The Version Interview... Tom Burke on BBC One's The Strike series.
A BBC One mini-series, in association with HBO/Cinemax, adapted from J.K. Rowling’s global bestselling novels written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Written by Ben Richards and directed by Michael Keillor.
Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels have been adapted for a major new television series for BBC One, produced by Brontë Film and TV.
The Cuckoo’s Calling (published by Little, Brown) is the first in the Cormoran Strike series and J.K. Rowling’s first crime novel written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
Tom Burke stars as Cormoran Strike, a war veteran turned private detective operating out of a tiny office in London’s Denmark Street. Though he’s wounded both physically and psychologically, Strike’s unique insight and his background as an SIB Investigator prove crucial to solving three complex cases which have eluded the police.
Had you read the books before getting on board with this project?
I had an answer phone message from my agent telling me about the audition for it and I think he said that the book was already on the way in the post. I was actually so excited that I went and bought a copy from Foyles, I didn’t even want to wait for the next day and started reading it that evening. That was quite a while ago.
I don’t know if I’d finished it all by the time I auditioned, but I was quite a good way through it. Then there was a bit of a wait before getting started, so I read all three of them. Initially quite speedily and then going back and enjoying it a bit more.
Did you have a moment where you thought, yeah this is me, I want to be him?
I absolutely read them thinking, I’d love to play this part. But typically for me I was thinking of all the reasons why I wouldn’t be playing the part. I had to do a few leaps through hoops in my own head to get in a positive space.
Can you tell us who you think Strike is?
I was fascinated by his habits and that he does seem to be a creature of habit. There are various pubs he seems to go to again and again and he always has a pint or two and there’s a certain kind of food he eats. We all eat that kind of pub grub stuff, but he eats it all the time. So I was immediately thinking in terms of someone who needed comfort. When you get his back story, you realise why. He’s had this incredibly complicated childhood and he’s grown into somebody who’s very solid. He seems to know exactly who he is.
You get quite a lot of information from the book, it’s so detailed, about him. Is that useful research for you, or do you think you want to bring your own interpretation to the story?
Galbraith writes amazing dialogue and description. I got a lot about the character from that. I really felt a rhythm to him from the way he talked to other people. He’s quite rude to other people sometimes.
We don’t just see him in his business role, we also understand that as much as he’s brilliant in his work, he’s also terrible in his private life. He’s had disastrous relationships in the past. You’d think that if he was so in tune with people as he seems to be, why could he not be in tune with people in his personal life. Is that something you have to be aware of?
There is a sense of this man being able to think incredibly rationally in the work that he’s doing, which he doesn’t do in his personal relationships.
That’s very much a part of who he is. Sometimes, his intelligence as a detective is as much a kind of irrational intelligence and a kind of fuzzy logic and a joining of seemingly not obvious facts together. It’s all part and parcel of who he is.
You avoid him being a superhero-esque detective who’s already worked it all out, does that give you freedom?
Yes, I really like the fact that sometimes he gets it half right but not completely right.
In The Cuckoo's Calling he believes he knows this particular person is the killer, but he honestly feels that if he presents them with the facts, they’ll sort of crumble. And they might even be relieved. There’s a slightly older brother quality to it. Whilst he has got the right person, that is absolutely not how they react, so he’s completely taken by surprise by that.
That to me is much more interesting than somebody who absolutely knows how everything is going to play out, which is also fun to watch. I like the fact this is a bit different, it’s a bit more human.
Could you give us a sense of what the story is in the first instance in Cuckoo’s Calling?
At the beginning of the Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike is somewhat in debt, he doesn’t have many clients, he’s working as a private detective, which he has been for some time. The first person who walks into his office, other than Robin who has turned up to temp - he thinks he’s cancelled that but there’s been a miscommunication - is a guy offering quite a bit of money for a case that has already been open and shut by the police. He’s really not sure whether he should take it on board. He’s persuaded to by this character John Bristow, who seems pretty desperate for peace of mind.
It’s quite late into the first episode that he realises there is something going on and there is something that has been papered over and not looked at properly. It was a very high-profile case. The person who died was a supermodel and they believed it to be suicide, but John believes it might not be and Strike comes to agree with him.
It projects Strike and Robin from this really quite shabby and neglected office into the pristine, bright world of fashion. A little too bright and a quite toxic world as well in some ways.
What makes him different from other detectives that we’ve seen?
I feel with Strike that he has grown up witness to, and has encountered, evil. He does know what it looks like and smells like and he’s ready to act on it if it needs to be confronted. He’s always an individual and he doesn’t pretend to know why. He tries to find out and is curious.
We’re living in a time where people are pointing at a lot of groups, and going it’s the left, it’s the right, it’s the leavers, it’s the remainers, it’s the UK, it’s the other lot. I don’t think he creates those monoliths; I think there’s this almost ancient Greek sense that Strike - and I don’t think he’d even put it in these words - but that if the Gods are not against us necessarily, they’re certainly messing with us.
Life is tricky for most people, it is for him. It’s not just tricky because he lost the bottom third of his leg, it’s not tricky just because his mother was murdered, or just because of what happened to him in his childhood, it’s just tricky. You could almost say he’s a cynic in that sense. I think Cocteau described it life as 'an infernal machine’; it almost pushes people to do bad things. I think Strike has an understanding of that and I think that’s where his compassion comes from.
Do you think he likes the disruptive element to what he does, that that’s what’s attractive to him?
I think there is a degree of adrenalin that comes from having something to work against. Most of the people he interviews don’t want to be interviewed and he does get a certain amount of energy from that. We do understand there is a degree of self-neglect in his life, which is probably a way of focusing on something else.
Can we talk about Strike and Robin’s relationship, which obviously progresses on a number of different levels. How did you and Holliday work on that together?
The interesting thing with Robin and Strike initially is that they’re continually taken by surprise. Who is this person? Oh, they’re quite nice, they’re quite intelligent. I think because they both have a bit of a blind spot about the idea that this might be more than what it is, it gives them a certain freedom to enjoy all of the other things that it is.
So when she suddenly says, "I’ve got a job interview" - it's that sense that you don’t realise what you’ve got till it’s gone. I think that’s what’s fun about it and the charm of it, that they don’t really know what’s going on.
It’s a pleasure to see such a dynamic a female lead character. What do you think she represents?
She’s a good person, she’s really good. He does, I think, recognise a bit of his mother in her, a bit of that selflessness which was his mother's downfall.
A lot of the characters in this are harbouring some sort of malicious intent. They are essentially people who, for whatever reason, have let their egos atrophy and they are engines of self. Robin’s not that, she’s incredibly generous as well as being super bright, super intelligent. I think he just feels that about her.
His leg is part of his character but it’s not used as a motif that takes us from A to B in the narrative. How, practically, did you deal with it?
I had an advisor, Barney Gillespie, who is a soldier who lost his leg in Afghanistan. There was also another chap on set, Mark Wildish, who was my double for some of those scenes. And Toby Sedgwick who is a movement director. They all helped me lots.
Of course, you change one thing on the human body and everything else changes as well. How does the upper body deal with it? Barney is super fit and up a mountain every other week. With Strike, there is a degree of neglect in his maintenance of the leg. Which is an interesting thing. Which is a kind of valid reaction to something bad happening to you, going wrong: "I don’t want to have to do all of this stuff every day" - but of course you need to.
He’d put on weight after that happened and how that then feeds back into it, how the elastin sock that goes over the stump, which is so tight that it slows the knee joint down. That to me is where a lot of the limp, for want of a better word, is a lot to do with the tautness of the bandage that slightly slows the knee joint; there’s just a slight difference to the rhythm, between one leg and the next. You notice it more when somebody has to go up five flights of stairs, it’s going to start to show because it starts to hurt.
How important is the coat to his character?
It’s one of the main items of clothing you’re continually reminded of in the books. I almost had the collar permanently up, it just felt right for how we were doing it.
It’s someone who is shrouding themselves a little. Going out and doing bleak work frequently in bleak weather, it all felt part of that. I think that was very important.
I think it’s the first thing, when me and Suzanne (Cave, the show's costume designer) first sat down, it was the first thing we talked about. We tried a lot on and found the right shape in some and then the right material in others, you want a certain kind of weight to it. Nothing that was darted at the waist, but that just kind of hung. I think I ended up wearing it a lot more than I ever imagined I would. I just quite liked the idea that this guy lives in the coat.
Can we talk about the office in Denmark Street, where there’s the whole musical background, and what that says about him?
It’s partly set on Denmark Street because Jo Rowling did temp on Denmark Street. But it is interesting in the context of his father and that non-relationship and why he’s there. The office is brilliant. I just walked into it and thought this is perfect.
I know you’ve described Robin to us, but what do you think attracts Strike to Robin? She’s a world away from what Charlotte represents.
I just don’t think he’s come across somebody quite like Robin. He’s got plenty of female friends and I do believe Strike really likes women, and I don’t mean in a James Bond way. He likes women, I feel that about him. But Robin is something else and I’ve let that be a bit of a mystery to me, because I’ve felt that it’s a mystery to him.
Does it help that you’ve spent so much time together?
We’ve got quite similar temperaments on set. I think there’s a balance between absolutely taking it seriously and getting the work done as opposed to ‘taking it seriously.’ If everyone’s doing that, there’s no room for discussion, really. I think we’re very well suited in that way.
Do you think we’re ripe for a resurgence in these kind of stories? We haven’t seen a really good private detective for a long time.
I think there is something romantic about the private detective, because it harks back to Philip Marlowe and all that. There are even little bits of frosted glass in the office that are almost a little nod to that.
It’s also I think about not being part of a system and being your own person. It flirts with little bits of that genre in a really nice way. The classic thing in those ones, is that there’s something always going on between the secretary and the detective, so it’s almost like that’s an elephant in the room in the sense of the genre speaking. There’s just that little idea that if this was a novel we’d probably be having a thing, but it’s not a novel, it’s real.