Everyone wants Tituss Burgess to be his or her best friend. I witnessed this firsthand at an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt preview event with co-star Carol Kane at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March. When Burgess descended the theater's steps, hundreds of mostly female millennials jumped to their feet for him, cheering as though Queen Bey herself was in attendance.
After a dozen years as a struggling New York actor, Burgess is finally becoming a household name. As Titus Andromedon in Netflix's acclaimed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Burgess plays the splashy roommate tasked with catching Kimmy up on the ins and outs of life in NYC, from landing guys to earning paychecks, along with the every pop-culture happening of the past 15 years.
The kimono-wearing, celebrity-obsessed nightclubber Andromedon is part Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls, part Stefon from Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update. He also sings better than anyone on Glee—before television, Burgess was Sebastian the crab in the Broadway production of The Little Mermaid. His Unbreakable character's hilarious music video, "Peeno Noir: An Ode to Black Penis," featured rhymes on noir such as "caviar," "Myanmar," and "mid-size car." The video not only went viral—it provided the impetus for the actor's recently launched brand of wine, Pinot by Tituss (really), which he has been busy promoting whenever he shows up on late-night talk shows, which is more and more these days.
When I met Burgess last month in his neighborhood of Harlem, he was excited to try some wine, though a bit nervous at the prospect of getting it right. Our original angle had been a wine tasting, where we would sample his pinot noir alongside two competitors in a blind taste test.
"I usually drink a malbec or a merlot," the 33-year-old Athens, Georgia, native admitted. "So I needed my pinot noir to be a little thicker, a little richer, a little fuller."
After identifying his own brand with a slight hesitation, Burgess asked Pompette's owner, Mozel Watson, who was serving us, about his decade in the wine industry. "First of all, you don't look old enough," Burgess said, sounding a bit dumbstruck. "Second of all, I don't know that I've ever met another African American in the wine industry... very rarely."
"There's a few of us," Watson said.
As we sipped Burgess's signature pinot noir, the actor digressed several times to acknowledge Watson's choice of soundtrack, Beyoncé's new album, Lemonade. "It is so hard to listen to," he exclaimed. It's not that he didn't think it was good—he does—rather it's that Burgess had just ended his romantic relationship of four and a half years, a fact he volunteered exactly one minute after I turned on my tape recorder. I was quite surprised to hear this—his partner was mentioned in Burgess's New York Times Sunday Routine weeks earlier, and on a pre-taped episode of The Wendy Williams Show. Plus I'd just binge-watched the second season of Unbreakable, in which he falls in for a construction worker named Mikey (Mike Carlsen) over the course of 13 episodes. As season two ends, Titus is the only Unbreakable character in a healthy romantic relationship.
Still, he does see a parallel with plot of the show. "On season two of Unbreakable, Kimmy has emotion burps. I had emotion outbursts that were out of character for Tituss Burgess," he said, gesturing with his hands. "[Kimmy and Tituss Burgess] sort of intersected and lived together for a second, and I felt like I was drowning. I'm not that kind. I'm a very happy man. Very focused, very full of life." He and his ex-boyfriend, Pablo Salinas, remain best friends. They actually watched Lemonade together the weekend it came out, which was awkward because Burgess had been unfaithful in the past. "I could tell [Salinas] just felt vindicated," he said.
Unbreakable showrunners Robert Carlock and Tina Fey wrote the part of Titus Andromedon with Burgess in mind (he had previously appeared on the duo's 30 Rock as a hairdresser named D'Fwan). Despite Tituss and Titus sharing a homophonic name, a love of Broadway, and a neighborhood (on the show, Harlem is renamed "East Dogmouth"), Burgess differs from his character in many ways. Whereas Andromedon née Ronand Wilkerson didn't realize he was gay until he married a woman, Burgess told me he first had inklings of his sexuality when he was in kindergarten. Burgess also does not like being the center of attention—he'd rather chide Watson about his love life or plan a cookout for the shop-goers than answer my questions—because he's genuinely curious to get to know other people and foster community. While Titus Andromedon is a charming egomaniac, the actor who portrays him is a true egalitarian.
"There's nothing stereotypically mainstream about what Tina Fey does. It is all subversive."
He's also politically active. During a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he described his alma mater, the University of Georgia, as "a shady school that has the name of a shady state that tried to pass a shady law," a reference to House Bill 757, which would have allowed faith-based organizations to discriminate against hiring LGBT workers.
When I asked Burgess about his political leanings, he was happy to oblige me. In his view, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas are "experiencing what I would call a pulling down of the pants," he said. "I think people are just exhausted. Jenna, as much as I respect you, I have no vested interest in who you sleep with. Or, who you date. And I can't for the life of me figure out why that's so important to other people. Out of all the things that are important to being a human being," he said.
"We have to pull religion out of government once and for all—it has no place there whatsoever," he continued. Burgess is a practicing Christian who attends Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village and frequently dines with his pastor, Dr. Jacqui Lewis—but he strongly advocates for separation of church and state. "In order to honor the human being, we must allow for other people to exist," he said.
Unlike Burgess, Unbreakable's Titus is anti-religion, although he is still in touch with his spiritual side. He claims to have had several previous lives, including a stints as an openly gay slave named Alphonse and a Napoleonic Frenchman who nearly invented raisins.
The most-talked about plot point in season two involves Titus's decision to stage a one-man show, Kimono She Didn't: Murasaki's Journey, dressed as the Japanese geisha his soul once embodied. Many critics disapproved—Alex Abad-Santos at Vox called it "another Tina Fey project that paints Asian people, specifically Asian women, as crappy characters." (At VICE, Mallika Rao asked, "How can someone so smart at evening the playing field for women be so dumb about other poorly represented people?")
Despite the controversy, Burgess had no trouble defending the creative choices his bosses make. When I asked, "Why risk having a white person play someone whose actually Native American?" in relation to the contentious storyline of Native American character Jackie Lynne, played by Jane Krakowski, Burgess replied, "It's not one of those situations where #OscarsSoWhite, and we are stealing a role from a Native American. It is giving voice to a people who have had an entire legacy of people stealing things from them, and now one of their own willfully left them. Most of what [the writers] do, I think, is exacerbate—or exploit, rather—what is wrong with America." He asked if I understood, seeming a bit put out that I'd required any explanation.
I rephrased my question, curious about Fey's motivations specifically. He replied, "There's nothing stereotypically mainstream about what Tina Fey does. It is all subversive. It is all in attempt to thwart and to come from left field, and to put into the mainstream dialogue what is not normally mainstream. It's more than just comedy. It's social commentary, it is ignoring social commentary, it is, 'I'm a woman who's at the top of her game, who can write about and say whatever she wants and not apologize for it.'"
He continued, "It is giving focus to a white, male-dominated world where you got a storyline about a Native American, a storyline about a gay black man who is out of work, a story about a white landlord who's a criminal, right? And a rape bunker victim. Why wouldn't we talk about something as radical as Native Americans?"
Follow Jenna Marotta on Twitter.