By Cotton Delo
Wearing a white turtleneck sweater and black rectangle-rimmed glasses, Andre Royo works his way through a grilled chicken sandwich platter at Jane on Houston Street. He says he wants to wear a suit and tie in his next gig as an actor. But even in nice clothes, without enamel to black out his teeth and cosmetic scabs and blemishes to lend his now-clean-shaven face the raw, hungry look of a junkie, he’s instantly recognizable to fans of “The Wire.”
Maybe it’s something distinctive about the 39-year-old actor’s lean, angular features or the way he speaks – so fast that he occasionally mumbles – or his short, purposeful strides punctuated by a certain rhythmic swagger around his shoulders. Or maybe it’s because the relatively small but intensely faithful audience of “The Wire” would recognize him anywhere. Even without his meticulously applied makeup, Royo can’t seem to shake Bubbles – a heroin addict and police informant with a knack for survival on the ravaged streets of West Baltimore – whom he’s played for five seasons.
“I’m walking around and people are yelling out ‘Bubbles!’ – it makes me feel like I didn’t take a shower,” said Royo, a native New Yorker who professes not to be able to stand the winters here anymore, even though it’s another unseasonably warm December day. Not one for false modesty, he later admits that he eats up the acknowledgements he gets in New York, where “Wire” fans seem more abundant than in Los Angeles – his home on and off for three years.
Premiering its fifth and final season last Sunday, “The Wire” is a critics’ darling that’s been likened to Dickens and Shakespeare for its complex web of plots and moral vision, homing in on lethargic bureaucracy, corrupt officials and underfunded schools that conspire to keep Baltimore neighborhoods steeped in the drug trade and mired in poverty. But Royo, a son of the Bronx, says the show could have been set just about anywhere, including New York, if it were helmed by a native with a feel for the city like Spike Lee, who might have set it in Brooklyn.
Initially conceived as a recurring role with no guaranteed lifespan, Bubbles is one of the show’s few characters to straddle the worlds of the street and the police. Demonstrating no shortage of resourcefulness and charm in his cons on behalf of the cops and his addiction, his wasted talent is just another example of the human toll of drug trafficking. Bubbles starts off the fifth season squeaky clean, though Royo won’t say whether he’ll stay that way. He’ll only hint that Bubbles’ new test is to find a purpose in life if he can’t expend his energies on getting high.
Royo says he’s trying to “shake off” Bubbles now that the run is over to avoid being typecast as an addict, but he can’t seem to stop slipping into the first person when speaking of his alter ego, who was a real-life informant of Ed Burns, a former Baltimore detective and one of the show’s creators. He also seems to take it deeply to heart when Bubbles is called a snitch.
“I’m not turning on anybody; I’m trying to get my drugs,” said Royo, taking intermittent sips of his Jack and Coke. He never met the real Bubbles, who died before the show started filming in 2001. Many of his real-life capers were adapted for the show – like identifying police targets by putting fedoras on their heads and hoisting a bag of heroin vials onto a rooftop with a fishhook.
Royo says the real Bubbles was 6-foot-3-inches, heavyset and looked nothing like him, but he was told he captured the character’s essence. “He's unusual, he has his own specific take on everything he does, and when it melded with Bubbles, it was kind of a perfect alchemy,” said casting director Alexa Fogel.
But how the real Bubbles came by his moniker was an enigma, so Royo invented his own explanation. In the first episode ever, Bubbles gets high in a vacant house; Royo decided to make spit bubbles as he nodded off in character and then imagined his character had gotten stuck with the nickname as a result of the habit.
Royo wasn’t at pains to imagine much else about Bubbles, since the show was filmed on the West Baltimore corners where he once lived. In the first season, local drug dealers – irked by the presence of film crews and police that obliged them to stop selling – fired shots into the air to vent their displeasure, but they were placated when the show finally aired; some even requested featured parts. (They were disenchanted with acting upon learning they’d be paid just $50 for a day on set.) For his part, Royo had scores of local addicts giving him pointers – memorably, a man told him that junkies always save their butts after a scene in which he had erroneously stubbed out a cigarette.
In Season 4, which zeroed in on the failure of public education in the inner city, Bubbles’ story takes a darker turn when his fate intersects with a homeless boy he takes under his wing. Like a father asked to choose between children, Royo is hesitant to play favorites, but that season stood out for illustrating how teenagers get caught up in the drug trade.
“I grew up in a two-family house in the projects, in the Bronx, and even I often wondered as I got older, what would make a person choose that lifestyle?” said Royo, who understands why some of his friends’ parents can’t watch the show, since it reminds them too closely of what they’ve lived through. “Besides the money and the accolades that are shown in music videos – it’s a hard job. And I hung out with my boys, I grew up with cats, and they was on the corner all day, all night. That didn’t seem fun to me.”
Royo chose a different path and was a unionized construction worker at age 23, pulling in $27,000 plus benefits doing cement labor, when his epiphany came. He had taken some acting classes in the West Village, and an older worker reminded him that he’d soon wake up 40 if he didn’t work full-time on being an actor. Soon afterward, his father woke him up for work, and he announced he was quitting. He ultimately opened a theater group, Room 203, on the Lower East Side, where he lived for years in a cramped apartment with the shower next to the stove. He still owns an apartment in Brooklyn and came to the city last fall after “The Wire” wrapped to do a play with the Public Theater.
In shaking off Bubbles, Royo is venturing into a field stacked with black actors still vying for too few meaty, multi-dimensional roles – and while he’s done “Law & Order,” a “staple for New York actors,” he’s wary of spending his career doing spin-offs of the show. And though “The Wire” has a passionate fan base encompassing both the hip-hop community and left-leaning intellectuals, Royo thinks it might not have gotten the exposure to be an ideal launching pad for Hollywood. It’s captured just one-fifth the audience share of its HBO sibling “The Sopranos” and has been snubbed by major awards, racking up just one Emmy nomination to date — for best writing.
“I respect the fact that the people love us, so that’s like an anesthetic to the pain,” quipped Royo in stoical tones, though the way he harps on not getting “invited to the dance” betrays that he’s not yet inured to disappointment. There are conspiracy theories to explain why the show is perennially ignored, including – but not limited to – its killjoy take on the hopelessness of inner cities, the fact that it’s shot outside New York and L.A., and its heavily African-American cast.
But for the present moment, Royo is happy to soak up accolades in his bittersweet extended goodbye to Bubbles – even seizing upon the idea for “Property of Bubbles” T-shirts with shopping cart icons, which are selling “like crazy” on his MySpace page. He’s even trying to put a positive spin on the writers’ strike, since fewer auditions mean he can spend time with his 9-year-old daughter.
Though some fans of “The Wire” are bound to be despondent when Season 5 – which has an institutional focus on the media – finishes airing, he’s ready to let go. Time will tell whether Bubbles manages to stay clean, but Royo’s pipe dream of him emerging as a leading man type to “make love on some cardboard” is an apparently hopeless prospect.
“I would be glad for it to go on forever,” he said with straight-faced earnestness that would have served his character well, “but Bubbles would have to be clean and be a sex symbol in Season 6.”
Andre Royo has two upcoming movies: “The Mercy Man,” the tale of a search for a New York serial killer, and “August,” the story of two brothers trying to keep a startup company afloat in August 2001, starring Josh Hartnett.