‘I’ve got faith in my own tal­ent’

Kathy Burke on stage and screen

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - writes Ste­fanie Marsh

Mid­day at a cafe in Fins­bury Park, north Lon­don: the Har­vey We­in­stein story has just bro­ken and, less widely re­ported, the rev­e­la­tion that Mar­garet Thatcher knew about Cyril Smith’s child sex abuse dur­ing her ten­ure as Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, but had him knighted any­way. Kathy Burke, who came of age in the 1970s, is mulling over re­cent events – thought­ful se­ri­ous­ness cut through with bursts of laugh­ter. What she has to say makes me think that when women com­plain that there aren’t any fe­male role mod­els, per­haps they’re look­ing in the wrong places: here she is.

“Grow­ing up in the 70s,” she says, “if you were a girl or woman, a man could tell you what to do – if you were sit­ting on the bus: ‘Get up,’ ‘Move,’ what­ever. You did what you were told.” But Burke’s do­ing-as-she-was-told phase didn’t last long. “I got some back­bone and re­alised, no, I don’t need to be spo­ken to like this.”

The turn­ing point came in her late teens, when a di­rec­tor asked her to feign mas­tur­ba­tion in a play where she had been cast as a men­tally ill pa­tient in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal who was be­ing abused by one of the porters. “I was only 18. And I’m so proud when I look back be­cause I just said no: ‘No it’s not in the script so, no, I’m not go­ing to do it.’

“The thing with me is that I’m quite ar­ro­gant. I’ve got faith in my own tal­ent and I al­ways have. And if any­one turned around and said to me: ‘You’re never go­ing to work again,’ I used to say ‘I will.’”

When she was in her teens, Burke took up act­ing, a del­i­cate age to dis­cover she was, al­legedly, “unattrac­tive”. “In fact, I didn’t re­alise I was ‘unattrac­tive’ – in in­verted com­mas – un­til I started act­ing. It was, ‘Oh no, you’re not right for the part – we’re look­ing for a pretty girl.’” It’s a crush­ing write-off for many young ac­tresses; wa­ter off a duck’s back for the teenage Burke. “It’s true!” she grins, “I look at my­self in the mir­ror and think I’m gor­geous. It’s other peo­ple that tell me I’ve got a face like a smacked arse.”

The worst thing that any­one has ever said to her is: “Don’t take this the wrong way but you look like Kathy Burke.” Burke finds this very funny. At 53, she is proud of her achieve­ments. The cafe we are in be­longs to the Park the­atre, where she is in re­hearsals for The Re­treat, a three-han­der she is di­rect­ing. It’s by Sam Bain, who cre­ated the hit Bri­tish TV com­edy Peep Show with Jesse Arm­strong. It is his first play, and Bain was anx­ious to find it the right home. Jonathan Har­vey, who wrote the TV sit­com Gimme Gimme Gimme for which Burke, play­ing Linda, wore a dog-eaten or­ange perm, talked filth and was twice nom­i­nated for a Bafta, sug­gested her. The Re­treat is about a well-ed­u­cated, suc­cess­ful man who has crashed and burned, finds Bud­dhism and checks him­self into a spir­i­tual re­treat. “But then his el­der brother, Tony, pays him a visit …” says Burke. Like the last thing she di­rected, Once a Catholic, in 2014, The Re­treat is beau­ti­fully timed and very funny.

Mid-ca­reer, Burke, then well known for her com­edy work on tele­vi­sion, de­cided to try di­rect­ing. It was a piv­otal choice born out of ad­vice she was given when she was 17. She grew up in Is­ling­ton, north Lon­don, un­der dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. Her two broth­ers and god­mother were rocks, but her mother died when Burke was two; her fa­ther was on the scene only in­ter­mit­tently. A fluke, in the form of

‘I look in the mir­ror and think I’m gor­geous. Other peo­ple tell me I’ve got a face like a smacked arse’

a sup­ply teacher, in­tro­duced her to act­ing, when he taught her class im­prov. Burke was 13. He sug­gested she train at the com­mu­nity-based Anna Scher the­atre, around the cor­ner. Scher has de­scribed Burke as “the kind­est girl, a very spir­i­tual per­son”, whose tal­ent as a per­former stood out.

That life-chang­ing piece of ad­vice came when the Swedish ac­tor and di­rec­tor, Mai Zet­ter­ling, spot­ted her at a Scher per­for­mance and cast her in the film Scrub­bers. “I was ex­tremely lucky,” says Burke. “Mai Zet­ter­ling, she wouldn’t put up with any­thing. She grew up in Swe­den and the Swedish film in­dus­try and didn’t like the way she was treated in Hol­ly­wood or here; with peo­ple like Peter Sell­ers and Danny Kaye – she didn’t en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence. She gave me great ad­vice: ‘You need to be strong. You need to not just be an ac­tress, you should write, you should di­rect, you need to get power and that’s the only way you’ll get power and some con­trol in your ca­reer.’”

When Burke was 17, she says: “I didn’t mind be­ing the clown in the cor­ner, but within just a cou­ple of years I was be­gin­ning to un­der­stand what she meant.” Ex­cept for the govern­ment-spon­sored an­ti­heroin tele­vi­sion cam­paign in which Burke was the drug ad­dict, “I was al­ways play­ing the same char­ac­ter which was Fat Friend of The Lead.” She laughs.

If you look at how fre­quently her ca­reer tra­jec­tory piv­ots in un­ex­pected di­rec­tions, you re­alise how Zet­ter­ling in­flu­enced its path. In 1988 Burke started play­ing bit parts in French and Saun­ders. Four years later she be­gan work­ing with Harry En­field, and Waynetta Slob was born. By the mid-90s she had a go at writ­ing and di­rect­ing then, sud­denly, in 1997, she caught ev­ery­one by sur­prise as the fe­male lead, a woman abused by her hus­band, in Gary Old­man’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, Nil by Mouth, win­ning best ac­tress at Cannes.

In 1998 she was Mary I in Shekhar Ka­pur’s Eliz­a­beth, which won a Bafta for best film. Then in 2011 Burke re­ma­te­ri­alised as an MI5 re­searcher, Con­nie Sachs, in the John Le Carré adap­ta­tion, Tinker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy – that film went on to be nom­i­nated for three Os­cars, as well as win­ning two Baf­tas and more than 20 other awards.

Be­fore di­rect­ing, Burke had been frus­trated by all the sit­ting and wait­ing to get parts, “So I thought, ‘This is a load of bol­locks’, and I started work­ing back­stage and do­ing script read­ing. Do­ing as­sis­tant di­rect­ing. Just want­ing to learn. And it did change peo­ple’s minds. It was just a way of show­ing I’ve got a brain in my head: yes, I’m very good at play­ing the fat, stupid one in the cor­ner, but that isn’t be­cause I am the fat, stupid one in the cor­ner.”

What does power mean to Burke? “As a di­rec­tor you choose your team.” For ex­am­ple, in Once a Catholic, she says: “There were four very young girls in that. I could choose who played the male char­ac­ters. I didn’t want any­one perv­ing over the girls. That’s very im­por­tant to me.”

It’s il­log­i­cal that the tran­si­tion from com­edy to straight act­ing is still con­sid­ered a step up when the ev­i­dence shows that at­tempts by “se­ri­ous ac­tors” to do com­edy end in an awk­ward no man’s land. But it’s be­cause of this prej­u­dice that some peo­ple didn’t know what to make of Burke, a woman get­ting loads of work but who didn’t wear makeup, crave red car­pets or like cham­pagne (she only drinks vodka); an ac­tor from a work­ing-class back­ground, com­ing to promi­nence in the era of Mer­chant Ivory. Un­for­tu­nately for He­lena Bon­ham Carter, this was also when Burke found her voice.

The year was 1996 and Bon­ham Carter com­plained on record that peo­ple didn’t take her se­ri­ously be­cause she was pretty and mid­dle class. “At that time it was only ac­tresses like He­lena that were get­ting in­ter­viewed: peo­ple thought all ac­tors or ac­tresses thought the way they did,” Burke says. “He­lena was do­ing a lot of work – and I think that’s where my um­brage came from. So I just wrote a let­ter to [Lon­don list­ings mag­a­zine] Time Out, that’s the only way I could think to ex­press what I felt.”

The let­ter, which was printed, said: “As a life­long mem­ber of the non-pretty work­ing classes, I would like to say to He­lena Bon­ham Carter (wholly pledged mem­ber of the very pretty up­per-mid­dle classes): shut up you stupid cunt.” “It was meant to be funny. It wasn’t ag­gres­sive, even though I used the word cunt,” says Burke in­no­cently. Work­ing-class ac­tors loved it: “They were, like, ‘At last!’ The posh ac­tors were a bit, ‘He­lena’s my friend.’ Well, you should be a bet­ter friend to He­lena and tell her to stop be­ing so fuck­ing stupid. Yeah, it needed to be said and I was the per­son that said it.”

Has Burke also been at the re­ceiv­ing end of sex­ual ha­rass­ment? “Ha ha ha!” she cack­les. “You’re so sweet to ask – No! Lis­ten, I’m not … I was never the sort of girl that those sorts of men were in­ter­ested in. I’m not con­ven­tion­ally pretty and I’m also quite coarse and I’ve also got a very big mouth, and if any­one had tried that with me I would have prob­a­bly head­but­ted them and re­ported them to the po­lice.

“It’s in every in­dus­try, not just ours. Look at Cyril Smith – and Thatcher let him get away with it. I find that more scary, par­tic­u­larly be­cause she was a woman. She just didn’t give a fuck about the work­ing classes.” It’s a big deal, she says, that “things like this are be­ing ex­posed. This is why I like things like so­cial me­dia be­cause ev­ery­body has a voice.”

Has she ever head­but­ted any­one? “I have punched one per­son, but it wasn’t to do with that. They were just get­ting on my nerves.”

She’s sin­gle, has many close friends, chose not to have kids and “keep my­self to my­self”, still in Is­ling­ton. Ten years ago she con­tracted a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion dur­ing an op­er­a­tion. “So that re­ally changed my life in the way I am, my health. I’ve got Ad­di­son’s dis­ease now. The bug killed my adrenal glands so I nearly died about four times. I’m over­weight be­cause of the steroids and that can sort of get me down a bit, but there’s only so much I can do. I’m veg­e­tar­ian, I walk ev­ery­where and it just doesn’t shift. I’ve just had to ac­cept it. I could stop eat­ing bread, but life’s too short.” (Ditto cig­a­rettes.)

The thing she re­ally likes about her­self, she says, “is that I’m now an older woman who re­ally likes young women. All my young fe­male friends are start­ing to have ba­bies, so that’s great.” Years ago, she adds: “I def­i­nitely got moody-broody at some point, but not enough to go ahead and have a child.”

She has made the choice to re­main sin­gle. “I don’t get in­volved with men in that way any more. It was a de­ci­sion,” she says. “The last re­la­tion­ship I had was quite a while ago and then I just thought: ‘Fuck this for a game of sol­diers.’ I’ve been lucky. The blokes that I’ve been with have been re­ally de­cent peo­ple, apart from one in 1993 – that was a long time ago, but some peo­ple can have an ef­fect; if you hear their name it can make you feel a bit … weird.” She’s fallen in love since, but, “a very long time ago and I’ve not re­ally had those feel­ings again. So I’ve had some shags – you can get laid when­ever you want but … I love be­ing in love even though it’s quite dis­rup­tive and I’ve just re­ally not felt that way again. Of course, peo­ple fall in love when they’re older, but I’ve come to ac­cept that, OK, that was it and it didn’t work out. So it’s a shame, but my life didn’t stop.”

She’s clearly happy, very set­tled and very good at her job(s). Straight af­ter The Re­treat she is di­rect­ing Lady Win­der­mere’s Fan at Lon­don’s Vaudeville the­atre, with more projects next year – but they’re top se­cret. “It’s quite a high when things work, but also I take it to heart if a play hasn’t gone well. I do feel it’s my re­spon­si­bil­ity, so that can make me feel a bit shit. I did a Sam Shep­ard play a few years ago and, Je­sus, they fuck­ing hated it.”

Didn’t those vi­cious re­views bump her con­fi­dence – just a lit­tle bit? “I sort of love all the plays I’ve di­rected,” she says, smil­ing broadly. “[When things have gone pear shaped] I just ig­nore it. I never got fright­ened. I just thought, no: I’ve al­ways had faith in my own tal­ent. I al­ways knew I would work. I’ve al­ways stood up for my­self.” The Re­treat is at the Park The­atre, Lon­don, to 2 Dec

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