The first character you might have seen Andre Royo play was Bubbles on “The Wire,” but recently the prolific character actor has had a chance to branch out to roles that require wearing suits. Royo currently can be seen in “Hand of God” as the charismatic Mayor of Los Angeles, Robert “Bobo” Boston, and was also tapped for a supporting role as Luscious’ lawyer Thirsty Rawlings in the second season of “Empire”; all opportunities, as he told Indiewire via phone, that gave him a chance to show what else he’s capable of doing.
Below, Royo reveals his dream biopic roles, how he approaches bringing his own essence to his characters, which “Wire” co-star would have been cast as Bubbles if he’d said no to the part and whether or not he’d ever want to be in “Star Wars.”
So how’s it going?
It’s going kind of crazy, man. This is one of those careers where it’s peaks and valleys, and right now, I’m trying to climb. I’m doing some climbing right now.
When was the last time you had the day off?
There is no day off. When you’re dealing with this type of career — and you’re also dealing with fatherhood — there’s no day off. There’s certain days where you sleep a little later, that’s all. So today was a day where I could sleep a little bit more.
What’s the project you’re working on right now?
Right now I’m doing this wonderful indie film called “Hunter Gatherer.” It’s a little bit of an art, where you’re trying to balance the show and the business. I started in the theater world in New York City — and indie films — and I love the feeling of your head coming together and trying to tell a simple story, a small story, and just getting that vibe of storytelling without all the craziness of big budget. I love that, too, but every once in a while, you just want to do something small and special, and I fell in love with the script.
Is it an ensemble piece or is it something kind of really starring you?
It’s kind of really starring me. I’ve got to take advantage of this, taking advantage of really carrying a film. I’ve always loved Don Cheadle and Jeffery Wright and even Sam Jackson. He was the first one that told me back in the day when I was doing “The Wire,” “You do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.” I’m hoping that there comes a time where I can carry films and see my name as number one on the call sheet for movies because that’s a true testament of marrying everything together like the talent, the leadership, decisions and the sensibility that people want to see you on the screen. So when the indie films come, when you have the opportunity to fall in love with the script or something about the character, you take your chance, man. I am a little bit of an egomaniac. I like being in front of the camera, so I take advantage of it when I can.
I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but I’m curious, is there anything specific you find yourself being drawn to, when you look at new material?
I feel like I get drawn to — and I know it sounds cheesy but — I love storytelling. I’m not a writer, so I don’t know how to word things best, but I grew up in the Bronx, and when people were talking about their favorite movies, they would name “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I loved “Cooley High,” “Kramer vs Kramer,” “The Big Chill.” I just love seeing people being able to be looked at and dealt with multilayers. “The Wire” was a big experience in that way. You could see storytelling being told and every character didn’t come off one-dimensional. And you were allowed to see that they weren’t one-dimensional. They had different layers where sometimes they did good shit, sometimes they did bad shit. But they were doing something from a sense of purpose that was justified by themselves. In movies, I love when people are telling a story about how hard it is to navigate yourself in the world and try to stay in some sort of form of goodness, and who dictates what that goodness may be.
So, would you do “Star Wars” if you were offered it?
Would I do a “Star Wars” if I was offered it? If I was offered it, I would do a “Star Wars” in a heartbeat. Offer is such a very rare word in this business, from my point of view. I’m not there yet. I mean, “Empire” was the first time in a while where I got a phone call and they were like, “We’d love to offer you the role,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s amazing. This is fantastic.” It feels really good because you work your way to a point where people kind of already know, “Yeah, he can do this.” And that’s a great feeling.
“Star Wars” is such a big, big franchise type of machine. I hope that they would call me and say, “You know what, he can do this.” And would I do it? Yes. Yesterday, when I was talking to the producers of the movie I’m doing now– We all have doubts, sometimes like “Was I good, did I do alright in that scene? I wasn’t sure.” And they said “You know what? You’re so good at what you’re doing, and the certain humanity that you bring to every character? People know that when they hire you, that you’ll make this feel, or you’ll make the character feel real, and he’s going to feel grounded, and something we can relate to, a certain compassion.” If there’s a character in “Star Wars” that needs a little compassion, a little grounded in humanity, I’ll do it.
Is that quality something that you feel like you’re conscious of, or is it just something that happens organically when you’re on screen?
For me, I think it happens organically. I’m trying to become more aware of it, so that I don’t beat myself up so much when I’m wondering, “Am I doing enough?” I’m mad that I can’t watch myself because I’m always judging or nitpicking every performance I do, and then my fellow peers or people that know me are like, “That was great, you did good,” and I’m like, “Yeah, all right,” because I don’t know. And they’re like, “No, it’s great. It’s real,” and it’s hard to be told that you’re good at being real, but we don’t really get the chance to step outside and look at ourselves and see what we’re doing. We’re just being ourselves.
When I portray these characters, when I walk away and people come up to me and they say “You just played that so truthfully,” and I would have to say that when I hear that kind of stuff, I just think about my mom and I think about one of my first teachers that was just telling me, “Hey, you have something there, you’re not afraid to just be yourself. A lot of people, when they hear action, they feel like they have to project or try. And you just like to just do and trust.” And I’m grateful that they see that in me and that I’m able to just be, instead of pushing.
What’s really interesting about what you just said is that it suggests a conflict between being yourself versus playing the character that you’re set up to play. Is that a challenge? Or is that just all part of the process?
For me, I think it’s part of the process. I believe that all the greats — Paul Newman, De Niro — you see them play a character, and you get lost in the character they’re playing because they’re doing it well. You know you’re doing something really good when people ask you, “So how much of you is that?” You’ve got to believe that there must be some part of you because it felt so good. You know what the essence of the character is going to be. We fell in love with Denzel or De Niro for so long, that we kind of feel it.
But then, with great writing and great directing and the testament to the craftsmanship of their art, they know how to elevate it or bring it down a little bit. I feel like we all put a certain essence, a sense of self that comes with every role we play. With “The Wire,” it got to the point where when I booked Bubbles and we were shooting the first season, I was talking to Ed Burns, the co-creator. He was a real cop and Bubbles was his informant. We were just talking and he was like “You’re doing a great job,” and I’m like “Thank you, I mean this writing is incredible.” And I started asking about Bubbles, and he was like, “Yeah, well, you know.” If I had said no to Bubbles– I had some hesitation about playing the character. Back then, I thought playing a junkie was like you’re automatically asking to be typecast, one. And two, I didn’t know if I could do as good as Sam Jackson did in “Jungle Fever” or Al Pacino did in “Panic in Needle Park” or Dustin Hoffman in “Midnight Cowboy.” I didn’t want nobody to say, “Oh, he was alright, but he wasn’t as good.”
So I told my manager, “I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to audition.” And my manager, being a good manager, was like, “Hey, you didn’t get offered the part. If you get it, let me see what you say then,” and I took it as a challenge. So I went in for the audition. Cut to sitting there talking to Ed Burns, when I said, “So what was the real Bubbles like?” And he was like, “Oh, well, if you had said no, that character would have been”– I don’t know if you watched “The Wire.”
Yes, of course.
Remember Lieutenant Daniels [Lance Reddick]? He would have been Bubbles. Ed Burns said Bubbles was a big guy. Big, six something, a big dude, and I was like, “Well, damn. Why’d you give it to me?” And he was like, “Well, you brought this certain essence of what Bubbles. Bubbles was a sort of nice person. You had the essence of Bubbles.” And that was the first time I’d really heard that, I was like, “What?” So, I was like, “Wow, okay. That’s pretty cool.”
Of course, my mother was like, “What do you mean my son’s got the essence of a junkie? He went to Catholic school, what the fuck are you talking about?”
Like I said, there’s a certain sense when you marry a little part of you into the character you’re playing, and then you start molding and sculpting inside to make them connected.
So, you’ve got these two big things coming up: “Hand of God,” where you get to play a mayor, and then in “Empire,” you’re playing a lawyer. In terms of that, talking about marrying yourself to a role, what have you looked for in those roles that is representing you?
For me, this is a “show me” town, and Bubbles was a great iconic character. He was so good, but there was a certain idea that I felt was around me, like an aura that I could only be a specific type of character. I couldn’t be a man of power, so to speak; a lieutenant or a politician, somebody that had a certain essence of power. So, that kind of bothered me a little bit. I’ve always felt like if you’re a good actor, you’re a good actor. My mom was like, “When am I going to see you not inside an orange jumpsuit? Am I ever going to see you in a suit and tie? You went to an all-boys school for God’s sake.” So when I first got the script for “Hand of God,” and I saw “Mayor,” I had doubts. I was like, “Why am I even going in? He’s a powerful dude, and playing a mayor, what the heck?”
But again, I was like “You know what, I’m going to knock this out the park.” I had to go back to the feeling of that challenge that manager gave me with “The Wire,” and that kind of helped me go, “Let me go in there to show the people what I can do.” And with that, I go into my research.
Are these two roles the first two big ones you’ve had where you do actually wear a suit and tie?
Yes, and I always give credit– I was sitting at my house one time, and a friend of mine, Andrew Lauren, called me because I did a movie called “G” back in the day. He called me up and said, “Listen, I’m producing this movie, it’s called ‘The Spectacular Now’ and there’s a role for a teacher. And I mentioned your name and we haven’t casted yet, and I mentioned your name and the director James Ponsoldt loves you as Bubbles, and he said, ‘Yo! Call him down.’ He’d love for you to do the part.” And I was like “Ooh.” I didn’t even know what the movie was, really. I didn’t know, I mean I love the name “Spectacular Now” and I was like “Alright.” And I get a phone call that says, “Put on some slacks and a dress shirt and be a teacher,” and I did it.
That movie was one of the movies I’m very proud to be a part of. There’s certain projects in our career where certain projects pay the bills, and certain projects you’re proud of, and at that time that was something I was really proud of. I could take my daughter to see it and, me being a movie head, I watched tons and tons of movies and I didn’t think that genre — the high school angst and school — I didn’t think that genre could be as good as it was when I grew up. But when I read that script, I was like, “Wow, this feels different. This feels really new and really refreshing and good.” So, it was great to be a part of that. And I think somebody saw me, someone in the captain’s chair went “Hey, there’s Bubbles! Well, he looks kind of good in slacks and a dress shirt.”
And then all of a sudden, I talked to my manager, I just started getting auditions for different things than I used to get auditions for. I started getting auditions for lawyers and mayors and I was like, “Wow, it’s funny how that works.” And it might be a coincidence, but I always give thanks to “Spectacular Now.”
Awesome. At this point, is there something you’re really excited about that you hope comes next?
I just hope, like everything else, like from “Shaft” and “The Wire” and “Spectacular Now,” I hope these projects open doors to those people in the machine that say, “You know what? If he can do that…” I want to be able to get called and say “Now, we know you can do this.” I don’t want there to be a limit to what is expected of my talents. I think I can do a lot more. I’m looking for the opportunity to do a lot more. I want to carry some films.
In what appears to be this journey, a lot of people ask me about biopics, because I guess that’s a rite of passage for every actor who gets from A to Z, because I’ve got to do a biopic at some point. And so, if I had to, if I ever get the opportunity, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bob Marley are the two top ones that I would love, because I feel like they just have so many layers that haven’t been really addressed yet, and so much complexity about who they are and how their image change as the times and society change and how they were looked upon. I think they would be just great characters to put on the big screen to explore, so I would love to get those opportunities to play those kind of characters.
Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today, and congratulations on everything.
Thank you. I want to hopefully hear from you in about another six months. You tell me, who would you rather go on a date with, Robert “Bobo” Boston or Thirsty Rawlings?
I will 100 percent have an answer for you.
“Empire” Season 2, guest starring Andre Royo, premieres Wednesday, September 23. “Hand of God” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
READ MORE: ‘The Wire’ Creator David Simon On ‘Show Me A Hero’ and What Ails America