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EXCLUSIVE: How Tituss Burgess Legitimized Playing a Geisha and Delivered a Knockout Performance on 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'

by Stacy Lambe 12:21 AM PDT, June 14, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

It's easy to blur the line between fiction and reality when it comes to Tituss Burgess and his breakout Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt character, Titus Andromedon, whom creator and producer Tina Fey loosely based on the 37-year-old actor. Both are gay, black, aspiring theater stars with a penchant for the fabulous.

While seemingly written for him, Burgess -- who was probably most famous at the time for playing D'Fwan on 30 Rock or Sebastian in the Broadway adaptation of The Little Mermaid -- still had to audition for the part. Yet, that didn't stop the actor from making the most of it, which ultimately led to an Emmy nomination and his own line of wines inspired by his character's ode to the black penis, "Peeno Noir," and has since developed something of a cult following for the role.

Season two sees Titus' world expand beyond failed auditions and struggling to educate his roommate, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) as she catches up on a decade of life's education. Titus explores love and coming out (to his boyfriend’s family), and deals with ghosts of his own past, with the character becoming more than something "loosely based on" Burgess.

MORE: Tituss Burgess Wants You to Buy Him a Glass of Pinot by Tituss

"Honestly, he was never like me," Burgess tells ET. "This season, there's so much distance from Tituss Burgess to Titus Andromedon. I absolutely think there's more room for me to dive into a character. In some ways, it makes it easier. I don't feel, in some bizarre way, exposed. Now, I get to go in the same box and really play."

And play he does, with another standout performance as Titus becomes more than a caricature. "Even though the premise is so far out there -- and of course, we wouldn't expect anything less -- I loved that the writers, Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock], were able to find a way to ground something he takes seriously, even though it's really ridiculous and outrageous," Burgess says of the second season, which sees Titus realize his own past life as a geisha.

In one of the season’s most shocking (and funniest) episodes, "Kimmy Goes to a Play!," Titus dons yellow face for his one-man show about one of his past lives while Asian activists rush to protest the performance. It straddles the line of ridiculous and satire, but given the growing conversation about Asian whitewashing onscreen, it's hard to ignore.

MORE: Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess Talk Music-Packed Season 2 of 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'

"This is how we were able to legitimize it: Titus says that he remembers all of his past lives," Burgess explains, rectifying his character's decision. "These are different versions of him that lived in different universes. Although, in this lifetime, he's a black man, he's convinced that he's a geisha. That is essentially a part of his heritage, a part of who he is. And although, it is extraordinarily uncomfortable, the treatment of it was handled with such care and respect for that art form and for theater and for all things that make up that culture. It was not poking at or taken lightly and I think that's why people tell me all the time that's one of their favorite episodes, because they were, at first, so offended but we handled it with such class."

In fact, Burgess embraced the opportunity to explore another culture onscreen. "You know, black people, if I may, we don't get a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things outside the norm, outside of what is expected of us," he says. "Black women on Broadway are expected to put themselves downstage center and tear the roof off. We don't expect serious, beefy storylines. That's not what we're usually given. We're just the sassy, best friend, finger-wagging, neck-curving type people and there's so much more to us."

And perhaps that's why Titus is so much rewarding to play (and is so fully-realized onscreen). "I get to do some unbelievably layered things. The material that I'm given is so complex, and I'm so grateful for it, so I welcome any opportunities to push boundaries."

MORE: Standout Comedic Performances of the Season

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