Downtown: From Homelessness to Hollywood

When Mark Webber was young, he lived in abandoned buildings in Philadelphia.

To escape the torment of his classmates, who called him “shelter boy,” he used his vivid imagination.

“I would create, like, really crazy, complex characters in my head,” the 20-year-old says now. “I was always acting with people.”

His father had abandoned him and his mother, who was only 17 when she gave birth to Mark. She did her best to support her son alone. “I’ve worked just about every kind of job that you can imagine, from fast food to dancing to prostitution,” she says, “to feed, clothe and house myself and my child.”

But both mother and child turned their hardship and humiliation into a determination to survive and succeed.

Victims of Poverty

Determined to put a face on homelessness, Cheri began a crusade to help the less fortunate. She organized a group of welfare mothers called Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which builds tent cities and organizes demonstrations and rallies, urging the poor to take control of their lives. Campaigning for what she calls economic human rights, Cheri’s painful struggle inspired her to help those she considers the “victims of poverty.”

She’s taken her message from the housing projects to the halls of Congress, and over the last several years her protests have landed her in jail almost 70 times. She was one of hundreds of demonstrators arrested at the World Trade Organization protests, and was recently protesting at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Mark took the same passion and determination he had learned from his mother and applied it to what he wanted most: an acting career. “I wanted to be an actor so bad and I just focused every part of myself towards that,” he says.

Mark started acting, first in short skits for his mother’s organization, and then in productions at the Philadelphia High School for Performing Arts. He dropped out of school to pursue acting full time, ultimately landing several big-screen parts, including the independent film Edge City and the teen film Drive Me Crazy.

This year, Mark got his big break: a starring role opposite Chevy Chase in Snow Day. He was also seen in David Mamet’s classic play American Buffalo with William H. Macy. Critics have called his off-Broadway performance “compelling,” and Macy predicts great things for Mark.

“I think a lot of his experiences have probably had to add to his understanding of human nature, his love of humanity, his rage to a certain extent,” says Macy. Indeed, Mark says it is particularly easy for him to cry because he need only draw on his real-life experience to get the tears streaming. “Just think back to one of the first times my mom had someone spit in her face at a demonstration, being pulled away by the police,” he says, “that’ll do it.” Mark recently finished production on Steve Buscemi’s The Animal Factory and on the Chelsea Walls, directed by Ethan Hawke.

 

Despite his relative fame and modest fortune, Mark remains grounded. He lives in a New York City loft, where, until recently, he had no TV. He continues to hang out with the friends he grew up with in Philadelphia, and goes back regularly.

More important than money, says Mark, “is self-love, to have goals, to have dreams, to have passion and to help other people.”

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