‘Am I a heart-throb? Oh God…’
‘Strike’ star Tom Burke tells Ben Lawrence about life in a family of actors – and his daring new stage venture
Tom Burke is recalling the first time he was asked about being a heart-throb. “I just froze and thought ‘Oh, God. Is there any way to answer this without sounding like a prat?’ The more I backtracked, the more I could see this narrative developing of how I was a self-effacing soul.”
The adulation comes from Burke’s role in Strike, the BBC adaptation of JK Rowling’s crime novels (written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith) in which he stars as the onelegged Afghanistan veteran with a complicated personal life. Rowling herself endorsed Burke in the role. “He can be quiet,” she said, when the series launched last year, “but I knew Tom could convey menace very well because I watched him play Dolokhov and he, for me, blew everyone else off the screen in War and Peace.I thought he was amazing.”
Burke plays Cormoran Strike (the fourth novel, Lethal White, will be filmed next year) as a shambling bundle of integrity, a tough guy in need of a cuddle. And there was no shortage of female viewers willing to oblige. Burke is still self-effacing.
“Look, I’ve got some really lovely fans who are quite loud. I don’t mind but I think the show’s following is a lot to do with the whole team – the writing, the music. For every person who might look at me and go ‘heartthrob’, I am sure there are about 10 who go ‘whaaaaat?’ I don’t mind.
I’d rather be regarded as a character actor.”
And so, at the height of his popularity, Burke (who is, in the flesh, definitely heart-throb material – tall and broad in the beam, with pale, almost translucent blue eyes) has done something unusual. He has formed a theatre company called Ara with his friend, Gadi Roll, the director, and is touring the provinces with a new production of Schiller’s Don Carlos.
What’s more, Burke isn’t even playing the lead role – that’s up-and-coming actor Samuel Valentine, who played Friar Laurence in Kenneth Branagh’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Instead, Burke plays the Marquis of Posa, who dreams of freeing Philip II’s subjects from oppression.
It may appear wilfully niche, but Burke is not someone with dreams of stardom. “Amazing things are happening in regional theatre and I go the length and breadth of the country seeing things. There is not enough money being invested in it. I’m not saying that as someone who is just dipping their toe in – people in charge of the various powerhouses are telling me that, and it’s insulting.
“I know it’s weird to talk about [investing in] it when there are four million children living below the poverty line. But I think all sorts of things need to be sorted out, all sorts of agendas need to be questioned.”
It is a noble act for someone at such a career high to tour relatively difficult 19th-century verse drama (cue more self-effacement from Burke). But it is in his roots. In the Eighties, his father, the actor David Burke, walked away from playing Watson opposite Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in ITV’s adaptations, and went to the RSC.
“Perhaps I am following in his footsteps,” muses the 37-year-old actor who lives with his girlfriend, also in the industry, in east
London. “Jeremy adored my father. He was in love with him, I think, but at the time he actually said to Dad: ‘We mustn’t do a third series, dear heart,’ and was adamant about it. Dad loved being Watson, but he got a bit bored of saying ‘Good heavens, Holmes’. He had a burning desire to do Shakespeare and he is a great tragedian. It breaks your heart when you see my dad on stage.”
Burke’s mother, Anna CalderMarshall, had a career that burned even brighter. She appeared as Cathy in the 1970 film of
Wuthering Heights and was a consistent presence on TV throughout the Seventies.
“My mother is fearless,” he says. “She had a rough patch because she stopped at the peak of her career to bring me up. When she finally put her foot back through the door, it took her eight or 10 years to make it. She took some jobs that some actors would be terrified to do and did them with such courage that people sat up and took notice. She is having a real renaissance now.”
Burke mentions his mother’s extraordinary performance in the National Theatre’s 2016 Love in which, as an old, incontinent lady, she broke the fourth wall, commanding the audience to confront the wretchedness of what they had just seen on stage. It is now being made into a film.
This auspicious upbringing may explain why Burke got stuck into acting so early. After a spell at a Steiner school (where he was encouraged to spend hours in “dreamtime”), he appeared in Dragonheart: A New Beginning (a straight-to-video sequel to the Dennis Quaid action adventure). After a term of dance school, he went to Rada, where he remembers a tutor reeling off notes that other teachers had made about him. “‘Tom, miserable, miserable, miserable…’ And I was. There was a wall between me and something instinctive. It all felt so intellectual.”
Even now, Burke is not one of those “hail-fellow-well-met” sort of actors, but serious and thoughtful. After our interview in a rehearsal space in south London, he texts me several times to tell me about things he wished we had discussed – to say how underfunded out-ofLondon institutions are ready and willing to produce daring work like Don Carlos; to ask whether I could mention actress Bridget Turner as well as Alan Rickman when talking about his theatrical godparents. (They were, he says, “behind me from a very young age and knew how to challenge me, although not in an aggressive way.”)
Burke may have found stardom recently, but he has been working steadily for two decades. A landmark role came as the hissibly bad Dolokhov in the BBC adaptation
‘My dad loved playing Watson but he did get bored of saying “Good heavens, Holmes”’