"It's strange to talk about how people are adoring me."
That's how Tituss Burgess describes the fan reaction to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — one that most definitely would not be shared by his hilarious, deliciously fabulous, musically inclined, fame-starved divo alter ego Titus Andromedon.
"I couldn't be less like Titus. I'm very much an introvert," Burgess says. "I really don't even enjoy attention all that much. I enjoy performing, obviously, and people are going to pay attention. But when people start paying attention to Tituss, it makes me very nervous and very uncomfortable, so we're nothing alike.
"But people love Titus and they have great affection for him," he continues. "They have been tweeting all sorts of fun things. I've already been bombarded on the streets with some fans. It's been lovely and I welcome it. It's for them. If they didn't like it, I wouldn't have a job. It's been wonderful."
To say Burgess was born to play Titus wouldn't be a stretch. A Georgia native, Burgess headed to New York in pursuit of Broadway stardom after college and a gig at Disney World. Unlike Titus, he didn't spend too long toiling in paycheck jobs, making his Broadway debut in 2005 in Good Vibrations. Roles in Jersey Boys, The Little Mermaid (in which he originated the stage version of Sebastian) and Guys and Dolls as Nicely Nicely Johnson followed. In January, he became the first man to play The Witch in a production of Into the Woods, with Stephen Sondheim's blessing. "Titus is obviously obsessed with becoming a musical theater star. It's just fun to sort of already have an in to that world and to know all the little ins and outs that Titus is so desperately in pursuit of, having had a career in theater already," Burgess says. "It's fun to watch him chase that journey."
After Guys and Dolls ended, Burgess, who released an album, Comfortable, in 2012, set his sights on segueing to television, though he admits it was "never what I wanted to do." "I was completely consumed with musical theater and that's what I wanted to do when I got to New York. After Guys and Dolls closed in 2009, suddenly I wanted to do something else and I didn't quite know how to break into network television," he says. "It quickly became an obsession of mine. I had to do it, and I love it. It is interesting flexing a different muscle, but being able to use all the things that I learned in theater as well."
His TV breakthrough came on that other Tina Fey show 30 Rock as D'Fwan, Angie's scene-stealing sassy hairdresser on her reality hit Queen of Jordan. (Lest we forget, before "Peeno Noir," there was D'Fwan's boutique wine D'Fwine. Please D'Fwink responsibly.) Fey and Robert Carlock then wrote the part of Titus with Burgess in mind, as if the name isn't a dead giveaway. "Titus is a very unique name. ... I've only met one other Titus in my lifetime," Burgess says. "This is me speculating [but] I think Tina and Robert wanted to give him a unique a name as he is an individual."
Indeed, from Fey's indomitable mind, Titus is not your stock flamboyant gay best friend. Fully, wonderfully sketched, he's a delightful ball of contradictions — hyperbolic yet grounded, determined yet lazy, hip yet dated, narcissistic yet fiercely loyal and protective of Kimmy (Ellie Kemper). Though Titus initially saw mole woman-out-of-bunker Kimmy as nothing more than rent money, Burgess doesn't believe he's ever using his eventual BFF (not even to be famous).
"Titus doesn't take advantage of Kimmy as much as he takes advantage of an opportunity [in] a situation," he says. "I think he actually adores this girl. Before Kimmy, he was very, very lonely and defensive and insulated on purpose. I think it was difficult for him to let someone in because they're gonna see all of his vulnerabilities, all of the things that are not working with him. I think because of [that], it took him a little bit to ease into Kimmy, and he treated her like he would treat anyone else. That treatment is quickly dissolved because she is so irresistibly funny and lovely. I think it is an accidental friendship. ... He needs her money in order to pay the rent. As a result, I think it's like, 'Well, she's staying here, so I might as well help her become acclimated so she doesn't get on my nerves.' ... I think what he eventually realizes is he has great affection for her. He goes all the way to Indiana!"
But it hasn't been a complete lovefest for the Netflix comedy, which has faced uproar over its handling of race, in particular secret Native American Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) and Kimmy's Vietnamese beau Dong (Ki Hong Lee). But like most of Fey's keen work, Kimmy Schmidt slyly reinforces stereotypes while subverting them. Titus stayed in his work werewolf costume for one whole episode after he found that he was treated better as a werewolf than as a black man. Burgess thinks it's all been blown out of proportion.
"Humor comes out of the most serious situations, so it makes sense that they would choose such dark topics to make a political or social commentary on it. Their platform is humor. I think it's only appropriate. Otherwise there's nobody walking around in a werewolf costume for no reason. They don't write without having a very strong point of view to be made," he says. "Because of Tina's involvement, people hold her on such a high pedestal, and rightfully so, and she's so intelligent about her wit that I think it probably invites discussion, good or bad, it invites discussion. That's the point. That's what she wants. If we people aren't talking about you, you're not doing your job. It's a good thing."
Production on Season 2, which was ordered when Netflix picked up the show from NBC in November, will begin later this year. Burgess, who is currently writing a musical version of The Preacher's Wife, says he has no idea what's in store, except hopefully more of Titus "bursting into song." (Twist: His favorite song that he performed in Season 1 is not "Peeno Noir," but "Firework" because "I was actually singing to Ellie and that's the way I feel about her.")
"I prefer [to be in the dark]. If I knew too early, I would obsess over it. I work best to come up with my funniest moments when I don't have a lot of time to think," he says. "It's so fun over there. Tina and Robert run such a delightful ship. It's a happy place to work."