So many wonderful things have happened in Tituss Burgess’s life since Tina Fey and Robert Carlock wrote a role in their new Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, with him in mind. But they have totally ruined his drink order.
“I drank pinot noir before all this ridiculousness that Tina and Robert created for me,” Burgess tells The Daily Beast. “Now I purposefully try not to order it because I don’t want people to think I’m trying to draw attention to myself.” Not that he’s abstaining completely. “Or I’ll just excuse myself to the back and have my boyfriend order it.”
The source of Burgess’s wine troubles: success.
In a bit of fluke art-imitating-life happenstance, Burgess’s character on the show, Titus with one “s,” attempts to achieve viral video fame with a hilariously amateur tune called “Peeno Noir.” The joke of the song is that it is absolutely atrocious. The lyrics rhyme random phrases to “noir,” all set to the music of a cellphone ringtone. But since Netflix released the cult comedy—literally, Kimmy Schmidt is a comedy about a girl (Ellie Kemper) who escapes a doomsday cult and starts a new life in New York City—in March, the song has become a real-life viral sensation.
Not only does Burgess just want to drink his pinot in peace, but he has no idea why the song has become such a phenomenon. In fact, he thought it would be a disaster.
“I thought we were in trouble!” he says, his voice as musical as it is on the show. “I thought, ‘Oh god, these people have lost their minds!’ First of all, it was done so off-the-cuff. They were literally shouting things at me to say. I made up the melody. I thought, ‘Oh, no no no no no no.’ I thought certainly we had driven off course!”
Not that he would have ever said so. “Who in their right minds was going to tell Tina no?” Then, with a cackle: “You obey that diva.”
After all, obeying that diva has done well for him so far.
As has become TV legend in the short time since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was released, Fey loosely based the character that 36-year-old Burgess would end up playing, aspiring Broadway actor Titus Andromedon, on Burgess himself. The two met when Burgess, himself already a Broadway success (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.
Burgess was originally slotted for one line on the show, but ended up filming four episodes of 30 Rock. When recalling how that led to his scene-stealing role in Kimmy Schmidt, he launches into a story that he says he’s told many times before, but “can’t help from telling again.”
When he finished his 30 Rock run, he was living on 47th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue. The experience had been so life-changing that he said a little prayer. “I prayed fervently for a series regular job on a show that had the perceived caliber of talent that 30 Rock had,” he says.
Soon a script was put in front of him for a new TV show from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock with a character named Titus Andromedon that, name aside, was eerily similar to Burgess in real-life: gay, black, love of theater, and otherwise fabulous. He couldn’t decide if it was a joke or the best day of his life. (For the record: Burgess still had to audition for the role.)
Fast-forward to Burgess finally being cast in Kimmy Schmidt and reporting for his first day on set. His trailer was right outside that apartment on 47th Street where he said that prayer. “I was speechless,” he says. “It was such a bold display of how the universe was really rooting for this. 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.’”
The eerie similarities between the character that Fey and Carlock created and Burgess in real life have been a major discussion point in Burgess’s press tour for the show. For example, Burgess had moved from that apparently holy 47th Street apartment to a basement apartment in Harlem by the time Kimmy Schmidt began filming. On the show, Titus and Kimmy are roommates in—yep—a basement apartment.
As his fame has risen, so has Burgess, quite literally. He’s moved his two roommates out of the duplex he shared with them and taken over the top floor, so that now he has the entire apartment—and some sunlight. “I did move up,” he laughs, “But I’m literally walking around my basement right now while I’m talking to you.”
But for all the talk of how much Tituss Burgess and Titus Andromedon have in common—he, too, auditioned many times for The Lion King—gone from the conversation is what’s behind the name “Tituss” in the first place.
“No one has asked me that!” he says. “My mom is quite religious and she got the name Tituss from the Bible. It’s one of the smallest books in the Bible. I don’t know why she added an ‘s’, but she just did. Maybe she was still under anesthesia, who knows?”
Given those origins, it’s quite fitting that a character named Titus would be the source of such a windfall of acclaim and notoriety for Burgess. For the veteran actor, the experience of his rise in fame and career success has been nothing short of a spiritual one.
Sure, there are the day-to-day reminders (and sometimes annoyances) that his life is different now that he’s on a Netflix series. Days after the show premiered he was leaving his apartment to run to the local 99-cent store to buy paper towels. Two guys were sitting on his stoop. After he politely asked them to move and made his way down the street, Burgess overheard them whisper in disbelief, “Oh my god, that’s the guy from that Schmidt show!”
Burgess says he felt chills up his spine. “Suddenly, I am everywhere in the world and my trip to the 99-cent store will never be the same,” he says.
And when you share a name with the character you’re playing, getting recognized can be a tricky thing, especially when you live in New York, where you’ve been a vital part of the theater community for over a decade.
When people shout “Tituss!” at him on the street, he can’t decipher if they’re a fan referring to Titus-with-one-“s” from the show or someone he’s worked with previously who he should know. People say his name with such familiarity and authority. “I’m like, ‘Oh shit, do I know this person?’” he says. “So I play along. People get their feelings hurt when you don’t remember who they are.”
He’s also learning that with great fame comes great responsibility, and has found himself unexpectedly having to defend his entire show against accusations that is perpetuates racial stereotypes. It’s the kind of mini-scandal that can only arise in the age of social media and the reign of the Culture of Controversy, and Burgess has had to navigate his role in it all.
“Most of the time I’m thinking, ‘Honey, you booked the wrong person to be on your show. You need Tina and Robert here. I didn’t write it! I just said the lines and did my best!” he says. “It’s a fascinating thing how suddenly your participation in said show holds you accountable for the entire thing, not just your contribution.”
He’s careful to clarify that he doesn’t remain opinion-less on the subject, however. “Also, I have very little tolerance for people who look for trouble where there is none,” he says. “There’s so much more to discuss. I sincerely wish that conversation would die.”
It’s easy to understand his frustration with the debate, as it’s clouding what has otherwise been a deeply soul-shaking journey and time in his life. He’s been uncannily reflective and aware of this all along the way in a manner that most actors rarely are. He’s been, as mentioned before, positively spiritual about it.
He remembers, for example, shooting the final scene of the pilot in Times Square, where Kimmy finds Titus and convinces him to still strive for his hopes and dreams, concluding with the two of them belting “Circle of Life” from The Lion King while tourists and passersby completely ignore them.
“For me, having walked through Times Square so many times as a broke and starving artist, as a TV star, and now having other hopes and dreams, it just represents possibility and the moment of full circle,” he says. “Funny, as it is, singing the ‘Circle of Life,’ it represented far more than I think Tina and Robert could’ve ever imagined in my life. How they knew such intimate details having not ever had those types of conversations with them, only just observing, there’s so much more going on on such a deeper level than people will ever know.”
In the time since Kimmy Schmidt was released, another video featuring Burgess singing went viral. This time it was of him singing “Stay With Me,” one of The Witch’s songs from Into the Woods. Burgess had actually played the role in Miami just before Kimmy Schmidt’s debut, the first time a male had played the role in a major production, with the special written consent from Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods’ composer.
Burgess had watched the original Broadway cast of Into the Woods on PBS when he was in high school. “It represented New York for me,” he says. “Sondheim is New York.”
When he finally arrived in New York years later as an aspiring actor, immersing himself in Sondheim’s oeuvre became a ritual. Getting to play The Witch with Sondheim’s blessing years later was yet another one of the full-circle moments Burgess is fond of recognizing, and one he won’t soon forget.
“It’s truly like having god come down in the flesh,” he says. “I think about my little high school self trying to sort out my feelings and my sexuality, trying to sort out my father issues—he was not present—and what that would mean in terms of a man playing the role of The Witch. I think about how my mother fathered me and how I mother young LGBT youth in New York City.”
How has all of this been, then? The Netflix show? The Witch? The pinot noir? Burgess’s assessment couldn’t be more fitting: “It’s been an intoxicating experience.”