By Ronda Racha Penrice
Anyone who catches Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can’t miss the delightful brilliance that is Tituss Burgess. The Athens, Georgia native dropped by the AAFCA Virtual Roundtable to chat about the interactive film, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend, his animated series Central Park, the big screen Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, and himself of course!
Asked by Mercedes what it was like to transition to animation with Central Park, the Apple TV+ series about NYC’s iconic park also starring Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs, and how it compares to Broadway, where he got his start, and his various film and TV projects, Burgess’s response was so uniquely him.
“I look at every project is its own sort of planet. And the whole solar system is kind of what my career is, and they all have their own special thing and some planets can, you know, have life and habitat and some, they’re just pretty.”
Given Burgess’s quick wit, it’s easy to believe that he blesses his character Titus Andromedon with some of it. But that is not true. “Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are very generous collaborators, but they are very meticulous writers, so you say what they write. So none of what you see on screen is improved, not one word,” he shared.
When conversation turned to his role as the legendary Reverend Dr. James Cleveland in the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, Burgess got personal, sharing how, as a child, he always knew who he was thanks to his grandmother “who listened to him faithfully, had his albums and listened to many of his sermons.”
“This man’s legacy, his compositional skills, and his musical influence was already in my DNA. So finding him was not problematic. I was able to talk to his daughter, and she gave me her blessing and some wonderful insight into who the man was out of the spotlight, out of the limelight,” he said.
Burgess also shared how he felt Dr. Cleveland himself blessed his performance of him. “I don’t know how this happened and no one on set knew it until I told them, but my very first day of filming was his birthday, December 5,” he shared as confirmation.
He also feels good about the film overall. “I’m so proud of this movie. I don’t know how it will cut together and it was directed brilliantly by Liesl Tommy. But it is such a beautiful tribute to Aretha Franklin and to the legacy of Dr. James Cleveland. He was more than just Aretha’s musical mentor; he was her best friend. And she relied on him for many different things and many different versions of strengths. Not just to their shared faith in God.”
Burgess, who is openly gay and from South, shared that there was never a moment he can recall where he doubted his identity. “I came out the womb like this,” he quipped.
When asked if he was unbreakable, Burgess responded, “People think of being unbreakable as being impenetrable. I do not see it that way. I think the epicenter of being unbreakable is to be malleable. And being malleable is a must when you’re in an industry that is constantly changing its mind, tossing and turning, deciding you’re it one day and you are not the next day.
“And, if you are not centered, and if you don’t know who your source is,” he lamented, inferring to losing one’s self. “I know who my source is and I know my maker is, and I am able to go out and be who I am because I know who’s I am.”
Watch Tituss Burgess’s full interview on The AAFCA Channel on YouTube: https://youtu.be/3e80wjp7WKE