After charming 30 Rock fans as D’Fwan, a Real Housewife hanger-on with his own wine, D’Fwine, Broadway veteran Tituss Burgess stole our hearts — and the show — performing “Peeno Noir” as Titus Andromedon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. To get some scoop on season 3 of Kimmy (out Friday on Netflix), it seemed only fitting to cozy up to the 38-year-old over a bottle (or two) of vino.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You grew up in Athens, Georgia. Is there anyone at home who’s surprised at where you are today?
TITUSS BURGESS: I don’t think anyone in Athens is surprised. I was always doing the most as an adolescent. I was Mr. Youth Athens and I started the first gospel choir at my high school — I wanted to do all these crazy things that no one’s done.
How old were you when you began to focus on a career?
I remember being 15 years old, and I had just left church and the sermon that day was one of those “If you can see it, you can achieve it” kinds of things. At the time I thought, “I’m gonna be a successful opera singer!” Then I got to college, where I was studying opera, and started directing shows for the community theater, and I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna be a successful music director!” And then I saw these people on stage, and I thought, “Well, I should be doing that.” So then by the time I graduated, I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna be a good old Broadway star.”
And then you were — within a few years!
Yes, but around the time of The Little Mermaid — that was my third Broadway show — I started to experience boredom at how long I seemed to have been lingering in a specific lane. I knew that there was something else that I was supposed to be doing. I remember asking my agent if she would start submitting me for television, and she told me, “Tituss, you are too dark.”
Did you fire her on the spot?
Not quite, but it made me realize that I was responsible for having the dialogue with the cosmos about what I wanted my trajectory to be. When I got an audition for 30 Rock, it was for one line. I almost didn’t go ’cause I was sick and it was just one line. But I go, and I get the part. And as a result of my audition, when I showed up to work there were several scenes that they had written for me. When I ended my four-episode arc on the show and I went home to my apartment on 47th Street, I got on my knees and I said to the universe, “I feel equipped now to lead a show.” Cut to me getting Kimmy Schmidt in 2014. At this point, I had since moved to Harlem and moved out of my apartment on 47th Street. I report to the set on 50th Street where someone walks me to my trailer — right outside my old apartment on 47th Street. I could’ve literally walked out of my apartment where I first prayed for this job and right into the trailer. I stared at that trailer and I just sobbed.
Has Kimmy been everything you had hoped for?
I read with Ellie Kemper in the audition, and it was love at first sight, it really was. I say I read, but of course I memorized all my lines. I’m so obsessed with this woman. I even get sad thinking about when this part of the journey is over, because it is a rare thing to show up to a television set and be so in love with your costar.
What are the table reads like? What has stunned you?
I mean, “Peeno Noir”? C’mon, you gotta be kidding me. The first time I heard anything about it was at a table read! I don’t get briefed on what they’re thinking about right until they write it. We showed up, and I read it and heard it aloud when everyone else read it and heard it aloud, and we probably laughed for a good 10 minutes before we remembered there were studio people in Burbank watching us via conference.
“Peeno Noir” was very lo-fi, but this season you mount your own interpretation of Lemonade.
I’m a huge Beyoncé fan, but [Kimmy co-creator] Tina Fey is, like, a super, super fan, down to studying how Beyoncé works. So when Lemonade came out, she texted me: “I wish you were in my living room right now!” So I got a heads-up then that we’d be doing something.
The production value on it is insane. You’re underwater, you’re in the gold gown, you’re smashing windows and fire hydrants…
I don’t know how we actually got through it. We shot it all in Brooklyn, and there were horns being honked and people were hanging out on their fire escapes watching us film. I’m so used to wearing the most ridiculous outfits and getting attention, but this might’ve taken us three or four days.
And the underwater stuff is no joke.
I don’t swim! And Tina’s like, “Are you okay to get in the water?” And I’m like, “Yeeeeeeah.” And she was like, “We were gonna put you in a pool, but we actually need you to go into the ocean.” Tina says everything very matter-of-fact, so sometimes you can’t really tell if she’s being for real or not. So I’m like, “Ha-ha-ha, girl, like CGI? Like, what?” She was like, “No, you’re, like, submerged underwater.” So that was a lot. It took about four days.
Is it exhausting being Titus Andromedon day after day?
We share some similarities, but we are quite not alike. However, I know this man very well, and I know his struggle very well, and I know his eccentricities really well, and so getting inside of it is a piece of cake. Since the show has been out, though, when I meet people, sometimes they’re really disappointed — no, maybe perplexed — that I’m not s—ting glitter.