Tituss Burgess on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Darkness, How It Deals With Race, and That Werewolf Scene

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Photo: John Lamparski/WireImage

Veteran Broadway stage actor Tituss Burgess — whom you might also recognize as D'Fwan from 30 Rock — plays Ellie Kemper's divo of a roommate, Titus Andromedon, in Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. He's a bright character who bursts into song when words can't express his emotions. But he's also the kind of guy who answers the door with obscenities and an eye roll, because as a fledgling wannabe actor, Andromedon has had a dark, rocky past, pockmarked by failure and deceit. We talked to Burgess about how his character, a gay black man trying to make it on Broadway, evolves over the course of season one, how race and sexuality are portrayed in the show, and how his character could change in season two. For good measure, we also threw some hypotheticals involving D'Fwan at him.

You play Titus with one S — what's the story behind the similar names?
I don't know why Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] decided to name him Titus, but I do know that it was written with me in mind. Beyond that sort of gift, I don't know how they came to a conclusion that Titus was an appropriate name for the character. I laughed out loud. I couldn't believe my eyes, like, You gotta be kidding me? I hadn't spoken with Tina since we had done my last episode of 30 Rock, so I thought, Wow, did they really write something for me, or is it just coincidence? I was very shocked. I just hoped my eyes were not deceiving me.

After you had signed on, how did you and the writers work together to flesh out this character?
Most of Titus was already there, I just sort of informed him and made him three-dimensional. There was a huge collaborative effort to not make him cartoonish or purely cliché, and the story lines allow for depth. As far as the musical outbursts: The first "I'm comin' out," that one was planned. And then the "No, no, no, no," I just threw that on them, just to see. Because I thought he would take every opportunity to draw attention to himself, regardless of the situation. There were a few moments like that in there, and like the "Pinot Noir" — [sings the words Peeeeeeeeeeeeeee-nooooo newwwwww-are] — that was my idea!

You've been on Broadway for a decade and you've released your own album. How would you say your singing background helped you with this role?
I came from the Sticks, literally. I grew up in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, just outside Athens, Georgia. We were always in church, and always singing, so once I realized that music was something that I had a knack for, I sort of latched onto it and it helped give me an identity and figure out who I was as a person. It informed my way into theater, which informed my way into television. So there's no distinction, as far as I'm concerned: Communication is communication, whether you're holding a note or speaking.

I wanted to talk a bit about Titus's relationship with Kimmy. Do you think he genuinely wants to be her friend, or is he putting up with her because he, when he meets her, really has no other choice? It almost always seems like every time he does something for her, there's an obvious benefit for him in return.
Titus has an addiction, an addiction for attention. He has been so starved of it and is in so much debt, both fiscally and in terms of where his career is concerned, that it has become a character trait, almost something that he cannot turn off. As you see throughout the series, any opportunity he sees to gain any notoriety, he seizes it. As that relates to Kimmy, in the beginning, I think, he's trying to get as much money off this wet-behind-the-ears girl as he possibly can. But as the series goes on, Titus does everything he can to suppress it and to bring forth the human part of him and to offer up a very real friendship to her because she often finds herself in angst, and he is pretty much the only one she trusts.

But Kimmy has also learned a great deal about Titus, and I think she has this kind of this-comes-with-the-territory type of perspective, where Titus is concerned. So I think the question is not so much, is Titus trying to swindle her or use her? But rather, Kimmy appreciates the part of Titus that is so giving and that is so supportive that the rest of the stuff is a byproduct. Because you'll notice that once she allows him to have what would essentially be her spotlight, she doesn't even care about it. It's so unimportant to her that why shouldn't Titus have it?

They are such an odd pairing, but they do work so well together. Why do you think that is? Do you think Titus — even though he's had a rough past — takes some sort of comfort in Kimmy's past misfortunes?
I don't even think Titus is considering her past misfortunes. I think Titus acknowledges that Kimmy seems to be a problem solver, and it's almost like she can't help but to figure out how to make things better. And she does such a good job, every episode, of pleading a certain case to him. As we'll notice, she comes out on top, and there's this sort of you-did-it moment, you-were-right-all-along moment, that he listens, even if reluctantly, there's something about this redhead who sort of has an insight that he hasn't had, and as each episode goes on, she was right about the last thing. Well, maybe I should listen to what she has to say about this new thing, as problems keep popping up. But I don't think it's, Wow, she's had such a suck-y life, surely I can do better.

One of the most brilliant Titus scenes is the werewolf scene, in which Titus discovers he is treated better as a werewolf than a black man in the streets of New York. Who came up with that idea, and what was your initial reaction when you first read that?
That was all Tina and Robert and their team. My first reaction was, Oh, God, I don't want to sit in the chair for three hours and put on this makeup [laughs]. But they have such a brilliant way of extracting humor and a different perspective out of some pretty heavy topical issues to make us reexamine how we, in everyday life, look at it. And once I realized that that's what was going on in the story line, the werewolf was the least of it. It was going to serve a far greater purpose, and I was of course onboard.

In general, actually, I'm curious to hear your thoughts and see how you feel about how the show deals with race and racism? There have been a few stories floating around that are questioning whether some of the show's subplots and minor characters are subversive or mildly racist.
That's ridiculous. If anything, it turns our head and makes us poke fun at our own self. Just like South Park does such a brilliant job of making fun of everybody and no one's the victim, that's exactly what this show does. There's even a little nod in there, near the end, where Mr. Bankston [played by Mike Britt] goes, You're my brother. And I go, Sir, we're cousins at best. Sort of dispelling that whole thing that all black people have this like inside thing and that we're all of the same belief that when it comes to hard times we're all so connected and that we all share this quiet dialogue or whatever. It's just not true. It's a person-to-person thing. But that juxtaposed to the other instances in the series where race will be questioned, or how Jane [Krakowski's character] handled her true identity — of course she's Native American — and then she comes back to own it again, even though it's in a very funny way. The naysayers needed something to do and talk about, so they can have a seat now.

The "Pinot Noir" and straight coach bits are two of my other favorite moments. There was a Slate piece talking about how the idea of the straight coach is not super out there. As Titus is our main look at gay life, as it relates to Kimmy's world — what are you hoping people learn from him or take from his character's experiences?
It's so funny that even today — and I know it's a topical issue — that sexuality and the pendulum with which masculinity and femininity swings is so important to people. I mean, it really makes me laugh. First of all, I hope that people don't stop — though they will — at, this is the gay character, this is the rich character. And I know people need past points of references with which to identify or find a way into who these people are. But his sexuality is the least of it. And the fact that he's a struggling, poor wannabe actor is the most of it. And all of his motivations come out of that need for stardom, so if I want anybody to learn anything from Titus it's to just never give up on your dreams. That's kind of it, period.

Yeah, the common theme with all these characters — even the Voorhes, is that everybody is constantly being broken. As much as this show is a comedy, in some ways it's pretty dark. When Kimmy strangles Titus, he wakes up saying, "This isn't the Chinatown bus! You can't just choke someone who's sleeping!" It's clear he's been in some pretty dark places.
Absolutely, and he's describing a part of New York City that we've not yet seen, but it colors the city that they currently live in. Going back to your last question, it's important to know that every single character, including Titus, is holding on for dear life to either regain or control what they have, and that's the root of it. That's what makes the whole thing spin so perfectly together and allow for these venturings off into Jacqueline's world and Lillian's world. But it's all the same thing, they're all after the same thing, which is to keep hold of what they have, or slowly embrace the part of them that they don't yet know. I think that's how people should begin, if they have not yet watched it, that's what they should hold in their heads, looking at it. And not pay so much attention to what they're calling outright racism, which it is completely not, or sexism, which it's really not.

What do you think Titus's outlook on life is, and do you think it genuinely changes by the end of season one?
The outlook in episode one is pretty bleak, so much so that he's irritated by the door bell. Who the fuck is it? is not something you would say. But that would suggest that no one has come to talk to him in a while, no one has come to see him. He has a life of solitude and some sort of darkness. And when we're introduced to Kimmy, and as people will see throughout the season, he becomes lighter and lighter, more hopeful and more optimistic, still through the lense of having had more New York City living experience than Kimmy. But I think we totally begin with everything's possible and then you get hit with this new piece of information — that I won't give away if people haven't seen it — and he's forced to deal with something else that he ran away from. As soon as he gets a hold on one thing, there's something else to tackle. But he does it with grace and ease. I think through the 13 episodes, you see Titus lose some emotional weight, gain a little more wisdom, and sort of embrace an I-think-I-can attitude.

It's probably too early to ask about season two, but are there any scenarios you'd like to see Titus grapple with in the next season?
Well, we haven't seen Titus be able to sustain a relationship yet, and I think that's a result of being in a fiscal bind, which will put you in an emotional and mental bind, for sure. The episode, where, spoiler alert, he's talking to the construction worker and he's feeling down about himself and suddenly the guy flirts with him and he has an oh-I-still-got-it moment. It would be interesting to see who Titus becomes in a relationship, but I have a feeling that Titus, even in a long-term relationship, would still need to be in the spotlight, would probably be almost undateable. But it would just be really, really interesting to see how he would handle a situation like that. As far as his career is concerned, I don't think he's ready for anything big just yet. But who knows what that time lapse would be when season two starts?

Here's a different hypothetical: If Titus were on Queen of Jordan, what do you think he'd be like or what do you think he'd be doing on that show with that cast of characters?
Well, either D'Fwan or Titus would be dead, I'm not sure which one. [Laughs.] Titus is not one to shy away from the camera, provided he knows that it's on. I don't think Titus would be too different than what we see in life, I mean, he's got some brass balls and is so purely unadulteratedly himself that I can't imagine that anything would be reduced. If not, it would probably augment his personality — and Lord knows what that would look like.

Titus is definitely prone to going over-the-top — and shooting himself in the foot. Are there any pre-fame moments you wish you could take back, like Titus's viral interview at the end of season one?
There was one, but it wasn't my fault. [Laughs.] My microphone went out in the 2009 Tony Awards. It was my big moment, and I was so excited to perform and lead the cast — I sang "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Every actor dreams of standing front and center on the Tony Awards, and I start to sing and you hear this crackling. I had no idea what to do — were they going to stop a live telecast? Or were they going to switch over to the prerecorded thing that we had already done? So we switched over to the prerecorded version that they filmed during the dress rehearsal and my current performance was just for Radio City Music Hall. At the very end of the performance, of course they had run out and given me a microphone — I just did the song and abandoned the choreography — and at the end, I sort of rolled my eyes a little bit, because I was so angry that something like that could go wrong. I mean it was the 63rd Tony Awards, so you had 63 years to get this right! You think they'd have this figured out. So then I got off stage and I had, like, 42 missed calls and texts and it occurred to me that everybody saw what I just did, so I wished I had maybe not made that little face at the end, but it all turned out fine. I could've been a hair classier.

What do you have coming up next? I heard you were going to be a guest on Justin Sayre's The Meeting — is that still happening?
I'm doing that on Sunday, and I'm working on a new musical based on a screenplay by Whitney Houston. It's not The Bodyguard, but I cannot say which one it is. That's exciting, and then we're filming season two [of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt] this summer.