An international megacelebrity before he had his driver’s license, Mario recorded his first album at 14; five years later, his single “Let Me Love You” ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for nine straight weeks. Now 33, the multihyphenate Baltimore native isn’t slowing down, with a meaty supporting role on filmed-in-Chicago hit Empire and a new single, “Closer,” set to drop in April. On a break from filming, Mario chatted with Men’s Book about joining the Empire cast in its last season, his favorite places in the Windy City and what’s coming next for him.
Let’s talk . What has that experience been like for you?
I think just like any other experience, you come in with certain expectations. My expectations were a lot of intense energy on set and crazy scenes because when I came on there were a lot of changes going on with the show. But when I finally got to set and got in the flow of things, everything was streamlined and everybody was very professional, and every department was great at what they do. I think what I’ve learned the most is probably the importance of being on time [laughs] and teamwork—being a good costar. In music you can be very selfish with your creation because it’s your way. You can change something last minute if you want. [On TV] you can do certain things to add to your character, but there are certain arcs that have to stay. There are times when I act with Terrence [Howard] that it’s like, OK, Terrence as Lucious Lyon has this kind of intimidating characteristic, but then you meet Terrence and he’s this cool, smart, soft-spoken guy. So I’ve been learning about how you translate your true character and pull from yourself, but also pull from the arc of the character to give it the most realistic, authentic presence on-screen as possible. It’s been a great learning experience.Mania straight-leg denim, $690, by Fendi; jersey sport button-down, $225, by Eton; plaid silk and wool check sport coat, $1,695, by Giorgio Armani; Chelsea boot, $895, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; all at Saks Fifth Avenue. Bamboo bracelet in sterling silver and leather, $295, by John Hardy; Yacht-Master in 18K gold with pavé diamond dial, $47,150, by Rolex; both at James & Sons Fine Jewelers. Other jewelry, Mario’s own.
The show has been a hit for years, so what was it like for you to step in as a newcomer?
It was a very warm welcome for me. I definitely think I’m capable of doing a lot more than what the arc of my character presents to me, but I’ve seen the growth as I’ve gone—they’ve definitely given me a bit more character within my arc for me to work with. I’m always wanting to do more. For me it’s like, what can I bring to my character that kind of fast-forwards his arc just with my scenes, just with my energy and my acting skills, and that’s been challenging for me, and it’s been cool.
With filming in Chicago, what has been your experience of the city?
If Chicago was a planet, it would be a very important planet, a strong planet—maybe it would be Mercury. Chicago is a little bit of a mix of everything. It’s got the best and the worst of all worlds, when it comes to the inner city and poverty, but also when it comes to the opportunity of what the city can be as a whole, not just downtown or the areas where the money is, but as a whole. I think Chicago has a lot of potential. I find it very similar to where I come from, Baltimore, but on a greater scale. I see Chicago as a good landing port for creativity. If you love food, if you love skylines, if you love art and if you love being on the water, it’s a great place.
What have become some of your favorite places in the city?
One of my favorite restaurants is Aba because I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, and they get it right every time. Their spicy broccoli is probably the best broccoli preparation I’ve ever tasted in my life. I like Le Colonial, too. I love shopping on Michigan Avenue, of course; and I love all the dog parks—I have a 3-year-old pit bull named Hayley, so I’ve been to all the dog parks in the city.Anti-Expo T-shirt, $98, by John Elliott; ripped slim-fit white denim, $790, by Amiri; Chelsea boot, $895, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; all at Saks Fifth Avenue. Day-Date 40 in 18K gold with diamonds, $41,000, by Rolex at James & Sons Fine Jewelers. Other jewelry, Mario’s own.
Moving on to music, your most recent album, Dancing Shadows, feels like a little bit of a departure for you. How do you think it’s different from your previous projects?
I feel like Dancing Shadows shows a more introspective, darker side of me as an artist, when it comes to the heartbeat of the project. It was a departure from me looking at the landscape of mainstream music and saying: How do I compete? It was a departure from that mindset and more like, I just want to make some cool music—some hippy vibes, some urban vibes, some alternative vibes, some experimental vibes all in one. I think the content represents where I was more so than the actual sound of the album. The sound was influenced by the producer I worked with, Jake Gosling, who works with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes, so for me to work with him, it was a different vibe for him and for me, but writing-wise and lyrically, Dancing Shadows was where I was mentally at that point. When you think about songs like “Good Times,” “What You Started,” “I Believe” and others, I explored this world of where I came from growing up, seeing the world from a different point of view, something that was more motivational and less fantasy love-driven. Some of my songs are about love and heartbreak, but this is more raw about growing up in Baltimore and how to make it through hard times—how to survive, shifting your mindset. That’s the whole concept of Dancing Shadows. It’s the things we don’t always see, the things in the shadows, that actually help us to change the things that come to light.
You mentioned “Good Times,” which is a song that jumped out at me because you’ve got iconic Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy on it. How did that happen?
Our lawyers work together—one of my lawyers happens to be a big music guy. He plays bass, plays in bands and stuff on his off time. And my manager, Nicole, heard that and she was like, ‘We should try to get Buddy Guy on this; he’d be great on it, he’s a legend.’ And I’m like, ‘If you can get Buddy Guy on this, let’s do it.’ Buddy heard it and he loved it and literally sent 30 or 40 tracks of him playing it straight through. It was hard picking the parts to put down and then to keep it modern, but also have that classic feel to it. We managed to find the right balance. It’s not easy to translate that level of talent to a broader audience, so having him on there showed me the magic of what music can do.Hanson trench in fawn, $535, by AllSaints; Anti-Expo T-shirt, $98, by John Elliott; ripped slim-fit white denim, $790, by Amiri; Chelsea boot, $895, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; all at Saks Fifth Avenue. Day-Date 40 in 18K gold with diamonds, $41,000, by Rolex at James & Sons Fine Jewelers. Other jewelry, Mario’s own.
It feels very personal.
Absolutely. That whole album was for me. And “Good Times” in particular is something I feel like I carry with me every day. I have to carry that mindset because coming from where I come from, you’re taught that the odds are already against you, and you’re working backward. I adopted the mindset that is the opposite: It’s what you believe. It’s what you put out to the universe. It’s what you want to happen. There are no limitations on what the outcome can be. You have to tell the universe what it is you are wanting to manifest, and then everything else is just obstacles you overcome as you get to your goal. You’ll get there, but you have to work through these pressurized situations that ultimately can teach you a lot.
Empire is wrapping up its final season. What’s next for you?
I’m releasing my next album sometime in the summer, and I’m releasing a single at the top of April. It’s called “Closer,” and it’s like, if you were to take all the things people love about me as an artist and a brand and put it in one, that’s what it is. It’s flirtatious, it’s cool, it’s direct, but it’s also classic. I’m also going to be touring after the album comes out. Right now the project is tentatively titled Closer to Mars. My name Mario actually means Mars—it represents the planet as well as the Greek god of war, Mars. For me, it’s about the idea of escapism; there’s all this talk about how do we get to Mars. You start investing in your trip to Mars, like the idea of escaping something so you can have a better life—the grass is always greener. But there’s no escaping yourself, or escaping what we’ve done to this planet. What’s to say we won’t do the same thing somewhere else? So Closer to Mars to me means getting close to yourself, closer to the truth, closer to understanding that everything you’re searching for outside of yourself is within yourself.
You’ve been a public figure for almost 20 years, and you have a global network of fans who follow you, from your music to your acting projects. What is your connection to your fans and how are they important to you?
People love my voice and I think that’s something to be really proud of. I’m proud of the gift and the way I’ve been able to use it. But I think I can have a deeper connection with my fans in terms of how I affect their lives outside of music. And that’s what I want to do with my next visuals and my tour. I haven’t had a year-round tour, like 80 days touring every continent. That’s my goal. I want to do that so bad. But what I will say is that my core fans have been supportive of all of my works, from my films to TV to music. Like if I say, I’m doing Rent, which I did last year, they’ll watch, they’re tuning in. That’s what true fans are— whatever you’re doing, they’ll give it a shot, even if it’s a departure from what they’re used to. I have those types of fans and I’m really grateful for that.Wool and cashmere overshirt, $2,990, by Brioni; grey plaid pant, $198, by Nominee, both at Saks Fifth Avenue. Cellini Time with diamonds in 18k, $24,100, by Rolex at James and Sons. Other jewelry, Mario’s own; Grooming by Torie Conn
What is your dream project, or your dream vision for your career?
I like to think we’re getting into a space now where things are becoming a bit less [two-dimensional] when it comes to being an artist, where you could say, ‘I want to do a pop-up art exhibit because that’s just how I’m feeling,’ and people are accepting of it because the world is so much more connected because of the internet and technology, and all of these intersecting businesses. The world is changing in such a unique way where it lends itself to people like me who have a widespread view of the world. I’m always trying to say: How can I connect this to this? What does music have to do with science? What does science have to do with health and music? And how does this color relate to the mood of my show? It’s all connected. I want to be that bridge that shows you can be a kid from Baltimore who grew up in a household full of 18 people where six or seven of them were drug addicts, and you can also be 33 years old and be a superstar and have businesses and travel the world and give back. Everything happens in cycles. So let’s make sure the next cycle feels and is emotionally intelligent; it’s upgraded, it’s a new experience. So for me it’s all about new experiences. So where I want to see myself is bridging that gap between the new generation and the old generation and ushering in this new world of limitlessness. Literally, if you think about something, you can manifest it.
Last question. Your debut album came out in 2002. Looking back, if you could give the Mario of 2002 a word of advice, what would you tell him?
If I could give 14-year-old Mario advice, I would tell him to keep his head to the stars and to keep his vision strong. Stay connected to that voice within yourself that is the most consistent. That’s what I would tell him. You are always good enough, kid.