Tituss Burgess Says He Plays The Most 'Everyman' Character On 'Kimmy Schmidt' | KERA News

Tituss Burgess Says He Plays The Most 'Everyman' Character On 'Kimmy Schmidt'

Jun 26, 2017
Originally published on June 29, 2017 12:49 pm

In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Titus Andromedon is a show-stealing character. Tituss Burgess plays the mostly out-of-work actor who's black, gay and an endearing friend to the very naive Kimmy Schmidt.

Burgess may share a first name with his over-the-top character, but he says they're plenty different. Unlike Andromedon, Burgess is a quiet homebody who doesn't need to be the center of attention. He grew up in small-town Georgia before making his way to Broadway and then TV. It's a journey that required many leaps of faith, and he credits one woman with giving him the confidence to take those leaps.

"Lena Horne," he says. "I saw The Wiz when I was in the seventh grade. ... The authority with which she sang ['If You Believe'], watching her telling Dorothy, you know, how exactly to get to where she wants to be, and the way she looked down the barrel of the lens — you could not tell me that this woman was not singing to me. ... I would go back and forth to the library and rent The Wiz, and this one piece just was so electric and I felt invincible. I felt, for all intents and purposes, that whatever it was I was going to do, there was absolutely nothing anyone could say or do to stop me. And it has proven true."


Interview Highlights

On how he bridges the gap between his more subdued personality and his show-stealing characters, including Sebastian in Broadway's The Little Mermaid and Nicely-Nicely in Broadway's Guys and Dolls

I am an only child, so I had a great deal of time by myself. I didn't love being by myself, but that also means a great deal of time sitting back and observing the world. I had a huge family, but believe it or not there are personalities in my family that are far ... larger and grandiose than Titus Andromedon. ... And I just filed those personalities away. And when I pick up a script, I go, "Oh, I know that person," or, "I know who that is," or, "I recognize this sentiment," or, "I recognize this selfish trait."

On how he keeps Andromedon grounded through the show's parody of Beyonce's visual album Lemonade

However large or into the stratosphere they wrote him, I would find the one thing in the scene that he needed. And then I would go down the rabbit hole of why he needs it. The deeper the well of emotion, the deeper the cut, the deeper the wound, the larger the cry. The harder you fall, the louder the wail, the louder the ouch. So it made perfect sense that this is how he would exorcise his emotionally heartbroken demons.

On how he responds to criticism that Andromedon is feeding the TV stereotype of the flamboyant, gay best friend

They're not watching the show. Titus Andromedon is more everyman than any other character on that TV show. He's broke; he doesn't have money to pay the rent; he can't keep a job; he gets racially profiled. I mean, so what that he adds a couple of "s"s to the words he says or wears women's clothes?

But that is what I say to those people, that they are not watching the show. And that if how someone moves about the world on the spectrum of masculinity to femininity is a measure with which the cause or [LGBTQ] characters have either moved forward or regressed — if that's what they're basing it on, then what kind of two-dimensional world are they living in? So the question sounds ill-informed already, and I tend to not answer it.

Radio producer Justine Kenin, radio editor Mallory Yu and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the first season of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" dropped on Netflix, all anybody could talk about was the theme song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT THEME SONG")

MIKE BRITT: (Singing) Unbreakable, they alive, damn it. It's a miracle - unbreakable.

SHAPIRO: Now that the show is in its third season, fans have another obsession - the character Titus Andromedon, Kimmy's best friend and roommate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT")

TITUSS BURGESS: (As Titus Andromedon) Ladies like that are trouble. They collect gossip like Tituses collect expired deli meats. And when it all comes out the result is just as toxic.

SHAPIRO: The actor who plays Titus Andromedon is named Tituss Burgess. He had a successful career on Broadway before this role. And while he usually plays larger-than-life characters, Burgess told me he's actually a quiet person who doesn't seek out the spotlight. He grew up in small town Georgia. So I asked - when he was a kid, did he see someone on TV or in the movies who gave him the confidence that he could become who he is today? He didn't miss a beat.

BURGESS: Lena Horne.

SHAPIRO: Really?

BURGESS: I saw "The Wiz" when I was in the seventh grade. I don't know why this woman always does this to me. She - the authority with which she sang "Believe In Yourself."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE IN YOURSELF")

LENA HORNE: (Singing) If you believe within your heart you'll know.

BURGESS: Watching her telling Dorothy, you know, how exactly to get to where she wants to be. And the way she looked down the barrel of the lens, you could not tell me that this woman was not singing to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE IN YOURSELF")

HORNE: (Singing) That's why I want you to believe in yourself. Yes, right from the start you've got to believe, believe in the magic right there in your heart.

BURGESS: This one piece just was so electric. And I felt for all intents and purposes that whatever it was I was going to do, there was absolutely nothing anyone could say or do to stop me. And it has proven true.

SHAPIRO: The characters that you've played have always been showstoppers. You were Sebastian in "The Little Mermaid" on Broadway. You were Nicely-Nicely in the 2009 revival of "Guys And Dolls." And now Titus Andromedon in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" basically steals every scene that he's in. So for a person who describes himself as a homebody and the exact opposite of a showstopper, how do you bridge that gap?

BURGESS: Oh, that's easy, dude.

SHAPIRO: Did you just call me dude?

BURGESS: Oh, sorry, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BURGESS: I am an only child, so I had a great deal of time by myself. And I love being by myself. That also means a great deal of time sitting back and observing the world. I had a huge family, but believe it or not there are personalities in my family that are far more larger and grandiose than Titus Andromedon.

SHAPIRO: Oh, really?

BURGESS: Oh, yeah, man. And that's, like, how - that's...

SHAPIRO: I didn't think there were people on earth more grandiose and large than Titus Andromedon.

BURGESS: Oh, it is a colorful world out there.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BURGESS: And I just filed those personalities away. And when I pick up a script I go, oh, I know that person or I know who that is or I recognize this sentiment or I recognize this selfish trait. And it is not that difficult to humanize and figure out who these people are and what's going to make them pop and flashy and grounded all at the same time. So that's how I do it.

SHAPIRO: Did you ever worry about making him too big and losing the grounding?

BURGESS: No. However large or into the stratosphere they wrote him I would find the one thing in the scene that he needed.

SHAPIRO: Can you give me an example?

BURGESS: Well, sure, lemonading (ph).

SHAPIRO: Your character essentially plays out the Beyonce visual album scene by scene, song by song in a jaw-dropping way that is the thing everybody's talking about this season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT")

BURGESS: (As Titus Andromedon, singing) I loved you like a Patti LaBelle pie, so sweet and flaky I could cry. Sometimes pop songs don't really rhyme.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Sometimes pop songs don't really rhyme.

BURGESS: (As Titus Andromedon, singing) This will sound fine to your mind.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) This will sound fine to your mind.

BURGESS: The deeper the well of emotion, the deeper the cut, the deeper the wound, the larger the cry. So it made perfect sense that this is how he would exercise his emotionally heartbroken demons.

SHAPIRO: But was there also a moment of I'm sorry, you're asking me to do what?

BURGESS: No, because everything they ask me to do is ridiculous.

(LAUGHTER)

BURGESS: So I'm past that.

(LAUGHTER)

BURGESS: So - but that's how I keep it grounded and grandiose at the same time.

SHAPIRO: The jokes in this show come so fast and furious that sometimes...

BURGESS: Who you telling? Who you telling? I don't understand half of them (laughter).

SHAPIRO: OK, that's what I was going to ask about because sometimes I have to rewind, sometimes I turn to the person next to me, sometimes I realize what the joke meant three beats later and realize that I've missed two jokes in the middle of it. Like, how do you deal with that as the guy who has to deliver all of them?

BURGESS: I spend a lot of time on Google.

SHAPIRO: Really?

BURGESS: Yeah, man. It's so multi-layered, so many levels. I have to - I find myself trying to figure out - what exactly are they talking about? And then, of course, I just go to them. You guys, I do not understand what you're saying.

SHAPIRO: I'm imagining, like, lesson time with Tina Fey, the writer explaining to Tituss Burgess...

BURGESS: It is true. It is true.

SHAPIRO: ...What the joke is. We here at NPR were pleased to get a little bit of a shout-out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT")

BURGESS: (As Titus Andromedon) Take your incomplete college application and go wherever white folks go to finish stuff - a farmer's market, a dog park, maybe a live recording of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me.

SHAPIRO: Tell me you did not have to look up the reference to Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me.

BURGESS: I did.

SHAPIRO: Oh, no, really (laughter)?

BURGESS: I'm so sorry. I did. But that's just because I don't listen to podcasts a lot or a great deal of NPR.

SHAPIRO: Oh, just twist the knife.

BURGESS: No, no, no, it's not - but now I will, though.

SHAPIRO: I've heard a narrative about LGBT characters on TV. And I know you're familiar with this. It goes, look how far we've come. It used to be that every gay character on TV was an effeminate, flamboyant best friend and now America's moved past that. And your character is an effeminate, flamboyant best friend. And there have definitely been people who have said you're not helping the cause.

BURGESS: Sure.

SHAPIRO: How do you respond to that?

BURGESS: They're not watching the show. Titus Andromedon is more everyman than any other character on that TV show. He's broke. He doesn't have money to pay the rent. He can't keep a job. He gets racially profiled. I mean, so what that he adds a couple of S's to the words he says or, you know, wears women clothes? If how someone moves about the world on the spectrum of masculinity to femininity is a measure with which the cause or LGBT characters have either moved forward or regressed, if that's what they're basing it on, then what kind of two-dimensional world are they living in? So the question sounds ill-informed already, and I tend to not answer it.

SHAPIRO: Well, Tituss Burgess, it's just been so wonderful talking to you. Thank you for coming in and having this chat with us.

BURGESS: You are so welcome. Thank you for having me, Ari. It's so nice to meet you.

SHAPIRO: You, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT")

BURGESS: (As Titus Andromedon, singing) Is this what I deserve? I took you at your word. You know I'm not too feminine to cut me up a nerd. What's worse? Being heartbroke or roach bit? Hearbroke or roach bit? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.