Acting is in the genes of The Doctor’s Dilemma star Tom Burke. His parents, Anna Calder Marshall and David Burke, are regulars on stage and screen. His godfather is the Robin Hood-taunting, Harry Potter-baiting Alan Rickman.
But it is only now, says Burke, as he lounges on the bed squeezed into an alcove of his National Theatre dressing room, that people have begun to make the connection. “It was never something I shouted about; it’s only just become a ‘thing,’” he says.
Maybe that is because Burke has just hit the point in his career when people are really beginning to take notice. In the last few years he has led productions of Design For Living at the Old Vic, Reasons To Be Pretty at the Almeida and Creditors at the Donmar Warehouse, his performance in which was recognised with the Ian Charleson Award, a fine barometer of classical performance. On screen he was a tooth-grindingly evil Bentley Drummle in Great Expectations.
Following his NT debut, he will be seen opposite the knee-quivering torso of Ryan Gosling and thinking man’s actress of choice Kristin Scott Thomas in crime drama Only God Forgives and in the second series of the much-lauded BBC series The Hour. All of which he is rather calm about, surprised even that I was excited for him. “I knew it was nominated for a few Golden Globes,” he says of the newsroom-set drama. “But there’s so many award ceremonies nowadays. I suppose it’s one of the big ones.”
The rise in profile has coincided with a change in the 31 year old’s attitude to the industry. Whereas now he is thoughtful about what he want to do and very aware of what he doesn’t want to do, he used to “lightly scoff” at the idea of “building a career, a bit like the character I play in The Doctor’s Dilemma.”
In George Bernard Shaw’s tale of a doctor with a limited amount of a possibly life-saving experimental drug, Burke plays Dubedat, a talented artist who has tuberculosis and wants to be one of a select group of patients to receive the treatment. “He’s very much the outsider of the piece,” says Burke, “which always appeals to some part of me, probably from being alone in the school playground or something. He’s trying to not follow a prescribed law or prescribed morality.” He’s “defiant”, “in denial” and another D word that despite Burke’s best attempts won’t leap off the tip of his tongue and into linguistic existence.
“I only got into Shaw about a year ago,” he says, expanding on his changing tastes. “I read John Bull’s Other Island and thought ‘This guy’s writing about people staring into an abyss and going I don’t know what I’m doing just as much as an awful lot of the European writers I’d been into for a while. Shaw’s just doing it in a very Irish, non-European way.”
Do you decorate your dressing room?
I did at the Old Vic. I didn’t do it much at the Almeida. I’m very excited at the idea that I have to share this dressing room with someone else because my stuff does tend to build up. I did a The Half photo with Simon Annand and after he’d taken it I realised in horror that behind me was this pile of stuff. So I’ve got to be disciplined about that, which is good for me.
Is there anything you have to have in your dressing room?
I’ve done that in the past. I do believe that belief is one of the most powerful things on earth. It causes an awful lot of trouble, but if you can utilise it in the right way then great. The problem with me is I’m disorganised at the best of times. If I’m going to suddenly realise just before I go on stage I haven’t touched the pig on the head three times, that’s going to f**k me over.
Is there anything you do before a performance non-superstitiously?
A friend of mine, Freddie Stevenson, used to have a poem that he would say occasionally before a first night. I can never remember the poem. It starts “It’s a farce, a farce, a farce.” The last line of the poem is something like “Look at your finger, touch your nose, the day flings itself upon you.” I used to see him occasionally just before he was going on touching his nose. I occasionally do that just to remember Freddie. It sounds like he’s dead. He’s not.
What do you do after the show?
I have a shower for obvious reasons, but also it just… I have realised from not taking a moment that you can go straight into the bar to talk to people and feel a bit odd. There’s nothing weird about it, you just haven’t taken a moment. It’s a bit of a mad thing to do, go on stage and pretend to be someone else. You just take a moment to think here I am. There’s nothing mysterious.
What’s on your iPod?
I’ve been listening to a lot of electro. If I was going to listen to something before this, I don’t know what I’d choose. These things build up over time. Probably by the end of the run I’ll have planted some kind of wierd magical tree in here, be running around it five times and doing a little dance.