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The Creditors Are Coming: Actor Tom Burke on Blending Method, Technique & Madness

Written by  Emily Bennett
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The Creditors Are Coming: Actor Tom Burke on Blending Method, Technique & Madness Photo by Emily Bennett

"Creditors" award-winning actor, Tom Liam Benedict Burke, is taking American theatre-goers by storm. In a mere 90 minutes, this young artist managed to carve out a performance which will surely be remembered for years to come...

...chronicled in such works as Telstar (alongside Kevin Spacey), In Love with Barbara, The Libertine (alongside Johnny Depp), State of Play, Dracula and Casanova for television; as well as his upcoming films Third Star, Look, Stranger, and Clean Skin.

In a steadfast, self-deprecating London accent, Tom Burke is almost able to convey his mountain of acting achievements in the form of a molehill. This in itself is a huge achievement, because this young actor has not only just been awarded the coveted Ian Charlson Award, but he also manages an accessible brilliance and humbleness about his work that is inspiring to any up-and-comer or seasoned artist.

Mr. Burke graduated from The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2002 and, having trained at the school myself, it was lovely to sit down with such a successful alumnus of the school and discuss where the adventures in his career have taken him since entering the professional world of acting.
The role for which Tom won the Ian Charlson Award is Adolph in Alan Rickman's production of August Strindberg's "Creditors," click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

Check out this stellar review of "Creditors" in The New York Times!

Your character, Adolph, in "Creditors" is a sculptor. Did you do any preparation outside of rehearsals in the way of taking art classes at all?

I did go to sculpture classes, in Canterbury, down in Kent. I loved it. I got really into it. I was working with stone and Alan was on the phone with me saying "I don't know why you're doing it with stone. The sculpture is going to be made of clay." I did a bit of clay, I just started enjoying the stone more. But we weren't going to have a massive stone bust of Anna on the stage.

creditors_tom_burke_notes_on_the_roadAdolph also has very weak legs in the play, so much so that he has to walk around with crutches. How did you create your physicality for this role?

The play I did before this, when it was in London, it was a modern play inspired by the Tempest at the RSC and I was playing this sort of Caliban character and I was supposed to look palsied and twisted and it wasn't specific in the writing but obviously I had to find a consistency of weird, awkward movement. And that was made doubly hard because there was a 20 minute scene in the middle where I had to be constantly beaten up, and that was the toughest thing I've ever had to do. I worked on it a lot with the movement person.

So I had just done all that and now this... I didn't want to over think it and I just thought "the legs are weak." The first time around I used more tension in my legs to make them almost tremble under my weight, and this time I had a chat with Alan and we decided to go to something more loose. Legs that are loose. I didn't do any isolated work that wasn't within the context of the scene. It just happened and I felt confident with it and he felt confident with it.

As far as preparing for a play, where do you begin with a character?

tom_burke_1_notes_on_the_roadStrindberg said a very interesting thing about character. And about people. That we're not finite personalities and you can't give a bullet point list of who somebody is because it's so much to do with the people around them at any given time. So in the play we all repeat each other a lot and it's not like we're quoting each other. It's far more unconscious than that. And so there was a feeling in rehearsing this of absorbing what everyone else was doing. And letting that feed into what you were doing. And having had that experience I'm tempted to try that with everything now.

I suppose the danger, if you start over thinking your character, is that you create a kind of mask. I see that. I'm not sure if I've done that myself in the past. I think tempo is important. When I'm rehearsing I make myself read the play every now and again and of course learn the lines. It's important to bring in new ideas as they occur to you - when you're going through stuff alone. I think the most important thing is to turn up and just make sure you're absolutely there and your head isn't anywhere else when you're rehearsing. Which includes letting whatever you're going through at that particular point in your life live inside of you without it being in your head. You're using it in a more abstract way. And things just sort of work themselves out. I think the more flexible you can be the better.

How do you feel about being awarded the Ian Charlson Award for this role (an award given in England for the best Classical performance by an actor or actress under the age of 30)?

Amazing. It was a lot of people nominated, and I think most of them had been nominated before. It's my first award. You want to get to a point where (one is at this crossroads every day) you want to be in this place where success or failure... you don't want to take either personally. Because they could both cause a resistance to just getting on and doing things. If you take failure too personally. If you take success to personally. But having any kind of recognition on that level helps you let go of needing it. In moments of doubt, you go, "well that's there." There was a ceremony and I couldn't go. I was filming. It was a movie and I was doing a scene where I was walking, and when I saw it my elbow is in that scene. And I kept saying "can you please do this little shot so I can get to this award ceremony." Not that I thought I was going to win. My parents were there. My dad gets invited every year because he did Hamlet with Ian (Charleston). I had a message from my mum saying I won, and from Michael Grandage. It was fantastic. It's 5000 pounds apart from anything else, which I needed at the time. [Laughs].

What was that job?

I wanted to teach, actually. For just like a week of my life. I'd been coaching a younger class in relay at school and I suppose I enjoyed that energy of giving, but I suppose that's what theatre is at its best. Giving away something.

tom_burke_young_notes_on_the_roadWhen did you decide to pursue acting professionally, which ultimately took you to RADA?

I wrote to an agency as soon as I left school. I left school before doing A Levels. I couldn't stand the idea of that. In retrospect I wish I had but at the time I just thought I wouldn't survive it. I thought I'd go mad. Because I wasn't very academic, I didn't do well academically.

So I wrote to an agency. It was a child's agency really, but they put me up for a job. They said you're a bit old for us really, but you can go in for this tomorrow, it was the movie Dragon Heart: A New Beginning. And I got it. And I was seventeen and I thought I was going to get every job I ever went in for. I got back from that and there was suddenly this not-knowing-what-to-do, waiting-for-the-phone-to-ring kind of existence. I went to dance school for a little bit and did two other jobs which I wasn't particularly happy on actually, two telly jobs. They kind of freaked me out a bit...

I suppose there's a point where you just think it's all going to be great and you're going to be on the front of a magazine and that's going to be the best thing ever... And suddenly that becomes nothing and you go "Whoa, whoa, what am I actually - why am I doing this? What am I going to do?" That's when I decided to go to drama school and I was very young. I was just 18 when I started training. Again, it wouldn't' have been such a bad idea to do something else for a bit longer first because I don't know how much I was able to take in.

In the years after I left Drama School, I would think, "oh, I could deal with all that now." When I left I was just 21. I haven't really stopped working since, which has been great on one level. Alan was always there giving me advice, saying "be choosy, be careful what you do" and I was to a certain degree. But the thing he kept saying was that it's sometimes good to just go and do something else for a bit, and I really realize that now. If you're just doing acting jobs back to back you actually end up with not having a lot to offer. You just start repeating yourself.

What do you do to refill yourself?

I don't' know. [Laughs] I built a shed last year and all I can say is that it gave me two months of doing something which seemed like the best thing to be doing between acting work. Because it was just manual. It required thought but of a different kind. We're all emotional beings so it's not like you have to go looking for demons to summon that on stage.

The trick really is to create a sane enough life outside of the work so you can live inside it when you're doing it, and know that you've got something to go back to. When you get into a state of being a workaholic, that becomes your identity and your own living room becomes the place where you don't know who you are. It's good to make sure you have a sane enough life so that you can go to that strange place of not knowing at work and come back to something more concrete.

 

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After receiving such amazing theatre training at RADA, how did you find it going back to working on television and film?

When you first leave a drama school, you're still so on top of the technique , and when I first left RADA, I had a great time doing telly and film. And then there was a point where it suddenly got difficult. I think that I had slightly lost the edge on my technique so that all those tiny little things added up and you start thinking "I'm finding it hard to talk, I'm finding it hard to move here and say this". On some level I had stopped refining, I had fallen into certain bad habits physically and vocally, which people don't necessarily pick up on because they don't know what that is. It's not their job to. It's one's own job to.

An experience that I think about a lot, happened while I was working on a film called TELSTAR. I really had a great time on it, and the first day I was doing a very long scene. It was several scenes that they had decided to shoot all as one, and they wanted to do it all on steady cam. It was with a huge amount of movement going up and down corridors, in and out of rooms and up some stairs. It was technically very demanding. You had to hit mark after mark and it was also with Kevin Spacey, who I was a bit in awe of.

So there was a moment after we blocked it where I thought "I can't think about this, otherwise I'll get it wrong. I have to just do this." I don't quite know what that means. I realized if I was going to be the slightest way self-conscious I was going to be absolutely stuck, it demanded that I just let go and I realized that wasn't such a bad demand to be given. And that should be one's goal when rehursing a play to reach a point where you're not thinking technically in performance, where you can trust that the graft has been done.

Did you find that you clung to technique after leaving drama school?

Yes. Totally. Totally. It's that tightrope between that and not just being in awe of the mystery of it. Because if you get too in awe of the mystery of it can be just as paralyzing as being too worried about the technique. I don't quite know what the balance is but you just have your antenna out for both.

What role have you not played that you would love to?

I mean there are LOADS. I'd love to do MISS JULIE actually, but I think what I've got to know is... theatre is such a mad thing. It's less and less about the role and more and more about the space, the director, and the other people. You could sort of draw up a list of parts you want to play and negotiate your way through that. And, the people I admire in terms of the choices they make, that's not how their head works. They're much more in the moment about it. It's got to be a role you really want to play- at that moment in your life, and you've got to know you're on the same page with the director and that they're open to your ideas and they're open to your ideas. That's almost an instinct rather than a conversation when you meet them.

How does your technique change with film as opposed to theatre?

tom_burke_2_notes_on_the_roadYou see, I don't know if it does now. I did a film with a director last year with a New York director called Ariel le Javitch in Serbia, and I was working with a Romanian actress and she was meticulous about making sure she was absolutely there physically and vocally in the way you would if you were doing a play. Why wouldn't you? You're getting up at 4 in the morning, you're maybe doing one scene that day, you've got two lines. You want to hit those lines with every little nuance you can. And move through that space with every little nuance you can. So why would you walk on set half asleep, which is tempting to do sometimes when you're filming every day, when you're knackered... it's different because if you started warming up on set you would get a lot of strange looks, I imagine. It's about waking up earlier and doing it by yourself.

What is an epiphany you've had during your training at RADA?

It's always been with a word. You just think, I've never said that word before really. I've made a noise. Words are spells. Words are so powerful. And there's a quote by Cicely Berry, "let the words do something to you, don't do something to the words." If you're doing Shakespeare, if your instrument is working as well as it should, just by saying those words, feelings are generated. But so often what happens is you see this Shakespeare text and you think "this is so epic and so big and I have to fill this," and you start trying to do things and putting colors on words.

I think a great performance is you meeting the piece, but that was one thing with training... as important as it is... they're so adamant about not getting in the way of the material that I was finding it virtually impossible to learn lines at one point because I was so scared of corrupting it or not just being this clear vessel. Then I realized it's about being a clear vessel not just for the text but for your essence, not letting your ego get in the way too much. Particularly with Shakespeare you get so much, it gives you so much that you don't have to worry about getting there, effort is involved but somehow it's more of a surrender to something bigger than yourself.

When you were in your late teens-early twenties at RADA, you were typically cast in much older roles. How did that serve you in your training?

I didn't allow myself anywhere near a cane because I realized I would have enjoyed it far too much. I remember trying it out in one rehearsal and I was moving like I was 102 by the end of the morning. The first elderly character I played at drama school was in an Ostrovsky play called "Innocent as Charged", and I was playing this guy who was 90 percent benign, and full of life. And I realized there was absolutely no point trying to think too much about somebody being 70 because this guy had the most youthful soul in the play. Somehow if you are truthful enough to the energy, the essence of the person, it just happens anyway. You find the tempo, you find the weight and you make sure you don't start doing cartwheels or backflips.

I got really into playing the father's and grandfathers. There are a whole load of amazing parts between 30 and 50 and I was generally playing these less iconic but really rewarding 60-70 year old characters. I left RADA feeling older than I was. I went up for a season at the RSC, and a director was talking to me about juve (juvenile) parts and I was going "but I want to play that." And they were like "you're a bit young".

Lastly, who are some of your greatest influences?

I am a massive James Dean, Marlon Brando fan. Cagney. I was watching a documentary on Orson Wells. I love Orson Wells. He said something about expressionism: "the perfect example is James Cagney, because he's not real but he's true." And I just loved that. To have that as your agenda, truth not realism. Because if you just go with the truth you're going to get the realism, but if you're just thinking about the realism you're not necessarily going to get the truth. You can get behavior. You could just get something which is extremely impressive to watch but you're not necessarily getting a story.

Howard Barker. I did my first theatre job with him. He was a massive influence on my whole idea of why I was doing it actually. His imagination in terms of telling a story, avoiding conventional clichéd anything. And the fact that he possessed such a colorful imagination. David Mamet actually. Just things he's said in his books about theatre and about life, "If not now then when" I'm always thinking of that. He just seems to be a very wise man on every level. The books he writes about theatre you sort of end up applying to your life. I've always loved Sally Field. Her emotional total-ness on film. It's rare. You so often see something manufactured. You know when it's real.

Last modified on Friday, 09 November 2012 13:13

1 Comment

  • Comment Link Capella Saturday, 16 July 2011 19:00 posted by Capella

    I had the true pleasure of working with Tom in South Africa on Donkey Punch
    He is a rare talent and a marvelous human being
    I have no doubt that he will end up on many a magnificent stage with many awards
    Incredible simply incredible

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