EXCLUSIVE: Mario Gets Real About Freedom Writers

Mario talks personally about making the film, Hilary Swank and his new album Go!

Musician/Actor Mario Barrett (aka Mario) has done quite a lot in his 20 years. He's acted in a bunch of high profile films, worked with legendary music producer Clive Davis, sang hit songs, had Alicia Keys compose some of his music, and the list goes on.

Among his many accomplishments, he is also quite proud of the work he was able to do as Andre in the inspirational tale Freedom Writers. This film chronicles the true story of high school teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) and the effect she was able to have on a group of supposedly "unteachable" students.

Mario recently sat down with us to discuss working on the film and what else he has coming up.

Could you tell the readers who the character of Andre is in Freedom Writers?

Mario: My character is a lot more aggressive than I am in a regular day. He was caught up in a time in his life where he didn't know who he was. Everyday was a fight to survive whether it was school, whether it was the streets, whether it was at home; his mother was strung out on drugs. His brother had just got sent to life in jail, so I could imagine what he was going through. The only thing he had to turn to was his future.

That's basically what the film was about for all the kids. This woman, Erin Gruwell, played by Hilary Swank, the teacher who helped to change their lives in a very positive way. She helped them see that they weren't the only race of people that were going through a crisis in their lives. This goes back to the Holocaust and this is basically what the film was about. My character was basically a teenage boy caught up in his environment.

Was it all those factors that you just mentioned, being able to relate to what happened to the people in the script, that made you want to do this film?

Mario: I grew up in Baltimore which is a one of the biggest drug cities. It's gone down a lot, it's gotten a lot better but I've seen a lot of that coming up. I've seen a lot of drugs, my mother was even a drug addict for a long period... so it was always around me, but I never really indulged in those type of activities. I never used drugs in my life and I was blessed enough with the wisdom and the strength to move forward. I was always focused. What actually attracted me to the script was knowing where I came from and knowing that Andre was an only child. He was a teenage boy who had experienced those kinds of things and I did too but God gave me the opportunity to excel.

The classroom situations in Freedom Writers seemed very genuine. Was there a lot of bonding offscreen as well as on?

Mario: Without a doubt. First of all, let me explain it to you, 80% of the kids who you saw in the classroom were in that environment at that present time. When they left the set they were going to those environments. The only people who weren't going to those environments were the actors that you've seen before or singers like myself; who just happen to have the experience of that role. It was very much a real environment, man. We had to definitely bond. It took us about a week and a half to get it down to the point where we were totally in that environment and in that moment.

We'd tell each other about the stories... it was definitely a vulnerable time. You couldn't hold back, you know what I'm saying? You couldn't hold back, you had to express yourself. That's what it was all about, self expression.

That certainly comes across in the movie. You can see that this has obviously gone a lot deeper than people showing up and reading off a script.

Mario: Right, right.

What for you was the most rewarding part of making Freedom Writers?

Mario: I think for me the most rewarding part was the finished product. (Laughs) Seeing it finished and knowing that in doing the film, I was able to communicate with the director and my cast members, and if there was something I wanted to do over, if the execution could have been better, I was able to express myself. I always pride myself about that because when you're in front of Hilary Swank and a Director like Richard LaGravenese and you want to stop the scene and say, "Oh, my part wasn't good enough." It takes a lot of balls to do that... just to have the best performance.

It was really a team thing and I was just really happy to see the finished product, man. I felt like I wanted to get this character right.

What was it like working with Hilary Swank?

Mario: Not only is she a great actress but I think she's a gorgeous woman. It was really entertaining and intriguing. I'm a ladies man, I love women... on the other note, I didn't know what to expect from her, honestly. I expected to just see her on set... she would come on set and she was playful, she was cool. She was really focused when those cameras came on, of course, but off camera she was Hilary.

What do you hope people take away from watching Freedom Writers?

Mario: The first thing I would definitely hope people take away from it is, knowing that this is a true film, know that it's a true story, that this actually took place, and also applying it to their lives. I think that everyone who watches this film will be able to apply it to their life. Not just what the students are experiencing but with Erin Gruwell and her father and her husband; the sacrifices. She felt like she was put there for a reason. I think that if there were more teachers like Erin Gruwell in the world, the system and the way the kids graduate, how they are when they leave school, will be totally different if we have more teachers like that.

Unfortunately, I don't think in this day and age people sacrifice themselves to that extent anymore. I really hope people take from this film self expression, being able to sacrifice when you can for other people and their needs, and not judging people from the moment that you see them. Not having a preconceived perception of what someone is or what they're like. That's what the kids had against Erin Gruwell. They already knew this was a teacher who didn't care about them. Who didn't really want them to pass, or who didn't really want to understand them, but she showed them differently.

What are you working on now?

Mario: Right now, I just finished my junior album. This album is called Go! it'll be out July 17. The first single off the album is called "How Do I Breath?" We're really just rollin out with that, man. The single comes out this month. You'll be hearing it on your radio stations and I'll be hitting your cities. After that, touring, of course and traveling the world again. I'm looking for ward to it. Just getting myself into the game again, musically, because I feel like this is my strongest album that I've done so far; the album I express so much more on. All across the board, in all formats. I think it's gonna be great and I think people are gonna enjoy it.

Freedom Writers comes to DVD April 17 from Paramount Home Entertainment.

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