Tituss Burgess knows how to steal a scene. This winter, the stage veteran (who starred in Guys and Dolls, Jersey Boys, and The Little Mermaid on Broadway) became the first man to play the role of Witch in Into the Woods onstage. Four years earlier, he was the first mortal to pull focus from Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey. In 30 Rock’s “Queen of Jordan” episodes (a takeoff on the Real Housewives scourge), Burgess made a major impression as D’Fwan, style adviser to Sherri Shepherd and creator of D’Fwine, the show-within-a-show’s official throwing beverage. Among other choice moments, he attempted to cajole Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy out of the closet, urging him to be “true to your you,” and inspiring Baldwin to utter the term “rectal integrity.”
Burgess is now a core element of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fey’s excellent new series about a woman (Bridesmaids’ Ellie Kemper) who escapes a doomsday cult and starts over in New York City, with the help of her gay unemployed-actor roommate Titus (Burgess), high-riding boss (Jane Krakowski) and Carol Kane-esque landlady (Carol Kane). In the aggressively optimistic Kimmy, Kemper has found her Hamlet, and the peppery Burgess has an ideal foil. Burgess, 36, talked about how Fey’s mentorship helped him stay true to his you during production of the first season; it debuts this week on Netflix.
Out: How did you enter the Tina Fey universe on 30 Rock?
Michael Martin: I would love to say she took me out to lunch and told me how much she loved me, but I auditioned for an under-five — less than five lines — for one episode. Which turned into a four-episode arc. I got there to the studio on the first day and was horrified, because I had never done network television, just award shows and theater and stuff. I was praying that someone else’s scenes were going to be filmed before mine so I could watch and figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing. Of course, my scene was first, and I said to the director: “I need to you know, I don’t know what I’m doing. And if you could just guide me, that would be lovely.” We shot the first scene, and she yelled “cut” before we’re even done. And I thought, “Oh Jesus, I’m definitely fired.” And she walks up to me and says, “We have to stop because Tina was laughing in the back.” I just sort of took my cue from there.
And how did that turn into this show?
About a year ago, my manager texted me and said, “Would you like to talk to Tina Fey?” She sent me a screenshot of the [character] breakdown that comes to agents and managers from casting directors. It said, “In the role of Titus...” And I thought, “Oh my God, either this is a really cruel joke or Tina Fey has written something for me.” I went to audition, and she told me later it was written with me in mind. She’s my fairy godmother. The fact that she was even thinking about me in the interim just blows my mind. I feel so lucky—she’s such a delicious teacher and such a wonderful collaborator.
What’s the best thing she’s taught you?
To show up and do what you would normally do in the world, and the rest will take care of itself. To watch her comfortably slide from actress to writer to actor to producer to director, and how it’s all one and the same — she leads by example. I feel like a lion once I’m on that set. I feel like I can do anything. I don’t know how she sleeps or how she mothers, with two kids, or how she is a wife, because she’s the hardest working woman in showbiz and she’s so attentive and so calm.
So how are you doing what you normally do in the world, in this part?
She encouraged me to borrow from that part of myself that was without work for a very long time. To use the part of me that was an out-of-work actor—it wasn’t hard to figure out who Titus was.
Did you ever have to dress up as an action figure in Times Square?
No, but I’ve had some crazy jobs. When I first got to New York, it was hard. I never waited tables—I mean, I worked at Ruby Foo’s as a host, but I couldn’t even do that. It was so much yelling, and way too complicated. I certainly know what it means to live hand-to-mouth. I’d love to say that jobs were being thrown at me, but the truth is that after 30 Rock, it took a very long time for me to choose my next project. I had a very specific goal in mind, and when you’re specific about what you want, you have to pass on a lot of things or you have to wait for it to show up.
What’s it like to work with Ellie Kemper?
Ellie is like my little sister. It’s not normal to waltz into a show and have the synergy be so completely perfect. She’s a very generous actress, and obviously she’s so funny, but it is her off-camera demeanor that is so delicious. Our text exchanges are ridiculous. She’ll literally say, “Filming is so boring today because you’re not here.” She’s so fun, she’s wonderful. She gives me so much to play off and work with.
How does Titus’s gayness work into the show?
Well, it’s kind of the least of the things they play up. It’s more his entitlement, his delusional way of thinking, in terms of thinking he should be a star. It’s more about the random situations he finds himself in. Titus is such a peculiar entity, which you’ll see as the show goes on. This is not a show about… this is not Kimmy Has a Gay Best Friend. It’s Titus Full-Throttle 3-D. And his sexual orientation is not a thing.
Do you miss Broadway?
After Guys and Dolls closed in 2009, I said to myself that I need to dream a different dream, because I was bored. I don’t want to say that being on Broadway is boring — that’s not what I mean. I began to feel that there was something else I was supposed to be doing that I didn’t know how to do, or how it would present itself. I thought work on television seemed to be it. So I did it!
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt debuts on Netflix on March 6.