Donnie Wahlberg Took His Sixth Sense Role Further Than Anyone Expected

When M. Night Shyamalan made "The Sixth Sense," it was by no means a guaranteed hit. In fact, some might have considered it a gamble. Shyamalan had just come off directing the 1998 comedy "Wide Awake" which grossed a paltry $282,000 on a $6 million budget (Box Office Mojo).

Still, expectations were high. "The Sixth Sense" had a box office draw in Bruce Willis, a clever script, and the backing of a major studio in Disney's Hollywood Pictures. The gamble paid off, as the film was a massive success, putting Shyamalan on the map with his first of many signature plot twists, making child actor Haley Joel Osment a household name overnight, and adding the phrase "I see dead people" to our popular culture lexicon.

But it was a fledgling actor known more for his music career than his acting that may have had the biggest influence on the film. An inspired performance from the unlikeliest of places left Shyamalan telling The Hollywood Reporter, "We went from 'Hey, this is a fun movie' to 'people are really taking this seriously.'"

Donnie Wahlberg was practically unrecognizable

There is making the most of limited screen time and then there's Donnie Wahlberg's performance in "The Sixth Sense." Warning, there are 25-year-old spoilers ahead. Also, where have you been if you don't already know the plot twist to the movie?

"The Sixth Sense" opens with a haunting sequence where child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and his wife come home to find Crowe's distressed former patient, Vincent Gray (Wahlberg), in their house. Gray shoots Crowe and then turns the gun on himself in a sequence that makes its bid for the most powerful three minutes in cinema history. Crowe will spend the rest of the film helping Cole Sear (Osment), a disturbed young patient with the sixth sense of communicating with dead people, only to discover he didn't survive the shooting and was among the dead talking to the boy.

The opening scene was a tone-setter for the psychological thriller, and it fell on the inexperienced shoulders of Wahlberg to make it work. Though he spent the late 1990s transitioning to acting, at the time Wahlberg was most known as a founding member of the 1980s boy band New Kids on the Block. So, it comes as a surprise to hear Shyamalan say that Wahlberg's three minutes of screen time set the bar for realism in "The Sixth Sense" that spread throughout the entire production.

When an emaciated Wahlberg arrived on set for filming, he was filled with emotion and ideas. According to USA Today, Shyamalan called Wahlberg's first take of the opening sequence "unbelievable." And it was Wahlberg who suggested to Shyamalan that he should play the entire scene nude (He ultimately wore a disturbingly discolored pair of "tighty-whities" for a PG-13 rating). Audiences were in for the first big surprise of the film when Wahlberg appeared on the screen. Perhaps even more impressive than the performance itself was that Donnie Wahlberg was practically unrecognizable.

From boy band darling to tortured soul

Wahlberg used a technique known as method acting to lose 43 pounds in a little over a month for the Vincent Gray role. Method acting is the process of identifying with a character by authentically experiencing similar struggles and emotions. For the role, Wahlberg left his wife and two kids at home to stay in New York with no money or credit cards. He would starve himself for a few days and then eat vegetables and chew gum while walking around the city to lose weight. To further his ability to relate to Vincent Gray, Wahlberg would go weeks without showering and even slept overnight in a Philadelphia park. In reflecting on starting the process, Wahlberg said:

"I thought if I was in that room standing across from Bruce Willis and Olivia Williams and haven't suffered and really gone through some really dramatic situations before I do this scene, how am I going to bare my clothes, never mind bare my soul? So that's just where I went."

The method can be a dangerous process for actors. Some close to Heath Ledger say he was never the same after his grueling preparation for the role of The Joker in "The Dark Knight." Ledger died of an accidental prescription drug overdose shortly after the film was completed. History explains that before his death, Ledger admitted that he used prescription drugs to deal with the stress and insomnia caused by the role. That said, it's worth noting that Ledger's family has denied rumors that his Joker performance played any part in his tragic death. 

For Donnie Wahlberg, the intense process paid off. "The Sixth Sense" was the second grossing film of 1999 raking in nearly $673 million worldwide at the box office (Box Office Mojo) and garnered six Academy Award nominations. Wahlberg called the role a game-changer for his acting career that now spans more than two decades. Even though he was initially deemed too old and too fit, Wahlberg proved to Shyamalan and everyone else that he absolutely had the right stuff for the role.