Five Favorite Films

Tituss Burgess's Five Favorite Films

The co-star of Aretha Franklin biopic Respect talks making music with Jennifer Hudson, stepping into the shoes of a gospel icon, and the recent Oscar-winning movie his dogs couldn't get enough of.

by | August 12, 2021 | Comments

Tituss Burgess

(Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic))

Tituss Burgess was a staple – and standout – on Broadway long before the world came to know and love him as Titus Andromedon on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Show-stopping turns in stage productions of Good VibrationsThe Wiz, and in The Little Mermaid, where he originated the role of Sebastian, earned him acclaim in the New York theater set, and set him up perfectly for his breakout role as naive Kimmy’s woefully unhelpful, penny-pinching, scene-stealing bestie, Titus – who also just happened to be an aspiring Broadway star, allowing the showrunners to showcase Burgess’s vocal talents to often hilarious effect.

The Kimmy Schmidt role would earn him five Emmy nominations and open the door for new projects in which showed fans different shades to his talent: among them a lead role as Cole in Apple TV+’s acclaimed animated series Central Park and a part in the ensemble cast of the Certified Fresh Dolemite Is My Name, alongside Eddie Murphy. (He also hosted game show Dishmantled on the short-lived Quibi platform, in which contestants had to examine and taste the remains of an exploded meal and then try to recreate the dish that had just been blown-up. It was hilarious and one of the few genuinely critically acclaimed offerings the ill-fated Quibi had on offer.)

This week, Burgess shows us yet another side of his formidable talent. In Respect, the long-anticipated biopic about Aretha Franklin, he plays Reverend Dr. James Cleveland, gospel legend and mentor and friend to the Queen of Soul. His chemistry with co-star Jennifer Hudson, and soulful take on a music icon so familiar to Black churchgoers, has critics citing him as one of the movie’s standouts. Ahead of the release of Respect in theaters, Burgess sat with Rotten Tomatoes to talk about forging a connection with Hudson, why he’s never afraid of a role – no matter how big – and to share the five movies that mean the most to him.


Tituss Burgess’s Five Favorite Films


Terms of Endearment (1983)

78%

I was a kid when I saw that with my mom. My mother had very sophisticated tastes in movies, and a strange barometer for what she thought I could handle. But I took to it, and it sort of colored what I’ve been attracted to. You wouldn’t know it given what I do on camera, but the dramatic sensibility and the ethos and pathos that is embedded in that movie is just unmatched. Shirley MacLaine, I still think, is just as good now as she was then. And of course, I came to know her by Sweet Charity. That’s a whole other story. I just think it’s a wonderful, heartbreaking story about family and family dynamics and making the best soup you can out of… rotten tomatoes.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

99%

Perhaps for obvious reasons, but it is magical! Of course, there’s our dear Judy Garland, but each one of those characters leave you with something to chew on. And I came to know it at a very young age, as many people do, and went on to do it in middle school. I played the Lion, so I love that one.

The Wiz (1978)

42%

I came to love that obviously because of its cultural impact and being able to see so many brown bodies on camera and taking that story and showing how storytelling is storytelling, it doesn’t matter what we look like. But it does matter what we look like, particularly if there is no representation where there should be. So it left me with a whole different type of magic and feeling that I could ease on down the road if I wanted to and didn’t have to follow the yellow brick road if I didn’t want to.

Rotten Tomatoes: You mentioned you played the Lion in the Wizard of Oz…

I also played the Lion in The Wiz.

Rotten Tomatoes: Is the Lion the character that you most relate to – or are there other Oz characters you see yourself in?

I think the Lion and Dorothy. I think Dorothy is closest to the Lion. I think there’s something about her tenacity. One or two things happen [in life]: either you make hard decisions because you are brave, or you had to make hard decisions because you were so afraid that you were ambushed into making the hard decision. And Dorothy was ambushed. She had no other choice. And I think the Lion is the physical manifestation of the latter, and I think that is why she latches onto him. She’s extremely smart. She figures out things very easily, and she’s obviously full of empathy, otherwise she wouldn’t have brought all these people with her on a journey to get something that she needed. So I think the Lion is the best character in it, outside of Dorothy.

Meryl Streep. Full stop. What else is there to say? It’s just so fun.

Parasite (2019)

98%

It just managed to seamlessly marry everything on the emotional spectrum and everything on the cinematic spectrum, just with a great effortlessness. It held my attention, and I think we in this country horribly undervalue film from overseas, and that’s so arrogant of us, but it is what it is. [The first time I watched it was at home] during quarantine. I had heard about it, but I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll get around to it.” And there was one afternoon I was like, “Well, I might as well put this on and see what it’s about.” And what I heard about it was not what I experienced, which I’m grateful for. I was able to have an authentic reaction to what I saw. I was home on the couch with my dogs and they are quiet for nothing, and they were glued to the TV, too. So it transcends species.


Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: This performance is amazing, and I think people are going to be surprised and delighted by what you do in Respect. Can you talk a little bit about the real-life musician you play, Reverend Dr. James Cleveland? I know you, like many, were very familiar with his work growing up. How did his music and story first enter your life?

Tituss Burgess: Not entirely unlike many people of color from the South in a particular age bracket [I knew his work from a young age]. At the time of the birth of gospel music, before it began to be lured into this hybrid pop sound that we hear today, where gospel music was a handful of groups – the Clark Sisters, and several pastors who travel with their choirs, as Reverend Dr. James Cleveland did, and, of course, Aretha later on. But long before Aretha became “Aretha,” Dr. Cleveland had already very much established himself as a formidable part of the fabric of American gospel music.

Respect - Tituss Burgess

(Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert /© MGM)

And we sang his music, at least one of his songs, every Sunday. There was a moment where his music became so, not popular, but so much a part of the protocol of church service that a few of his songs began to find themselves in hymns as staples. And it was then that I sort of realized: “Oh, this man doesn’t just write chart toppers!” The African American church respects him on such a level that we are to carry him for all the ages. You’re not going to find “Shackles” by Mary Mary in a hymnbook. And I love their music, don’t get me wrong. But when we’re discussing respect and what it does for the culture, there is a paradigm shift when you mention his name and his influence.

Rotten Tomatoes: So then knowing that influence and how largely he loomed in your life and in the culture, as you said, was there any trepidation or nervousness about taking on the role?

Burgess: No, no. I have lived, and nothing scares me anymore, and I cannot control how consumers consume or how people watch or how people listen. I can only make the best meal out of the ingredients that I’m given. And that is how I approach every single role. That’s it. Full stop.

Rotten Tomatoes: People are so familiar with you from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And the last thing I had watched you in was Dishmantled, which I absolutely loved. I think a lot of people will see you here and say, “Okay, this is a very different mode.” And I think one of the things that’s really great about this film is not just your vocals and performance, but the relationship between Aretha and the Reverend, and between yourself and Jennifer. Can can talk about the bond that your character had with Aretha in real life and then how you recreated that with Jennifer onscreen?

Burgess: Sure. Dr. Cleveland gave Aretha piano lessons when she was a kid; he was already an adult and already a pastor. So imagine that dynamic: This grown man and a little girl, and having her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, respecting Dr. Cleveland enough and his influence – you follow me – in the world to go, “Oh, I think what you house and the connection and the source that you subscribe to, I want that influence in my daughter.” So their relationship transcended music. It was a big brother/little sister type of relationship, and, of course, later when Aretha became a grown woman, there was a leveling ground. And when Aretha came into her composer self and when Aretha came into her musician self, there was a level of respect and a hands-off-ness that Dr. Cleveland had to acknowledge and both perform and adhere to when it came to the shift in their relationship.

That said, that sort of informed how I related to young Aretha and how I related to older Aretha. Jennifer and I met when she was doing The Color Purple [on Broadway], but very, very briefly. And… the one thing I do get nervous about is energy and what type of energy I’m about to walk into because I just want the energy to serve the project. And sometimes they say, “Never meet your idols because it destroys how you see and think of them.” But this was not the case with Ms. Hudson. We were fast friends, and what I loved most about her was that she has an insatiable appetite to learn, and she doesn’t lead with her résumé or her credentials or the prowess of her voice and the largeness of her gift, but rather with her heart and her desire to learn. And it makes for an irresistible offering. And so it was easy to transform that and pour that into our on-camera chemistry.

Rotten Tomatoes: And just finally, what was the feeling when you were recreating the “Amazing Grace” performance that we see in this film [famously documented in the celebrated album and recently released documentary], which is so iconic and people are so familiar with? I just can’t imagine what it was like to be there on set and do that.

Burgess: I’ll tell you what it was like. We were not aware of the cameras. They were not a part of what we were summoning. We were having church, as we know it, and you guys were just privy to seeing it. It was a church service. We sang the same songs. We wore similar clothes. We had similar camera setups, but there is no way to fake the authenticity of that type of worship service. So that’s what it was like.


Respect is in theaters from Friday August 13, 2021. 


On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Thumbnail: Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic, © Neon, © 2oth Century Fox Film Corp, © Paramount, courtesy Everett Collection

Tag Cloud

cancelled Reality PaleyFest Musicals rotten movies we love Amazon Prime Video The Arrangement Marvel women miniseries Winners Emmy Nominations discovery disaster Broadway IFC Films Pop olympics LGBT E3 thriller facebook 2019 cancelled TV shows hispanic video on demand Premiere Dates Netflix Christmas movies sitcom cooking CMT king arthur 2021 new star wars movies science fiction Lifetime Christmas movies saw Black Mirror nfl Trivia golden globe awards biography name the review Trophy Talk TLC stand-up comedy 24 frames Television Critics Association MTV obituary The Witch Travel Channel Writers Guild of America 90s scene in color OneApp Animation ABC comics Emmys rt labs Pet Sematary MCU Sundance Now screen actors guild Winter TV quibi TCM Brie Larson DC Universe Opinion politics 2020 worst documentaries toronto AMC Comic-Con@Home 2021 Spring TV TV One Walt Disney Pictures know your critic game show Amazon Studios zombies TCA Awards Comic Book YouTube Red ESPN spain richard e. Grant Certified Fresh feel good Apple TV+ Comedy Red Carpet classics 45 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards political drama scary movies Holiday Paramount Nat Geo war Amazon boxing razzies halloween tv Television Academy Nominations Showtime Tokyo Olympics cars Super Bowl unscripted CW Seed versus witnail 2015 zombie spanish language james bond Britbox Rom-Com Avengers Wes Anderson new york sag awards rom-coms Discovery Channel Pirates trailers ABC Family Drama Acorn TV mutant Warner Bros. Ellie Kemper Musical NBA ITV San Diego Comic-Con Ghostbusters Shudder finale theme song psycho boxoffice blockbuster VH1 Turner Disney streaming service Horror 21st Century Fox adenture robots Chernobyl travel superhero festival SundanceTV adventure hidden camera canceled TV shows Fox News Song of Ice and Fire PBS Lifetime anthology The Academy RT History critic resources crime drama Quiz true crime New York Comic Con elevated horror spinoff Adult Swim directors Esquire Fantasy comic book movie technology indie halloween slasher vampires spider-man lord of the rings NYCC Sneak Peek Sundance TV Tubi The Purge talk show Disney Channel ViacomCBS romance cancelled television docudrama Hallmark italian Disney USA Network SDCC TCA Winter 2020 comic books free movies 2017 99% hispanic heritage month cinemax Disney+ Disney Plus franchise Pop TV children's TV cancelled TV series movie heist movie Academy Awards Columbia Pictures Interview Star Trek Netflix Reality Competition Sony Pictures comic book movies APB BBC America posters strong female leads Mystery a nightmare on elm street Amazon Prime Awards Grammys Polls and Games animated toy story award winner Rocketman Infographic Marathons Endgame SXSW royal family Extras Tomatazos natural history HBO Go ABC Signature Black History Month kids Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt casting Martial Arts international die hard new zealand FX on Hulu Mary Poppins Returns President First Reviews golden globes 1990s National Geographic comic LGBTQ TCA 2017 crossover Epix dragons Legendary hollywood Election HBO Max japanese singing competition gangster pirates of the caribbean Podcast 71st Emmy Awards TBS Awards Tour 73rd Emmy Awards Ovation christmas movies Mindy Kaling adaptation ID aliens TIFF canceled Crunchyroll Country Marvel Studios YA Crackle Freeform latino Pride Month tv talk Exclusive Video based on movie First Look Bravo stoner Rock Stephen King Nickelodeon mission: impossible TV renewals remakes Turner Classic Movies Pacific Islander Watching Series teaser cops Funimation docuseries Christmas laika renewed TV shows basketball space king kong Superheroes streaming sequel twilight worst movies Countdown blockbusters films Trailer australia rt labs critics edition 20th Century Fox book adaptation cults Box Office Apple TV Plus south america 2016 universal monsters indiana jones BBC One suspense aapi Spike FX Schedule best critics chucky TV Cartoon Network Creative Arts Emmys GIFs Photos Universal prank Peacock rt archives Apple OWN streaming movies doctor who book venice 93rd Oscars MSNBC A&E Oscars The Walt Disney Company monster movies Dark Horse Comics comedies IFC YouTube sports series Logo BET Set visit child's play TCA Holidays jurassic park CNN Chilling Adventures of Sabrina satire Summer HBO marvel comics RT21 sequels Starz justice league Western El Rey nbcuniversal ratings black CBS All Access superman french Character Guide Tarantino football Film Hear Us Out fresh USA Women's History Month VICE jamie lee curtis DirecTV Paramount Network 72 Emmy Awards spy thriller dramedy television Family Cosplay serial killer high school Kids & Family American Society of Cinematographers WGN psychological thriller WarnerMedia Lionsgate Film Festival Sundance crime thriller Hallmark Christmas movies criterion Heroines fast and furious zero dark thirty telelvision comiccon History foreign green book archives all-time BAFTA Shondaland transformers Year in Review FXX wonder woman historical drama The CW deadpool The Walking Dead live action movies medical drama batman dexter debate dogs Lucasfilm breaking bad Thanksgiving Hulu Alien binge Masterpiece Spectrum Originals Valentine's Day TruTV TV movies GLAAD Mary poppins anime diversity game of thrones spanish action-comedy TNT news video Comics on TV Syfy CBS 2018 cartoon DC streaming service rotten Food Network cats Teen joker NBC Best and Worst werewolf independent mcc stop motion dark Calendar 4/20 Image Comics Disney Plus YouTube Premium dceu Action Marvel Television period drama Pixar kaiju Sci-Fi BET Awards PlayStation asian-american nature Mary Tyler Moore parents DC Comics Toys festivals target Binge Guide popular Rocky X-Men concert BBC A24 E! revenge what to watch documentary Fox Searchlight young adult screenings social media hist emmy awards Video Games mockumentary godzilla TV Land Elton John reboot composers police drama Paramount Plus legend ghosts dc supernatural VOD FOX Classic Film slashers DGA Arrowverse reviews Comedy Central Mudbound 007 Tumblr harry potter japan marvel cinematic universe See It Skip It blaxploitation Fall TV Superheroe Vudu Anna Paquin Captain marvel scorecard crime Music romantic comedy Baby Yoda Cannes GoT biopic Star Wars kong Biopics