SANTA MONICA, California — From international R&B sensation to rising film star, Mario says he's built his career on a simple mantra: "Nothing's impossible. If you're looking for something and you want it, you just gotta go get it."
That's an infectious attitude, one the 20-year-old shares with Andre, the character he plays in "Freedom Writers." Out January 5, the movie follows teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) as she encourages a group of struggling students to challenge their limitations and succeed against all odds. In a recent interview with MTV News, Mario talked about "Freedom Writers," what makes a good teacher and his own family's troubles.
MTV: Admit it: You cried when you saw this movie.
Mario: I get teary-eyed when I see it, man. You know, you just really get caught up in it. If you're a person who loves films, and you pay attention with deep detail, then you'll definitely cry — you can't help it.
MTV: To what in particular should people pay attention with deep detail?
Mario: They should pay attention to the transformations of the kids, they should pay attention to the actions shown by Ms. Erin Gruwell and her consistency — how her assertiveness helped [her students] to go to another level in their lives. I think people should pay attention to how this movie could relate to them. From top to bottom, I think, it's one of those movies where, when you watch it, you have this great appreciation for Erin and what's she's done and what she stands for.
MTV: What does Erin mean to your character?
Mario: Andre, of course, has always had a wall up because of all the people who've come in and out of his life and who've affected him in positive and negative ways. His brother, who he confided in and who now is facing life in prison, [made] Andre feel like there's no hope out there for him. If his brother's like that, then he's going to be like that. And with his mother being so sick and strung out as she is, she can't help him. And she always told Andre, you know, "You're going to be just like your father. Nothing."
He's facing so many obstacles and things that were bringing him down that when a person like Erin comes into his life he automatically has his defense up. Even though she's there to help him, he rebels against her. Throughout the movie you could see how she used her personality to break [him]. In a sense she broke them [all]. [Their perceptions of her] went from "You're nothing but white trash" to "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here."
MTV: Why was Gruwell able to do what she did when nobody else could?
Mario: Well, I don't think that any other teacher would care. For a lot of teachers — and I'm going to take from my own experience — it's about the paycheck and just getting through the day. You know, handing out a couple sheets of paper. It's not actually taking your own time to fight for your students. After a while they saw that she did that for them. She had her back up against the wall and she fought through it. I think that automatically shows that she cared more than a lot of other teachers.
MTV: Have you had mostly positive teachers like Erin or bad ones?
Mario: I've had both. You know, not necessarily as persistent as Erin or as colorful, but I've had good teachers that would come to me with advice about the things that I was doing. It would be great advice, now that I look back on it, but back then it was just, "You're not my father, you're not my mother, so to hell with what you have to say to me." Sometimes you have to humble yourself, and sometimes a teacher can do that.
Erin took the extra route — through all the disrespect, the neglect. Another teacher would have probably quit or just given up. They saw that they couldn't break her, and that made them weak.
MTV: Did you get a chance to meet the real Freedom Writers?
Mario: I met my character Andre and the rest of them after we did the shoot. It's funny because one of the Freedom Writers played a security guard for the class. He's the real Jamal.
MTV: And you read the book as well?
Mario: Yes I did. It was one of the tools that [director] Richard LaGravenese gave us to create our own characters and imagine being there.
MTV: So out of those two experiences, reading the book and meeting the real people, what was the story that most touched you or that you felt most connected to?
Mario: Where Andre and I are relatable is when I read the book and he talks about his brother, and how his brother was taken away from him so quickly right before his eyes and he was alone again. Stuff like that that made the story real personal for me.
I remember when I was younger and my older cousin Deion — we grew up together and he got into trouble. He used to watch over me when I was in school. He had graduated from the school I was going to, so he knew everybody there. He looked out for me and I felt like I was always safe. But he got locked up and taken away. It was like all my safety just got taken down, I felt like I was out there on my own.
MTV: This movie is about transformation. How are you transforming as an actor?
Mario: I think ["Freedom Writers"] gives people viewing me another insight into what type of actor I could be. When you look at "Step Up," you look at this fun movie, this character who's more laid-back, more suave. He's more happy and way more social. On the other hand, you see me in this very dark, very sensitive yet insensitive character. I think it gives me a great opportunity to appeal to different audiences. I want to challenge myself doing different roles, and doing different roles effectively so that each time it takes me into a different lane.
Ultimately, I would one day want to own my own production company and do my own shooting and directing. It's a beautiful thing watching Richard LaGravenese do what he does: It makes me appreciate my job even more. The way I felt towards Richard, I would love for someone to feel that way towards me and my music. I've grown in ways like that — understanding how special we all are. If one person falls off the ladder, then the whole ladder is going to collapse.
MTV: You mention your music in connection to Richard. Is there a similarity between your singing and your acting?
Mario: As far as wanting it to be perfect, yes. I'm a perfectionist. As far as the performance itself ... honestly, yeah. There's been shows that I've done where I've felt like a whole other person, where you're outside of your body. In some of my roles it could be that one shot that just makes it all worth it, because you lose yourself. And those are the scenes where you know it's living in the moment. You don't come back until he says cut, and sometimes when he yells cut you still don't come back. And that's the beauty of it, once you learn how to master that. I saw Hilary [Swank] do it every time, every day.
MTV: Is that the big difference between up-and-coming actors and established actors? Being able to switch it on and off?
Mario: Well, yeah, of course. Even Hilary, I'm sure she learned by working with other well-experienced actors. And once you have the experience and the patience, man, nothing can stop you. I felt like I learned so much from "Freedom Writers" and I'm ready to do another film.
MTV: Would you say that's the biggest thing Swank taught you?
Mario: I think the biggest thing I learned from Hilary was that you have to find a space — mentally, physically, whatever makes you feel in control. I think I saw her do this, where she would go and she would knit. She would go into her own world so that she could stay in character. But for me, it was hard finding that place where I could totally stay focused every moment. It's something that I've got to practice.
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