Interview with Tom Burke, Star of BBC One “Strike” Series
by Taryn Strella · Published · Updated
BBC One’s adaptation of Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series airs later this month, and we recently had the chance to sit down with the actor playing the show’s titular character, Tom Burke.
Burke discussed at length the work he did to get the hang of Strike’s disability, from working with a movement instructor to meeting with people who have the same disability. He wanted to capture it as correctly as possible and really appreciated having a team that had put research into the condition at his side.
Burke says he didn’t have much contact with J.K. Rowling during filming but did end up getting a piece of advice from her that proved quite helpful for getting into character.
I think the thing she said to the script people – the writers and the editors – was he’s never self-pitying. Which was a really helpful thing to have at the forefront of my mind when there is a lot of him on the receiving end of quite a lot of crap. So that was just really good to just always have on my mind. I don’t think she could have said anything more helpful than that, actually.
Burke also thinks the thing that makes Strike different from other detective shows is how they are able to switch the tone and feeling of the episodes from miniseries to miniseries.
I think tonally it’s incredibly varied, and I think the books are incredibly varied, and I think that was something we really didn’t want to lose… And to actually find moments where something can have an abrupt turn from the most extreme ends – comedy to tragedy… tragedy is the wrong word, but something could go from being quite dark to quite absurd or quite absurd to quite moving. I feel like this allowed for that in a really good way, and I feel like we achieved that.
Burke, like his co-star Holliday Grainger, is also excited to see what happens with their relationship as the books go on and enjoyed being able to explore that through the miniseries. He especially enjoyed their relationship during the third miniseries to be released, the episodes covering Career of Evil, the third book in the Cormoran Strike series.
You can read the full interview with Burke below.
Transcribed by Korina Cotter, Felicia Grady, Adam Leuenberger, Renae McBrian, and Tracey Wong
What would be really good... Because there will be some of our readers who haven't read the books, so if you could describe what Strike is like for them.
Okay. I should have thought about this. Well, I heard Holli on the radio the other day talking to Chris Evans, and he thought Strike was a cross between Cracker and Columbo. I didn't mind. I think on the surface he's quite... I mean, people sort of use the word "gruff" a lot, and he can be quite gnomic in his responses to people, but I think there's real heart there and warmth and wit and ever so often you see, in spite of himself, the son of the rockstar in the way he's, I don't know, contemplating while smoking a cigarette or something. That was what was interesting to me, was he was this sort of shell with this exotic, dark, strange childhood, and fragility in the middle of it all.
In what ways do you most identify with the character of Strike?
I don't get the feeling he likes mornings, particularly. I found those scenes quite easy.
Did you get any kind of input from J.K. Rowling while working on your character, or did you find everything in the book?
I mean, when it's J.K. Rowling, you think she'll have something to say and she'll say it in the most brilliant way in one sentence. I can't remember what she said, but I remember constantly listening out... Because we didn't see her that much. She was very available to answer questions, but the thing I remember her saying... I don't know if she ever did say anything directly to me about Strike. I think the thing she said to the script people - the writers and the editors - was he's never self-pitying. Which was a really helpful thing to have at the forefront of my mind when there is a lot of him on the receiving end of quite a lot of crap. So that was just really good to just always have on my mind. I don't think she could have said anything more helpful than that, actually.
What do you think makes him a good detective, and what does he see in Robin that makes her a good detective?
He's a very good worker and he's good at his craft and he's then very intuitive on top of that, and it's not dissimilar [to] what he sees in her. I was quite interested in when he's not such a good detective, so he's sometimes very good at figuring out who's done it but maybe not quite the type of killer he thinks they are. So I thought that was an interesting thing that there's a... And it's often to do with him thinking better of somebody, even a murderer, thinking that there's enough of a human being inside them that if he sits down with them and says, "Look, I know what you've done," they might almost be relieved and that he's almost like a big brother in that moment. And they very rarely react the way he thinks they are going to.
Tell us a bit about getting the hang of the walking. I know you talked about running with the prosthesis - tell us about the work that you did to do that.
Yeah, the reason I mentioned that was... To a degree, it was guesswork because I had a leg, as the character, that you would only run on if your life depended on it or if someone you loved's life depended on it, and you would be in agony. And obviously, I'm not going to turn to Mark or Barney... Mark is my double and Barney is there to advise, and they both have the same condition. I'm not going to turn to them and say, "Can you run down the street so I can watch you in agony?" And obviously it's not agony for me because I don't have that condition. So that was a bit of guesswork. Then things like walking [were] much more simple because I was watching... I spent a whole day with Barney and Toby Sedgwick who is a movement director. A very brilliant movement director, and a very brilliant actor, actually. And we just sort of broke it down into everything that was visible to the human eye, and not a lot is when it's that exact thing, because it's below the knee joint; you've still got a functioning knee joint. It's tiny things, really. I mean, the fact you are wearing a very tight elastic sock to give you some sort of comfort in the leg just means that that knee cap is moving minimally slower than the other one. And so I was just trying to basically get in the rhythm of that and then not overthink it.
So we understand that you have been involved with the Salter's Charity. Have you learned anything in particular about veteran struggles through your involvement with that as well as playing Strike?
Yeah, I mean, I am certainly aware that it's something that one shouldn't lose. We all need to... Focus needs to be maintained. But it was very interesting talking to Mark and Barney. Mark is not an ex-army person - he lost the bottom of his lower leg in an accident. Barney lost it in the army on service and went into a hospital where he was surrounded by other soldiers and thrived in that atmosphere, which he described as being actually quite competitive, like who was doing better. I thought the camaraderie of that was quite fascinating, and I'm sure one could learn a lot from that in terms of how other people are dealing with that. Because I think Mark felt much more isolated, just being in a hospital with other people who maybe have the same condition but didn't have the same sort of life.
What do you think makes this unique from other detective series?
I think tonally it's incredibly varied, and I think the books are incredibly varied, and I think that was something we really didn't want to lose. And sometimes there's a tendency in television to if not paint every episode with one tone, to kind of paint each scene with one tone. And to actually find moments where something can have an abrupt turn from the most extreme ends - comedy to tragedy... tragedy is the wrong word, but something could go from being quite dark to quite absurd or quite absurd to quite moving. I feel like this allowed for that in a really good way, and I feel like we achieved that.
The second book is pretty gory. What was it like when you went onto the set and saw that laid out?
I mean, it was amazing. And then they were immediately saying, "Can you hold the phone so we can't see the intestines?" Well, not the intestines - the intestines are gone - but the worst bit. So we were already kind of pulling back a bit from what was actually there in front of us. It was a bizarre sort of thing because it was the most horrific thing to look at but it was also in one of those amazing artist studio flats in Talgarth Road, which I've always wanted to go in.
Since Strike is ex-military... I know that you have a history of playing military types on TV - The Musketeers and war movies. Did you find yourself pulling in any of that mindset for this role?
It was quite an abrupt turn in my career. I was playing lots of consumptive poets and artists, and then suddenly it was soldiers. I don't know. I suppose not really, consciously. But I do think about those people and what they do and what we ask of them a lot.
What intrigues him about these particular cases? Because you said the first one and the second one particularly are incredibly different. What is there that attracts him to each case?
Well, to be honest, quite often it's money. I mean, he's not doing that well off - particularly in the first book - and he's almost sort of... not bullied into it, but... John, who comes in and asks him to investigate, he's pulling on all sorts of, "You were a friend of our family," et cetera, et cetera. And it's quite often a very slow dawning that actually there might be something rotten in the state of Denmark, and things need to be thoroughly investigated. But I think initially, it's like, "Oh, this is another gig," you know? I think what you feel so strongly in the books is... and I don't know that it's autobiographical necessarily, but it dives into these worlds of the fashion industry and fame and publishing. And you do feel those are worlds that have been very thoroughly explored by Jo, and there's a very strong reaction to elements in them.
Did you find any of those issues in particular especially interesting? Like the fashion industry or the nature of fame and those types of themes that are explored.
Yeah. I mean, I do find... Fame does interest me as a thing, and it's something that I was being asked about a lot recently. And I didn't want to say, "Oh, it's like really boring," and I didn't want to say, "I love it." And the closest I could get was to say it's rather like when you're a kid and you steal a sweet from a shop. You kind of feel excited, but you kind of feel like you've done something wrong. And that's kind of how I feel about fame. I don't know what I've done wrong, but that's the feeling.
Did you have a particular book or arc of the three that you liked better than the others?
Again, I don't know how much it was to do with... I mean, Career of Evil was kind of easier in a way because they're immediately plunged into danger in a way that's at a slight distance from the others, at least initially. And Career of Evil, the last book, actually starts with something fairly gruesome being left on their doorstep. So that was just easier to act because the stakes have very immediate context. And that then had an effect on everything that was going on with the Robin and Strike relationship, so I suppose for all those reasons, that one.
What do you think about that relationship?
I think he's spent his life, again and again, coming up against people whose egos [have] kind of atrophied to the point where they had essentially done something evil. And Robin walks in and is the polar opposite of an atrophied ego. She's the most generous, caring, giving, insightful human being, and she's, of course, the perfect woman for him. But it's a total blind spot because it's absolutely not the right moment. And it's inconvenient in all sorts of ways. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that. I mean, nothing really happens in the books up to now. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that. I think that is palpable. I think that is something that people really enjoy in the books, is watching them navigate this blind spot they both have.
Do you think he's in love with her?
Well, the line... and I'm going to get the line wrong, but the line that I found most helpful was... There's a line in, I think, Career of Evil - yeah, it's Career of Evil - where her wedding gets put off, and Jo had written something like... And it's very much written as a thought he has. He thought, "There's still time," but he didn't know what he meant by that. It could be still time with their work relationship, it could be still time with... But I think the thing with... I think [that] we think like people in a George Eliot novel, where everything is very ordered and you know what's going on, and I don't think we do. And I think Jo manages to write that sort of delusion or mystery that one can be in... Not even delusion, just sort of blindness that one can have about something, and I think she writes it about the relationship between them in a really great way. And when I read that, it just answered all the questions for me of what was going on in the first two books. I thought there's something there, but...
So what did you find most challenging about this role?
Well, I suppose you would want to get things right, like the minutiae of the condition that he's in, and that can gripe on your mind. There's only so much you can do and think about it before you just drive yourself nuts. I suppose that was the challenge. The challenge with me is always just getting on with it and not overthinking things.
So you found it to be somewhat of a natural role for you?
Yeah, I did. The more it went on, the more I felt I was putting myself into it. And I couldn't tell you what that was, but I suppose also when you read a book, you're confronted with the silhouette of somebody and the exterior of somebody. It's a very different way in than when you're just reading lines on a page and you're immediately saying them in your head. You get this whole shape of the thing and you think, "Oh, I've got to be that, and I've got to feel that, and I've got to..." And so it was... And quite early on, I just thought, "Oh, I can also just bring myself into this too." Probably because it's a novel, it just happens a different way round.
Is it daunting playing someone who the fans are so passionate about and waiting to see Strike on screen?
It is. But again, I think the great thing was [that] I didn't have time to think about this. I mean, I just didn't. There was a period of time after getting the job before starting, but I was nicely busy. When we started, I just very quickly realized I had to put so much trust into the people I was working with, into the directors. Which doesn't always happen. Sometimes there's a real... and things are still there to be negotiated. But at the end of the day, you've got to do what you're doing in the time you've got to do it. And I think Holli [and I] had to just hand it over to each other and the directors, and that was really liberating. There wasn't any room to micromanage what one was doing.
Holli was telling us she loved driving around in the Jeep. How was that?
Oh, yeah. No, I liked that too.
Yeah, we ate a lot of toffee, though. There was a scene with a toffee, but I think we shot it and we got through about two bags of toffee. So I was wired. But she was amazing driving. I mean, I was like... Because that's a tough thing to... And I'm not saying women drivers, I'm saying I would find it hard. [It had] old gear sticks, and she was just absolutely amazing.
Was there something in particular you really enjoyed filming?
All of it. No, I felt very happy. It was a very nice atmosphere on set. Everybody was... You felt like everybody was covering everyone else. There was so much. It was easy to forget one thing, and people only do that if they get on.
Was it quite nice shooting in London?
Oh, it was really nice shooting in London. I mean, Fitzrovia... I love the quietness of Fitzrovia and then the busyness of Soho, and to be able to be traversing all those different bits was just lovely. And also for me to reconnect with London because I've been away a lot with work. I absolutely knew where everything was in London a few years ago, and then I suddenly... When I got back last year, it was like going [imitates someone discovering a new place] and it was just lovely to rediscover all that.
Are there any guest stars whom you particularly enjoyed working with? Because there are all different guest stars in each one.
I mean, Leo Bill is a great friend, and it was lovely to work with him finally. Lia Williams, Monica Dolan, Peter Sullivan, Tim McInnerny, a lot of very young people who were just out of drama school and were fantastic. I don't want to say one person because they were all great, at risk of sounding [unintelligible].
So prior to this, were you particularly drawn to the mystery or crime genre at all, personally?
Yeah. No, I was. I mean, I've got a massive soft spot for Joan Hickson's Miss Marple, which my friend Jason referred to as a piece of accidental genius. I'm still trying to figure out what he meant by that. I think I know what he meant. I think she is just amazing. I'd just watch her in that forever. It's just so light and perfect and detailed and quite dark when she becomes this sort of avenging angel at the end. But yeah, all sorts of stuff, the more serialized stuff and sort of more whodunit this week stuff. Yeah, I've always enjoyed that.
Do you think we get more out of it since it's a series versus being a long film version?
Yeah, I think so. I think it's a very slow burn relationship, and I think if you tried to condense that into a... I think it needs that sort of breadth, and we wanted to build it so slowly.
Do you miss The Musketeers? Are you still in touch with those guys?
Still in touch with them all? I mean, I wouldn't say I miss it because it's been such a different thing to do, and it's very enjoyable in its own way, in the way that that was enjoyable in its own way. I suppose because of the genre of that, there was a... I felt invited to stretch what one was doing, throw some shapes that you might not if you were wearing a pair of jeans. I enjoyed the romance of that sort of thing.
Yeah, Holliday [Grainger] said she really enjoyed wearing jeans, and she's done all the period stuff. She really enjoyed wearing jeans.
Yeah, yeah. Lovely. Yeah, you could just walk to the shop and buy something without...
I think you said on set that you bulked up a bit to make you look like someone who drinks Doom Bar.
Well, they told me to put on weight, and I didn't want to just get weight there, so I tried to do as much as I could to widen that way, and I had a really good trainer called Matt who was very helpful with that and taking various pound readings and... yeah.
Have you got it off again now?
No, I mean, I'm trying to lose it now for my next job. [laughs] It's coming off slowly.
What are you working on?
I'm doing a Joanna Hogg film.
So proving difficult to shift it, then?
Well, I think I'll get there. I think I'll get there. Just need to stop eating starch.
Do you prefer feature-length film work to television or vice versa or...?
I think what I'm really intrigued by with film work is that it's sort of less about... in a way that I'm really curious of and would like to do more of. I think it's more about atmosphere than about story, whereas television tends to be more about story than the atmosphere, and those ratios changing with each thing because every TV show is so different [from] every other one. So yeah, I don't feel I've done that many films. That's something about film that really interests me.
Was there a particular director who was great to work with? I mean, they seem like they were all fantastic.
They were all very different, and Charles [Sturridge] was brilliant at sometimes bringing in what seemed like a completely random element to a scene, just to give it energy, so it was just seemingly quite last-minute... Not last-minute because it takes planning, but suddenly adding a rain machine and having it rain like that. It just suddenly puts their relationship in a different context because they're both wet. And then Michael [Keillor] was brilliant at just keeping things moving and feeling like what was... doing these very long shots with a lot of steady cam and coming in and out, and then Kieron [Hawkes] came from editing and is just absolutely aware of where everything fits sort of musically into an episode, so you always felt like you knew exactly what kind of energy to start a scene with and then finish a scene with so that it met the next scene in the most optimum way. So they were all good.
In the scene where they meet each other, Robin falls down on the stairs. How was that to film that?
Funnily enough, it was the only scene we ever reshot because... I don't know. The first one we did was "underwhelming," apparently.
Were you a bit wary of giving her a good push?
Oh, no, we did that. That was fine. No, we got that. That was a whole day of that. I mean, because it was essentially a stunt. No, I meant the bit where we were then in the office. I could see why. It was the first moment and we had to get exactly the right awkwardness but gaucheness but... He's being gruff with her, but he's already surrendering something.
Was that the hardest scene, then?
No, I think when we came back around to it, we knew what we needed to do, but... yeah. I think every time we got to a scene where you felt like the relationship was moving somehow forward, very slowly and incrementally, it was just... I don't know. Trying to let it happen on its own without micromanaging it but also being sure we weren't taking any shortcut[s].
Do you have any other stunts that you've had to do?
Some fisticuffs. And in both instances, it was with actors who are absolutely brilliantly precise and absolutely want to get it right and safe, and so it's a joy when you're doing it with people like that. You feel like you can have all this detail, and if you're doing it with somebody who's just going for it, that's when it's not very fun at all. I mean, you've got to just go for it, but sometimes the other thing isn't so in their mind.
I know that the adapting of a book to film is a huge challenge. Do you think that fans will notice a huge difference? Because sometimes adaptations are quite different from the book. Do you think that the films...?
I mean, there'[re] lots of logistical little differences, and some characters had to go completely just because there wasn't time to fit them in, or fit them in with any sort of justice. But I don't think it's that different other than that. But hopefully, there is everything they liked before and something else that is unexpected in some way.