Andre Royo speaks onstage Aug. 3, 2015, during the Hand Of God panel discussion as part of the 2015 Summer Television Critics Association Tour in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Amazon Studios

Thanks to The Wire, arguably television’s most underrated series of all time, Andre Royo is affectionately known as “Bubbles” or “Bubs,” the drug-addicted informant. But it’s been some time since he’s been back in the mix in a television series. Although he has a role as Mayor Robert “Bobo” Boston on Amazon’s Hand of God, fans will likely be most excited about his turn on Empire as Lucious Lyon’s new attorney Thirsty Rawlings. The Root caught up with the Bronx, N.Y., native to talk about The Wire and Empire.

The Root: Are you surprised by The Wire’s popularity now?

Andre Royo: I’m from the era of lugging albums and tape decks, so I didn’t know that this social media explosion would be able to keep certain shows alive so strongly. I give credit to [Wire creator] David Simon. David Simon said a long time ago, I think in the middle of season 2, when I came to him and I said, “Yo, man, the Daily News gave us half a star. The Post said we were slow. Can we change it up? Can we do something different?”

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And David Simon was like, “Absolutely not. This is the type of show that I’m going to do my way, the way I think it should be done. … This is the type of show that’s going to be like novels that they will take off the shelf; when they want to rewatch it, they’ll rewatch it.” And he was absolutely right.  

TR: So what do you feel your impact as Bubs has been?

AR: When people say, “Yo, Bubs,” that means that they care, and for them to care, [that means that] there’s something important that we do with our artistry. Sometimes when you look at doctors and teachers, you start to go, “Am I doing enough? Am I leaving a mark? Is being an actor important?” And you kind of wonder, “What am I doing to help?”

So when people say, “Bubs, that was a great performance; I love what you did,” I feel like I did something to help. There’s a certain humanity that you have to have in yourself [to make] you care about Bubs. I think Bubbles just brought back a little empathy and compassion that we are supposed to have for one another … and I hope that goes a long way.

TR: Tell us how Bubs got himself cleaned up: He’s a mayor in Hand of God and a lawyer in Empire.

AR: That has made my mom very happy because now, all of a sudden, her son is finally wearing a suit and not an orange suit. I give all credit for that to a small indie film called The Spectacular Now with Miles Teller. James Ponsoldt was the director, where I play the teacher. Before that, I would never get an audition for a lawyer, doctor; none of that was happening. After that, the movie did really well and it was a real good movie. All of a sudden, they looked at me in a dress shirt and a pair of slacks, they were like, “Oh, Bubbles do look kinda good dressed up.”

TR: How did you become Thirsty on Empire?

AR: I got a phone call from [Empire co-creator] Danny Strong talking about, “Yo we would love to have you on. Come in.” One of the best words you want to hear for any actor on the come-up: “We would love to offer you the role.” I was like, “Offer? I ain’t got to come in and [do the] song and dance?” “No, no we already seen what you can do. Come in, the role is yours.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s fantastic. I must be doing something right,” and Thirsty was born.

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Thirsty’s a different type of suit. Now, I will say this, on Empire, I do need a fashion makeover. I’m not there yet with Lucious and Cookie. For the record, I have a different style sense than Thirsty. He’s a little crazy with his suits, but it fits him well.

TR: Why do you think Empire is a success now?

AR: When Danny Strong called me and offered me the role, the first thing he said was, “I know you come from that Wire pedigree, but we’re making history, too.” At first I was like, “Did this [motherf—ker] just try to compare Empire to The Wire?” But on the history-making concept of it all, hell, yeah, Empire is phenomenal.

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Empire is an all-black, hip-hop, broadcast, soap-opera-type show. They tried that back in the day with Platinum; it went nowhere. They tried it with a regular soap opera called Generations. Nowhere. Black people, at a certain point, were so afraid of how we’re being perceived that the minute we feel like we were being exploited, we would shut it down.

But now I feel like that black people, as far as culturally speaking, we know that we’re fully intertwined with American culture. We know American culture cannot exist without black people. We did it. Hip-hop alone.

Our fashion, our sense of talk, our sense of style, is integrated into American culture. So now we look at TV and we don’t mind. We don’t mind looking at Empire and [saying,] “Wow, they got everything going on.” We find it entertaining now. We don’t mind laughing at our own selves. We don’t mind celebrating ourselves. We don’t find it offensive anymore. That changed.

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I do believe, if Empire came on in the early 2000s, it wouldn’t have made it. We were too sensitive. I think there is a certain pride that we have now in who we are and how we changed American culture from within. 

Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.