Music may have taken Mario out of Baltimore, but the 19-year-old R&B; sensation, whose first movie, Step Up, opens in theaters today, insists that no one will ever take Charm City out of him.
"I love Baltimore," Mario says over the phone from his Los Angeles hotel room. "Everywhere I go, I let people know where I'm from ... I plan to [always] bring that up, so that people understand that this is where I'm from, this is what I'm made of."
Mario (he doesn't use his last name, Barrett, professionally) says fans also can glean insights about him by going to see Step Up, a story of young love blossoming against the backdrop of the fictional Maryland School for the Arts.
The principals, a dance student and the rudderless street thug who turns out to be her unlikely savior (just as she becomes his), are played by Jenna Dewan and Channing Tatum.
Mario plays their friend Miles, a performer and budding record producer who sees music as the surest way off the perilous streets of Baltimore.
Mario grew up in neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of Baltimore, as well as in Pikesville and Randallstown. He attended Bedford Elementary, Pikesville Middle and Milford Mill Academy. He sees a lot of himself in Miles.
"Miles is a very quiet person," he says. "He came from a rough area, but he realizes that he has talent. It's the only thing that makes him happy and makes him feel free. At the same time, he's lived in other people's shadows; he's always behind the fence. ... He was never given the opportunity to shine. Now he is. Now he's hungry; he's showing the world what he can do.
"I feel like that character," Mario says. "I can relate to him."
For now, his fans know him mostly for his singing. Discovered at a Baltimore talent contest at age 11 and, at 14, signed to a record deal with Clive Davis' J Records, Mario's self-titled 2002 debut CD marked him as a performer to watch, especially in the teen market.
But his second, 2004's Turning Point, brought him critical acclaim as well, garnering a pair of Grammy nominations and winning a pair of Billboard awards (including Top R&B;/Hip-Hop Single for the megahit "Let Me Love You").
His eagerly awaited third CD is set to come out late this year or or early next year, Mario says. In fact, he's just flown in to Los Angeles from Orlando, Fla., where he was working with fellow R&B; singer Akon on a single, titled "There's Only One Way."
Music remains his priority. "Singing is my foundation and my love," he says. "There's nothing that puts a smile on my face more than hearing a great song. That feeling when I'm singing ... it makes me feel like I have a purpose."
But right now, acting is very much on Mario's mind. After fielding myriad offers and promising that he would choose his first project carefully -- some of the scripts were so bad, he told one interviewer, "you want to throw them out of the window" -- he settled on Step Up because it spoke to him.
It also seemed like a natural project for a proud Baltimore young man to tackle. The film was shot in the city last summer, under the title, Music High.
"That was amazing," he says, "for my first role to be [shot] in my hometown."
The young actor's work on Step Up earned praise from screenwriter Duane Adler, who spent many of his teen years in Odenton, south of Baltimore, and has come to be as much a booster of the city as Mario.
"He's a really humble, nice kid," Adler says. "To be as young as he is and successful as he is at his age ... he seemed really eager to learn and grow."
Mario resists the urge to describe his youth in dark terms. Life offered its share of temptations, he admits, but nothing he couldn't handle.
"You can grow up in a tough neighborhood, but it's about you, it's about what kind of person you were," says Mario, who is once again calling Baltimore home after living in New Jersey for several years. "I grew up all over Baltimore, I have lived in some tough neighborhoods. But for the most part -- I don't care if you live in the county or the city -- it's what you make it. If you choose to get in certain situations, that's what you do."
Yes, he was raised by a single mother ("I didn't get close to my pop until recently," he says). And yes, his mother, Shawntia Hardaway, was away from home for months at a time, leaving him in the care of his grandmother.
But his mother always pushed him and was his biggest supporter -- in part because she wanted to ensure he had opportunities that she never had, he says.
"I was able to move people with my singing," he says. "My mother definitely helped me to realize that that was important, that I could use that tool to travel the world, to gain respect as a singer, to do what I like to do."
(Asked how his mother is doing today, Mario declines to answer. "I can't really speak on her behalf," he says. "She's a grown woman, and I respect that.")
To be sure, Mario experienced his share of troubles as he evolved from a youngster in Baltimore to a teen idol to a renowned, award-winning singer.
And life now is far from smooth; in February, he filed suit against the man who discovered him at that Baltimore talent show, Troy Patterson, seeking to void a contract he claims has only paid him $50,000 from the sale of more than 3 million records.
Patterson has countersued, according to Billboard magazine, claiming he earned all royalties he received. Mario refuses to discuss the suit, saying only that Patterson "has nothing to do with my life anymore."
But today, with the opening of Step Up, he's ready to begin a new chapter, one that will include acting. And if that works out, what's next?
Maybe starting a film production company, Mario says, "learning more about film, maybe taking a couple of courses."
Mario as the next film mogul?
"The next time you talk to me," he says in what sounds like total earnestness, "I'll probably be on a boat somewhere, writing a script or something."