Kathy Burke, one of this country’s best-loved character actresses, is directing her first West End play. She tells James Rampton about the frustrations of being an actor and why she decided to quit
Five years ago, Kathy Burke was being taken in Luc Besson’s private jet to the Cannes Film Festival to pick up her Best Actress Award for her stunning performance as the battered wife in Nil by Mouth. Hollywood producers were door-stepping her like so many double-glazing salesmen.
This week, she is to be found in the rather more humble surroundings of a run-down church hall normally used by an Islington Scout group. But she couldn’t be happier.
She has been delighted to forsake the glitz and glamour of acting for the more down-to-earth charms of directing a one-woman show for the London stage. The move means that for the foreseeable future, we must learn to content ourselves with endless Waynetta Slob repeats on UK Gold, because – hold the Arts page – Kathy Burke has given up acting.
Over the past decade, the 38-year-old has established herself as perhaps the nation’s favourite actress. After memorable performances in such diverse projects as Nil by Mouth, Harry Enfield and Chums, Mr Wroe’s Virgins, Absolutely Fabulous, Tom Jones, Elizabeth and Kevin and Perry Go Large, The Independent on Sunday described her as “the best British character actress of her generation”.
Yet despite all this praise, Burke admits that she is tired of performing. Most actors – worried about the next job – are wary of saying much beyond “Darling, everything was simply wonderful.” Burke, on the other hand, is more than happy to spill the beans about the less alluring aspects of the industry. She reveals that her last acting job – in Shane Meadows’ felicitously titled film, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands – left her feeling deeply dissatisfied.
“Even though Shane was the sort of British director I wanted to work with, the job still drove me mad,” Burke sighs. “Rather than doing any work, I felt I was stuck in a caravan all day sitting on my arse giving myself cancer. It was mind-numbing.
“Even on films that I enjoyed as an actress, there was a sense of frustration. I felt I was getting stagnant. All I was doing was dressing up and pretending to be someone else. What sort of life is that?”
Over the past few years, Burke has become increasingly exasperated by the lack of influence that cast members have over the film-making process. She realised that many directors subscribed to Alfred Hitchcock’s view that actors are just “cattle”. “I had this feeling that no matter how much clout you appear to have as a performer, you’re still only a bloody actor.”
Matters came to a head for Burke when she filmed Dancing at Lughnasa, in which she starred opposite Meryl Streep, no less. “After Cannes, I was suddenly on a list of movie actresses, and I did a couple of films that I shouldn’t have. Dancing at Lughnasa was one. It was crap,” she states in the most unequivocal tones. “It was made for the Americans, and it wasn’t gritty enough.
“The character I was playing was quite mumsy – she was the mother figure to all her sisters – and to fill that role I wanted a padded bra to give me a bigger bosom. I asked the director and designer to organise it, but when I arrived on set it wasn’t there. It really upset me. I thought ‘Everything I say is just dismissed’.
“Actors have so little power. It sounds awful because people think it’s such a glamorous job, but for me acting became drudgery. Acting can keep you childlike. I want to be grown up now.”
To that end, Burke decided to start calling the shots herself by becoming a director. In the past year, she has directed well-regarded productions of Jonathan Harvey’s Out in the Open at the Hampstead Theatre, and Nick Grosso’s Kosher Harry at the Royal Court.
Now she is helming her first West End play, Betty, an affecting one-woman show performed by Geraldine McNulty. It’s a dark comedy that focuses on a devout, yet repressed, 49-year-old woman who is seriously disturbed when she finds sexual satisfaction sitting on the washing machine in the middle of its spin-cycle.
Burke recounts that “when I directed Out in the Open, I thought ‘I can’t remember being this happy’. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning. I was so excited about going to work, I even woke up before the alarm went off.”
Directing gives Burke a thrill that acting no longer provides. “When you direct, you’re allowed to use your brain and look at the bigger picture,” she continued. “Also, having been an actor, I can give clues to unlocking emotions. I can empathise with the cast and think ‘How would I do this scene?’ I love the immediacy of theatre, too. It’s happening there, right in front of you – and then once it’s over, that’s it.”
She had a tough upbringing. After her mother died when Burke was just 18 months old, she was raised in Islington by her father Paddy, an Irish builder, and her two older brothers, John and Barry. “When I was a kid,” she remembers, “I was a lost soul. I never knew where I fitted in. I just wanted to be mates with everyone. When I was 12, I used to get a bottle of cider and a cigar from the offy and have them in the graveyard. Nothing’s changed!”
For all that, she is pretty sorted these days and philosophical about her current single status. “I haven’t found Mr Right. There have been people I’ve really loved, but it’s never worked out. I’m in a good place now, so I don’t beat myself up about it.”
She is already in discussions about directing two more stage-plays later in the year, but even if she is off our screens for a while, Burke will no doubt remain unfeasibly popular.
Harry Enfield spoke for many when he declared before his wedding a couple of years ago: “There are so many people who are in love with Kathy – including my dad. He’s excited about me getting married because it means he’ll get to meet Kathy at the wedding.” When other colleagues talk about her, the phrase “national treasure” is rarely far from their lips.
Typically, Burke laughs off the eulogies. “It would be pretty sad if you lay in bed thinking ‘me, me, me’ all the time, wouldn’t it?,” she says. “This image of being a national treasure puzzles me because people don’t really know me.
“I’m actually quite moody. I get this label of ‘lovely person’, but I know that six days out of seven I’ve got the hump. Everyone thinks I’m an angel, but in fact I’m wondering round like Beelzebub looking for victims.”
In spite of her alleged moodiness, Burke is clearly extremely content right now. She confirms that “directing is such a buzz, I don’t miss anything about acting”.
Not even the money? Apparently not. Burke reckons that she is quite canny with her finances. She opted, for instance, to take a share from the video sales of Kevin and Perry Go Large because “there’ll always be teenagers. I’m a good businessman, me. That’s why I can afford to become a theatre director.
“Also,” she concludes with a throaty chuckle, “It helps that I don’t have a coke habit to pay for. I’m quite a cheap date.”
‘Betty’ opens at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 0511) tonight
By James Rampton. Original article.