Andre Royo is finally bursting through his Bubbles.
Royo's sensitive, drug-addicted character from "The Wire" is so iconic and embedded to memories of the show, the typecast that endeared him to viewers followed him into casting calls. The 48-year-old actor's first leading role, the indie film "Hunter Gatherer," is a validation of sorts for his persistence and talent. (His "Best Performance" win at SXSW last year didn't hurt.)
Royo plays Ashley Douglas, a perpetually upbeat man hoping to make the most of his life -- or whatever's left of it -- after finishing a stint in prison. Ashley, expecting a triumphant return to his old community, finds out that the people he hoped would celebrate his arrival -- most notably, his ex-girlfriend, Linda (Ashley Wilkerson) -- wished he never came back home. Ashley's quest to restore his reputation leads him to a junkyard side hustle with Jeremy (George Sample), a younger man equally starved for dignity and validation.
Royo spoke to NBCBLK contributor Bradford Williams Davis about taking chances on quirky movies, telling "black" stories with his white director (Joshua Locy), and how to help men like Ashley adjust to life after jail.
Bradford William Davis: When I first screened the movie, no lie, it was weird! I wasn't sure if I was feeling it. But watching you and Josh discuss "Hunter Gatherer" at last night's Q&A really helped me respect what you're doing. Hearing two creators speak about their art gave me a fresh set of eyes.
Andre Royo: Thank you. Even my manager and agent were like, when they read the script, they were like "No, you can't do this movie. It's not gonna make money. I don't get it." And I was like, look, I don't know if I "get" it, I just feel like I have to do it. And as an artist, isn't that what it's all about?
If I'm doing "Empire" and I'm doing this movie, then you know it ain't about money. Sometimes you just want to do it because it makes you feel. For Josh and me the biggest reward is making the movie. Now if people get it or not, that's beyond your control. When the first season of "The Wire" came out the Daily News gave us half a star.
They said we were the HBO flop, said we were "under the wire." So things change, perceptions change, re-watching stuff changes because you change your point of view, your expectations are reworked, and you say, "You know what? Let me just watch it without trying to immediately understand it and see if it makes me feel something." So I appreciate you even giving it a second go.
You mentioned the word "feel" a lot and I think that's really helpful. Often, when I go to movies with an all or mostly-black cast, I expect there to be some sort of lesson about the black experience. So what made you choose a "feel" movie rather than a "teach" movie?
I don't know! When I came across "Hunter Gatherer," I felt like there was some part of me at that point in time that did not want to be taught. Now, I think I was still taught through the movie. But, it taught my soul. You know what I mean? I know how to feed my brain. I know how to gather stuff for information, for education. However, I'm a father and my daughter's 18, and so, there's a process where you have to learn how to teach somebody by just listening, by letting them express themselves and not being like, "Look, I know what you're going through. Here's how to fix it."
Sometimes you don't allow the person to just show you what they're going through and you learn from that. You learn how to be a better listener. You learn how to be a better observer. So I think I was educated by the film, "teaching" by asking the audience to listen. It's a journey I wanted to take and wanted viewers to take as well.
"Hunter Gatherer" is a lot different than some of your most famous work. Plenty of people know you from the "The Wire," and might have expected a gritty, subdued drama. "Empire" isn't quite like "The Wire," but you're part of the most gaudy, drama-filled hour on TV. This movie isn't all that close to either in tone or structure. What would you recommend to fans who come to see Bubbles or Thirsty?
Expect something unique. It's hard for me to say it without laughing because I don't see myself as having fans yet. People that know me from "Empire," or "The Wire," or "Kingdom," wherever I show up, people say something like, "I just felt like I was rooting for your character. I liked your character. There's a certain realness that you bring to your characters."
So I have to challenge myself and say, "Can I do a movie that's quieter? Can I do a movie that's off the beaten path as far as tone and still connect to people who like seeing me?" Do they see that I can do Thirsty and Bubbles and now Ashley? Do you see them as being totally different individuals? Then that means that I'm growing as an artist because I want to bring something different to every character, but my base will always be - he's a real character. He's a character you that feel is honest and human. And whether you like him or not, you want to root for this character to succeed in whatever he's trying to do.
So, I think people will come in and be entertained by it, by me, and by the film choices I make. I'm trying to really have a broad spectrum where you can't put me in a box because I lived in that box after Bubbles. Bubbles was the only role people could see me doing. And as much as it's a compliment, it's also kind of depressing because I don't think anybody becomes an artist to do one thing for the rest of their life. So I want people to recognize that I do have range!
On that note, how did you start trying to break out of your box?
The only thing I could do -- keep going at it. Every script I read that I liked or movie I heard was coming out my team would try to get me in the room. For the most part, for a long time, people were unsure of me, saying "No. We don't see him that way." And you have two choices. You can get frustrated or you can say, "Alright. That time, it's going to happen." And when it does happen, I better be ready. I better be sure that I can prove everybody wrong, that they weren't right. That I can do more.
My medium right now is film and television. I got into indie cinema because I did an indie film called "The Spectacular Now." I had a small part as a teacher, but I got it because there was this one producer that was like, "Yo, we're having trouble casting this teacher character, how about Andre Royo?" And the director, James Ponsoldt, a cool dude, was like, "Oh, Bubbles? I loved Bubbles from 'The Wire.' I don't know. Yeah, why not?" That's what happened. The "Why not?" that I tried to achieve. "He is a good actor, so why not?" Here's why it's a challenge to get past that "why not".
For me, I didn't want viewers to box me in when they saw me act in "Spectacular" like "Yo, that's Bubs. There goes Bubs." In their mind, they were like "Will he do a small part like this?" Usually that means someone won't even ask me. But actors, we want to be given a chance to say no. Don't say no for us. That was the first time, I feel, that people saw me on the big screen with a pair of slacks, a dress shirt and a regular, you know, an education.
"Spectacular" gave me a different look and that opened doors for me. All of sudden I started getting different auditions. Hollywood has always been a "show me" business. They won't believe you until you show them. So I showed them!
Tell me about working with Josh Locy.
Josh Locy. 6'9. Blonde. Tall, white boy. Telling a story about the inner city. [laughs] He's a very humble dude, very cool. And there is a certain vulnerability or compassion about his words and how he sees the world that, again, made me connect to him and really respect the art form, the craft, the artistry of bringing people together who would never, in my mind, ever connect or hang out.
The key for me is trust. As we talked about the project, I asked him tough questions like "Can you create a character distinct from Bubbles? Can you tell a story with someone like me that people will understand?" We had to trust each other enough to check each other. We could tell each other, "Yo, you're going too far." I need to be able to say, "Yo, tell me why you wrote that line this way."' We had to really be on the same page and he was really cool with that.
Josh was comfortable attaching myself to his first project -- his baby. Every once in a while, you get a director not a dictator. Someone that lets you tell them that this movie won't be as good unless you allow me to provide feedback. He was very open to criticism because he wanted to make the art good. Whether we're working together or not, we'll always have a friendship because of our love for the art.
It's really cool that you built such a kinship with Josh. Especially since, as you know, he's a white dude telling what some might call a "black story."
But what does that mean "black stories?" Cause I don't know! Is it a black story being told? Is coming out of jail like Ashley and trying to figure out your world a "black story?" Or is it a "black story" because black people are in it? I had to confront my own assumptions about Josh when I read the script -- ask myself what was I putting on Josh without even knowing him? Why I would look at Josh and say, "You can't tell this story."
Together, we tried to get to a place where there are no black actors, just actors. We're trying to get to that world where there's no gender - there's no real difference what's going on as far as how we live.
As opportunity goes, of course there's a difference for black actors. We know there's a difference in perception. There's a lot of aggression and anger right now. I mean, not just right now - forever, it's part of American history. At the end of the day, from all the great leaders that we've had, we don't know why we're still different. Why do you need for us to be different? Because you're forcing these divisions, and it ain't benefitting me. You're doing it for you.
But with Josh, there was a certain truth to him telling a story and in his mind, it didn't really have to be black, he just felt like he wanted black actors in it. That's what I feel. I never felt like he was trying to make a point about himself. He never was like, "Look at this. Look what I did with black people."
He was just telling a story that connected to him. He had a buddy of his that I guess was the crux of where he first starting getting the initial idea of the story and it was a black guy and you know I think he just followed suit with that and told his story.
Did you know any Ashleys in your life?
I know a lot of Ashleys in my life. Shoot, I've been Ashley a couple of times in my life! I'd be lying if I said there's not a little part of me in everything I do. And I know a lot of people in my life who are over the top, all because they're obsessed with being liked.
Think about the connection Ashley gradually built with Jeremy. Jeremy told him, "You ain't gotta try so hard to be friends. We're already friends." I think Ashley never experienced that kind of trust in his upbringing, he didn't know how to receive that. Then, he's spent time in jail where he learned a difference sense of to live and how to be. That disconnect when he got back - he didn't know. Life lessons he missed out on and he was bullying his way through to try to figure it out.
This is when you have a good support group and someone. Someone has to be able to check you, ask you "Why are you acting like that?" And again, it has to be somebody that you trust. Somebody to tell the truth because they don't want you to hurt yourself.
For example, look at Kanye. I think he wants to be liked so, so bad. And he is! Everybody loves him until he demands to be liked so, so bad that he says something ridiculous. There are moments where I want that attention -- that connection. I could be smooth and patient about it. Or, I could be like 'Yo. What the f---, look at me!" I have moments where I'm desperate and I end up pushing people away. So yeah, I know a lot of Ashleys in my life.
What do you think was the biggest or best surprise working on this kind of movie?
The biggest and best surprise was my manager and agent coming up to me after SXSW, and after they saw the movie, them telling me, "Wow, you were right. This is a good script." Again, you just want to have that power. You want to make sure you can trust yourself and say 'I don't know why. Yeah, I got paid five dollars. Yeah, it was eighteen days that were painful, but I knew it was a good script or I knew it could be something special.' And for them to come to me, the money, the people that try to steer you, not in a bad way, but steer you into all of a sudden making decisions for you. They said I was right and I loved that.
How would you recommend creatives who want to take chances and risks go about it in a way that allows them to continue hitting their goals and building their career?
I can't. Like, I don't know. You gotta jump. Right? I don't know. Without all the cliches, you've heard it a billion times - anything is possible. Don't worry about failing, I guess. Don't worry about failing because you failed already. If you're worrying about it. You just gotta go and you gotta do it for you.