Tituss Burgess has a room. His keyboard is in there, along with his music books, the posters of all the Broadway shows he’s appeared in over his career, and, the most recent addition, the plaque he received when he was nominated for an Emmy Award last year for his role on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
He doesn’t go in there often. Usually when small details in his life set him on a neurotic spiral: the delicious meal he had prepared wasn’t so delicious; the project he had been attached to didn’t get greenlit. He goes there when he needs to “snap out of it.” He goes there to reflect.
It’s then that he realizes how his life has changed in the past year since his performance as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s blissfully bombastic Titus Andromedon—written by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock with him in mind (!)—made him, overnight, everyone’s favorite character on TV.
“I have to remind myself to go in there and sit with it for a second,” he says. “It is overwhelming.”
Back in 2011, Burgess, then a Broadway veteran (Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, Nicely Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls) guest-starred as D’Fwan, the flamboyant henchman to Sherri Shepherd’s Angie Jordan on 30 Rock. He was originally slotted for one line. Tina Fey liked him so much he filmed four episodes.
He was living on 47th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues at the time and, so fulfilled and changed by the 30 Rock experience, offered up a prayer to one day land a series regular role on a show that great. When a script was sent his way for a new TV show from Fey and Carlock with a character named Titus Andromedon that shared not just a name with Burgess, but a spirit—gay, black, love of theater, otherwise fabulous—he couldn’t believe it.
And when he showed up for his first day of work on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and his trailer was outside that apartment from which he delivered that prayer, he was speechless. “It was such a wink from the universe going, ‘I heard you. And not only did I hear you, but I’m going to show you how specifically so,’” he told The Daily Beast last year.
Since then, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, about a girl (Ellie Kemper) who escapes a doomsday cult and begins a new life in New York City, has become a critically hailed, voraciously binged comedy hit. And Burgess? He’s become an Emmy nominee, a viral video star, one of the most exciting new presences in comedy, and, maybe most importantly, an inspirational and impassioned beacon of light and activist for LGBT rights and LGBT youths.
“It’s a tad unbelievable,” Burgess says, going back to that reflection room. “While several of these things were on my vision board, to watch them come to fruition in such grand fashion can be a hair terrifying, even while it is gratifying.”
Still, there’s a second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to celebrate (it launches Friday on Netflix). There is press to do, opportunities to explore, fans to delight.
“I don’t stay too long,” he says. “I don’t sit in there and make love to my own hype. I go in and get out.” He takes a big breath. “This is a fickle industry. Here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t want to spend all the time reflecting. I want to spend it doing.”
The 37-year-old actor, in alternately profound and canny ways, is, well, “doing” just that.
Burgess recently launched a line of wine called Pinot by Tituss, inspired by the dizzying viral success of one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s most unusual—and therefore hysterical—plot points.
Titus Andromedon attempts to achieve viral video fame with a cringingly amateur tune called “Peeno Noir.” An ode to the black penis, the lyrics rhyme random phrases to “noir,” all set to a cellphone ringtone.
When Netflix released Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last year, the song went viral in real life. And real-life Tituss Burgess, who had previously quite enjoyed drinking pinot noir, found his drink order ruined. He realized he’d have to purposefully refrain from ordering so that people wouldn’t think he was “trying to draw attention to himself,” he says, in a voice just as musical as his character’s.
Now with the launch of the signature wine, however, Burgess is “leaning in as closely to it as I possibly could,” he laughs. He was initially baffled by the song’s resonance. When filming, “I thought we were in trouble!” he says. “I thought, ‘Oh god, these people have lost their minds!’”
Though he knows how popular the song is and how closely people associate him with it, Burgess says he actually hasn’t seen the music video since it came out. But he’s come to—as Pinot by Tituss suggests—embrace it. “So when it comes back around it’s more like, ‘Oh yeah! That thing!’ Versus, ‘Oh, here it is again…’”
Of course, this is an instance of life imitating art that is intentional, orchestrated by a savvy branding team. So much of Burgess’s experience on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has him grappling with art-imitating-life moments so profound he often finds himself marveling at how Fey and Carlock could have possibly known these things about him when they were writing this show.
It’s a meaningfulness that continues in Season 2. The early episodes of the season, especially, dig heavily into Titus Andromedon’s backstory, revealing what his life was like back home as a closeted gay man in Mississippi before arriving in New York and meeting Kimmy Schmidt.
It turns out his name was Ronald, and he was married to a woman. He left her just before it was time for their first dance, a choreographed routine to Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl” (he was closeted, but there were signs), and never looked back.
When elements of that past come back to him haunt him in New York City and Titus finds himself running from it again, he poignantly tells Kimmy, “Mississippi is my bunker.” In other words, the dark, constricting past that he’s worked so hard to blossom away from.
The idea that people have “bunkers,” in Kimmy Schmidt-speak, is something that most of us can relate to, and certainly those who run away to big cities. But it was especially resonant for Burgess, who grew up in Athens, Georgia, a city that was not hospitable to the true, fabulous person he needed to be.
“I certainly was not happy in Athens, and I did not feel at home when I was there,” Burgess says. “I know that will come much to the chagrin of my family, but that is the truth.”
He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was born into the wrong region. That feeling was lifted when his plane landed in New York City.
“Literally it was like, ‘Oh my god, my people!’” he says. “I just understood them. And understood it, and her, and how New York works. Outside of the oppressive nature that the South offered to the black people, black gay people, black gay people who happened to be Christian, who wouldn’t want to leave? I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
But there’s another provocative line in Season 2 (for all of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s candy-colored lunacy, it’s at heart an achingly real portrait of people trying to discover who they are) where Kimmy tells Titus, who is aggressively shunning his past, “You need to embrace your Ronald.”
Does Tituss Burgess embrace his Ronald?
“I embraced Tituss,” he laughs. “I embraced him so much that I took care of him and told him we have to move.” After a cackle, he continues: “I knew what we needed. We didn’t run from ourselves. We ran to ourselves.”
It’s the exact, unbreakable appeal of Titus Andromedon. And, it becomes more and more clear, Tituss Burgess by extension.
Fans of the show have rallied around this unashamed, unabashed, flamboyant gay character, with his quick wit and melodic way of sing-speaking and colorful wardrobe—which this season includes a pair of Air Jordache Thigh-High Tops (possibly the best pop-culture wordplay the show has produced yet).
And the way his insecurities don’t stem from people judging who he is, but that they haven’t properly bowed to how amazing he is, has made Titus, to many, one of the most important queer characters on TV.
“I don’t think of him as a movement or a political statement,” he says. “But what I do appreciate is that he exists, and that he exists so boldly and unabashedly himself. Because we’re living in a world where one of two things happen: either you are in people’s faces and about who you are and the person you want to be or you smother it, you hide.”
He begins to talk about the power of a black gay character like this on TV, especially as richly as Fey and Carlock have written him—in contrast to those who, wrongly he says, criticized Titus for being too feminine or a stereotype. But he pauses to make a greater point.
“Titus is much more the Everyman than not,” he says. “He’s out of work. He’s in pursuit of a dream that might or might not happen. He is overweight. He can’t pay his rent. There’s so many things that I can see in him that is representative of a lot of America.”
But then there’s Tituss, with two S’s. The actor who is so uncharacteristically candid for someone in his profession, a person who is outspoken and who has a fearsome knowledge of what he will and won’t tolerate in the world without losing an ounce of compassion or warmth.
The actor who gave a speech at the Human Rights Campaign talking about growing up in Athens, talking about his mother who won’t allow him to share a room with his partner when he visits, and talking about how he won’t hide who he is, because if he did he would allow people to get away with their ignorance.
The person who is this, well, honest—when so many others find it just plain easier not to be.
“I don’t know how people live the other way, and that is the honest truth,” he says. “To somehow shrink so that you might be more comfortable is a foreign language to me. It’s a trait that I’ve never had. And that I hope I never, ever have.”