Mario, the R&B-pop; star, is anticipating a busy year. "Go!," the follow-up to 2004's platinum-selling album "Turning Point," will hit stores in the spring. But before fans hear new music from Mario, they can see him next month in "Freedom Writers," his second movie.
"I didn't take any acting classes," he says. "I guess the preparation for this film came from bonding with the director [Richard LaGravenese] and everybody on the set."
The movie is based on the true story of a Long Beach high school, circa 1994, and a young English teacher (played by Hilary Swank) who inspired her students to write their often-violent life stories. Mario, who last year made his acting debut in "Step Up," plays Andre, a student who's conflicted about his life in the streets.
"My character is caught up into" selling drugs, Mario says. "He doesn't want to be, but he's the only one taking care of the household. His mother is strung out. His father's not around. His older brother is facing life in jail. So you got this kid who doesn't know himself, who's cast out.
Mario, 20, says he empathized with the character. Growing up in Baltimore he saw (if not experienced) some of what his character faces in the movie. Mario's mother struggled with drugs, and it was only two years ago that the singer developed a relationship with his father.
"My grandmother raised me while my mother dealt with her problems," the singer says.
Early on, the artist found solace in performing. He loved the music his mother and grandmother played: Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, even Frank Sinatra. He was never shy about entertaining folks.
"I remember getting in trouble for singing in class when I was, like, in the third grade, then going home and getting that butt whuppin'," he says, chuckling.
These days, Mario, who has homes in Baltimore, Atlanta and Los Angeles, is focusing on his booming career. On "Go!," he says, he had more creative control than on his previous work. He wrote or co-wrote five songs; two will make the album.
"The songs are sexier," Mario says. "The album is more personal, more passionate."