‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THEATRE -

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”’

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