Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Titus Burgess (Photos: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix and Jeff Mills)

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Tituss Burgess is thriving in isolation

It’s hard to imagine Titus Andromedon, one of the most vivacious characters in the candy-colored world of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, enjoying or even tolerating being in quarantine. But for Tituss Burgess, the five-time Emmy nominee who has brought the “Peeno Noir” singer to life, the isolation has actually inspired him to forge ever more meaningful connections—through video calls, of course, but also in the form of song.

That said, don’t expect to see Instagram Live posts from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy Versus The Reverend star when the 72nd Emmy Awards are held/streamed on September 20. While he remains honored by the recognition from the Television Academy, Burgess says he really didn’t expect to be nominated, given the crowded field. He spoke with The A.V. Club earlier this month about the end of his journey as Titus, how an interactive format helped render Kimmy Schmidt’s optimistic but ongoing story of healing, and whether or not the Georgia native actually knows “Free Bird.”


The A.V. Club: You have four nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy, and this is your first time being nominated in the Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Limited Series Or Movie Category—all for the same show. It’s an unusual occurrence, so have people been making predictions or sending you Emmys trivia at all?

Tituss Burgess: Oh, the answer is a blanket no. But that stuff always makes me nervous. How do I put this without sounding ungrateful? I’ve been a bridesmaid so many times and never the bride, that I’ve resigned myself to maximizing the feeling of having the honor of being nominated. And I try desperately not to cling to the desire to wanting the actual physical award. To be perfectly honest, that’s truly how I feel because I did not anticipate this year’s nomination at all. When I got the call from my publicist, I just stood there for a second. I was so stumped. I just thought that the time of my portrayal as Titus Andromedon being celebrated had, I don’t want to say come and gone, but had had its moment in the sun. And so to know that people still... the entertainment industry, and the Academy, and my peers thought enough of me, it just doesn’t get lost on me.

AVC: You are back with a vengeance in this special, because you get to play in all types of different situations. It really does feel like one season crammed into one hour or however long it takes you to play through it all the way.

TB: Well, thank you so much. They always give me choice material to play with. And this nomination’s as much mine as it is Tina (Fey)’s and Robert (Carlock)’s, and the rest of the writers.’

AVC: Have you had a chance to watch or play through the special?

TB: I watched a cut version of what they sent us before it was released to the rest of the world, so that we could remember all the things that we’ve done, because we filmed essentially three to four different versions of the movie. Or special, I should say. But I’ve not gone back to watch it. I have a difficult time watching myself on screen. I know that many actors have probably said that before, but it’s true. I do go back and watch parts of the series, now that I have enough distance from it. But I think I need a little more time before I dive into that special.

AVC: It was obviously a very complicated production, but how secretive were Tina and Robert before you got started? Because you guys knew you’re coming back together for something, but did you have any idea it was going to be something this involved?

TB: We knew when we were filming the last half of the fourth season that a movie of some sort was in the works. They brought us all into a room and said that they were working towards something, but I had no idea what these people were up to. They never disappoint, and they always surprise, and they never do something just for the sake of doing it. I don’t know whose idea, if it was Netflix or Tina and Robert’s to make this an interactive special, but when I first heard of it, I thought, “Huh. A comedy interactive special?” It’s usually drama, or mystery, or thrillers. At first I thought, “Oh goodness.” But I just thought, “This is the perfect format for this.”

AVC: You mentioned that this hasn’t typically been used for a comedy. But there’s something about the interactive element that does lend itself very well to the type of story the movie tells about how Kimmy is ultimately the one making the decision to move forward. Her recovery from trauma is an ongoing journey, one full of a bunch of little choices. So there’s something almost poetic about applying it in the context of Kimmy’s story.

TB: I agree. I think, first of all, just to watch Kimmy, who has such a zeal for life. Of all of us, she should be the one who is looking at the glass as half empty. But instead, she likes to look at it as half full. And not only does she look at it that way, she is always thinking of other people, and even trying to make the Reverend right his wrongs by doing the right thing and becoming a better person. And so to watch them give us all sorts of different outcomes to show genuinely how choices matter. You’re not just watching Titus Andromedon take a nap, or Kimmy and the Prince, played by Dan Radcliffe, decide whether or not they want to make out or whatever. But when you get to these real moments in the story where the trajectory really matters in terms of if she’s going to be able to move forward with her helping the world and saving the world, as Kimmy does, it’s lovely to know that you can make a wrong decision and it’s just such a metaphor for how she lives her life and her life has been a Choose Your Own Adventure. And that’s exactly what she does. She chooses her own adventures.

AVC: What is it like to see the end of Titus and Kimmy’s journey together? And what was it like to be to be on this last—for now—leg of the journey with Ellie Kemper?

TB: Well, I’ll speak to my relationship with Ellie. I have never felt closer to a co-star. She offers so much more than just a scene partner, and she is as caring, kind-hearted, and sunny as she appears to be on camera. There was something bittersweet about leaving, or I should say about wrapping on that last day. Of course, she was also pregnant and we were in the hot sun and she just... but she never complained. She’s just wonderful. I learned so much from her about being number one on the call sheet, and what that requires, and the patience that that requires, and being responsible, largely, for the morale of the crew and the cast. We all are responsible in our own little ways.

I’m forever indebted to her, and I miss her too. And we text often. And so there’s that. And as far as Titus and Kimmy, I think perhaps it’s a relationship of some sort of strange form of reciprocity, but it is not tit for tat. I think she teaches Titus about what it means to put others first, and to be concerned for others’ well-being. And he teaches her a little bit about how sometimes you got to put yourself first, and you can’t always save the world. They bring out some wonderful things in one another, and they balance each other out. I think it’s the oddest pairing, but the most perfect pairing.

Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper
Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper
Photo: Eric Liebowitz

AVC: It’s a lot of fun to play through the special, but I do want to ask you about one line in particular, because your delivery made me think it was improvised. It’s when Titus and Kimmy are at the gas station, and you have this great delivery of the line “I’m going to read this baby.” I’m sure that could just as easily have come from Tina, but it also just feels a bit like an ad lib.

TB: [Laughs.] I hate to disappoint you. There is not one ad-libbed moment in the entirety of that series or in that movie that came from Tituss Burgess. I promise you every single thing that I had said was scripted, and they could attest. And in fact, if you leave off so much as a dangling participle, you will go back, and you will get it right. And rightfully so—they don’t need our help. I wouldn’t dream of quote unquote, improving upon their text. And if I did, it would somehow shake up the rhythm of what they labored over. I can truly attest to there being an exact science to the rhythm of and cadences of their comedy. So I did not come up with that.

AVC: Well, that also just speaks to the relationship you guys all have, that it would feel just as natural coming from you as it does from the writers.

TB: Now, listen, I will say this. Learning how to speak their language is no small feat. It was difficult when we were starting out. And of course, as the years wore on, I got it in my body a little more. But they would give me these long, run-on monologue-y sentences, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. But now I find when I go to take a read of a material that is not by them, I’m having a little trouble getting into the rhythm of other people. I’ve spent so long in that camp, that it’s a little hard to figure out a different rhythm. Of course I’m doing it, but I’ve been so lucky for so long to have such a fun, complex set of dialogue season after season, and again with this interactive special. I’ve known that all I have to do is go to work and talk and say what they have—you know what I mean?—and that it’s going to be great.

AVC: One of the biggest moments for your character in the special is when he has to perform “Free Bird.” And as a viewer, it feels like one of the biggest decisions you’re making, whether Titus actually knows this song, and if Lynyrd Skynyrd really is taught as poetry at some high school in Mississippi. Were you familiar with the song before performing it?

TB: Tituss Burgess did not know that song. I did not know that song. [Laughs.] I learned it the day before or the day of, honestly. And I remember everyone looking at me like, “How do you not know this song? It’s so famous.” And I was like, “Guys, I just, I don’t know. I guess I grew up in a different world, in a different time, but it managed to escape me.” I am now a fan, and I understand its own poetic nature. It is quite beautiful. And it was fun getting to do my own rendition. So I can truly say it was an original take on the song, because I had no point of reference before it.

AVC: There’s another funny exchange in the bar, or maybe it’s just before Kimmy and Titus enter it, where they’re talking about their time spent in New York City and returning to a more rural area. Kimmy compares being from Indiana to being from the South. And I believe you’re from Georgia, correct?

TB: That is correct, yes. I am.

AVC: How accurate is Kimmy’s statement about the similarities between Indiana and the South?

TB: I have to be careful how I answer that. She’s not, not wrong. That’s the best way I can say it. It is very–it is a different world. It operates unto itself. And I’ll just say that she’s not, not wrong. Let me just leave it at that.

AVC: I ask in part because as someone who is from Chicago, it’s very different from the rest of Illinois. But it’s also undeniably Midwestern.

TB: Listen, when I go back home, I’m immediately—the South has not left me. When I get back and go home, I’m reminded of many things that I love about it. And I’m reminded of many reasons why I left. But I appreciate it for all of its eccentricities, I’ll put it that way.

AVC: You have a new song out that you co-wrote with Imani Coppola and Daniel Edenburg during quarantine. Can you tell me how that came about?

TB: Last fall, I was having a very difficult time, and wrestling with my own trauma and depression, and I would just jot down some thoughts or whatever, and largely it became the verses that were inside the song. During quarantine, I’ve met with these producers—actually, before quarantine I met with these producers. We were like, “Oh, well, let’s just make some sort of funky dance track or whatever.” We got together and pooled all of our resources, and put our heads together, and came up with this “Dance M.F.” I had no intention of releasing it yet. I just wanted to get a body of music together to see if I wanted to put out an album, or an EP, or whatever. The more I listened, the better I felt, and the better I felt, the more I wanted to hear it. And I thought as we moved into quarantine, “Huh. I have a feeling that this can be of greater use than just to me.” And that is why we decided to write this and to put the single out.

AVC: You said this is something that you really started last fall, but you found a way to collaborate even during quarantine. How hard has that adjustment been for you, as someone who is an artist, who’s creative, to be away from your regular collaborators?

TB: I have always sort of thrived in isolation, so I’m not having as difficult a time during this adjustment as some extroverts or some people who need to be social and on the go to feel alive. In many ways, I’ve connected more with the world, and my peers, and my colleagues in the world of entertainment and art than I ever have on a set. It’s because we’ve had to dream up ways to connect, and not just virtually, but dream up ways that give people hope, dream up ways that create escapes for people, using limited resources. Reimagining what connection looks like. So it has not been hard. In fact, it’s been very much a Wizard Of Oz slash Alice In Wonderland-type experience.

AVC: Do you plan to do any kind of watching party with your friends and your castmates when the ceremony is streamed next month?

TB: It sounds so pessimistic. Remember what I said about being the bridesmaid and not being the bride? I’m almost grateful that there isn’t a ceremony, because I don’t know that I wish to lose in front of another group of people again. There are some wonderful performances this season that I think might walk away with the trophy, and I’ve made peace with it. So I don’t know how I will consume the show. I know I’ll be home, but I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll just see.

AVC: Looking forward, movie release dates are constantly being shuffled around, but Respect is still on the schedule for January 2021. You play the gospel singer and composer James Cleveland. What are you most excited for people to see, whether it’s about your specific performance or the movie as a whole?

TB: Oh, gosh. I had a beautiful time filming it. I think what I’m most excited for the audience to walk away with is our great love and great respect and reverence for these artists, for Dr. James Cleveland, for Aretha Franklin. And to be able to celebrate the intersection of faith and a secular life, to be able to celebrate being hybrids in where they were not just musicians; they were composers. They were not just composers. They were mentors. They were not just mentors; they were civil rights activists. And that the job of an artist whose own personal composition as it makes up to what types of human being they are informs their art and it informs their walk in life. And I know that Jennifer [Hudson] and myself, along with the rest of the cast, did our best to represent these warriors and legends of our time.

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