Tituss Burgess might have made an impression on Broadway, in such shows as Good Vibrations and Jersey Boys, but he had sparse TV credits to his name when he was cast as D’Fwan, stylist to the stars, in four episodes of Tina Fey’s NBC hit 30 Rock. He made such an impression on Fey, in fact, that she and cocreator Robert Carlock wrote the role of Titus (one “s” at the end) in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt specifically for Burgess, who since has been nominated for an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy. But, as Burgess explains, he couldn’t have imagined how closely the character matched his own experiences as a jobbing actor.
How did this part come to you?
I honestly had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t informed about it until it was a thing. Tina and I never, in our casual dialogue, spoke about some of the more personal matters in my life, which have subsequently shown up in the script. I was living in a basement apartment, in Harlem, and I wasn’t working on Broadway at the time, so I was looking for work in other mediums. There were so many similarities Tina wrote that it was almost as if she had my apartment bugged.
She’s a powerful woman. But there are also, we hope, huge differences…
(Laughs.) Oh yeah, we couldn’t be more unalike. I have lots of opportunities to exploit Titus’ selfishness and his immodesty, and I’m a lot shyer than this man is. I don’t enjoy a great amount of attention and there’s a desperation that he has that fuels or motivates his every move, and he doesn’t consider the consequences until after the fact. In that regard we share absolutely no similarities!
The show’s tone is unlike anything we’ve seen. How was it to find that on set?
It’s a group of oddballs who seem to be a perfect fit for each other, and it’s certainly not of a tonality I’ve ever seen in comedy. But there’s a sort of 1960s-era comedy sendup that’s in the underscoring of the show. It really captures that sort of magic—the Bewitched feeling. There’s a cadence that is so uniquely Tina and Robert, and it’s simultaneously exciting and relieving. Good comedic writers who have their own voice and their own identity are few and far between, and I lucked out, man. I’m so grateful and happy to be part of such an esteemed group of people. Going to work is such fun. What I love most is that everyone gives 100% even if it’s not their coverage. Everyone’s rooting for each other and desirous of getting the best possible work out of each other. It’s a lovely thing to be a part of.
How much room do you get to experiment on the day?
Finding new things in the material is encouraged and they don’t hoard our character development, or our curiosity, into the boundaries of the characters. But the only thing I improvised was the “Peeno Noir” song. After we’ve done exactly what’s on the page, depending on what they need, they may or may not say, “Do a couple and say what you want.” But they certainly don’t need our help to improve upon these scripts.
Is that down to the casting of the ensemble do you think? It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Carol Kane or Jane Krakowski in those roles.
Yeah, when I got to set I didn’t know who was playing Lillian (Kane’s character). There were some changes to the pilot from the one we’d initially shot, and to my delight it became a very different show. I sit and watch Jane and Carol and they offer up such sharp, informed comedic choices, so it’s lovely going to school with them.
There’s no slow build in the Netflix era. After creating the show behind closed doors, what was the feeling when the whole first season hit streaming?
It’s strange to watch a forest fire catch on and to hover above it as the blaze goes farther and farther. It spread so quickly that I walked out of my apartment having been a virtual unknown and was suddenly noticed by hoards of people. That was a very strange sensation. A show that’s on a network, weekly, the fanbase grows and word of mouth spreads. It has this more elongated presence, whereas with this, the entire world shows up for you at once. Jane said recently, “Well, what do we do now? All the episodes are out there and we’re just twiddling our thumbs until we go back and do the rest of it!”
What can we expect from the second season?
We’re definitely going to learn more about Titus’ mysterious wedding. He’s still married, and we’re going to find out what the hell he’s running from. I think it might inform a great deal of Titus’ eccentricities and why he’s so crabby on the outside. I also know there’ll be a one-man show for Titus, and the premise is as ridiculous as you would think it is.
Do you think the atmosphere on-set for Season 2 will be different after the success of the first season?
I think there’ll be more excitement. There’s the joy of having found what the series is and where it lives. There was a lot of searching in the first season, and now we can move full steam ahead and enjoy knowing we’re going back to work Emmy-nominated, in more categories than one. I cannot wait to go and get back in Titus’s clothes. I’ve missed him.
To see Tituss Burgess performing “Peeno Noir” click play below: