Andre Royo: The Wire's Bubbles On Baltimore, Free Drugs & Tarantino

From working the door at the infamous Cheetah club to becoming a homeless drug addict in The Wire, this is the fascinating story of Andre 'Dre' Royo.
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From working the door at the infamous Cheetah club to becoming a homeless drug addict in The Wire, this is the fascinating story of Andre 'Dre' Royo.

Andre Royo, or Dre to his friends, is best known for his portrayal of homeless drug addict and police informant ‘Bubbles’ in the astonishingly popular and groundbreaking HBO TV series The Wire. He has since had numerous supporting roles in TV shows like Criminal Minds and Fringe as well as films like Super and the soon to be released The Spectacular Now. Dre’s newest film places him in his first leading role as a complex, broken stepfather alongside British actor Daisy Haggard in the bone fide indie coming-of-age film Calloused Hands.

TFT:We understand that you grew up in The Bronx?

AR: Born and raised

TFT:How did you get into acting as a career? 

AR: My dad was a big TV watcher, he worked a lot so when he came home he just put on the idiot box, it was something me and him shared. I would sit down with him and watch John Wayne and Fred Astaire movies and it would be the only time we would communicate before he went to work. But the main moment I knew it (acting as a career) was plausible was when a friend of mine from Coney was dating a girl from Manhattan. Manhattan was the place where money was made, where dreams come true. This girl went to an acting class, I went along with her and realised that there were all these people who were actually taking steps to becoming an actor and not just thinking about it. So I decided to stick around in Manhattan, make a lifestyle for myself there and I started going to acting classes.

TFT: What sort of work did you get while you were starting?

AR: Once I was in Manhattan I was in a real Little Rascals / Charlie Brown kinda theatre company with 5 or 6 other people. We put up one-acts and original plays, we had this lifestyle of “The Artist.” Not just the working actor but “The Artist”.

But the biggest jump was Shaft. John Singleton (director) was in New York and he was dating a girl I knew. I met him while I was working the door at the Cheeta Club, he liked my vibe and asked me to come in and audition. I didn’t get the part because the producer didn’t like my look- I had this crazy wild hair, and Hollywood has this perception of what a race should look like and I didn’t look like the “normal” Dominican character they wanted me to portray. But for some reason the other actor didn’t work out and I got a call offering me the part. That was monumental for me, I was the first one in my crew who was part of a major blockbuster movie and it connected me with my parents. They grew up on the original Shaft so it had that old school/ new school connection. After that people saw me as one of those actors who was going to the next level.

TFT: You said you were working the door at the Cheeta Club- you were a bouncer?

AR: The Cheeta Club was a hot spot you know, Biggie Smalls and other rappers would reference it. But I wasn’t a bouncer, I was the clipboard holding loudmouth asshole saying “you can get in, you can't, you gotta go home and change”. I got into a couple of fights because of it but I also became that guy people know in the city. People would see me at some place, at the club, but then see me on TV doing bit parts, so I became a kinda staple in Manhattan nightlife.

TFT: While you were up and coming did you have any other jobs?

AR: I worked tables, I worked in clothes stores, I worked at the hard rock cafe, I did a bit of everything. Agnes B was this upmarket boutique I worked at where I met the girl who would become my wife. It was crazy though, people were buying dresses for $120 there. It was in Soho, That’s where the rich people lived, that’s where you wanted to be. It’s great over there! It didn’t matter what race or colour or age you were, all that mattered was money, you don’t have it, you go back home.

TFT: How did people treat you, seeing you on TV then have you wait their tables?

AR: In New York and the east coast, when people see you as “The Artist” you are looked at like one of those guys who are going for their dreams, I never got embarrassed, people looked up to us. It never weighed heavy on me as far as my pride went. I hit the nightclub, they labelled me as an Artist, they respect what I wanted to be so they respected whatever I did to get to that point.

TFT: Did you have any idea how popular The Wire would be or how much affection the fans would have for ‘Bubs’?

AR: Not at all! At that point Shaft was big, it put me at different level of how I was being looked at, my manager called me saying HBO is having an audition for a new show called The Wire. HBO had Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Oz and all that stuff. But when they said they wanted me to come in for a junkie called Bubbles, I said no. We had already seen Pookie in New Jack City and Gator in Jungle fever. In my mind, there were two problems: 1) I didn’t want to play stereotypical character, it could be the kiss of death for my up and coming career and 2) I didn’t think I could do better than what I’d already seen and as an artist, if you don’t think you can do better than what has already been done then why bother?

TFT: So you nearly turned down the role? 

AR: Yeah, but luckily I had a strong manager, he said they’re not offering you the part, they’re offering you an audition. Come in and do it. I met them, and realised that it felt like something different, they weren’t trying to be general cop show and they were making sure that no one came across as a gimmick.

TFT:  How did the first episode go down with the audiences?

AR: By that point the audience had been mindfucked on what cop shows should look like and ours didn’t look like anything else. There was a lot of talking in our show, nothing really happens in the first episode. When we saw the pilot some of the cast fell asleep, some of us were like- yo, this is boring. We thought people would hate us. We were shocked when HBO picked up the first ten episodes. It was only by the 3rd or 4th episode that we realised it was something different. I thought, even if it didn’t work, the challenge was being inspired to change the game.

TFT: And the critics?

AR: When we started airing the Daily News and The Post gave us half a star, they said we were too slow, we were bad and that nobody could understand what we were saying or who any of the characters were.

TFT: So what happened to turn The Wire into a hit?

AR: I remember going to David Simon and saying ‘they hate us, what will we do? We need more sex and killing!’ He was very confident and said that he wasn’t going to dumb down to the audience. He said people like to be educated while they are entertained and they will appreciate it later on down the road.

It’s so funny, we were nowhere near the numbers of Sopranos, Sex And The City, Six feet under etc, we were never nominated for awards, not in five years.

But when we did walk around people who liked the show didn’t just like the show, they said we changed their way of thinking or we reached out to their hearts and did something more. We couldn’t tell if people loved us or hated us, not until HBO on demand came out.

TFT: Because people could watch it how they wanted to?

AR:  Yeah, people got into watching the show back to back to back. The Wire was the number one show on demand, people watched all ten episodes in three days, it was crazy, then all of a sudden Barack Obama said it was his favourite show! If you watched The Wire you felt like a different person, you felt like part of a privileged group who get it. We didn’t see it coming, it was a cult phenomenon.

TFT: That’s how it was received in the UK too, people we knew would turn up to work exhausted, when you asked them why they would say they started watching The Wire last night and didn’t stop until 7am.

AR: Yeah, Dom West was saying that the people in London loved us.

TFT: What was it like to work with such an enormous cast and crew, so closely for so many years?

AR: You gotta understand, Baltimore is the last stop. Nothing was happening there, the only reason people went there was to sell drugs. HBO weren’t gonna come out and check up on us, they were like “just do whatever you gotta do.” So we were free in a way. All of us were at different levels of our game, Dom (West) and Idris (Elba) had to work hard at losing their accent but we all felt equal. The Wire was not about us, it was about the city of Baltimore.

TFT: So there was a real sense of community then?

AR: We’re telling a story of a community, we knew we had to get this right, we were really hard on each other. If you didn’t know your line you got called the fuck out! We knew that this was professional, that this story mattered. We shared emotions, it was a big cast and real life did get in. The cast became like family because the complex characters we were portraying were going through emotional times, it made us closer. We bonded really quickly.

TFT: You were filming on location a lot- did you see much drug crime or gangsterism going on?

AR: Oh Yeah, everything we did was on location, we went into neighbourhoods with all these trailers and forty people, they (the drug dealers) didn’t take it kindly when they couldn’t make money. We heard bullets flying and we got shot at a couple of times. Certain extras were still in the game, so when we had to be on a location for a while they had to go and make deals so we could shoot and then get out of there. Again, if we were coming in and locking down a neighbourhood for 18 hours then somebody would be losing a lot of money and they wouldn’t be happy about it. At night, we saw drug deals going down and heroin addicts, we saw everything.

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TFT: It was like that for all five seasons?

AR: No, I mean, from the first season onwards we tried to go in documentary style, be respectful. But after the first season aired people loved us, they would see their neighbourhood on TV and if they didn’t like the way it looked they would clean it up. But then the Mayor hated us because he thought we made Baltimore look bad. He told them (the cops) to come down on us for anything, jay walking, resisting arrest, loitering. People got arrested, production was postponed sometimes coz people were locked up; people went missing for a couple of days at a time. But it was a crazy time, it was amazing, the most exhilarating moment of my life.

TFT: We read about your “Street Oscar”, can you tell us a bit more about that? 

AR: It was one of those things that I will never forget. Wardrobe and make up do their job but at certain times you’ll be scared- will I get this (role) right? I had to go outside and be myself, to work on getting into the essence of this character (Bubs). I remember walking around in my zone, in character and some dude came up to me saying “they giving out free shit and you look like you need a hit.” He gave me a handshake and I didn’t know what had happened. I went back in my trailer and I opened my hand and I was holding a hit, little “1 and 1”, I was like “Oh shit! Did I just get free drugs? What the fuck?”

TFT: 1 and 1?

AR: Heroin and coke, Heroin to take you down and then a little coke to bring you up?

TFT: What did you do with the hit?

AR: I kid you not, I sat there looking at it thinking this could be a god-damn method acting Emmy award winning opportunity if I take these drugs for real. I was thinking I could get an Oscar for this performance! But then common sense kicked in and I realised if I took the drugs I’d be good for one take but the rest of the takes I’d be shit. So I just put it on the counter and realised I was ready to take on this character.

TFT: So people really believed you were a homeless drug addict?

AR: It happened all the time, I remember going to craft services and taking some candy and security chased me down the block and tried to kick my ass yelling “get outta here motherfucker!”

TFT:  What was it like on set?

AR: David Simon (writer) and Ed Burns (producer) were really cool at keeping that energy around. Whatever you were, Cop, Politician, Gangster, Reporter, whatever scene you were doing they had the real people there. If you played a gangster, there was a real gangster there. If you played a junkie, there was a real junkie there. So we always felt that we had a responsibility to represent it properly, if we faked it, we were called out and that was embarrassing- you didn’t want a bunch of motherfuckers laughing at you for the rest of the week in Baltimore coz you tried to fake it. It was the most professional work I’ve seen, I’m sure I’ll see bigger and better down the line, but I’m sure if you asked anyone (involved) what was their best performance they would say it was The Wire. It felt authentic.

TFT: You are clearly and extraordinarily talented actor, but after The Wire most of your roles have been supporting parts, Super, Fringe, Criminal Minds etc. Has that been a choice on your part or has it been hard breaking away from Bubs’ character?

AR: It’s a bit of both. Do I get frustrated? Yeah, sometimes. TV is a well oiled machine and if you play a certain character well people expect you to stay there. It’s up to the actor to say I don’t want to play that any more. Most recurring characters on TV are people of power. Can I play those parts? A lawyer, a cop, a doctor, yeah I can, but will they (casting directors, writers) see me as that? No. I’m not the first person that would pop into their head. I have to find a way to do that. Writers want their characters to have a sense of freedom, They don’t want a new character to be fighting against the audiences preconception of them as someone else’s iconic character. Also, I’m half Black and half Cuban and Hollywood has its own ideas of what a race should look like. People will say to me I'm not black enough for the black roles and I'm not Spanish enough for the Spanish roles either. Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck.

TFT: So what’s next for you? 

AR: I want to do all genres. As far as the leading man stuff goes, that’s my next challenge. We have a lot of great actors now Denzel (Washington), Jeffry (Wright) and so on, a lot of actors and not that many roles. I was feeling down once and I said something to Sam Jackson, he was like “you kidding me, you can’t complain home-boy, you ain’t been in the game so long to complain, three years from theatre to screen and you got an iconic character on your resume!” I like the opportunity to play different characters. Am I getting as many opportunities as I want? No, but I can’t complain either. There will be that writer, director who wants to take a chance. Like The Spectacular Now, my name just popped up. It’s the writer of (500) Days Of Summer, he and the director are Wire fans, they needed a teacher, someone who cares. They thought who does caring well? Bubs!

TFT: Calloused Hands is your first leading role, you play a ‘Byrd’ a broken and abusive step father to a 12 year old boy (Josh). But this isn’t a blockbuster, it’s an independent piece, funded by the director and his mother. What drew you to this role?

AR: I got word on Twitter that a guy was looking for me for a movie. He sent me the script and said “I want you to play one of the lead parts, it’s about my step-dad.” A lead role sounded good to me and I love independent movies. I read the script, it was kinda painful and harsh, and when I realised this guy (Jesse Quinones) was telling his own story I felt a sense of responsibility like when I was doing The Wire. I was like- Wow, you got some balls man! We sat down in LA at my wife’s restaurant (Canele) and the way he talked about it and the fact that he wanted to reach out and help other people who had also gone through this- well, I was spoiled with The Wire, so if I have the opportunity to educate, entertain and inspire in the same vehicle, it’s worth taking seriously.

TFT:  As a father did you find any of the harsher scenes difficult to deal with? 

AR: My daughter was 12 at the time, being a parent is hard work. In the script Byrd was trying to motivate his child to be a successful baseball player but he was also being abusive. American parenting is challenged as being kind of soft. People look at Tiger Wood’s dad, the Williams sister’s dad, Michael Jackson’s dad- how do you know when you’ve gone too far? I wanted to explore that.

TFT Like when Byrd is shouting at Josh on the baseball field in front of his friends? 

AR: Yeah, I've been that asshole at the side of the field yelling coz you hate to see your kid deal with the agony of defeat. Sometimes you gotta step outside of yourself to realise where you crossed the line. The scene where Byrd tells Josh to do 10 laps or he’ll kick his ass- I’d done that to my daughter. After that scene I got straight on the phone and apologised to her and my wife.

TFT: Byrd is morally complex, abusive at times, using drugs and is physically intimidating towards Josh’s mum. Most actors shy away from negative characters, would you say it was brave to take on a part like this for your first lead in a feature? 

AR: I find the risk is in taking a lead role in a one dimensional character, like a romcom where I’m just waiting for the joke to drop. That to me would be more of a risk. I wanted to make sure that Byrd and Bubs had no similarities whatsoever. Me and the director got into arguments all the time. Byrd isn’t that way coz he’s a drug addict. Unlike Bubs, addiction was Byrd’s escape from the pain of failure rather than a precursor to his problems. I saw Byrd as broken but I didn’t see this as negative, I had empathy for him. I’ve seen in my life a lot of people who just gave up, who realised their dream wasn’t going to come true. Either you off yourself or you try to move on. Byrd, was trying to find another way, he saw Josh as having sporting potential and it gave Byrd a sense of purpose. He took it too far, he allowed some of his own demons to come into play and it took him to a dark place. I like those characters.

TFT: What did you learn from working on Calloused hands?

AR: It was a challenge; we shot it for $200,000 in Miami in 18 days. You gotta have Balls to want to tell a story like that. It only made me stronger as actor and a producer; I worked on the other side of the camera too. It was an education, a therapeutic thing for both of us (Jesse Quinones).

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TFT: You’ve worked with a lot of British actors now, Dominic West And Idris Elba on The Wire and Daisy Haggard on Calloused hands. What would you say is the difference between the British and American approaches to acting?

AR: For American actors, we look at you guys as on a higher level, your dramas come across as a lot more intelligent than ours, they are not afraid to offend or just be some politically correct bullshit. We got our hands tied up so much over here being politically correct that it also ties our hands with the story telling. What I like about British actors is they don’t have that worry about offending somebody. There's a certain respect for the audience. Their (British) attitude is “You’re the audience, I’m the artist. I’m gonna tell the story and it’s up to you how to take it. My job is to do it justice and when the curtain falls my job is done.” But American actors worry so much about pleasing others. Every magazine or blog might have something to say, they don’t want to offend the black, the white, the asian audience. We’re so worried about the branding, the money, the press that it interferes with our freedom of creativity. The British are raised differently, they’re raised on the stage, on storytelling, they’re all about the word and the story, not the audience.

TFT: Do you plan on catching up with Domenic (West) and Idris (Elba) when you are in the UK next week for Calloused Hands’ premiere?

AR: It’s a family affair all the time. Me and Dom are really close, me and Idris didn’t have a single scene together on The Wire so we are cool but not as close. Again, it was a big cast, there were certain people on that show I never met. I’ll definitely hook up with Dom. We’re like brothers, I went to his wedding. I’ll try to see everybody, hit the club and see if I can be embraced by London and the community.

TFT: what would you say is your ultimate goal in acting?

AR: I just want to be able to not feel restricted in my career, Denzel has done it, Ben Kingsley has done it, Will Smith had the power to not feel restricted to only play a certain role. Tom hanks can play anything; you can’t stop him from playing a role. I want to be able to play whatever role or genre I want to play. Whatever director or writer wants to put the foundation down for me to achieve that, I’m all for it!

TFT: Is there anyone out there you would really love to work with?

AR: Tarantino definitely, I love that bravado, but there are so many and no one should be left out or unmentioned. From old school to new school, those who love the craft and movies the way I do, those who painstakingly get lost in a role and those who get excited by the challenge of a part, they're the ones I want to work with. There are no specific names. I want to find out who would like to work with me!

TFT: Would you have any advice for young actors out there, trying to make it big?

AR: You got to be confident and you have to have a good support from people around you. There’s no blue print as to how to achieve your dreams, but you have to make sure that the people around you are positive. You need a crew of friends who really believe in you. I had a Mom and Dad, I didn’t realise how rare they were, and they were very supportive. You know, I’m an only child but when I told them I wanted to act they said ‘go for it!’

Calloused Hands in released in the UK on the 6th of September.

As ever if you would like daily tips of free films on TV you can follow @TopFilmTip on Twitter.

London peeps, TopFilmTip will be showing THE BIG LEBOWSKI for free at The Boogaloo in Highgate on Monday the 30th September. If you like White Russians, drinking games and prizes be sure to abide.