I recently had the honour to chat with actor and firefighter Robert John Burke, a great guy and experienced veteran, appearing in excellent character arcs in Gossip Girl as Bart Bass, Rescue Me as Cousin Mickey, Law & Order SVU, Person Of Interest, Generation Kill, The Sopranos, Oz, Sex & The City, Homicide: Life On The Streets and more. He’s also worked in many films, including Robocop 3 in the title role, Limitless, Safe, Tombstone, Munich, 2 Guns, and the George Clooney directed films Good Night & Good Luck, and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. He’s one of my favourite actors, and I was beyond excited to be able to interview him. Enjoy!
Nate: How did you get into acting, was it something you knew you wanted to do at an early age, or did you fall into it? Did you got to school for it at all? Where?
Robert: I kind of fell into it, and for an acting degree I went to State University of New York, at Suny Purchase.
Nate: Robocop 3 happened pretty early in your career, with not a lot of film credits before that (or at least as far as I can tell from imdb). How did that come about, and did you enjoy taking up the mantle of such an iconic character from Mr. Weller?
Robert: Robocop 3 came about.. In God’s great earth they thought I was the only actor who could do it, I don’t know why. I think physically I poked like Peter Weller, and I had also had extensive karate training, pantomime training, and body training, and I fit the suit. I held out for a long time, I was very hesitant to do it, but then after about six or eight months I finally agreed.
Nate: You are are a certified NY firefighter, and from what I’ve read participated in rescue efforts following 9/11. Would you care to share your experience with that at all? Did that contribute to your being casted in Rescue Me, or is that just coincidence?
Robert: I became a firefighter in 2002, my best friend was a fire captain, Captain Patrick Brown, he worked at Ladder 3, and when I went down to the World Trade Center to dig and look for Pat, that kind of became the first time I operated as a firefighter, returned to my hometown, joined the volunteer force, and after thirteen years I’m now a captain.
Nate: You frequently play offbeat, corrupt higher ups and gruff lawmen or criminals, always under the radar, but always absolutely memorable. Do you find that a career as a character actor was what you saw yourself doing upon entering the industry? Or have you surprised yourself with the direction your work has taken?
Robert: It has surprised me that I’ve become kind of a character actor, and the style of roles, the gruff detectives. People say do you worry about being typecast, and the operative word there is ‘cast’. So if we leave out the word ‘type’, what they are essentially asking is do you worry about about being cast, and no, I don’t, it sure beats unemployment. I love playing the bad guy, it’s always more fun, always more interesting. Who wants to play the good guy? It’s boring.
Nate: Who are some of your favourite actors/films/filmmakers?
Robert: My taste in actors is varied, I’m not much of a cinephile to begin with. I’d have to say that my number one actor that I really, really like is Alan Rickman. I don’t know what it is about Alan Rickman, the guy is just a consummate artist. I love Bob Duvall, also Gary Oldman I love. There are a lot of different actors I like for a lot of different reasons, but yeah, those would be the top three.
Nate: Awesome choices! Rickman and Oldman are absolute favourites of mine. You seem to have a ton of fun in your work, even when playing contemptible pricks. There’s always a glint in your eyes and an infectious energy that radiates off the screen. Do you find that that rambunctious, mischievous quality happens naturally via your personality, or do you consciously use your training to create it?
Robert: I always seem to have a lot of fun even when playing ‘contemptible pricks’, (laughs) I love that usage. Um, it’s fun, like in Person Of Interest, this character Patrick Simmons, whose kind of over the top, the story of Person Of Interest, the CBS television show, it’s kind of a comic book type of adventure, so you get to be a wee bit arch. But as long as I’m doing the definitive interpretation of the role, then I just am so grateful to be doing what I’m doing, that I don’t really apologize for it. Yeah I’m having fun, an acting teacher told me, why do you think they call it a play?
Nate: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind- the million dollar question haha. Your monologue in this one is just sheer comic brilliance, and lights up the entire movie like a beacon of knowing, satirical fun. My buddies and I re watch the scene on YouTube all the time and descend into fits of laughter. How did the nature of that come about? Did you take it upon yourself to lay the over the top, hilarious nature of that character into it, or was it in the script to have him like that?
Robert: With Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, that was my first audition after 9/11, I hadn’t auditioned in a year, I hadn’t acted in a year. I went for George Clooney and I read that scene, and he was.. snot was coming out of his nose he was laughing so hard. Then when I got up there subsequently to shoot it, I dialled it back a lot, and he said “What are you doin?”, and I said “well, I wanna be in the same movie YOU’RE shooting”, and he said “No, no, you have to do what you did in the audition, it was such a wonderful interpretation”, so I did it, and I really had fun with that. What was wonderful about George is that he’s an actor, so he allowed me to really just be fearless and not whatever the hell I wanted per say, but at the same time to reallyy stretch the boundaries of who this particular whacko CIA agent could be.
Nate: You have primarily worked in crime/action cinema. Do you find that a particular genre just kind of finds you based on your look, style and approach to the work, or did you actively seek out projects like that?
Robert: I think the reason that I work in these genres, of action adventure, well it’s not action adventure per say, but action. I guess it has to do with the way I look, you know, sharp featured, blue eyes. Western canon would say that I’m the consummate looking hunter, you know, killer. But I play a lot of military types, it’s interesting that that’s what is thrust upon me, I played like five or six Generals so far in the past three years. This is how I’m perceived, it’s kind of a surprise to me, but again it’s usually fun stuff, and interesting. I especially like doing historical work, playing someone who has actually lived, because then I get to do the research and being a history buff that coincides nicely.
Nate: How is life these days? Do you have any projects you are excited for and would like to speak about?
Robert: Life these days is good, I do a recurring role on Special Victims Unit, and he really was a contemptible prick, and now they’re softening the character up. I just finished a turn in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and my volunteer fire service, July August I took off, that’s our busy time of the year, so just getting the fire department and the training materials, everything up to snuff, lots of training, lots of EMS calls, and the odd fire. There’s a lot of fire safety these days, so it cuts down on your fire service in that respect. But the training I love, and I’m pretty fortunate to have such good guys around me.
Nate: Thanks for sharing, Robert, I really appreciate it!