I sort of dread interviews,” says Tom Burke, slumped back in his seat. “I think I’m going to be very careful, and then somebody asks, ‘What do you think about this, and what do you think about that?’ And some part of you goes, ‘WELL! Here’s my sermon on the mount!’ It’s quite painful, because your vanity comes out so much.”
We’re in the extravagant cocktail bar of a London hotel – the sort of place, says the 38-year-old, where they might film a scene of Strike, the JK Rowling detective series for which he’s best known. Behind us, there is a cartoon of Boris Johnson on the wall. Burke reads the caption aloud. “Gaff, gaff,” he says slowly, sipping a green tea. “Sounds about right.”
Dressed in a flat cap and braces, the London-born actor has the same drawling charm as Anthony, his character in Joanna Hogg’s new film The Souvenir. He’s not a conventional Hollywood type: born with a cleft lip, he is handsome but dishevelled, and in the words of Hogg, “very different from all those young actors who are preoccupied with going to the gym”. She’s also said that he’s not unlike a young Orson Welles – and that comparison seems startlingly accurate in person.
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He is nowhere near as objectionable as Anthony, though. A dashing, duplicitous man with a possibly made-up governmental job, Anthony strikes up a relationship with a much younger film student called Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, in her first acting role), wreaking emotional and psychological havoc on her.
“I like Anthony,” says Burke, which surprises me. “He’s about as dishonest as you can get, and he’s got all sorts of nasty qualities, but there’s something about him I like. I don’t know why. There just is. To me, he wanted to shake Julie a bit, and OK, that’s a violent thing to do in itself, but he wanted her to seize the day a bit more.” As he talks, he drums his fingers on the table in time with every syllable.
Ultimately, he says, it’s boring to try and deduce whether a character is good or bad. “There’s enough of that going on in the world, in politics, in religion, and in journalism even. Everyone’s pointing the finger and going, ‘It’s that lot’s fault.’ We don’t need any more of that. Let’s just let these people be who they are.” Very few of Burke’s own characters could be labelled good or bad. In Strike, he is curmudgeonly, cynical and tortured; in Musketeers, a BBC period action drama, he is troubled and wary of women. And in Rosmersholm, the critically acclaimed West End play in which he starred alongside Hayley Atwell earlier this year, he is a lost, disillusioned soul.
“I wanted to do that play because it’s about someone going, ‘Can’t we just stop and listen and admit we’re all pretty confused about life?’” says Burke. “I think there’s a value in people talking, it’s just that we’re in this culture now where everyone wants to ‘out’ each other at every moment, for their unconscious bias or whatever, and people then don’t feel free to just talk. Do you know what I mean?”
Is he talking about call-out culture? “Well, yeah. I mean, I don’t want to come down on call-out culture, because I guess it has its place, but there was an interesting article I read by a black feminist writer who was saying it brings shame into the equation. And shame can be very paralysing to people. When you want things to move forward and evolve, it can put the brakes on.” He suddenly stops himself. “See!” he cries, almost triumphant. “All this stuff you don’t think you’re gonna get into, and then suddenly you’re talking about it!”
Burke agrees, though, that it’s sometimes important to call out bad behaviour. “I hate the idea of anything abusive happening on set. And there’s still that myth around, that directors can be mean and horrible and it’s somehow… I hate all that s***.” Is that myth dissipating? “I wish it was. I don’t think it necessarily is. I think there are people who might not have done things that would be called inappropriate sexual behaviour, but I constantly hear stories about stuff happening on sets. They don’t have a fight director, because some director wants it to ‘look real’, and they don’t understand that it has to be safe.”
He recalls an “absolute nightmare” story he heard from an actor friend. “They practically had PTSD afterwards,” he says, “because they were playing somebody who’d been very badly treated, physically and sexually, and there just wasn’t that understanding that there’s a safe way of doing it. I think with sex, it’s been helped a lot by everything that’s happened. I just worry about violence. Just from stuff I hear from a lot of actresses. People want a certain kind of heat sometimes on film.”
Everything on The Souvenir, though, was handled “incredibly gently”. Does he think it makes a difference having a female director? “I would like to say that, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about female producers and female directors. It’s just not straight down the line. It’s probably more weighted that way, but if I said that, I’d be not honouring things I’ve heard.”
The Souvenir is semi-autobiographical – a sort of fictionalised version of Hogg’s own experience at film school. Beyond the toxic relationship at its core, it also grapples with ideas of privilege and appropriation. Julie is making a film about a working-class boy and his dying mother in Sunderland – a world she, bankrolled by her wealthy mother, knows little about. Had she been in the same financial situation as her protagonists, she wouldn’t have been able to even go to film school.
Burke agrees that class is an issue in the film – as it is in the industry outside of it. “Certainly in my generation, there aren’t enough actors from a working-class background,” he says. “And that’s because of all sorts of things.” Burke’s parents are both actors, and his godfather, the late Alan Rickman, helped pay his fees at drama school Rada. “There’s different kinds of cultures going on in the acting industry,” he continues. “I think there’s a certain kind of theatre director, of a certain generation, who is Oxbridge. I can imagine that certain energies come into that room that are not that kind of Oxbridge energy, and they probably go, ‘Ooh, I don’t know what this is.’ I don’t want to talk in monoliths, I’m aware people might find this patronising, but there is a kind of energy that a lot of people from working class backgrounds have, that the Oxbridge lot don’t, and it’s a really vital energy. It’s exactly the sort of energy that would give a lot of that culture a really great boost. It can come with a lot of confidence; a very savvy, streetwise confidence.”
Accessibility is important to Burke, when it comes to the price of theatre tickets, and the kinds of people who are allowed to make art. But, he adds, “I don’t think ‘accessible’ is a helpful word creatively, in terms of storytelling. What you really need to make is something then interests you. The Souvenir is an incredibly specific story, but people recognise the universal in it. Because,” he says, his fingers drumming again, “that’s how stories work.”