Make no mistake: There’s a reason that Titus Andromedon is a favorite among “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” fans. And it has a lot to do with the man behind the Peeno Noir: Tituss Burgess.
Burgess is one of a kind. Over the phone, he’s thoughtful — he’s passionate as he talks about his family, his upbringing, and his craft. Oh, and he’s fun. He calls me a diva. We briefly trade lip-smacking “OKs!” And at the end of the interview, he quips: "You go and write the fiercest article, girl."
He sounds a lot less like Titus than you’d expect. The 38-year-old says he and his “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” character are one in the same. “I don’t actively differentiate myself from Titus Andromedon,” he says. Then he jokes, “Titus would put as much thought into answering these questions as I would!”
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We laugh. But, he notes seriously, his keen eye for bold characters started in his childhood. “I’m an only child, so I only had myself to entertain [growing up]. And when you are by yourself, you have a great deal of time to observe.”
Church, in particular, became a big inspiration for the Athens, Georgia native.
“As you may or may not know, there are some characters at church. And these people lead all sorts of lives — double ones, triple ones, quadruple ones. I picked up on certain behavior patterns that stuck out to me as abnormal up against the backdrop of the church."
He’s used those observations to buoy his performances on Broadway, from “Guys and Dolls” to “The Little Mermaid.” "It became easier to drop into different characters, because I spent so much time studying human beings."
One of the main things he learned that audiences respond to? Good vibes. "When I saw the messages of sincerity and love [in church], how all of those messages parlay into a glorious response from a body of people, that’s the type of energy that I wanted to incite my audience to feel,” he says. “ I want to get right to the core of something they would understand and identify with.”
That, of course, is how he came to balance Titus’ dark side — including his casual forays into low-self esteem and feelings of immobility.
“Titus’ darkness kind of drives his everything. It’s his motivation for wanting to succeed, and it’s my knowledge of those very real spaces that I’ve lived in parts of my past," says the “30 Rock" alum.
Some of those real spaces, like racism and gentrification, are covered in the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which for all its apparent fluff, seamlessly tackles more serious topics, too. “All these struggles have one thing in common: Oppression. So all of us should be standing in solidarity with the other because we are all marginalized,” he says talking faster.
“If there’s blowback about any particular episode or that we’ve handled the subject matter improperly or poorly, I’m like, ‘You idiot!’ You’re not paying attention. You’re uninformed. In 26 minutes we’ve done more to [address] the hurt of a people than some movements, than some marches have."
Burgess believes shows and celebrities have the responsibility to address these issues. “When you have a platform, and can say whatever you want, why not talk about things that are truthful?” he continues. “Even if they’re through the lens of comedy, Why not talk about things that are thought provoking? I’d rather be talking about this than be on some other sitcom where the world they live in doesn’t reflect the world that I live in. I hunger for more these days.”