'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' breakout Tituss Burgess on his alter ego (and 'Pinot Noir')
We dare you to pop open a bottle of pinot noir without immediately thinking of Titus Andromedon, the scene-stealing New Yorker who rooms with a cult escapee (Ellie Kemper) on Netflix’s buzzy sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—which blew up the social media world when it dropped in its 13-episode entirety earlier this month.
Creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock wrote the character of Titus with 30 Rock alum Tituss Burgess in mind. Here, the actor breaks down the differences between the character and the performer.
Titus Andromedon is a flashy, self-obsessed fame whore, but Tituss Burgess is much more reserved and thoughtful. “I’m very much an introvert and love to be left alone cooking and playing the piano,” says Burgess, 36. “I’m very involved in church and social-justice issues, and my personality is far more introspective. Outside stimulation makes me nervous!”
It wasn’t until costume fittings that Burgess realized that the Titus created by Fey and Carlock wasn’t actually a carbon copy of himself. “They repeatedly had to tell me to go a lot further, until I finally was like, ‘Oh, so this is really not me,'” Burgess recalls. “And I don’t know that I processed that until I saw the wardrobe”—full of bold prints, flashy scarves, and statement jewelry—”and then truly, Titus came out so quickly. I understood exactly who he was.”
ON RÉSUMÉS AND HIGH NOTES
Tituss and Titus share a theater background, but their experiences diverge just a bit: Burgess originated the role of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid on Broadway in 2007, while “ever-shining disco ball” Titus Andromedon has hilariously failed his Lion King audition 20 times and counting. Burgess laughs at their different singing approaches: “Titus’ range is probably endless, in a way that even if he doesn’t sound good, he will not be outdone. Tituss is more tasteful.” (For what it’s worth, Burgess also notes that Titus’s faux Iron Man outfit—the character doubles as a Times Square knock-off entertainer—is infinitely more uncomfortable than the Sebastian costume.)
Despite the shared love of the stage, Burgess thinks Titus’s ambitions “far surpass the stage and absolutely are more focused on the stage door and all the free things that he’s going to get.” (See: Titus’s desperate viral interview in Kimmy’s season finale.) Burgess says he’s more focused on the work and art itself, while Titus Andromedon is “not so interested in obscure projects. He’d very much do the obvious things that he thinks are the height of artistic intelligence. If it’s not The Lion King, he’d think he should be Elphaba.”
For Kimmy’s birthday, Titus promises he’ll write a song for her yet struggles to come up with anything remotely creative. In real life, Burgess is an accomplished singer-songwriter, with two solo studio albums both available on Spotify. But the creative spark doesn’t always appear on demand. “I don’t want to sound pretentious or meta or anything, but I don’t write until it comes to me…People know when something is inspired and when something is not, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time,” he says. “If I’m telling you you should come and listen to me sing something that I wrote, you can rest assured that I won’t waste your time with something I just pulled out of my ass. Why invite you to dinner if I can’t cook?”
ON KIMMY’S OTHER FRIENDS
Though Titus gets some of the show’s best one-liners, Burgess says that his character may not be the most outrageous person in Kimmy’s life—at least, not compared to Jane Krakowski’s socialite Jacqueline and Carol Kane’s landlady Lillian. “Jacqueline has an unawareness in her audacity that makes her one-liners so much more piercing, whereas I think Titus is fully aware of what he will and will not tolerate,” says Burgess with a laugh. “And Lillian is a criminal. She is a criminal! They’re much more abrasive than I think Titus could ever be. I think they’re just disguised better because they don’t have the shimmer that Titus has everywhere he goes. People think Titus is so much more outlandish, but I think he’s the exact opposite.”
ON EDUCATING KIMMY
Both Titus and Tituss share one major point of frustration when it comes to Kimmy’s 15-year-long pop culture knowledge gap. “Her not knowing music as well as I do would drive me absolutely crazy,” says Burgess. “Where her music knowledge stops, Titus with two S’s would have very little patience filling in the gaps for her. We would have nothing to talk about!”
ON PINOT NOIR
Titus’s low-rent music video became an Internet sensation, which is a delight to the actor—who worked hard to pull it off. “It took forever. We filmed in 19 different locations, and that’s a nightmare because you have to set up the shot, the different costumes, the different things to rhyme with ‘noir,’” Burgess recalls. “I love that the world is enjoying the fruits of our labor.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 3, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt