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Furiosa star Tom Burke: 'It stung when someone said I didn't have a face for TV'

He was told he didn't have a face for TV, now he's one of the UK's most respected actors

Tom Burke.

Tom Burke. Image: Rhys Frampton

Tom Burke was born in June 1981 in London. His mother Anna Calder-Marshall is best known on screen for her Cordelia, opposite Laurence Olivier’s Emmy Award-winning King Lear. His father, David Burke, is fondly remembered as Dr Watson in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes alongside Jeremy Brett. But both were more renowned for their work in the theatre. His godfather, the late, great Alan Rickman, was also a big influence on his early life and career choice.

Burke attended the National Youth Theatre, the Young Arden Theatre in Faversham and the Box Clever Theatre Company at the Marlowe, Canterbury, before being accepted at RADA at the age of 18. After small roles in TV shows including Casanova and The Trial Of Tony Blair, he caught the eye in the BBC’s 2011 adaptation of Great Expectations and the newsroom drama The Hour the following year. Recent years have seen him take a starring role in the BBC crime drama strike and stand-out film roles in Only God Forgives, The Souvenir (parts one and two), Mank and Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.

Speaking to the Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Tom Burke remembers an idyllic adolescence infatuated with films, his anger at being overlooked for roles and taking advice from Alan Rickman.

At 16, I was at a really idyllic little school. It was a Steiner school and was literally in a valley, so it was a very particular environment. We were quite sheltered and hermetic. And we didn’t know until after we left, but the other schools referred to us as the Rainbow Warriors. Partly because you could wear your own clothes, but there was also quite a hippy thing going on. I found those years quite tricky. It was like The Prisoner – everything was very bright and colourful, but I remember feeling a real want to get out of there. I was quite solitary. But talking to my friends, because we’re all still in touch, I think it’s just part of being that age. I did feel quite lonely for a time.

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I’d really fallen in love with the theatre and movies. I shared a real love of movies with my friends – we would talk in Quentin Tarantino or Trainspotting quotes for the whole lunch break. And that was supplemented with trips to the theatre. All my contemporaries at school were either into Blur or Oasis, apart from my best friend Tim who was very into Nirvana. I liked soul, which I’d come across via a freebie CD my mum had got with some Nivea products! So I was listening to The Chi-Lites.

When I went to the National Youth Theatre, I just remember feeling very loved. It wasn’t that everyone else was like me – it was a much more diverse group of people than I’d come across at school – but National Youth Theatre was like an Edenic honeymoon of a summer. And it definitely brought out something more social in me. I almost wish I’d taken that and gone to university rather than straight to drama school. Because I think that would have been quite good for me.

Tom Burke as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe in London
2004: Tom Burke as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Image: Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

My impression of how one went about asking somebody out was from films. So I’d eventually work up the courage, but then do it in a very dramatic way. I’d say, ‘I need to talk to you! I have feelings for you!’ And then I’d turn on my heels and make this big exit, and leave them going ‘what!?’ And that was it done for me. I didn’t really need the cinema date. It was like I’d said it, so it was done and nothing will happen – I was very fatalistic about it. What was I thinking? I suppose in some way I thought they would run after me or the next week they’d go, where did you go? But I’d tell my younger self not to be afraid of starting conversations.

I grew up around actors and it was a really lovely thing. I remember feeling like I was part of the game – particularly when my parents [actors Anna Calder-Marshall and David Burke] spent a year in Stratford. There were an awful lot of parties, not just with the actors but the crew and costume lot. It felt like a really fun world. And my parents were going through all the things you go through unless you’re one of those people that steps out of drama school and never looks back. So I met all kinds of actors, from all different phases in their career, who all loved and supported each other. Alan Rickman [Tom Burke’s godfather] was always there. It was a lesson in getting on with it and being grateful for the work, whatever it was, knowing you’re blessed to be getting paid to do something you love.

What would surprise my younger self about my life now? At one point I didn’t think I was ever going to not have the sensation that my head was like a washing machine, with stuff going round and around and round. I remember thinking that was something I was just going to have to live with. But that’s not the case. There is a solution. And it was about talking to the right people. Not necessarily in a professional sense, sometimes you find the right friends to chip away at that with or figure out how to deal with it. In my 20s I was jumping from one kind of retreat to the next – I’d spend five or six days somewhere, or doing something fairly extreme, then get back to London and go crazy again. They were wonderful experiences, I’m glad I had them. But I needed something a little more mundane.

Mel Gibson was one of my favourite actors, so my younger self would love to know I was going to do a Mad Max film. Richard Harris and Anton Lesser are the people who made me want to act. But I also loved Mel Gibson and Eddie Murphy. I remember watching Beverly Hills Cop with my dad and him going, ‘That man has poise.’ And he fucking does! I always knew I’d love to do an action film, and if you’re doing that, you want to be doing it with someone like [Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga director] George Miller. But you think, if I’m going to have that career, I’ve got to probably do a lot of not so good action films first to get in that sphere. And as a younger actor, I was like, I’d rather be in a Strindberg play, actually. That’s going to be more interesting. So it’s been a great surprise that it’s somehow led around to this.

Tom Burke with mum Anna at a screening of The Mistress Contract
2014: Tom Burke with mum Anna at a screening of The Mistress Contract. Image: David M. Benett/Getty Images

I grew up in a Labour home – and in my personal life and my actions as a civilian, as a voter, that still feels like a massive chunk of my identity. In terms of politics in my work, I feel great stories are more akin to a Zen koan than a political slogan. I go to the theatre or the cinema to unravel – and I don’t mean that in a glib way. I mean it in a radical way. I’m not there to educate or be educated – I have a sense of what Louise Bourgeois meant when she said reason is the opposite of truth – and I’ve always felt protective of that. There’s an assumption that an actor is going to nail their colours to the mast. And when you don’t, it inevitably arouses suspicion and ire in some. But if I felt otherwise, I’d want to find a different vocation, a different medium.

It stung when someone said I didn’t have a face for ITV. And it stung because it was the second of two parts that had been my first sense – certainly on screen – of feeling I was born to play a role, and that some of the best work I’d done was just on an audition tape somewhere. I later found out my involvement in the other job had been vetoed by the same person when they were at a different channel. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. I was so angry. But I had to let go of any expectation I might have had about what one might call the parts in the canon, you know, for men in theatre or on screen. I just went, OK, I have to see what’s out there, and more importantly, who’s out there who is willing to stick my mug in front of a camera. If I’m honest, there’s a bit of me that is glad I’ve proved them wrong. I’ve always had a very romantic streak in me, so being a ‘leading man’ has always had an appeal.

Working with Joanna Hogg on The Souvenir was punk rock, in a way. There’s a lot of research that goes into it, but learning that you can rock up and jump into it and just start making a film was so exciting. There is a blueprint. But it is not like a normal script. There is much room to explore and it’s improvised. So making films with her is very special. But there have been so many highlights. Filming Mank – I learnt a lot from [David] Fincher. I felt slightly out of my body on that film, which was the first one I’d done in America – and I was playing Orson Welles! I remember Fincher having to show me the monitor at one point because I was moving too much and he was like, this bit has to be still. So I realised I had work to do. But I’m enjoying work more than ever. There are moments I could have taken a more obvious path to ‘build a career’. But I just tried to follow my nose as much as possible. I really wanted to feel alive, you know? What jobs are going to make me feel alive?

As Praetorian Jack alongside Anya Taylor-Joy in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.
2024: Tom Burke playing Praetorian Jack alongside Anya Taylor-Joy in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. Image: © 2024 Warner Bros.

Alan Rickman taught me so much. Thinking about a letter to my younger self, I was thinking about the advice he would always give. He would say to everyone, ‘Remember, it’s not a race, remember it’s not a race.’ I know people who do treat acting like it’s a race and that must be exhausting. There were a couple of near misses with roles that could have made a substantial difference to my career. But I just had to let go. It was like seeing people sprinting off ahead of you, many of whom are my friends. Most actors have that experience at some point. But I don’t want it to say ‘he made 200 movies’ on my gravestone – there is so much other stuff in my life to enjoy. I wonder when people are flying high if they ever have a moment to experience other stuff.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is in cinemas now.

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This article is taken from the Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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