"Let's get this man out of office": Comic star Tituss Burgess gets serious about politics

The Emmy nominee appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Biden & discovering "Free Bird"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published August 26, 2020 5:01PM (EDT)
Tituss Burgess in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy versus the Reverend" (Netflix)
Tituss Burgess in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy versus the Reverend" (Netflix)

Though he's best known for his scene-stealing, scene-making character Titus Andromedon on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Tituss Burgess doesn't like to be the center of attention. "My energy hovers at around a two," the actor, who just earned his fifth Emmy nomination, says. But you wouldn't guess it from his current schedule.

He's currently hosting the Quibi cooking competition "Dishmantled," has a new Netflix karaoke series "Sing On!" coming in September and, later this year, he plays the Reverend James Cleveland in the Aretha Franklin biopic "Respect." In a recent "Salon Talks," Burgess opened up about politics, Southern Rock, and of course, pinot noir.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on your fifth nomination.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I feel so honored, truly. I did not expect it at all, and that is the honest to god truth. I'm so deeply grateful and so moved at the acknowledgement.

Tituss, you said very shortly after your nomination was announced that this one hits a little differently. Everything hits differently every day for all of us. What does it mean to you this year to get this nomination, and what has it meant to you to be part of this show this year?

Obviously, there is the backdrop of the national unrest and all of the social injustice, and the world is giving the appearance of chaos. Those have been marginalized feel even further so now, and I don't fully know how we got to this. The fact that our industry is able — and I'm not saying that this is why people of color or gay people were acknowledged — but I'm appreciative that there is a more careful examination of the criteria, and of what it means to truly be inclusive and how to recognize a field that is as diverse as the world is. That list should look like the nation that we live in. And it did this year, more so than in recent years. So being on that list meant a lot. It spoke volumes to all of our sort of desires to see real change be implemented into our day to day.

So many of the nominated shows and performances this year in comedy have really been driving the conversation around orientation, around justice, around mental health, around trauma. This show is representative of this bigger conversation that we're having as a nation.

I can speak from personal experience with ["Kimmy" creators] Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock]. They've always, always dug their heels deep into talking about issues surrounding race, surrounding social injustice, surrounding the inequality that women often experience, surrounding The Man, and how it's largely a white male-driven world. They've been able to tackle these issues using comedic devices that help make it palatable, and you also see it for exactly what it is. It's not sugar-coated. They bring focus to areas that perhaps we would just turn a blind eye to. Art usually leads the way as it relates to bringing awareness to things that lie dormant.
 
One of the highlights of watching "Kimmy" this year was seeing you nail it with "Free Bird." Are you a Skynyrd fan?

I'm ashamed to say I had no idea who that was or what that song was when I sang it. It wasn't until after we filmed it that I'd gone back and went into a deep, deep, deep dive. I didn't realize the allegiance and reverence people have for this music and this catalog of music. So I cannot say that I did. I did not. So you got a very honest performance out of me because I had no past points of references.
 
So are you now a Southern Rock fan?
 
Oh, I live for it. I get it. I get it.

You are so closely identified with Titus Andromedon that it doesn't even look like it's a performance. It looks like this is just a fully formed human being. I'm curious what it is like when one is so deeply associated with a part to then branch out and be known for another thing. You are all doing all different types of projects, musically, as an actor and as a television personality.

I'm not making a concerted effort to distance myself from anything. Just like you have famous pop stars who have a whole slew of hit songs, but there's always that one song everyone is going to want to hear. When I first moved into the role and "Pinot Noir" became a viral hit, it seemed to follow me for seasons to come. But then people latched on to other things. I have to believe that if people are playing close enough attention, that they will allow their plates to be filled with all sorts of foods and not just their favorite dish every single day. As it relates to other projects, I go where I'm led.

I look to places where I see a deficit and I look to places inside me that I've not had the opportunity to discover or unearth before, and that's how I choose what I do. If it sticks to the wall and people respond to it, that's wonderful. If it doesn't, that is also okay, and we try something else. You can't make anybody do anything as evidenced by the country that we are living in right now. So I can only hope that people follow me where I go.
 
I feel like you were setting me up when you said the phrase, "If it sticks to the wall," Tituss, because clearly we're just going to segue way right into "Dishmantled." How was this pitched to you and what made you say, "Yes. I want to be the guy who pushes this red button and creates chaos"?
 
It happened very fast. I was at my agent's office and we were talking about something completely different and something came across his desk and he was like, "Huh." He's like, "Well, I've got to bring it to you eventually, anyway, so I might as well just ask you now. Do you have any interest in hosting?" I had told CAA when I signed on that I'm an actor. I don't even want to host dinner parties right now. It is a wholly different skill set and requires some heavy lifting, I think, to make it look easy — of course depending on perhaps the format of the show. So he said, "Well, would you ever want to blow up food onto people?" I just started laughing. I was like, "Sir, what in the hell are you talking about?" Then he explained it, and I just laughed throughout his entire pitch. So I thought if, it sounds this much fun, then it has to be that much fun to do.
 
This is the premise of the show. You launch food at people, and then what happens?
 
They put on this hazmat, they go up inside this sort of shell-like situation. I hit a detonator, and it catapults a dish onto the contestants. These are chefs in their own right. They have 30 minutes to recreate the dish after having tasted it and touched it, because there's more to putting the meal together than just how it tastes. There are so many components to it. So they use all of their senses except for sight. They're sliding around this thing and they get really dirty and it's really funny and they fall and it's hilarious. I'm the only one that knows what the dish is and what the ingredients are. What's that show on Nickelodeon with the green goop? The slime, it's like that.

It's messy and it's just been renewed for a second season. And then you've got another show that's coming out very soon on Netflix, "Sing On!" It's different because it's not the singing competition that we've seen before.
 
Not unlike "Dishmantled," because — I'm going to say this phrase — the stakes are lower. The stakes are high because this means a lot to the contestants who are competing, but "Dishmantled" is not searching for the next celebrity chef. We're just having a little fun and giving away a little money. As is evidenced that you'll see with the "Sing On!" you can win up to $60,000. These are everyday, ordinary Americans who just love to sing and they happen to love karaoke a whole bunch. We're not giving away a recording contract or a million dollars. They're doing it purely for the love. And some have donated their money to charity and some put it towards a honeymoon, and it's just a chance to have some mindless entertainment while we sing through catalogs of some of our favorite hits.
 
It speaks to something that there are these shows coming out now where they are competitions, but they're also just less serious. It seems like you're a big part of that somehow, Tituss. What is that makes people think of you to be the person who is the impresario in this world of joyful, delighted, light-spiritedness?
 
I don't know. Honestly, I'm a silly person, but I'm also really serious, and my energy hovers at about a 2. I don't like to be the center of attention. So I marvel at how I find myself leading these shows. 
 
You are a serious person and you are a serious actor too. I have to ask you about [the Aretha Franklin biopic] "Respect," because you have founded a gospel choir in your life. Now you are playing truly one of the hall of fame, all-star American great names.
 
I have such reverence for Dr. James Cleveland. When I was a kid, my mom and my grandmother would put on 45's of all of his sermons and our choir, before I became the director, we would go through his catalog and sing so many of his songs in church. I just thought it was so full circle for me to be bestowed the honor of portraying him on the big screen.

I didn't even know how much of an influence he had in cultivating the sound that is Aretha Franklin. He was her piano teacher, coached her vocally when she was younger, was just his friend all around. She looked to him for spiritual guidance, and of course later we get that amazing documentary, "Amazing Grace."

My first day of shooting – I wasn't even aware of this until I was doing some digging while we were waiting for the cameras and the lights to be set up – it was his birthday. I just thought, "How lovely, what kismet." It was wonderful. I'm so proud of this movie. And Jennifer Hudson. We've grown quite close. The performance that she turns in, I just am in awe. I've always thought she was an extraordinary talent, obviously an extraordinary singer, but the work that she put in in these scenes and the raw emotion that she was able to evoke. I'd sit there and watched her work herself up, and this otherness was literally summoned. You'll see. It's beautifully directed by Liesl Tommy. And the entire cast, Forest Whitaker. Oh, what a powerhouse. It just is a remarkable film. I'm so excited.
 
Seeing you and Jennifer Hudson on the same bill, you know there is a song that is deeply connected with both of you. Was there ever a "Sing On!" competition on set for something from "Dreamgirls"?
 
Do you know we never really spoke about it? Even when they would yell, "Cut," the choir that was there. They would just keep singing and singing and singing and singing. So there wasn't a real moment to even have an opportunity to emerge. That is so fascinating. We had been talking about everything under the sun except for "Dreamgirls." I just think that is so funny.

You are not afraid to talk about the issues. You recently voiced your support for Biden and Harris. There are people out there who feel like voting doesn't matter. There are people who feel like, "What's the point?" Can you use this moment to just say why you did that? Why you spoke out about who you were supporting for this election and why?

Let me talk from the inside out. We have a terribly flawed governmental system in America. It does not work for most of its citizens. I personally think the Electoral College should be abolished and we should move into the popular vote, and just leave it alone or give a percentage. Say a president or someone running for president just has a slight lead of 2% and at 45 to 46. Well, split that delegate down and give them both what they won of the state, if we're going to keep that system in place. But that isn't happening. That is probably not going to happen. We know that we cannot change those infrastructures.

We also know that what is currently in place in the White House and the person currently holding office has further divided us in ways unimaginable. No matter how you cut it, even if you are a Republican, you can't ignore the hundred, almost 180,000 now, deaths due to the coronavirus because of the mishandling of, or just complete ignorance of science. He fired the pandemic division that was in place a couple of years before the onset of this, getting rid of things left and right, just because he could.

And we've also seen the 1%, whose wealth has increased by billions and billions and billions while the rest of the country suffer. Broadway, New York City in particular on a more localized level, just across the street here. All the restaurants around it that relied on the transient nature of tourism and such, it shut down. The list goes on and on and on and on.

Is Biden without a questionable past? No. Is Kamala Harris? No. There are going to be some things that we dislike about all participants who run for president. Something happens to our country or when it's time for people to run for the presidency. We begin to create this strange ideology where there are humans roaming the Earth, citizens of the United States of America, who do not have a spot or blemish. Whose resume will be so clean and that there will be some sort of perfect candidate.

It just does not exist. Biden and Harris have done more good, I believe, than things that some people find questionable or do not suit their narrative. I will also say the very nature of being a human being means to evolve. And we have to allow both ourselves and those who are going to represent us to look at the world with fresh eyes. Perhaps their view of how we are to go forward doesn't match with some of the things that they did in the past. But keeping things the way that they are now is just not an option.

And I hate this term of voting for the lesser of two evils. I will not participate in that. I will not denounce Kamala or Biden. I'm in full support of them. Anyone who uses this opportunity to vote for anyone other than them who also is complaining about the economy, complaining about the coronavirus, complaining about the deaths, complaining about the flawed governmental system, is not only shooting themselves in the foot, but it's putting us in harm's way. And our country, I will also say, is not designed for drastic changes, as is evidenced by the 2016 election.

This country went so far in a direction that has only had the worst ramifications on us. We need swift and immediate action, but that comes slowly. It just does. Unless you get liposuction, you don't lose weight overnight. It takes time. And right now, if you aren't outraged by the removal of the mailboxes, by the locks on the mailboxes . . . The man was even impeached and he's still in office. And women, by the way, and white women particularly, all of the heinous ways that he's shown white women and women in general, such blatant disrespect with all of his chauvinistic rhetoric and disregard for the female body.

Could you vote for someone like that? How could you do that? To me, this is the only way out right now. There are people and pundits and bloggers, and everyone wants to be right, sort of expose and gotcha journalism. There's not one of us who is without fault. There's not one of us. But there are a person running for president and a person running for vice president who have way more qualifications to run this country and to bring us back together than on the other. It just is point-blank. So I'm hopeful that enough of us are fired up and fatigued and remembering all the mass shootings, remembering all of the things during the coronavirus, remembering all the deaths. Don't let that stuff be in vain. Don't let it be in vain. Let's get this man out of office.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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