Royo’s role in Calloused Hands ensures his bubble is far from bursting…

kunga-andre_royoThe actor Andre Royo was in town for the promotion of the first U.K screening of ‘Calloused Hands’ (Dir Jesse Quinones) and I was curious to meet the man who played ‘Bubbles’ in the highly viewed and controversial American TV show The Wire.

The series ran for 5 years and Royo’s character was in 49 of the 60 episodes. Royo remembers he had slight misgivings at taking on the role as friends were saying the role of a drug addict could seriously harm his career.  He mentions having watched Samuel Jackson as ‘Gator’  in Jungle Fever (1991) and Chris Rock’s ‘Pookie’ in New Jack City (1991), feeling that these performances could not be bettered. He spoke to Samuel L. Jackson, someone he considers a friend and mentor, who told him in no uncertain terms that he would be stupid not to take the role and that he was now, “On the road!”

Royo spent time speaking with people with drug and alcohol issues and his multi-prismatic character allowed the viewer to gain an insight into the guilt, shame and the humorously flawed entrepreneurial attempts of Bubbles whilst simultaneously providing a social commentary on the desperate conditions of the inhabitants of America’s Baltimore. Royo describes his conflict with the role, remembering a scene where McNulty (Dominic West) gives Bubbles a few dollars and says dismissively, “Here! Now go get high.”

Scene’s such as that graphically illustrated the lives of the underclass in Baltimore, which formed much of the narrative for one of the most critically acclaimed series in HBO’s history, with many critics believing the series exemplified the class divide within the poor communities in the U.S. and contextualised issues which continue today. The Telegraph citing The Wire as one of the best TV programmes ever made (April 2009). Bubbles’ broken condition replicated the broken society in which he was living and Royo’s character, like it or not, has become a part of the televisual legacy of the likeable but ‘damaged’ black male character.

Now sitting at the Ritzy in Brixton, I am looking at a smartly dressed and clean-cut Andre Royo he is the antithesis of his former on-screen character. This naturally humorous and accommodating New Yorker seems to be a man enjoying his craft.

callousedReading his Twitter feed he sounded genuinely excited about coming to London for the launch of his first lead role in ‘Calloused Hands’ a biopic feature, written and directed by American and now U.K. resident Jesse Quinones.

The film is based largely on the tumultuous life of Quinones as a young 12-year old boy growing up with two adults struggling to hold their lives together in a haze of intoxicants. Royo is, as well as playing lead, credited as co-producer and as he describes the process his pride is obvious knowing the lead actor role is something that does not come along often.

It seems strange however that an actor whose role was integral to The Wire’s success has not been given higher profile roles in the States. He has featured in ‘Criminal Minds’ (CBS) and ‘Prime Suspect’ (NBC) playing the overly- familiar role of alcoholic and drug addict and in Prime Suspect he played a murderer. His roles in George Lucas’ feature ‘Red Tails’ (2012) and TV series ‘Fringe’ (Fox) have kept him amongst the more recognisable faces from that seminal series.

Speaking of familiar faces from the series and sitting in London we have to mention Idris Elba.  Royo smiles a genuine smile, “Idris can play anything now!”  He continues, “if you play a ‘leader’ in Hollywood, then race plays a lesser role in future casting. Hollywood then sees you as a leader.” Describing how Idris’  role in The Wire has enabled Idris to be viewed as a serious contender and a global star, Royo remembers how the confidence of Idris and the rest of the relatively inexperienced cast grew as the series slowly became a massive hit. There is still a notion, however, that certain people will get certain roles.

The actor of mixed heritage describes how producers have turned him down because he was not considered “black enough”, and despite his Cuban roots he has also been overlooked for not looking Latino enough and has even been described as too Ethiopian looking!

At the recent British Urban Film Festival screening of Calloused Hands at the Odeon Leicester Square the packed theatre would agree buffscreening-callousedhandsthat despite what short-sighted producers in Hollywood might say, Andre Royo is certainly talented enough. The actor gives a well-layered performance as ‘Byrd’, a man troubled by his past and struggling with his present.

Whilst Royo treads familiar territory as yet ‘another’ black man with a destructive drug and alcohol problem, we get to see more of the layers of his acting armoury. The much credited actor Hans Howes (There Will Be Blood, Sea Biscuit, Criminal Minds) who plays the grandfather of the 12 year old mixed-race boy at the centre of the film, describes Royo’s ability to ‘destroy’ and at the same time draw you in to sympathise with his on-screen persona as a true gift which very few actors possess.

Quinones gives us a brief insight into the trauma he suffered at a young age and has put together a very watchable film whilst dealing with the uncomfortable subject of child and spousal abuse. Calloused Hands allows the audience to see how children are often placed in the middle of society’s failings and Royo and his fellow cast skilfully take us on a ride of tragedy, true- love and resilience and if you get the chance to see the film, take a seat and hold on tight.