'Empire's' Andre Royo on Thirsty's Loyalty, 'Godfather' Influences and 'Wire' Comparisons

Plus: Watch THR's exclusive first look at next week's episode.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Empire, "Poor Yorick."]

Prosecutor Roxanne Ford (Tyra Ferrell) got an alarming and gruesome wake-up call in the final moments of Wednesday's Empire. After Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) gave her false intel that made Roxanne believe she was one big step closer to nailing Lucious (Terrence Howard) for Bunky's murder, the fast-talking attorney got the surprise of a lifetime when she got into her car and looked over to find Vernon's very decayed corpse in her passenger seat.

So who's to blame for Roxanne's uninvited guest? "That's Thirsty all day," Andre Royo tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh in reference to his character, Lucious' scrappy but effective lawyer.

The episode, which also saw Thirsty pull out out his trusty corpse detection system to help dig up Vernon's body, only further cemented The Wire alum's status as one of the hip-hop drama's season two breakouts.

"A lot of people were just happy to know that, with so many people watching, that many people are going to get a chance to see what they already know from The Wire," Royo says of the leap from the criminally underrated cable drama to the biggest hit on network TV. "It's a hard journey – this acting thing. There's peaks and valleys in this business so when you land on a show like this and you know that there's a lot of eyes on you, it just motivates people to keep going."

THR also spoke with Royo about why he was "nervous" to join the show, the eclectic influences behind Thirsty and his character's very colorful wardrobe.

What kind of feedback and reactions have you been getting? Thirsty is such a unique character on the show.

I'm super, super, super excited. I have been getting good feedback, except for my fashion. That's the only thing I get teased about with my lady is Thirsty's fashion, but I like the colors. I'm trying to bring that back. I'm trying to back the 64 colors of the Crayola box in my suits. The energy's been great. They've really embraced me. its always weird to come into a show that's already established, and not just established but a megahit. I thought there'd be a little trepidation of trying to link up with the Lyon family, but they've all embraced me and it's been very much appreciated. The writers seem to like what I’m doing and that’s always makes an actor feel good. I'm glad it's all working out.

There are obviously a lot of guest stars this season, but coming into the season, showrunner Ilene Chaiken said you were one to watch. What do you think it is about what you're doing and what the writers have been writing that has made it click so well?

I did get nervous with the idea of so many guest stars. I was hoping that there would be something about me and the writers that would make me feel more stable as the show went on. I didn’t want to be caught up in the mix of a lot of guest stars and a lot of cameos. I wanted to really have some staying power with my presence. I just feel like the writers seem very excited to write for me. It would be unfair not to mention that I think a lot of people fell in love with The Wire itself and that character that they all seemed excited to be writing for me and to see what kind of nuances I could bring to Thirsty. And they always come up to me on any show, they always come up to me and say how much they love the writing on The Wire. They know that my bar has been raised to a higher level when it comes to writing. It's a different dynamic of television with Empire, but I think the approval is on both ends. I love what they're writing and they love what I'm doing. I think that's what shows on camera. Everybody's having fun.

How do you think Thirsty stands apart from Bubbles?

For me, they're miles apart. There's a certain morality and humanity that Bubbles always carried in his heart. He was a downright good person. Thirsty believes in what he's doing and he's doing the greater good for his clients, but he's a lot more selfish than Bubbles would ever be. I can't say good or bad because an actor doesn’t really describe his characters that way. I see Thirsty as very good at what he does. You're defined by what you do and Thirsty is a great lawyer. I got Lucious out, right? By any means necessary. (Laughs.)

How did the role of Thirsty first come about? Did you watch the first season?

I watched the first season of the show in total awe. We didn't see it coming. I for one didn't see it coming where this mega, megahit. But with that kind of cast and Terrence Howard and Taraji, I was born and raised in the Bronx so hip-hop is in my blood so the idea that we have our first primetime soap opera with an all-black cast and hip-hop being the medium of the music in the background – it was amazing. I had to see how it played out. It was my No. 1 on my on-demand and nobody could erase my Tivo. I would yell at my wife and daughter. And then it was a wonderful, pleasant surprise. The one thing any actor would love to hear in his career is, "We'd love to offer you the role." I got a call from [co-creator and executive producer] Danny Strong saying, "We love what you do. We'd love to offer you the role of this character." And it took a minute. I was a little shell-shocked because I would say, in my career, I don’t get offers only that often. Usually you have to go in and I have to fight for my roles so when you get an offer only, it gives you a validation that people trust you that you can do a good job. That they believe in your acting ability enough that you don’t have to prove it anymore. That's an amazing feeling. That also motivated me to come in here and make sure I earned that shot. It made me come in and go, you know what? Let me do what I do because it felt special to me that a megahit show would trust me enough to come step in and do the job.

How was Thirsty described to you initially?

When I first talked to Danny about the role, he made reference to The Godfather and Robert Duvall's character, the consigliere. He said that that was the character that he most saw me portraying in my take on Thirsty. He's street-smart and he knows his way around the courtroom. Again, by any means necessary, he's the coolest get-out-of-jail-free card that anyone could have. He left certain shenanigans to me, but he did bring up The Godfather. At first, I was like, 'is he really using The Godfather when he's talking about Empire?' (Laughs.) I had that moment, but again, I think what everybody loves about Empire is it's a show that knows what it is. It ain't trying to be anything else but what it set out to be: Dynasty, Dallas. It's doing that in a fantastic way and my character is that guy who sits in the corner of the room and when you need something done, he's going to do it without asking questions.

What other influences did you pull from to create the character?

It happened so fast that I'm still creating as I'm going. I'm still learning new nuances about the character. I guess the closest comparison that stood out to me, of course, was Better Call Saul. He's that dude where you don't see him coming and you underestimate his smarts because he's not taken seriously. I was hoping people would say, "Wow, he's like Bob Odenkirk." What he does with Saul is so unique and great. He was the first thing that came to mind.

I don’t want people to look at Thirsty as a one-dimensional dude, so I'm hoping as the series goes by, you start to really find out what really makes Thirsty tick and what made him go to University of Guam.

As the season goes on, what else will we learn about Thirsty?

I can't tell you nothing because I don’t know nothing. I'm trying, believe me! It's one of those fine lines where I want to know more. Bubbles is always in my heart so I'm trying to find more information out but they're tight-lipped about it. On the flip side of that, the rule of thumb is – coming from The Wire world – when you fall in a love with a character, that's when they might go. So I'm taking it one step at a time. It keeps you on your toes. I don't know anything about Thirsty other than his loyalty to Lucious.

From your perspective, what do you think makes the Lucious-Thirsty dynamic work so well?

There's a real level of respect that Lucious has for Thirsty because we both came up from the streets. We both came up with these ideas that we were not supposed to make it, or not supposed to make it at this level. I think that admiration and respect – it shows between me and Lucious. Lucious hasn't had anybody outside of his family that he could look eye to eye with and know that there's a certain connection that they share that's from the streets of hard knocks.

Now that Andre confessed to murdering Vernon and they've dug up the body, what is the next step for Thirsty in terms of Lucious' case?

I'm not giving out secrets. That would be the first way I get fired. (Laughs.) I know that with a character like Mr. Lucious Lyon, getting him out of jail is a lot easier than keeping him out of my jail. My job is keeping him at the Empire.

Will we see Thirsty more in the courtroom going forward? What can you say about his skills in that arena?

I don't know. I'm hoping so because for an actor, the courtroom scenes are always fun to play. You're like on stage in the courtroom. I don't know. So far, it hasn't come up yet but with these writers and their excitement that they say they have for me, I'm sure they're going to have me play as much as possible. At this point, I don’t know what's going on, but I just know that I'm luscious' right-hand man and I'm planning on staying that way and not ending up like Vernon. (Laughs.)

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Watch The Hollywood Reporter's exclusive first look at next week's episode below.