The Cinefamily, an indie cinematheque, recently held the Los Angeles premiere of director Josh Locy’s Hunter Gatherer. Joining in a post-screening Q&A was the film’s star Andre Royo, a veteran character actor most recognizable for his TV roles—as Bubbles on HBO’s The Wire and as Thirsty on FOX’s Empire.
While the film played for the packed house, Royo suggested a walk to a nearby tavern for our interview, a clear indication that he’s not from L.A. “I am used to walking, as a New York guy,” Royo said, strolling down Fairfax Avenue in a finely tailored navy suit and tie, with a pressed white shirt and pocket square to match. He looked quite sharp, but overdressed for the hipster neighborhood.
“I feel like New York really helped me in my acting by [giving me] a lot of people-watching. Walking. The subway,” he remembered. “I found myself when I was younger just staring at people and trying to imagine, ‘Are they happy?’ ‘What do they do?’ and it really kind of informed me on really going after my dream.”
“When I got to L.A. I started to go out on some of the auditions…and they sucked,” the affable actor said with a laugh. “I found out, I missed the people watching. Then I started hanging out in coffee shops. In L.A., it’s coffee shops and brunches, and in New York it’s bars, subway trains and in the streets. You see so many cultures and ages walking in one minute.”
At the tavern, while nursing a rum and Coke in a corner table by the window, Royo dove into his acting origin story. He didn’t start performing until he was in his mid-20s, instead working a number of odd jobs. He said he was clueless about the process of becoming an actor. Growing up in the Bronx, Royo heard stories of people just being “discovered.”
“So I always used to hang out downtown in the club and walk around like [puffing out his chest] ‘Hey…notice me…somebody do me a favor and just notice me.’ So when I found out that wasn’t happening and I needed to eat, me and my dad were doing construction,” he said.
That construction gig indirectly led to Royo’s first brush with acting. While working on a site in the Lower East Side, a friend came by on her way to acting class. On a whim, he went with her.
“I was surrounded by actors. It was $30. I always assumed you had to go to college, but acting class was 30 bucks.” He said that the instructors would waive the fees for their assistants. “If the teacher liked you, you’d be a teacher’s helper, and it was free. So the teacher liked me—I made that happen,” he added with just a hint of cockiness, “and all of a sudden, my journey starts.”
Shortly after that first workshop, Royo quit the construction job on the advice of one of the older workers, who told the budding thespian, “You’ll wake up at 40 one day, and it’ll be over.” Royo didn’t know the guy very well, so he thought, “Is this guy trying to get his nephew a job or is he being sincere?” Regardless of the intention, Royo quit construction the next day.
Hunter Gatherer could be Royo’s “big break” into leading roles. The film has earned good reviews and great notices for Royo’s performance. It recently picked up a 2017 Independent Spirit Cassavetes Award nomination (for best feature made for a budget of $500,000 or less), and at its debut at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, Royo won the Jury Award for Best Actor.
In the film, he plays Ashley, an ex-con with an impossibly quixotic attitude. He’s broke, lives in his mom’s house and tries to win back an ex-girlfriend who wants nothing to do with him. When Ashley sees a business opportunity in a venture to haul broken refrigerators, he recruits young Jeremy (George Sample III), who’ll do almost anything to help a sick grandfather. With a mix of the bittersweet, the comical and the surreal, Hunter Gatherer follows both men as they set out to change their destinies—to mixed results.
“I believe certain projects find you,” Royo said. He had read the first 10 pages of the script—about a former jailbird returning home—and thought he knew exactly where the plot was headed. “I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t know what was going on.
“I know what every script [is] going to be like, I know how they’re going to put me in some sort of box of what I’m going to play or not play,” he said. “You know that’s a challenge as a black actor. We don’t see ourselves in movies without the cursing…without the drugs.” But there was something different about Locy’s script and its lead character. “There’s a certain part of me that resonated with Ashley [in] that awkward obsession of trying to connect with somebody to validate your own self worth.”
When Royo first met Locy in person, he had a hard time associating the script with the guy who took a seat across from him at a Silver Lake coffee shop. They had only corresponded via email before the meeting. “[Josh is] about 6-foot, 9-inches tall, blonde-haired from Virginia. I thought he was going to say, ‘I love Bubbles.’ I couldn’t fathom that this was the guy who wrote that script” he said, incredulously.
“I wanted to do it even more. That is what art is about. Bringing people together that would no way in hell even know each other.”
Royo has been in the business now for two decades, and said that he didn’t have reservations on working on Hunter Gatherer with a first-time feature director and with a young co-star. (Sample had only one credit in Michael Larnell’s Cronies (2015) before jumping into the breakthrough role of Jeremy, a naive and earnest kid who helps new friend Ashley tilt at windmills.)
“My first big shot was The Wire. Everyone there was on different levels, but brand new. Brand new idea. Brand new project,” he said. “Before that, I did Shaft. That was my first movie. And I was in between Jeffrey Wright and Sam Jackson, and I got beat up.”
He knows what it’s like to be the newbie. The actors taught Royo the basics of movie set etiquette: Know your lines. Know the call sheet hierarchy. “You better be prepared. You better be ready, or you’ll just get cut out of the film,” he said. “They schooled the hell out of me. In good ways and bad. Just be ready.”
Shaft was a trial by fire for Royo, proving to be a different experience than his off-Broadway theater company. “We were like The Little Rascals. Everybody’s [singing] ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s not like that [on movie sets] sometimes. So by the time I got to [Hunter Gatherer], I know what’s expected of me. I know how I want to be a leader amongst artists.”
Before playing his memorable turn as Bubbles, a police informant and recovering addict, on The Wire from 2002 to 2008, Royo had only done a number of procedurals, including Law & Order (the original series, Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent) and CSI: Miami.
“Listen, Bubbles is my favorite [character] because it was the first. Bubbles was the one where I felt like: If this doesn’t work, I’m not acting,” he said. “I’m always going to have a part of Bubbles in my life. I became a better artist and human being after doing that show.”
On his most demanding role to date, Royo was candidly funny: “The most challenging role as an actor is probably fatherhood. It’s a goddamn nightmare. It’s acting all day like you know it. And acting all day like you don’t.” (He has one daughter, 18, with his wife Jane Choi, an L.A. restaurateur.)
“Oh my God. I cry in my car every day now. My daughter goes out and Ubers. I’m like this, ‘I’m right here. I can drive you. Like when you Uber, you slap me in my face. Daddy’s right here,” he said.
“Parenting is the only thing I know where you’re hit with every emotion at the same time. I hate you, I love you. Get out, don’t go. So that’s the hardest.”
Conversely, Royo pointed to Empire’s shady lawyer, Thirsty Rawlings, as a role he felt an easier fit than others. “I grew up with hip hop,” he explained. “I grew up understanding that hip hop has had a beautiful impact on American culture. We were so made to feel ashamed of that—it promotes violence, etc.—in 2016, we celebrate and we understand how much the world enjoys the impact of hip hop in American culture.
Though: “I got a better fashion sense than Thirsty. But outside of that, I’m that dude who gets shit done. I bullshit a lot. I’m a good bullshitter.”
We’ll attest to that: Royo loves to shoot the breeze and tell stories, but he’s determined as hell to get to that next level—make the move from supporting to leading roles. He has a great start with Hunter Gatherer. “True storytellers, true filmmakers break ground,” Royo noted toward the end of our interview.
“So I want to break ground.”
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.