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Tituss Burgess (‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’) dumps on Georgia’s ‘religious liberty’ bill, promotes season 2 April 15

Tina Fey, Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kempner at SVA Theatre on March 30, 2016 in New York City. CREDIT: Getty Images

Tina Fey, Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kempner at SVA Theatre on March 30, 2016 in New York City. CREDIT: Getty Images

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Thursday, April 14, 2016

From the moment Titus Andromedon – played by Athens native Tituss Burgess – appeared on Netflix’s goofy comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in episode one, he stood out. He was sweet yet self-absorbed, financially destitute but rich in charisma, lonely yet longing for connection.

And the show’s breakout star.

“I was just happy to have a job,” Burgess said in a recent phone interview to promote season two, which Netflix will bring out Friday. “That was the honest truth. I wasn’t gunning to break out of anything. I just wanted to be good and do a good job.”

“Unbreakable” executive producer Tina Fey, who worked with Burgess when he had a small role on “30 Rock,” created the character with Burgess in mind. He had no idea at the time until they called for him to audition. The fictional Titus is a struggling actor trying to break it big in New York. The real one was, too.

Burgess feels exceedingly grateful: “I left ’30 Rock’ just hoping to work with the caliber of writers they had. I never thought I’d be actually working with them!”

For season two, “Titus goes down this whole journey of considering other people’s feelings before his own,” Burgess said. “That’s a process he doesn’t normally go through.” He even gets a boyfriend who plays totally against any gay stereotype. “He’s played by the brilliant Mike Carlsen. He happens to be one of my best friends. It was really fun to play opposite him.”

He thinks Titus does become a fuller character as the second season goes along. “As a character, you have a story to tell. It just can’t be a fragment. You need a subject and a predicate. It’s cool to see him go through an entire sentence in a season and get to the end. Our writers make the people fully formed even in this heightened augmented state.”

Titus learns from Ellie Kemper‘s titular character, who escaped a doomsday cult after 15 years last season, landing in New York City to start a new life. Her chipper innocence contrasts with Titus’ New York cynicism. She helps him learn to think of someone other than himself.

“He doesn’t want to listen to her but he listens,” Burgess said. It helps him reconcile his past with an ex wife, a cliffhanger from the end of season one.

Burgess, 37, grew up in Athens, knowing early he was gay but struggling to blend in a place where that wasn’t all that acceptable.

“I always felt like I was being raised in the wrong city,” he said. “But I made the most of it. I found outlets in theater. I was music director for the local community theater and my church for a long time. I found ways to make it feel like home.”

“But nothing felt more like home than when I got off the plane in New York.”

He said he attended the University of Georgia, instead of, say, New York University, because they had an excellent education program. “I was going to be a music teacher, not an actor,” he said. “My voice teacher [Gregory Broughton] was amazing. I wouldn’t take anything away from my journey now. I got such a wonderful education from that man. He’s very much my mentor and friend. I call him for guidance to this day. That’s no joke!”

Broughton got back to me on Tuesday via email: “He was always a very committed performer and had loads of ideas and energy for the stage. He has remarkable vocal and acting abilities… I believe he is able to achieve many of his goals because he has always been true to himself and thereby he has access to authentic and organic talent without the affectations. Because his goals were always realistic, I was privileged to speak inspirational words which never seemed like a foreign language to him. He could take the seeds and seedlings and allow them to grow and mature in the native soil of his true gifts.”

To Conan O’Brien a few days later (thank you Political Insider for pointing this out), he was a little less diplomatic about the Peach State, creating a mock commencement speech to this alma mater that went after the “religious liberty” bill that passed in the state legislature but has been vetoed by Governor Nathan Deal:

“Dear graduates of 20 whatever year it is when I come down: you just graduated from a shady school that has the name of a shady state that tried to pass a shady law. I think you need to come out of the bars and go and vote in these primaries and these elections and get these terrorists out of office because you are literally, your inactivity, your inability to protect human beings is killing us. So put Beyonce on pause as devastating as that would be and march into these primaries and help save our country. That’s what I would say.”

His viral moment season one was a silly video the show created for Titus called “Peenot Noir,” which featured silly lyrics mostly focused on words that rhyme (or sort of rhymes) with Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir
Caviar, Myanmar
Mid-sized car
You don’t have to be popu-lar
Find out who your true friends are

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6yttOfIvOw

Burgess quickly jumped on the viral nature of the video and sells his own brand of pinot noir for $25 a bottle.

He has no idea why his character name is spelled Titus vs. his actual name Tituss. He said he looks on the bright side: “Even that small subtle difference assists me. He’s not me.”

But what happens when people yell out his name on the street? Are they fans or someone he has actually met?

“I think, ‘Oh my God! Do I know this person?’ I pretend to know them. All people want acknowledgment. So I give it to them.”

And he has no problem being recognized at the local supermarket. “My sense of fashion is so different from my character. I’m a T-shirt and jeans sort of guy. I feel no obligation to dress up!”

TV PREVIEW

“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” all season 2 episodes available starting at 3:01 a.m. Friday, April 15, Netflix


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