When I talked to Tituss Burgess in 2012, he walked me through his first day working on “30 Rock.”
“It was my first time to do sitcom work and I had no idea what to do,” he said then. “I was first up for the day and when I got my sides, I see that I had two scenes, not one, and it was with Sherri [Shepherd] and Tina [Fey]. I did the line and someone was laughing off stage. And when they cut, I was convinced they were laughing because I didn’t know what I was doing. I hear the director go, ‘Tina, you know we can’t do that’ and I realized Tina Fey was laughing at me. If she’s laughing, something’s going right.”
She kept laughing, as did the rest of us, and his character, D’Fwan, became a fan favorite. So when it came time to populate Fey’s new show, she wrote a part with Burgess in mind. In March, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” premiered on Netflix and with two belted words, “Pinot Noir,” Titus Andromedon burst onto the pop culture landscape.
I caught up with Burgess in Times Square, where his character Titus works as a performer and a place that holds special meaning for Burgess from his days on Broadway.
Having not been a series regular on a show before, what surprised you most about the process?
The level of fatigue. I’ve never ever experienced that type of fatigue before. I constantly want to sleep.
How has this role stretched you as an actor?
A lot of people think “Titus” is like me. I don’t really think he’s that close to me. I’m certainly a silly person and will take most opportunities to make a joke, but there’s a desperation that “Titus” has that I only had when I first got to the city. So I’m revisiting that place, which was a very dark place for me, though there were some wonderful fond memories of when it was all ahead for me. I was broke for most of it and scared and I think a lot of “Titus’” humor and the way he looks at the world is fear based. I’m a Pisces, I don’t enjoy visiting those depths because they tend to linger. I have to control how much of that I allow into my life.
Comparisons exist between “D’Fwan” and “Titus.” What’s the biggest difference between the two characters?
“D’Fwan” was a cartoon character. He was two dimensional. He had no real stakes, there were no real circumstances. It was based on another unreal circumstance, which is reality television. There was nothing he really needed. “Titus” is completely three-dimensional, he absolutely needs things and accepts it’s going to take more than him to get what he wants. “Titus” wants to be the center of attention in attempt to land that big job. “D’Fwan” just wanted the world to pay attention all the time.
I have wanted to feel what that felt like for so long. It feels like my Broadway debut felt. It’s something you’ll never get back and you’ll never have it again, but it’s spectacular.
It’s been said this is your big break. Does it feel like that?
I have a friend, Allison, and we often talk about finding your people. The people that I love, I am loyal to and I see them often. I cook for them and love on them. The people I do not relate to on an energetic, vibrational, level, I have very little tolerance for them. As that relates to the working environment, I’ve known what I wanted for a very long time and I’ve known my worth for a very long time. That’s caused me to say no to a lot of jobs because I didn’t feel that they got me. I finally found my people with Tina and Robert. They recognized something in me that no one else has been able to tap into yet.
What’s been inspiring you recently?
Emily King. Her album “Seven” puts my through it. I just think she’s amazing.
Oh and Robin Wright. I can’t say enough about this diva. Her understanding of the camera and tempered, measured, storytelling is like no other.
You’ve released a handful of albums over the years. Any plans for a new music?
I do want to [do another album], but I want to finish this musical I’m writing first. We are still chasing the rights but I’ve assembled the best team. Rick Elice, who wrote Jersey Boys, is writing the book. I have difficulty living in too many different worlds simultaneously. One thing will have to be completed before I start something else.
What are you three favorite places in New York?
I have a bizarre affinity for the West Side Highway and the drive from Harlem to wherever we’re going. I just enjoy that drive. It calms me down no matter what.
My relationship to Times Square is evolving constantly because it is evolving constantly. It used to be one of my favorite places on Earth. I’ll tell you what though, when it’s 2 a.m. and it’s no man’s land, it’s a very romantic place.
The third place? Honestly anywhere where there’s food. (he laughs) It’s true.
Name three things you care deeply about.
My boyfriend. I care very much for New York City in a familial sort of way. It’s a very strong relationship I have with this city. Also, I care very deeply about communication. Under that umbrella is music and acting. It’s important to me that I’m a part of something I care about and that is thoughtful.
Name three things you can not stand.
Inconsiderate people. I can’t with that. Prejudice of any kind. And arrogance.
What was your earliest dream for your life?
Probably to move to New York City.
What is that dream now?
I have to write this show that will go to Broadway. I’d love to do some movies and I never really thought that was in the realm of possibility for a long time, but now I do. And I want to learn as much as I can from Tina, Robert and Jeff Richmond. Being in that environment, I am challenged and it’s lovely.
Lastly, what do you want people to know about you?
The thoughtful, intense, intellectual side is just as deep as the lighthearted, comedic side. In fact, they inform each other. And that I’m a fierce cook.
-Interview by Ryan Brinson
Photography by Michael Young
Photo assistant: Anthony Lee Medina