Through The Wire
Andre Royo On Baltimore, Bad Blocks, And A Different Look For Blacks On Film
City Paper: How did you get into acting?
Andre Royo: I hung out in [New York] from age 18 to 24. I was in every club in the city waiting to be discovered, waiting for someone to say, “Hey, you wanna be a star?” But that wasn’t gonna happen. So one day I was on the Lower East Side with my man, and his girl was going to this school called HB Studios. I was like, “Let me walk with you.” I walked to the school and went inside, and I saw all these young actors performing onstage and performing scenes and getting critiques. And I was like, “Oh, so there’s a method to this madness.” And that’s when I took it seriously, like, “I’m gonna dedicate my life to this.”
CP: So how has the transition been from struggling actor to being on The Wire and getting into movies?
AR: It’s all a sense of confidence and self-fulfillment. Honestly, I get the same feeling going on a Law and Order set as I do from going on The Wire set or doing extra work. The only thing that happens from The Wire and, say, Shaft, is that other people get to see me now. And when you been struggling to do something for so long and people stop you in the street like, “Hey, I love your work,” you get a sense of fulfillment. Everybody wants to get that: “Hey, guy, I appreciate what you’re doing.” And with The Wire, you’re talking about a network that we all watch. I used to watch Dream On and Arli$$, The Sopranos, so when it happened, that extra confidence allows you to go to any audition with less butterflies. I don’t walk into any audition scared.
CP: Before you started doing The Wire, had you been to Baltimore?
AR: I hadn’t been down here. I saw [HBO miniseries] The Corner and thought it was the worst show on TV, because I thought there’s no way in hell there’s an area like that. I thought it was so exaggerated that it was unbelievable to me. In New York, growing up I saw junkies, but it was like every day at 6 o’clock they come out like zombies. Out here it’s from 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. When I booked the part, people where telling me, “Be careful, it’s dangerous—it’s bad over there.” And I was like, “C’mon, I’m from the Bronx.” I came out here, and it was a real wake-up call. The city’s beautiful, but in certain areas there’s just no sense of hope. In the projects where I grew up it was like Good Times, like we gonna make it, [but here] you can see it in their eyes, like, “This is it for us.”
CP: How’d you prepare yourself for that?
AR: When I got the part I met Fran, the woman they did The Corner about. She came out, took me to a few outreach programs. I got to meet cats that were in programs or that did heroin, and at first when I got the part, I thought of [New Jack City’s] Pookie, Jungle Fever’s Gator. So I started saying to myself, “What can I do that hasn’t been done?” So I had to hang with them to see if there were certain clichés that theere all different—some of them would get mad. They were like, “Make sure you do that shit right. We know the difference between a coke addict y all do, but there wasn’t. They wand a heroin addict—don’t bullshit it.”
CP: Was it difficult?
AR: The hardest part about doing it was I was getting accolades from them. Some would come up to me like, “I thought you was real. You doing a great job, man.” But when the day was over, I would go in the trailer and wash up and put on my clothes and come out. You could see it in their faces. They look at me like, “Damn, I wish it was that motherfuckin’ easy. I been trying to do that shit for 13, 14 years. I can’t clean up like that.” So it’s a blessing to do it, it made me humble and more infatuated with the acting process. I was them, but I can still walk away and be someone else.
CP: How long does it take to film a season of The Wire?
AR: Six months.
CP: How do like living in Baltimore for half a year?
AR: The first six months I hated it. My character didn’t see anything but Eutaw Street and Lafayette and all that, just being here so submerged in my character I probably made myself suffer more than I had to—like I didn’t wanna go see pretty shit, I just wanted to stay in the dirt. I thought it was a lifeless city, I couldn’t feel it. Second season I wasn’t in as many episodes, so I got a chance to sit back and chill. I started seeing the lakes and horseback riding and chilling up in the mountains and all that. I started looking around and I realized that this is a beautiful city. The architecture’s beautiful, everything’s really close—it’s like good block, good block, bad then good block, good block, bad. It looks like if the money was really being filtered down right, the way they clean up that block, they can just turn the corner and clean up the other block. It’s not that close in New York. I like the atmosphere. Everybody I see or talk to or meet, what you see is what you get—from the real-estate guy to the bartender to the junkie. I am what I am and I do what I do, and you gotta respect that. I don’t feel unsafe here anymore.
CP: Do you think The Wire’s gritty portrayal of Baltimore is a good look for the city?
AR: It’s a double-edged sword, but I think it’s a good thing. You’d rather show the real side, so when people come here people know what they’re coming to. I don’t think The Wire makes Baltimore look bad. I think it makes the justice system and people’s choices look bad. It ain’t about the city because it’s everywhere, drug game and all that shit, that’s in every city. It ain’t about it being in Baltimore, it’s about learning why these people do what they do—why the cops take so long to solve a crime. And in all honesty, people are shooting more movies here, the movie men are seeing great locations. So whenever you’re honest it’s a good thing.
CP: Tell us about G.
AR: G was great—it was originally a play called Sky, off, off, off Broadway. It was cool because, like, 60 percent of the cast [of the movie] was in that play. Basically, we were doing the play, having fun, people were coming through loving it, we were having a good run. All the sudden, one show we see Andrew Lauren hanging out after a show, and he says, “You know what, this would make a good movie.” And you don’t buy it—you hear it all the time. But three months later I get a phone call saying, “We got the money to make the movie, we want you to come down and audition . . .”
(At this point, a man on a bicycle rolls up to shake Royo’s hand.)
Man on Bike: Sorry to interrupt, I just want to say I love your work.
AR: Thank you, man.
(They shake hands, and the man rides off.)
AR: I didn’t pay him either. (laughs) So, um, it was an amazing journey. I got to share this experience with actors that are all doing the same thing I’m doing. So the energy was fantastic.
CP: Do you think there is a lack of multidimensional roles for African-Americans in films?
AR: It gets real cliché, there’s not a lot of movies out there—that’s what made the play appeal to us. We’re in the Hamptons, you have a businessman, you have a mogul—it’s a different look for an all-black cast. It was exciting to be a part of that. We’re not just in ghetto areas—it’s good to show people that we travel, not like we in the Hamptons coming to rob somebody’s house.
CP: It does get played out.
AR: I think it’s important for writers and producers to invest and create these type of stories without trying to become rich, because what you’re really doing is trying to come up with a story to change the mind-set of the studios and the audience. And we need that, not just as black people, as humans. Dude, Where’s My Car?, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle—everybody got it, we just have too much of it. There’s no balance. So it looks likes we’re being pigeon-holed to do bullshit movies. Well, you don’t go to Eve’s Bayou or G and say, “I wanna laugh.” You don’t go to Beauty Shop and say, “I want something heartfelt, I wanna good story.” You know what you’re gonna see so you can’t go in there and be mad at Soul Plane. You knew what you were gonna see—if you laughed, you got your money’s worth.
CP: Why do you think that it’s so important that people come out and check out G?
AR: It’s important for people to see G and put the weight on the studio that they wanna see more of that, ’cause unless they do the studios ain’t gonna change. Studios aren’t big gamblers. When Andrew Lauren first shopped this around, a studio said, “We don’t know how to put this out there—it’s a white movie with black faces.” And it’s like, what the hell are you talking about? But that’s how it is to them, that’s their mind-set. If it ain’t funny, or if it ain’t that gangster shit, they don’t know how to put it out there.
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