If you are asking Tom Burke to a party, for God’s sake don’t tell him it’ll be fun. “Hate the word! Ugh! The idea that there’s any sort of expectation. I like having really honest conversations with friends about how fucked everything is, but being able to laugh about it as well.”
Right. You gotta laugh, eh? A grin that’s 35% grimace. “No, I don’t. I’ve always hated that phrase. Everything has to arrive in its own time.” He lacquers almond butter on top of strawberry jam on gluten-free toast. “The only one I like is ‘That’s life!’ It’s quite vague. And perhaps because it reminds me of Esther Rantzen.”
No such fluff sullies the lexicon of Burke’s latest character. Anthony is an ex-public school symbolist opera buff who takes dates to the Wallace Collection and works (probably) for the Foreign Office. He is considered, verbose, dapper, charming, mysterious, vain, pretentious, aphoristic, arrogant, refined and absolutely catastrophic.
He is also closely based on the ex-boyfriend of the film’s writer-director. In fact, the whole of The Souvenir precisely reconstructs Joanna Hogg’s years as a film student in London in the early 80s, when she had an affair that shook her life. Her three previous films – Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition – are highly specific autobiographical excoriations of the liberal-leaning lower-upper-classes. But this time, it’s really personal.
Hogg’s goddaughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, plays Julie (AKA Joanna). Swinton Byrne’s mother, Tilda Swinton, a friend of Hogg’s since school, plays her mother. Burke was cast on sight. “He’s physically got something of the young Orson Welles,” Hogg tells me. “He’s very different from all those young actors who are preoccupied with going to the gym. I find all that very boring. Tom is like a matinee idol, a star of the forgotten age. That really excited me and chimed with my memory of this person.”
But Burke needed more than just hot chops. Hogg’s shooting style – no script, just structure – required him to improvise at length. “I was casting a person, not an actor,” says Hogg. “And his mind also worked outside the box. So I had this sense that Tom could inhabit this enigmatic and unusual man.”
She showed him photos and letters (some of which Burke reads aloud in the film) and played a recording of the real man’s voice. He went to Lyme Regis to brush up his calligraphy with the artist Hugh Dunford Wood, who designed the silk bow ties the real Anthony wore, and which Burke sports in the movie. Burke’s reading list included Burroughs, Cocteau and Crowley. It shows. Anthony’s pronouncements are florid and polished – and all Burke’s words.
In the flesh, Burke, 38, speaks slowly and smilingly, with faintly Izzardian inflection. “This was a man with a swarming brain,” he says, “who was constantly thinking about everything. He was armoured with a vocabulary and a use of language. A lot of the things he says to Julie he probably said two nights before at a party. So I wanted to have a kind of palette in my head.”
The immersion was symbiotic. Parasitic Anthony was hard to shake. “There was this kind of ghost of him just having an opinion on everything between takes because he’s a very verbose, opinionated man.”
Burke’s work in The Souvenir is extraordinary. It’s Julie’s story, but Anthony you can’t keep your eyes off. Martin Scorsese, the executive producer, emails the Guardian to call him “immediately compelling – every word and every gesture. I’m reminded of James Fox in The Servant – his performance has that kind of distilled power.”
For Hogg, he was almost too good. “I found it quite strange, because Tom managed to go beyond what I had imagined possible, in an uncanny way.” The only other person who has seen the film and who knew the real-life man was, she says, too upset after the screening to speak. “He found it quite a confrontation. He definitely recognised the person.”
Even if you didn’t know him, the brilliance and intimacy of his exhumation (his letters, his bow ties, his bed) is quite something. There is a deep weirdness, even a queasiness. A ghost has been summoned. Burke says he hadn’t really thought about it until recently. In retrospect, it haunts him more. He recalls sudden ill-tempers, explicable only as Anthony resurfacing. And, on the last week of shooting, “I felt very strange and heavy and just a bit dead inside.”
This indelible performance is Burke’s first film lead. He was Ryan Gosling’s rotter brother in the first five minutes of Only God Forgives and Felicity Jones’s benevolent fella in the last part of The Invisible Woman. But he has mostly stuck to theatre and TV and become big in both, just like his parents. His father is David Burke (Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Holmes), his mother Anna Calder-Marshall (Cathy to Timothy Dalton’s Heathcliff). They were introduced by Brian Cox. Burke’s godfather, Alan Rickman, helped fund his time at Rada.
There, tutors identified a strain of melancholy in the man which had first been pointed out by teachers at school. He groans when I mention it, but also likes it; considers it less a propensity to grumpy-boots than the condition of being “less hot, less in fashion … what Susan Sontag described as Buster Keaton not Charlie Chaplin”.
And it’s true that Burke’s mainstream fame is due to a series of BBC shows that have a loyal audience without international buzz: Musketeers, War & Peace and, since, 2017, Strike, the TV version of JK Rowling’s crime novels written under the pen-name Robert Galbraith. An already lusty fanbase – there is especial appreciation of Athos’s way with a horse – mushroomed as viewers were introduced to Burke’s dishevelled one-legged detective.
He lives in London with a girlfriend he doesn’t speak about, confessing a “soft spot” for Boris Johnson when the prime minister stressed after his row with Carrie Symonds that his private life was his business. “I feel like this glass confessional box culture we’ve suddenly found ourselves in is so insidious.”
Details do emerge: he sometimes has milk in his tea and sometimes not, the inconsistency of which freaked out a former girlfriend. (“She was like: who are you?”) He did some stone carving when younger and more recently got into pots, making six small soufflé bowls that are “quite good for ice-cream”.
But while it’s the Sunday-night primetime stuff that means some fans will lap up such nuggets, Burke has kept his stage work energetically challenging. Last year he co-founded Ara, a theatre company with the Israeli director Gadi Roll promising “emotional complexity and stylised staging … that asserts itself as different in kind from the naturalism of television”; their inaugural production was a touring version of Schiller’s Don Carlos. When we have breakfast, he is just finishing a West End run in Ibsen’s tragedy Rosmersholm.
The play is a “howl in the dark” he says, proudly – and its revival is testimony to the time we live in. “We’ve been in denial about the darkness within each one of us. Not afforded ourselves the time and space to peer into that. It’s only lately we’ve been able to go: ‘Yeah, you know what, we are really confused.’”
In Thatcher’s time, he says, “theatre had to be entertainment”. Under Blair, “utilitarian, educational, with a deafeningly singular message”. Rosmersholm and The Souvenir do not conform, even now. And when it comes to assessing the virtues of contemporary culture, Burke is very #TeamAnthony: intolerant of filler, hungry for inner machinations.
“I think there’s a dark and twisted idea of democracy that everybody is as interesting as everybody else,” he says. “So we mustn’t make anybody too interesting. There’s an ironing out of edges and eccentricities, idiosyncrasies in people and situations.
“Yet everybody’s experience is really interesting.” He corrects himself. “Or, if not their experience, then their unlived life. Or their desire. Their id. Their curiosity. I just don’t want to just see a version of a version of a version. Sometimes people hide behind a kind of naturalistic milieu. But life is full of the most sharp, abrupt changes of tone, from the tragic to the absurd.”
That, he says, eyes alight, is why he so loves the Ibsen. “I feel like an expressionist nihilist deep in my heart. And I think nihilism can stop the wheel from going around, around, around, around, around – saying the same thing, reacting the same way. It can make everyone shut up for five minutes to try and have an original thought. I’m not saying we should be silent, do nothing. But maybe just for a day? To see what comes of it?”
Sure. Why not, eh? It’ll be fun! Burke drinks his coffee darkly.
• The Souvenir is released in the UK on 31 August