Andre Royo in MovieMoney
As Bubbles, the junky trying to fly straight on HBO’s widely-lauded cops-and-robbers drama The Wire, Andre Royo was brilliance itself. Charming and heartfelt by turns, his performance could give an entire episode a glittering shimmer, a soul-crushing hopelessness, or, what was more frequently the case, both and everything else besides. Royo himself brims with an intoxicating energy that pings between brio, self-deprecation and a hard-won optimism, making it no wonder why casting directors across Hollywood are falling for him. With an eclectic quartet of movies due out this year Royo displays again his great range as an actor and gives us a glimmer of what we can expect from him in the future.
We had the chance to chat with Royo about acting, ass-whippins, and life after Bubbles.
Chris Wallace: When you walk into meetings now does everyone want Bubbles?
Andre Royo: They just wanna acknowledge the job I did. In LA, unlike the East Coast, they’re still catchin up. It’s not like they saw the show while it was on the air and they’re like, “It was a great show.” They’re like, “I just got season 3,” and we’ll spend twenty minutes talking about what a great character I portrayed and then it’s like, now let’s get ready to go to work. It kinda shows ya, because you’re like, with all that great character how come I ain’t get the job already? You know? That takes getting used to. I understand for a lot of casting directors it’s a hard sell. You know, when writers or directors come in and say, I want a lawyer or a doctor, I want a President, a cop, Bubbles isn’t the first thing that pops in their head. It’s kinda like, I get there, I get the accolades and then I have to convince them I am this other person. It was a wonderful experience but it does make it a little bit harder and a little bit easier at the same time.
CW: So, doors are opening? Or is everybody trying to send you the next junky script?
AR: I would have to say, due to the business and how it’s changed dramatically, it’s a little bit of everything. Before The Wire I did a bunch of indie joints and Shaft was my first big studio thing. So, before The Wire it was the basic young actor grind—a lot of theatre and guest-stars here and there. And then The Wire showed up and for five years, with its crazy schedule—HBO has a different way of airing your shows and you’re under contract—it’s hard to get stuff in between. Now, after The Wire, are more doors opening up? I guess so—I wasn’t used to any doors before. But after 5 years of playing a junky I’m on permanent detox. But it’s like being under water—while you’re waiting for that role, you might take something where you’re talking to the cops or you’re in the streets or whatever [as Bubbles did and was] just to put food on the table. This is a business that we all come into, that every actor comes into saying, all right, this is gonna be an uphill climb until it’s not a uphill climb no more. You know, The Wire, you’re talking about 25 great actors, all of us doing our thing. When The Wire ended all of us are looking for work. There aren’t that many black characters in Hollywood. Yet. With the success of Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels maybe there will be more characters written for black actors that will give us a more versatile experience. But, for now, it’s the Hollywood grind.
CW: OK, so with the four movies you’ve got coming out this year—Super, a comedy starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon; Remnants, which is like a strange horror movie; the Tuskegee airmen thing, which is gonna be a big deal; and then MovieMoney which sounds to me like an earnest indie drama—are you putting together a portfolio to showcase your range?
AR: Exactly. You know the rule of thumb, you’re only as good as your last role. So, I was real, real good and my manager and I talked about what to do next, and, you gotta go back to your indie roots because people who are really trying to make their movie and raise the money and doing it for the love is something special. I was born and bred in independent filmmaking so I love doin that. And I have an opportunity to show a range of characters.
Our beloved “Bubbs”
With the Rainn Wilson thing, [writer, director] James Gunn was a fan of the show and he saw Bubbles in different ways and thought he had a lot of humor, as well as drama, and he said he wrote the part for me. I love comedy. I’m not some stand-up guy but I love Larry David; I love the ass hole aspect of being crazy and witty. (I was a huge huge super dad when I met Ellen Page, cuz my daughter loved her. So that was great to be able to get an autographed picture with her for my daughter.)
On Red Tails, from a story by George Lucas, about the famed Tuskegee aimen, the first African-American pilots to fly in a combat squadron during WWII…
After five seasons of The Wire we thought, a lot of us, that we’d never be apart of a project with so many great black actors again. So when the Tuskegee airmen thing came about from George Lucas, talking about the history and what these pilots went through, all of a sudden I was surrounded by my peers and other black actors. That was a great surprise. The Wire spoiled you, you wanted to part of something that entertains and educates and excites you all at the same time and hopefully with [director] Anthony Hemmingway and George Lucas that comes through.
I grew up looking at horror flicks and you always wonder about that black actor who died first, what that felt like. So it was exciting to be in Remnants, and thank god for the era of Barack Obama, the black guy doesn’t die first. I get to run around and be scared a lot longer.
When you’re an actor you’re kinda broke for most of your life. You’re just struggling, building the reel, trying to get that shot. I’ve met a lotta people along the way who helped me out, made sure I was taken care of, believed in me, so once I got on The Wire, it’s those people who still out there grinding and called me and said, hey, I would love for you to be in my film, it would good for me if you were in my film. It’s no questions asked. My agents and manager get mad, but, hey, I’ll jump in front of a camera for my friends and New York any time. I love what I do. My mother told me a long time ago to enjoy the journey. The finish line is there but you gotta enjoy the training, you gotta love the race. I love it and I’m gonna keep doing it, keep throwing things at the wall and see what sticks.
CW: What is the finish line?
AR: I want to tell great stories. When you get older you look back at your journey and when the bug first bit you, you wanna share the love. I love the whole aspect of filmmaking and I want to be in a position where I’m in charge of putting good quality out there. From my generation, to tell the elders thank you for Rocky and Raging Bull and to inspire my daughter’s generation so that they can fall in love with movies. I want to produce and direct. Producing is just a little bit more accessible to me now from all the connections and all the people who respect me from The Wire. It’s easier for me to put that puzzle together, you know, grabbing the money, grabbing the actors.
(Andre goes on to tell me here about an incredible project he’s producing and starring in, with great names attached, but we are not at liberty to share any details at this time. Let’s just say that if it makes it to the screen in its present incarnation it is, if not the role of a lifetime, at least potential Oscar bait.)
We rejoin the conversation already in progress on the subject of black actors…
AR: It’s a crowded lane. There’s a lot of actors out there—on tv, network, cable, movies—and it just shortens the playing space. You just try to keep moving, navigate your way through the bull shit and find the joy in the navigating. I look at my fellows, at my age, I have great actors in my circle—Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Wright, Terrance Howard—these guys are beasts, man. They do what they do and you just sit there and wait and wait your turn, you wait for everybody to say no or they busy or you wait for somebody to say, fuck it, I think Dre can do it.
CW: Tell me about growing up in the Bronx. When did the bug bite you?
AR: It wasn’t necessarily about being an actor but it was the first time I understood the power of the medium. My dad was a very strict dude and he was very serious and growing up I was a clown and just all over the place. I had the Napoleon-complex and I used to just do stuff on a dare, just to get attention, and of course that caused problems in school and in the neighborhood. And my dad was so strict but the only time I saw him for anything but an ass-whippin was when he was watching television. He’d watch Fred Astaire, West Side Story, John Wayne, and he’d sit me down and we’d watch all these great movies—The Hustler, Let’s Do It Again—and I knew then, anything that could make this man show any other emotion and could stop him from beatin my ass I had to be involved in. From that young age, acting was it.
CW: Why Rocky?
AR: I realized it was about more than just acting when I went to see Rocky. Rocky was kind of the first movie when I felt the power of the bigger picture, when I’m sitting in a movie theater in the Bronx, full of all these young black cats and we all love Apollo Creed, he was like Ali. He wasn’t a bad guy, he was just a bragadocious, I’ll-bust-yo-ass type of dude. But towards the end of the movie it felt so strange to me—not knowing why—we were all rooting for the white guy to win. The movie was just that good at telling that story, relating that, the dreamer—fuck the color—it’s about the guy wanting to go the distance. I think that’s how we all felt in the neighborhood. You know, we didn’t know if we was gonna be rich or whatever. All we wanted was to live, and go the distance. Seeing that movie do that I knew I wanted to create that but I didn’t know how. So I left it alone like a dream and went to college for Business Administration and Advertising but college didn’t work out for me because I was too crazy. So I started doing construction with my dad and we’d talk about movies and memorize movies and talking with the other guys and they were like, You know there are schools for that shit. You keep busting yo ass with this cement you gonna wake up and be 40 and it’s gonna be over. You need to really pursue it.
CW: So what’d you do?
AR: The pursuing part was weird. I didn’t really know the ABCs of it. This is one of those industries where there is no direct path to it. It’s also one of those careers—why everybody loves it and why they stay in the game even if they’re not working is because it’s the only career where it’s never too late. You can never be too ugly, too pretty, too smart, too old, handicapped, short, tall, whatever, it don’t matter. You’re always one role away from your whole life changing and that never changes. You could be 67 and book a series like The Golden Girls and you straight. You’re in the business. So, when I had the balls to tell my dad that I’m quitting construction—which was $21.50 an hour at the time, 18 years old—I started going to theatre schools, I started hanging out in Manhattan. That’s what really opens you up. You see all these other kids from different areas wanting the same thing you want and it creates a synergy and I just started to flow and be inspired and really believe something was gonna happen. My destiny just started clearing the path.
CW: And now?
AR: And now I love where I’m at. The Wire, that show, we realize now, that’ll be in the books forever. I mean, Barack Obama, telling me in Prague in front of my daughter, “Hey, what’s up Bubbles. I loved your character.” That stays with you forever. Now, not getting any nominations for anything, that stays with you too.