Furiosa’s Tom Burke: ‘I felt much more intimidated on Mad Max than I let myself admit’

‘I hate this term “culture war”. Maybe it’s naive of me to say that, but I don’t want to be part of it. I want to bring people together’ (Freddie Miller)
‘I hate this term “culture war”. Maybe it’s naive of me to say that, but I don’t want to be part of it. I want to bring people together’ (Freddie Miller)

Back in his twenties, Tom Burke was told by a British TV channel that his face didn’t fit. Literally. The actor, who had reconstructive surgery as a boy before winning a place at Rada, was close to a part in an “iconic period drama”, he remembers. “I very nearly got cast,” he tells me, “but I got told I didn’t have the right face for that channel. And I didn’t know if it was my cleft lip, or what it was.”

The star of Strike and The Souvenir doesn’t want to say which channel, for obvious reasons, but the remark shattered his confidence. Today, Burke admits he is “very pleased” to have become something of a pin-up. In the flesh, the 42-year-old has a kind of rumpled handsomeness, his hair and beard flecked with the odd hint of grey. Around his wrist is a beaded bracelet he fiddles with; a red necklace dangles between the lapels of his French worker jacket. Far from the lugubrious men he often inhabits on screen, he’s smiling and funny. There’s something, too, in the way that he edits as he speaks, often letting sentences trail off before languorously reconstructing them to say pretty much the same thing. He can shift gear quickly, though, to be impassioned and direct.

We’re here, in his publicist’s offices in Fulham, to discuss his new film, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. George Miller’s prequel to his 2015 franchise reboot Fury Road is the summer’s most keenly awaited blockbuster, a cacophonous, nerve-fraying symphony of savagery. Careening through this orchestrated mayhem – which unfolds in a vast, post-apocalyptic Australasian wilderness – is Anya Taylor-Joy, delivering a fierce performance as the younger Furiosa, the hard-bitten, one-armed badass played by Charlize Theron in the previous film. Brooding opposite her is Burke, head to toe in battered leather. As Praetorian Jack, a stoic, sharp-shooting convoy driver helping Furiosa to exact revenge on the warlord (Chris Hemsworth) who murdered her mother, he is impressively understated, if underused. In a film that wrestles with grief and loss, it’s the quasi-romance between Jack and Furiosa that really lends the plot its emotional heft.

The part came at him with little notice. When Burke heard that Miller wanted a video meeting, the actor, still to see a script, automatically assumed the role would be yet another, in his words, “wrong ’un”.

“I’ve played a few in my time,” he explains, “and I was thinking, OK, it’s set in the Mad Max world, so the part’s obviously going to be some sort of lascivious, horrible person. To my great relief, it wasn’t, because there’s only so much you want to do back-to-back before it wears on your soul a little.”

Just as the role was new cinematic ground for Burke, so, too, was the movie itself. Receiving five-star raves and a seven-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere, the film is distinctive not only for its oil-slick, full-throttle set pieces, but for the richness of its world-building. “I’d never been on anything that scale,” says Burke, citing David Fincher’s Mank as the biggest movie he’d done previously. “For that reason, I felt much more intimidated than I let myself admit. But I’ve probably felt that to some degree on every job I’ve ever done.”

Miller’s is a toxic, nihilistic world of (mostly) male violence. “I believe it’s in all of us to get nasty when we feel cornered,” says Burke. “I think that’s when things turn, and I think that’s the great challenge of being on the Earth, really – to try and know when that [nastiness] is coming out of survival instinct.” Don’t trust your primal instincts in tense situations seems to be his message here.

I don’t want to discredit the film Donkey Punch as I know it has a following. I did regret it. I don’t know why – it just didn’t sit well with me

Those instincts were given full rein on the sweltering desert set of Fury Road, where, in an atmosphere that became fraught and chaotic, Theron and Tom Hardy clashed repeatedly. Burke says that all of the cast of the new film were aware there had been issues. “We’d seen that movie,” he explains. “I can imagine, if you were in the midst of that, you might have been going, ‘What’s going on?’” But he insists, on the new film, with “stuff going on all around, we felt very free to abandon ourselves to it”.

That’s not quite how Taylor-Joy described it to The New York Times recently, when she said she had “never been more alone than when making that movie”, and that “everything that I thought was going to be easy was hard”, promising to reveal all at a later date. Mad Max, it seems, carries some of its madness within it.

Desert rats: Anya Taylor-Joy, Tom Burke and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ (Jasin Boland/Warner Bros)
Desert rats: Anya Taylor-Joy, Tom Burke and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ (Jasin Boland/Warner Bros)

While on the subject of on-set difficulties, Burke talks about the “instances in my career, earlier on, where I brought heat and noise to a situation. It’s tricky, sometimes, when things get very frantic,” he says. “I didn’t want to carry on being that actor; quite apart from not wanting to burn bridges, it’s not the energy I want to bring to a party.”

Still, there remains an unofficial code among actors that what happens on set stays on set. In contrast, it appears as though anyone who has worked on a project linked to writer JK Rowling is expected to state their position on her outspoken stance on trans women. As the actor who plays one-legged detective Cormoran Strike, the co-lead in the BBC’s popular adaptation of Rowling’s Strike novels, Burke is inescapably aligned with one of the most polarising figures of the day. Before our meeting, he made a special request to the BBC for media training on how to talk about Rowling. He got it. “I’ll preface all this by saying, what I want for that situation is for it to mend,” he says. “I want those disparate groups to find resolution. I don’t want to say anything in the wrong context, or at the wrong time, which is going to make the situation worse, because it’s not nice, right? There’s so much antipathy going on.”

“I hate this term ‘culture war’,” he adds. “Maybe it’s naive of me to say that, but I don’t want to be part of it. I want to bring people together.”

How does he feel about Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson both having condemned Rowling’s anti-trans views, with the former saying they “make me really sad”? “It’s not for me to second-guess anyone’s integrity on speaking out,” says Burke, slowly, meticulously. “My integrity is to not. My integrity is to step away. I’m aware that might mean people think I’m on the fence; it’s just what sits well with me right now. I’m not saying I’ll never speak out; it’s not that I don’t feel part of it. It’s just that I want to say something that’s helpful to resolution.”

Playing detective: Burke as JK Rowling’s creation in ‘Strike: Troubled Blood’ (BBC)
Playing detective: Burke as JK Rowling’s creation in ‘Strike: Troubled Blood’ (BBC)

Does he have sympathy for Radcliffe, who has been targeted by anti-trans activists? “I feel sorry for anybody who’s facing any kind of anger, frankly. It’s just the way I’m wired.”

If Burke is remaining neutral – painstakingly so – that’s because the situation is now so incendiary that any response to it is jumped on and pored over. A few weeks after our interview, pressed on Rowling, he tells The Guardian “I sleep well at night,” before explaining that this was meant as a figure of speech. When I speak to him again on the phone after that piece has run, he further clarifies. “I didn’t mean that to sound smug,” he says. “What I’m saying is what I feel placed to say. And I’ve thought about these things a lot, and I feel fine doing that particular job [starring in Strike], and my integrity sits fine with it. I know it’s a complex issue.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Burke is reluctant to take sides, given that Strike – which first aired in 2017 – helped to transform him from jobbing thesp to bona fide movie star. Raised in Kent, with acting in his DNA – his dad is David Burke (Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in the Eighties TV series), his mum Anna Calder-Marshall (Cathy to Timothy Dalton’s Heathcliff in the 1970 film of Wuthering Heights) – Burke was able to study at Rada in part thanks to a financial contribution from his godfather, the late Alan Rickman, who then directed him in a 2008 production of Strindberg’s Creditors at the Donmar. (“He was very influential. Very open-hearted.”)

In the years leading up to Strike, Burke could be found as the knavish soldier Dolokhov, twirling his moustache to devilish effect in Andrew Davies’s adaptation of War and Peace. He was the swashbuckling Athos in BBC One’s The Musketeers, and gave an indelibly bewildered turn opposite the late Helen McCrory as a war hero drinking himself into oblivion in The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre. Maybe you remember him from years ago in Donkey Punch, the cultishly amoral sex-and-drugs horror released in 2008. Burke played one of four reprehensible middle-class home counties boys who take three working-class girls from Leeds out on their luxury yacht near Majorca. “I was very frustrated in my career at the time,” says Burke of Donkey Punch. “I don’t want to discredit the film as I know it has a following, and everyone involved was good and interesting. I could have had a much better time than I did, but I really overthought it in my own head. I did regret it. I don’t know why – it just didn’t sit well with me.”

Urbane cowboy: Burke alongside Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg’s ‘The Souvenir’ (Curzon Artificial Eye)
Urbane cowboy: Burke alongside Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg’s ‘The Souvenir’ (Curzon Artificial Eye)

What did sit well with him – and critics unanimously – was The Souvenir (2019), Joanna Hogg’s intensely personal drama that reconstructs her years as a film student in London in the early Eighties. As Anthony, an urbane, upper-middle-class heroin addict with whom the film’s young protagonist (played by Honor Swinton Byrne) forms a destructive romantic bond, Burke found himself portraying a real-life friend of Hogg’s who had died in similar circumstances. The actor says he keeps meeting friends of the man – “sometimes by chance. All sorts of people I know happen to have met him. It feels a little bit spooky at times.”

The performance itself is quite extraordinary, with Anthony’s air of pretension and chain-smoking insouciance slowly giving way to vulnerability. Martin Scorsese, the film’s executive producer, called it “immediately compelling – every word and every gesture”.

Hogg was even more complimentary. “He’s physically got something of the young Orson Welles,” she said in one interview. “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.”

The film opened a door to Hollywood. Since its release, Burke has played Welles himself in Mank, before starring with Florence Pugh in The Wonder and Bill Nighy in Living. Soon he’ll be seen in Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Black Bag alongside Cate Blanchett.

‘Tom is like a matinee idol, a star of the forgotten age,’ says director Joanna Hogg (Freddie Miller)
‘Tom is like a matinee idol, a star of the forgotten age,’ says director Joanna Hogg (Freddie Miller)

He’s enjoying the transition to non-stereotypical leading man. “I think even in America, there’s a very much more diverse understanding of beauty than there was in, say, the Eighties or even Nineties,” he notes. But, he adds, “I have enormous admiration for people who are in the gym at four o’clock in the morning and then the cryochamber and egg whites for breakfast. And you know, I’ll do some version of that when it’s required.”

That begs a question. Earlier, Burke asks if we have met before. I tell him the story of how, on the night of the last Bond premiere, I was in a cafe with a film critic friend talking about who should take over the role. “And your friend said it should be either Matthew Rhys or me,” laughs Burke, who, unbeknown to either me or my friend, had been sitting at the table directly behind us. So... would he want to be 007? “I have some weird, magical, superstition about that, that you’re not supposed to talk about it or something,” he says. That sounds suspiciously, superstitiously, like a “yes”.

Styling by Jaime Jarvis at Stella Creative Artists

Grooming by Chad Maxwell at Stella Creative Artists using Bumble & Bumble and Elemis

‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ is in cinemas