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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Tituss Burgess on His Love Story, the Geisha Plot, and How Titus Represents Oppression in America

Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Tituss Burgess is sitting at an Upper West Side café enjoying a Jack Daniels and Diet Coke. Anyone who recognizes the star of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might wonder why he’s not drinking pinot noir, the libation that propelled him to stardom, and which he now makes and sells himself. It’s been reported that once his “Peeno Noir” performance went viral, it became awkward for him to drink that wine in public. But he actually has a different reason for his choice of beverage. “I’m on the Atkins diet,” says Burgess, looking slimmer than in the show’s first season. “I have to lose like 15 more pounds so my blood pressure and my cholesterol goes down but, no, no, no, I’m not tired of it,” he clarifies. “There’s less sugar in this.”

In the second season of Kimmy, out today, the show explores the world of the boisterous, one-eyebrow-cocking wannabe actor Titus Andromedon in a more profound way. Burgess spoke with Vulture about the year his life changed, the role Alec Baldwin played in it, and why he and Ellie Kemper can’t just get it together and go out already. Light season-two spoilers ahead.

You’ve become a winemaker. Was that always a goal?
Certainly not! I never anticipated that that was anything I would ever be doing. But I have found such joy in the creative marketing aspect of it. Beyond the actual juice, it is the social lifestyle and network associated with it that I get the most pleasure from. Every time I take a sip or see the bottle I giggle. That’s all that matters to me.

How did this happen?
It was my idea. People kept tweeting me and it was always somebody else’s bottle of pinot noir and I was like, well, this is ridiculous. It should be mine. That’s all it took.

How does one go about making wine?
You link up with a company that knows what it’s doing, find a winery that thinks it’s a good idea. Go taste it, choose a juice. You get a graphics department and come up with the look of it. Sign a lot of papers for the FDA. You hire a lot of lawyers. And, all of a sudden, you have your wine.

How many did you taste?
I tasted 12 wines and this one is the third one I tasted. I said, “You guys can stop,” and they said, “No, you need to taste them all.” It was the one. I knew right away.

What was it about it?
Pinot noir is usually really thin for me. Almost watery. And this was more full-bodied, a little more dense, and that’s what I like.

So, the new season of Kimmy goes deeper into Titus’s world and his background. We learn the story of his marriage and how he named himself.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! I remember filming that. I was like, This is great, this is great. Just the moment that he’s like, “I got to get the hell out of here.”

His wife, Vonda, had her own reasons for marrying him.
It is a great story. She got to get the apology she needed, the closure she needed. It’s the first time we saw Titus truly put someone else’s feelings before his own, and the season is full of that kind of involuntary consideration. Being that he falls in love, more and more, we find him becoming more and more human. He’s still flashy, sassy, and his larger-than-life self. But it allows his shenanigans to be more palatable now because it’s countered by this lovely, humane story line.

The love-interest choice is so unexpected.
It’s so true! I even said that! I remember last season I emailed [executive producer Robert Carlock] — not saying that I have anything to do with this story line and that is the truth — but I did send them an email saying that Titus will probably end up with someone who doesn’t have the six-pack and who isn’t as polished, because ultimately Titus doesn’t want that kind of competition walking down the street. He needs, on some level, to feel like he is the center of attention. 

It’s a struggle for him, and this romance is something I think Titus would not have had a lot of patience with in season one.
The inherent message that lies beneath Kimmy in her daily life is rubbing off on him more and more.

Do you think Titus’s story is essentially sad?
This is where I was bothered by the initial critique in season one. Certain critics had not seen the entire season where they wrote Titus off, or attempted to write him off as this flamboyant, vapid, empty, gay mouthpiece. Titus is more everyman than Lillian, Kimmy, or Jacqueline. He’s the one who doesn’t have a job, he can’t afford his rent, he’s been after a goal that seems to be further and further away from him. He’s gay. He doesn’t fit in anywhere. And the more he tries, the more he seems to fail. It is more a blanket representation of oppression in America than any other of the story lines and all of the superlatives that you would attribute to Titus. All of the quick wit and the selfishness, those are just a residual effect of things that are not working. You know? Miserable people tend to act out.

His dreams are far away.
That would make me miserable! He is inherently unhappy until he has someone who sees right to the heart of that. And Mike Carlsen, he is such a beautiful actor and does such a gorgeous job. Titus found someone who knows that about him and gives him a place to express all of that, so we see not necessarily a softer side of Titus, but not as prickly. He now weighs the pros and the cons a little more. A little more adult!

What was it like to film the geisha episode?
Um, well, when I read about that I was like, Oh, God.

There’s this term that has come up over us — transracial. People who are claiming to identify with or be something that they were not necessarily born into. Well, this takes dramatic license into, “Who am I to say you don’t remember all the people that you were before you came to Earth this time around? And why shouldn’t you be able to express that?” But in this lifetime, and because of the nature of history in this country, that is looked at as blackface, as disrespectful. Titus thinks he is being truer to himself than he has ever been before.

Did you have anything to do with that song?
It’s a real Japanese song, and it’s high. I mean I had no problems, you know, but when I got it I was like, Oh my God, this is so much work. I had to get a coach.

How many times did you do it?
I think it may have been a day and a half of filming.

It’s going to be a talker.
Yeah. It certainly makes me, as a participant of society, listen more carefully and consider that someone may not just be trying to be provocative. That just, maybe, as we augment in our day-to-day lives, as the political climate gets more and more intense, as hybrids of entertainment, music, and art emerge, that all bets are off when you are measuring a current affair against the backdrop of something that already exists.

What is playing Titus like for you?
(Long pause.) It is very fun. It’s exhausting.

How so?
I don’t live in his (points high above his head).

You mean his energy’s up here?
I’m so not like that, and I don’t enjoy a lot of attention. I’m very private. Or let me rephrase that. I enjoy my alone time, but I’m an open book. And where he lives is an open invitation to see me. Come see me! Or like, not even an invitation, I’m going to show you whether you want it or not.

So you’re physically tired after you play him?
Oh God, yeah. Around episode 13, as much as I have enjoyed playing in the sandbox it’s like, okay. Ellie [Kemper] and I talk about this all this time. I’m glad there’s 13 episodes and not 22.

For Ellie, too, it requires a lot of high energy.
She and I are a lot alike. We are hermits, and we have this ongoing joke where we threaten to hang out with each other because we get along so well and enjoy each other’s company so much. But the thought of leaving home — we should publish our text exchanges because all the plans that we have end up subsequently getting cancelled and neither of us are angry about it. I just love her. Ellie’s the best.

How did you land your first regular role on a series?
I did four episodes on 30 Rock but we never had any kind of conversations about what else I was doing or where I lived, or anything. All of these correlations between Titus and Tituss, we never talked about, so it’s really uncanny how perfect it fit. I tell this story all the time. And I’ll tell it to you. And it is the absolute truth. The last day of 30 Rock, I was living on 47th Street between Eighth and Ninth and my last Broadway show had just closed. It was Guys and Dolls. Alec Baldwin turned to the team on my last day of shooting and said, “You guys gotta give this guy a spinoff.” I had been in pursuit of a purpose, of the next dream to chase. And I wanted to put a pause on theater, so I went home and got on my knees and I prayed, “Please, if the universe will allow, if you will grant me, or can find it in your vastness, a series or a job working with the caliber of talent I’ve been working with and types of writers, I will do right by it and I will honor it and I will do it to the best of my abilities.” That was four years before. Cut to getting this job, and on the first day they called and they said, “Tituss, you need to report to 48th and Tenth and someone will walk you to your trailer.” The trailer for my show was right outside my old apartment where I prayed for this job. I literally could have opened the door and walked into my trailer. I looked around, and I started crying.

And I say that to say I was at the Harlem Tavern a couple months ago with some friends of mine. This young lady runs out, sobbing. And I’m like, Where’s the police, is something wrong? She said, “I just want you to know that I have been battling depression, I’m going through a divorce, and the only thing I had to look forward to is to come home and watch you over and over and over again.” And my first thought was 47th Street when I prayed and me saying, “I will do right by it to the best of my ability.” Because it is so much larger than getting any nomination and me getting accolades. I take it so seriously because it is giving people relief. Things are so thick right now in this world, and even if it just provides a little blip in the lake of all other things that are going on …

So the moral of the story is that we should all pray to Alec Baldwin?
We should all pray to Alec! (Laughs.) I don’t even know if he remembers that. He probably said something to everybody after we wrapped, but he was so kind to me when we filmed, he was wonderful. I learned so much from that man because I was in a lot of scenes with him. Particularly how to work on network television, where there is compression of time. You have 21, 22 minutes to tell a story. So if you’ve got a joke where there’s two parts, you better try and forge it into one or it will get cut. He showed me how to be more precise and get to the comedic point in a more clever way. I just had great schooling with him and, of course, Tina and all the writers who gave me notes. But he taught me how to save what you’ve come up with. Great advice.

Do people often come up to you and want to talk to you about the show?
I welcome that. I was just at lunch, at the Harlem Tavern again, and this woman and her child come in and sometimes I don’t know why people are smiling. I’m not going to be presumptuous because that’s gross. But I was like, Okay, she just wants to say hi, so I’ll say hi first. She goes, “My son loves your show.” And this kid couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. And I walk over and I say, ‘“Hi!” and his eyes got so big. And he could only muster a couple of words. But he was just like, “I love you very much.” And I said, “Thank you!” and he goes, “Thank you,” and he goes back to his mom. He didn’t want a picture, I was like, wow. If all interactions went that way that would be lovely. The people I’ve met have been inherently delicious and warm and appreciative. It makes those 14-hour-days so worth it.

Is that especially challenging for someone who values their alone time and their privacy?
I know how to make myself disappear and I also know that it’s the by-product of my line of work. This is part of the job. The other question you could ask is: Is it challenging on set where there are hundreds of people around you all day long? When I go out into the world, as much as I would prefer not to be paid attention to, not because I covet being by myself, as much as I would love that, I know allowing people to tell me how they feel is a part of this.

How else has your life changed in this year?
I am cooking up several projects and it’s been lovely to have such support and have people ready to listen to what’s going on up here. There’s going to be some really funny things that I have planned for the people who pay attention to me. And some educational things! In the next year or so.

Are you talking about TV or movies?
I’m talking about all of that and some theater stuff. I’m writing a lot.

Do you want to create your own show?
I will create my own show, I will write my own musicals because that’s what I was doing before I got this other platform. And now, because of this platform, I can actually do it and not stress out about it actually happening.

This project I’m working on and writing, it’s a musical. [It] gives me the feeling I had when I’d perform until I released and let myself off the hook of the mandate to always feel the same about any given thing at any given time. When I think about setting out to create with my audience in mind and knowing how the score makes me feel … I think, when I’m singing someone else’s music, I’m not feeling the words. I hope they’re having as magical of an experience as I am delivering this information. That is how I feel when I’m writing theater versus when I perform theater.

Theater seems grueling.
It is grueling. I don’t know that I knew how grueling it was until I stopped doing it. When you’re in it you’re in it. This is just what it is. It’s not to say I’ll never go back. Of course I’ll go back. But I’ll go back with a different awareness and a different set of skills and a different appreciation for the work, and I won’t go back until it is a piece that I am dying for the world to know about. Because it’s too much work to not go back without that.

You were nominated for an Emmy. What was that like?
That is the first time I was speechless. And I always have something to say. I can sincerely say that wasn’t on my radar, because that was beyond what I had asked for. It’s an interesting journey — you are suddenly a part of what you don’t necessarily set out to be a part of. A lot of journalists ask me, which I think is so gross, “Are you upset that you didn’t win?” Why would you ask anyone that question, first of all?

Well, you did have the best acceptance speech for the Webby.
It was lovely.  Lovely to accept an award because such a wonderful living legend thought of me and I thought it has to be about her, and for me, it will be about her for as long as this goes on. As much as I bring something to this, I am forever, forever, indebted to [Tina Fey] and Robert.

Would you consider doing a drama?
The answer is yeah. I have not had any offers for it, but I live in a world, or Tituss lives in a world, where I think that would be closer to home. My energy honestly hovers really low to the ground.

People debate which is harder to perform — comedy or drama? What do you think?
Comedy is. I mean, think about it. People have to work to maintain happiness. It’s easy to be miserable. It’s easy to stay miserable. It’s easy to live in a place where nothing’s working and not being able to work your way out of it. It’s much harder to choose happiness, to choose laughter, to choose a positive.

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