Tituss Burgess (‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’) on the ‘excitement’ of the interactive special [Complete Interview Transcript]

Tituss Burgess earned his fifth Emmy nomination this year for reprising his role as Titus Andromedon in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend.” The interactive Netflix special features numerous endings based on the choices of the viewer.

Burgess spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Joyce Eng before the nominations about coming back for the interactive special, the arc of Titus Andromedon and whether he’s open to coming back to the character. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: I am shamelessly wearing my “Baby Slut” shirts, people can see. So I first have to ask if you kept your “Baby Slut” shirt from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” 

Tituss Burgess: Even if I kept it I probably couldn’t fit it because I’ve been eating every day (laughs). 

GD: Do you know where it is? It’s just in a prop closet somewhere?

TB: I think it is. The only thing I stole from set is a Barbie doll. 

GD: He did have a lot of dolls. 

TB: I did. He did. 

GD: Well, I love “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend,” the interactive special and I was very sad when Netflix announced Season 4 was going to last season but then they announced this movie, the special. So what was it like for you guys? Because usually when it’s the final season, there’s a finality to it and you might be sad to be saying goodbye, but you had this movie on the horizon. 

TB: Yeah, it was a strange set of emotions. We found out in the middle of Season 4 that it would be the last season. Tina Fey called me and I could tell by the tone in her voice, I was like, “Oh, no.” But she also said in the same breath, “There’s a good chance that we might be making a movie.” I don’t know, it was both a kind of sadness and mourning a little bit, but also excitement because it felt like another extension or continuation, if you will. I didn’t have time to really process all of my emotions, because right after we wrapped up Season 4, we went into press for Season 4 and then right after the press, we started filming the movie so it didn’t feel like that much distance had gone by. So it wasn’t that much of a feeling like, “I’m never gonna see the gang again.” And with the way that they the constructed the story, darting back and forth between time periods, obviously in the bunker and in the present day, then of course, this interactive special starts, I think, five years later, I would say there’s every chance that another one of these could maybe happen. Who knows?

GD: Are you breaking news for us? 

TB: No, no, no, no. No one said that to me.

GD: That’s going to be the headline. 

TB: (Laughs.)

GD: I think people will want more. And I really think this interactive special works really well just with all the dead ends and I think comedy really lends itself to this format. So what was your reaction when you found out it wasn’t just the movie, it was an interactive special? 

TB: Well, I had never seen, how do you even call it? I’ve never seen a program that was an interactive special, choose your own adventure, if you will. So I didn’t really have a thing to compare it to and I saw a little sliver of “Bandersnatch,” is what it was called?

GD: The “Black Mirror” episode.

TB: So it didn’t affect how I felt about what we were about to do. It just felt like we were filming a movie that has 900 endings (laughs). 

GD: Have you seen all the endings? Because I’m pretty sure I haven’t. 

TB: No, they sent me a version where you make all the right choices, if you will, but people keep posting, “Oh, I made you take a nap or “You guys died today,” or whatever. There was so much material. I don’t even remember all of the different endings and versions of the scenes and such. So no, I need to give it another look just to see what we were up to. 

GD: How did this affect your preparation, if at all? Just because there’s so many different versions to keep track of and then would you shoot the multiple choices back to back successively or was there a break between scenes like you’re eating the woodland banquet and then you have to go do “Explosion Man”? 

TB: Right. This is more of a question for the director. How do I articulate it? Depending on the location, that would dictate what we shot and how many versions of it, and then sometimes we would cross-shoot. So the blocking would be the same but the scene would be different. So it was very confusing (laughs).  

GD: You just showed up. 

TB: It was very, very confusing, but Claire Scanlon is a wonderful, wonderful director and she kept that train on track because with that many different versions and trying to put the puzzle together, it could have easily gone off the rails but she would remind Ellie [Kemper] and I where we were in the story but there was a couple times where Ellie and I got our wires crossed and we were in two different scenes because both of us didn’t know we were in the other scene, so that made for some funny outtakes. 

GD: I’m sure there were plenty of that with other people too probably. 

TB: Oh yeah.

GD: I think your crowning moment in it is when you perform “Free Bird.” So first of all, have you heard from Lynyrd Skynyrd about your performance yet? 

TB: I have not. And in fact, I had never heard “Free Bird” before I performed it that day. 

GD: They didn’t teach it to you in high school in English?

TB: I never heard that song before. 

GD: Was it always going to be “Free Bird” in the script or was that just what they could clear? 

TB: I believe at the table read that it was, in fact, “Free Bird.” I believe so, yes. 

SEE the 2020 Gold Derby TV Awards nominations complete list

GD: And how many takes did that take for you to do the whole song? 

TB: Well, Jeff Richmond, my musical buddy, just kind of let it go on and on and on and on. I mean, we did one version where I was straight ahead and then another version where he takes several liberties and begins to ad-lib. I don’t know if anyone catches that literally one of the ad-libs is, “It’s a guitar!” So ridiculous (laughs).

GD: He’s just pointing out all the different instruments onstage.

TB: And swears he’s nailing it. He’s so funny to me. I love that character. 

GD: Well, the alternate version, if you pick that he thinks he knows the lyrics you sing Titus’s pet shop version. So are those lyrics Jeff Richmond originals?

TB: Oh, goodness. Sometimes the writers do some of the lyrics, and then sometimes Jeff would do it. I mean, I don’t want to misspeak to that because I’m not entirely sure. 

GD: What was your favorite scene or option to film? 

TB: Watching Titus take a nap (laughs). Which is something I am very talented at.

GD: I think a lot of people can do that pretty well. I also enjoyed when you read the baby to filth.

TB: Oh, that was fun! That was really, really fun. And also, rolling around eating that sandwich. The whole thing actually was a blast. I mean, it’s been giving me such ridiculous things to do and such funny things to do and being a part of that whole lot and that crew is just an embarrassment of riches. 

GD: Well, how do you look back on Titus’s arc and growth throughout the whole series and the movie? Because he could have easily come off as this fun, narcissistic actor-type and I think, even in the pilot, you could think, “Oh, he’s trying to take advantage of Kimmy because he just wants her rent money,” but he generally likes her and becomes friends. He looks after her and the end of Season 1, it’s kind of parallel to the movie because he goes to Indiana for her trial and here he’s just volunteering to go to Indiana and West Virginia to find those girls. So how do you look back on his arc? 

TB: One of the things that I always try to remind people is Titus Andromedon came out very, very late and when people are forced to live inauthentically because of certain social constructs, it produces behavioral patterns and gives way to choices that perhaps they wouldn’t make had they had the opportunity to really be who they are at the core. So it, for me, informed how we met Titus in Season 1 and it explained to me why he was what he was. He’s not just a narcissist or selfish or sort of a, “Me, me. I’m first.” It was born out of, he kind of had to be that way and then there’s also the repression of his femininity, if you will. So once he got to New York and was able to live out loud, I think he did it with such ebullience and such flair and there is an inner feeling of, “Ah, finally I can cut loose.” I think the lines began to blur for him the right way to treat people and I think that sort of selfish edge that people associate with that character is a result of having to hold onto everything he’s got, holding on for dear life. So that being said, I love the introduction of Mikey into the storyline because suddenly he had an involuntary response to putting someone else before him. And I think that started to usher Titus’s storyline and his journey and began to lure him into who we now know him to be at the end of the series, which is a man who is capable of loving, a man who is capable of being unselfish, a man who is capable of empathy, a man who is capable of putting others first. So I love that arc for him. 

GD: I mean, I love Mikey and Titus because they’re an adorable couple but also, I think one of the most underrated aspects of their relationship is when they break up, because I feel like the “Lemonade” of it all, which was amazing, kind of overshadowed their actual breakup, because Titus broke up with him because he was like, “There’s too much pressure being your first boyfriend and I need to let you go for now and if we’re meant to be together, we’ll find each other again.” 

TB: There’s so much truth in that and I love that they gave this couple, especially a gay couple, the opportunity to explore that and give that voice. The truth is, it is difficult when you have been out for so long, when you have become, I don’t want to say fully-formed but you’ve lived enough, you’ve dated enough, you know what heartbreak is like and you know there are certain things that you can only experience single and there’s only things that you’ll ever learn about the culture unless you become more social. And I think the danger that Titus felt that he would be putting Mikey in is not allowing Mikey to explore all of those things for himself, and I think that was probably the most unselfish thing Titus ever did on that show. 

GD: Yeah, definitely. Well, speaking of “Lemonade,” you sung a lot on the show. There’s a lot of amazing songs written by Jeff and the writers, but the big ones are “Lemonade,” “Pinot Noir” and “Boobs in California.” Do you have a non-one of those that you really liked or enjoy, whether you sang it or not? I’m partial to the Great American Songbook, that whole episode, when you did Sondheim’s “Pinnochio.”

TB: My favorite song from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is, I think it’s called “Just Go On.”

GD: From “Gangly Orphan Jeff.” 

TB: Yes! Jeff Richmond so beautifully captured the essence of “Annie” and Charles Strauss‘s score, but also created something wholly unique to the show and so new and fresh but also just so poignant and simple and the best construction I think any human can be given and it’s so catchy. But that was my favorite moment singing that with Carol Kane

GD: I think another deep cut is “Outside Bones” you sang when you’re sick. You have a lot of stuff going on because you just dropped a new single, “Dance M.F.” and you have Apple TV+’s “Central Park” coming out and you have, hopefully, “Respect,” the Aretha Franklin biopic coming out later this year. But I want to single out “Dishmantled” on Quibi because when I first read the synopsis and you were hosting it and it’s you firing food at people’s faces and they have to recreate the dish, I was like, “This sounds like it could exist in ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.’” Did you have that reaction to it, like this is something that Titus would host?

TB: Oh, I don’t know that I thought but what I do enjoy is blowing stuff up is terribly satisfying. Combine everything I love, blowing things up and food and cooking, and in fact, I’m happy, we have a Season 2! 

GD: Congratulations! Is there a specific dish you want to be used next season to be smashed in people’s faces? 

TB: The messier the better. I love it when there’s a ton of ingredients. Maybe a lasagna, maybe some sort of beef stew or something. Something that will just splatter everywhere and be nearly impossible to recreate, something really, really difficult. Maybe some French food. 

GD: The dirtier and the wetter, the better. Well, as you referenced earlier, you would be open to revisiting “Kimmy Schmidt” again down the road maybe if it ever happens, so what would you like to see if you ever get to step into Titus Andromedon’s shoes again, whether he and Mikey as parents, does “Explosion Man” launch him into the stratosphere? 

TB : This is going to be a boring answer, but I never know in advance the trajectory for Titus and for the rest of the gang and I almost prefer it that way. I like being surprised too, and it helps me generate, I think, a more authentic performance. So I never really have hopes for the character because honestly, he’s done everything and he’s been everywhere. So, maybe he’s running for political office. That would be fun (laughs).

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