reserves particular praise for Moynahan, deeming her “just amazing in the episode, ready and willing to try anything. Sometimes, it took some talking and explaining. I was sort of wearing that hat where guest TV directors come in and try to get the cast members, who play these parts every day, to see things their way. Now I was in the position of having to tell Bridget, ‘I know you do it that way, but I’d like you to consider the possibility of doing it this way.’
“She tried it, and it really worked, and she was grateful for a lot of the suggestions. And I was grateful for her gift. To watch her go through a three-page scene crying her eyes out with her life in jeopardy [as Erin], and to still remember the notes I gave her in the middle of the scene, was overwhelming to see. I was really humbled by her work.”
One of Wahlberg’s aims was to give each character what he terms an “arc,” one outcome being what he considers “one of the best episodes for Danny and Baez. It’s subtle. A lot of the time, we’ll trade off lines in the interrogation room, but the emotional track is going to go with Danny. Every actor is looking for an arc, and I wanted to find that for Marisa, so I worked really hard on fleshing out her point of view. It’s a huge breakthrough for our partnership, both on screen and off.”
Directing his television “father,” Tom Selleck, also was major for Wahlberg. “We walked into the first scene together, in the office (of Selleck’s alter ego, Police Commissioner Frank Reagan), and he said, ‘I kind of like sitting at my desk, but I don’t want to tell you how to direct the scene.’ And I said, ‘Tom, I don’t come into this office as Donnie or Danny. This is your world. I want you to help me direct the scene. Tell me what you think you’d do, and let’s go from there.’ And that’s what we did.
“Anybody can say anything they want about Tom Selleck, but the guy knows his stuff,” notes Wahlberg. “If I didn’t trust him, I’d be a fool. He’s smart, he’s experienced, he knows how to tell a story, he knows what the audience is thinking … he’s a master of television, and I count on him every day. We work in completely opposite ways, but we have the same goal.”
Some actors prefer having less as performers while directing, particularly for the first time, but Wahlberg didn’t shy away from that. “I tried to treat the episode as if I was still an actor,” he explains, “and I was at my best when I stayed in my ‘actor head.’ When I’m on the ‘Blue Bloods’ set, I’m constantly giving notes and presenting ideas to the other actors, and the directors really trust me with my ideas … so I thought it was important to stay in that head space.”
Such was the case with a trademark of the show, the weekly family-dinner scene. “I never left the table,” Wahlberg says. “I sat with the cast the whole time, as I would do on any episode. I’d walk behind a camera every once in a while and make sure I liked the angle on somebody, but I didn’t stand off to the side and do a read-through or block the scene.
“I acted as one of the cast. They know what to do with that scene; I don’t have to tell them what to do. I’m an actor first, and I treated my directing as such.”
With his first “Blue Bloods” directing gig now done, Wahlberg is looking toward the next one. “We didn’t get a lot of Danny and Linda this time,” he says of working with on-screen “wife” Amy Carlson, “but I’m certainly going to angle for that next time. And it would be fun to go on a real journey with Will Estes (who plays Danny’s fellow-cop brother Jamie) in an episode.”
Lately, Wahlberg also has been familiar with the other side of the camera as an executive producer of two reality shows: A&E’s current Wednesday series “Wahlburgers” — on which his girlfriend, Jenny McCarthy, has appeared — and TNT’s police-profiling “Boston’s Finest.” Having starred in such other drama series as “Boomtown” and “Runaway,” he knows he has a good thing with “Blue Bloods,” typically the top-rated broadcast-network show on Fridays.
“We haven’t had to try every twist and turn and gimmick to find the audience,” he reflects. “The audience has found us, and we’re really proud of the show and really grateful. And we feel like we’re just hitting our stride.”