There are the character actors who consistently play That Guy or That Woman, the ones who show up in small parts in all your favorite movies or TV shows with that instantly recognizable face or voice. No single role defines them for you in their mind; you just always know what kind of performance you’re going to get from them—think Luis Guzmán, or Mary Steenburgen. And then there are the actors who are indelibly linked to that one, iconic breakout role, the kind where no matter what other character they’ve played before or since, they will never not be that role. That’s Bubbles from The Wire—er, Andre Royo, the incredibly talented actor who played Bubbles on The Wire.
Royo is currently guest starring on Empire as Lucious’ slimy lawyer of dubious credentials, but try talking to anyone about his character Thirsty Rawlings (oh, what a name) on the show and it will be impossible not to refer to him as “Bubbles from The Wire.” I’ve tried myself. It is impossible. But despite the fact that Royo will never be able to “disappear” into a role for this exact reason, it doesn’t make his performance any less engrossing and just plain fun to watch. In fact, Royo fits right in with the seedy world of Empire, and is the best guest star of Season 2 so far.
In one way, Thirsty is light years away from Bubbles: The former is, like Lucious, unscrupulous, conniving, and uninterested in (or perhaps, incapable of) engaging with real, honest emotions. In the opening scene of Wednesday’s “Be True,” Thirsty cracks some macabre jokes about their late-night grave digging expedition for Uncle Vernon, now believed by the FBI to be dead by suicide. “Andre,” he greets the eldest Lyon son, “nice to see you without a shovel.” When speaking in crooked legalese, his cadence picks up and his confidence swells—though no one, from the determined DA Roxanne Ford to the street-wise Cookie, believes a word he says. He’s a joke, albeit one who succeeds at getting his way, thanks to his underhandedness.
There is nothing tragic about Thirsty, though this is Bubbles’ defining depiction on The Wire; his petty crimes and heroin addiction never hide his compassion; some have argued that he is the emotional center of the entire series. And so to see Royo play the antithesis of this on Empire is at once jarring and impressive: Both characters as rendered by him are undeniably convincing, even if one greatly overshadows the other. As fragile and fraught Bubbles was—particularly when he tried to get clean from drugs—Royo looks equally at home as a terrible person on Empire. He embodies Thirsty with an assured, cool sensibility that Bubbles never had—there seems to be a little bit of Sammy Davis, Jr. in his lithe gait—and as Lucious’ right-hand man, his turn as a new guest star this season is woven more naturally into the storyline than Chris Rock’s awkward turn as gangster Frank Gathers and Marisa Tomei’s venture capitalist Mimi Whiteman. (It also probably helps that Royo, who is not a big name actor like Rock and Tomei, has been a consistent presence since his first appearance on a show where pretty much any secondary character can vanish for one to several episodes at a time.)
Hopefully, Thirsty sticks around for awhile—the writers were smart to give Lucious an unsavory partner-in-crime to spice things up a bit. And it’ll be fun to see how his relationship with the rest of the family unravels (and it will, in all likelihood, unravel decadently), particularly with Andre, who rightfully doesn’t trust him one bit. Royo, like any actor who has come out of David Simon’s magnum opus, is probably tired of being associated with that career-defining character. Will he always be “Bubbles from The Wire“? Probably. But that’s our hangup as viewers, our inability to see him as anything but one of our favorite, most beloved characters on one of our favorite, most beloved shows—not Royo’s. And that association also proves what a damn good actor he is overall: When someone gives him a chance to play a character so far removed from Bubbles, and Royo takes it, it demonstrates his ability to take on any role and make it his own.