Until this Friday, Tom Burke has been one of Britain’s most underrated screen actors. That’s when his new movie, ‘The Souvenir’, comes out and the plaudits should finally flood in. It’s a glorious cine-memoir of ’80s London – and he’s shout-it-from-the-nearest-rooftop brilliant in it.
As his small but fervent army of fans will tell you, it’s high time. He’s a supremely gifted actor with a knack of bending scenes to his own mysterious rhythms and a face you probably know but can’t quite place. It could be from BBC period pieces like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Musketeers’, or maybe his Sherlock-like turn as a private detective in the hit JK Rowling-created crime show ‘Strike’. He’s been magnetic on the London stage, too. On the big screen, though? Not so much. There’s been a memorable turn in ‘Only God Forgives’ and a few supporting roles but, for some reason, his talents haven’t been seized on. Then ‘The Souvenir’ writer-director Joanna Hogg came knocking.
She wanted him to play Anthony, a version of her own older, worldlier, heroin-hooked boyfriend from her film-school days in ’80s Knightsbridge. She’d cast Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton’s daughter, as a version of herself. ‘I jumped at the part,’ says Burke. ‘When Joanna spoke about Anthony, I felt more and more curious. She shared his letters, photos and notes with me. I think she was surprised by how much overlap [between us] there was.’
‘The set had a ghostly air. I think I needed some reality by the end.’
Anthony is a mess of contradictions: immaculately attired and suavely holding forth one minute; a ruin on the floor the next. Burke’s job was to knit them all together via largely improvised dialogue. ‘I wouldn’t normally do this but I was staying in this hotel and every night I’d put on a suit for dinner, just to live in his clothes for a bit,’ he remembers. ‘On set I found I had an opinion on everything – or Anthony did. It was quite heady.’
For the Hackney resident, filming in an exact recreation of Hogg’s old London digs was an eerie experience. ‘We were on this hermetically sealed set in Norfolk for several weeks in a flat which was, centimetre by centimetre, a copy of her flat from the ’80s, full of her furniture and possessions. There was a ghostly [air] to it. I think I needed some reality by the end.’
In person, Burke is measured and, at times, a little wary. Mention the thirst status that came with swashbuckling roles in the BBC’s ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Musketeers’ and he looks like he wants to curl up into a ball and die. ‘Oh God…’ he laughs, demurring. ‘I always end up digging some kind of hole so I’m not going to react [to that].’ Asking about any struggles he had breaking into acting gets another stonewall. ‘It would be bogus of me to say anything has been an obstacle. I had a whole host of people giving me helpful advice.’
Sure enough, acting is in his DNA. His parents are both actors and his godfather was one Alan Rickman. ‘I thought about [his performance as Severus Snape] when I was going into “The Musketeers” just in terms of… what’s the phrase? The only thing coming into my head is “blowing your whole load”, which sounds incredibly wrong… but not showing all the colours in the first scene of the first episode.’ His favourite Rickman performance is a short film of him pouring a cup of tea. ‘There’s something about the way he moves in it that’s so Alan,’ he says. ‘It’s on YouTube, although I think someone’s stuck the music to “Inception” over it.’
Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in ‘The Souvenir’. Photograph: Agatha Nitecka/Curzon
Burke is back filming ‘Strike’ next month and has his own theatre company to focus on too (‘There are writers I really want to do that aren’t being done,’ he says of the venture). Away from work, you might find him in the Tate Modern or trying out a new vegan restaurant. ‘I like the Curled Leaf in West Hampstead,’ he says. ‘It does tea well. I like tea.’
‘The Souvenir’ will open new doors. After all, the last actor to strike gold working with Hogg went on to star in Marvel movies, share screen time with King Kong and date Taylor Swift. Tom Burke, you suspect, would rather stick pins in his eyes than follow Tom Hiddleston’s exact trajectory, although he’s open to what comes his way. ‘I don’t have expectations either way,’ he says. I can’t help thinking he’d actually make a pretty awesome Loki: cerebral, charming, with a bit of edge. A god of mischief who stands out from the crowd.
Hogg likens him to Peter Finch, the Oscar-winning actor who could be quietly brooding (‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’) or borderline atomic (‘Network’). ‘Tom has that presence,’ she tells me over email. ‘He’s an actor without vanity and with an enormous amount of depth and intelligence. I’m left inspired to write another part for him in a future film.’ You’d definitely watch it.
‘The Souvenir’ opens Fri Aug 30. Read our review here.