Strike stars Holliday Grainger and Tom Burke hint at even more seasons after Lethal White
Michael Hodges chats to Holliday Grainger and Tom Burke ahead of Strike's latest outing.
Holliday Grainger remembers clearly the moment she first met Tom Burke. It was at a 2011 screening of the French film The Artist, in London, six years before they found fame together in Strike. “We really got on,” she says. Did she look at the dark and brooding Burke and think – this person is sensational, I must work with him? “That’s exactly what I thought.” Really? “No! But we actually have the same agents, so it was like, ‘We must be two of a kind then. We have the same taste in the people we keep around us.’”
We have gathered via Zoom to discuss Strike: Lethal White, the TV drama based on JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike crime novels written as Robert Galbraith (Rowling is also an executive producer on the show). Grainger and Burke signed up back in 2017 and Grainger is all over the details of who is paid what and for how long because she was accidentally sent Burke’s contract at the time. “I’ve still got it somewhere,” she says. “They sent him mine and I got his.” “And you opened it?” asks Burke in surprise.
It’s safe to say that Grainger is the natural detective of the pair whose on-off – though mainly off – screen relationship has hooked eight million regular viewers. Burke, 39, is war veteran and private detective Cormoran Strike. Grainger, 32, is Robin Ellacott, his professional partner and perhaps one day – as much of the fan-base fervently hopes – his romantic partner.
In the new four-episode series the pair are still conflicted by their mutual attraction, a difficult situation that’s been further compounded by Ellacott’s decision to marry her boyfriend, the emotionally inadequate Lancastrian bully Matthew Cunliffe. Strike also struggles with his feelings about his upper-class ex, Charlotte, and is in a relationship with Lorelei (Natalie Gumede). No surprise that he drinks pints of beer whenever he can and smokes all the time.
In real life Burke is very much an ex-smoker and doesn’t want to start again. “I’m no longer a smoker of any kind. I’m a bit worried about the cigarette thing,” he says. “I try and space it out so I’m not constantly smoking on the show. I smoke herbals but if you smoke that many, they leave you in a pretty weird state. Fundamentally, that’s addictive and they don’t smell great.”
“He smells fine,” says Grainger, who must be used to the aroma after three years. “There’s something cigar-ish and mustily old-fashioned about it. That seems fitting for Strike.”
Both characters have experienced trauma. Ellacott was raped at university, and Grainger believes she had a particular obligation to get that part of Robin’s story right. “I wanted to understand her emotional history. I did a bit of research in the beginning, knowing about her horrendous experience. I read a few memoirs by women who’d had similar experiences, women who didn’t want to be defined by their [bad] experience. It fed into who she became, in terms of being ambitious for herself. It helped me understand why Robin makes certain decisions.”
Strike experienced war in Afghanistan, where he lost a leg, and Burke is convincing enough to have been complimented by veterans. “It was a relief to hear that,” he says, “but I can’t imagine what that sort of experience is like to go through.”
Known for his leather-clad Athos in The Three Musketeers and a barnstorming Fedya Dolokhov in the BBC’s War & Peace, Burke plays the private investigator with a roughed-up affability that he’s wise enough to realise suits him perfectly. “In all honesty, there are bits of me that would quite happily just play this character and no one else. Whatever demons are lurking there in Strike, it’s very nice playing somebody who has a kind of base note of magnanimity.”
Shooting on Lethal White was finished before lockdown began, and the two actors reacted to the months of enforced isolation in very different ways. Grainger, who grew up in Didsbury, Manchester, isolated outside London in the countryside and has been interacting with the people around her, swapping sourdough starters for wild garlic pesto and “doing that neighbourly thing – ‘I’m going to the shops, what do you want picking up?’” But equally, “I’m used to moving around with work; being static for the first time has been a shift. You feel disconnected from some aspects of the world, but at the same time connected to the people around you.”
Burke, in east London, where he grew up, seems less troubled. “I didn’t find myself missing an audience at all. There were an awful lot of people trying to keep busy in various ways, and people calling up going, ‘I thought you might like to do a poem.’ I found myself saying, ‘Wrong!’”
If Burke can sound a little full of it, he can also be charmingly open. This is a man, he admits, who finds it hard to watch The Secret Life of Four-Year-Olds – “I find it so upsetting, the way they go through all these hurdles of emotion, and they’re friends one minute and not the next… I just get very involved.” Grainger, meanwhile, has been getting upset by the television news. “It has been so emotional,” she says. “Everything was a little bit too much.”
On screen the two have, to use that old television cliché, great chemistry. “It’s about trust,” says Burke. “Which is the most important thing.” Grainger admits that, initially, they were led by Rowling’s books and the scripts that followed from them. “It was all written for us,” she says. “There is such good chemistry in the books between Strike and Robin, all the little nuanced ways they care about each other, and that was in the script, so we were just playing what was on the page. And then I think we kind of gelled. There’s also a sort of ‘comfortability’ that just happens when you’re on set together every day.”
“Sometimes I’ve read a script for other things, and they have peppered the whole thing with ‘moments’,” Burke says. “And what can end up being created isn’t chemistry, it’s a kind of bogus chemistry, a kind of received version of chemistry, where there’s an awful lot of glowering going on. I’ve heard it on sets, people going, ‘Oh, we need chemistry,’ but nobody in the Strike team put that pressure on us. The only way you can get anything idiosyncratic is to just see what happens. You’re usually not given that space. I feel like we really were given it.”
On conference call the two don’t have the easy intimacy their on-screen closeness would suggest. Like many Zoom calls, there are long pauses, strange silences, as if something was making them a little on edge with each other. The pair “keep in touch on text and calls”, says Burke, but don’t see each other that much. “We do often threaten to,” Grainger says, though finding the time would be hard, with her having filmed her first leading role in a BBC drama, The Capture, between series.
Perhaps the on-screen couple would be less fascinating if they were lovers. One of the apparent lessons of the show is that relationships are, on the whole, disappointing and other things are much more important in life. “The kind of ‘will they, won’t they’ is always secondary to the storyline of the characters,” says Grainger. “Tom and I take bits that might seem to be ostensibly about the plot, and find little elements of tension in how they’re talking to each other.” Burke says their secret is sharing, “a kind of focus, an understanding of what one is trying to sustain over quite a long period of time. You know – how to keep jolly.”
Things don’t look jolly for the pair as Lethal White begins. Robin’s marriage reception is painful for both of them, and back in Strike’s West End office a young man is self-harming with a blade. There are satanic rites involving children that link to Westminster and the world of politics requiring Ellacott to infiltrate the House of Commons. “The stories they investigate and some of the experiences they have are gruesome, and show the worst side of humanity,” says Grainger. “And I think to shy away from the darkness of that would be to undermine it.”
As Burke points out, that darkness is dependent on JK Rowling’s books – each new series of Strike is based on the previous Galbraith novel. “I always felt that the books don’t go to any of the darker areas in a glib way, and the understanding with the producers and directors is that we shouldn’t either,” he says.
Burke recalls spending time talking to Rowling before filming began on this latest series. “I had a long chat with her about Strike’s relationship with Charlotte, because that came back into Lethal White in a big way. We wanted to get it right.”
Earlier this year, Rowling became caught up in an intractable dispute with trans activists after she retweeted an article about menstruation products that referred to “People who menstruate” with the comment: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” She was accused of being transphobic and in the furore that followed Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe wrote an essay for an LGBTQ+ suicide prevention charity saying, “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you.” Emma Watson also offered strong support for trans-women, and Eddie Redmayne said Rowling was wrong.
Burke says Rowling is “a great person”. Did he feel the need to defend Rowling when she was attacked on social media? “I can only give my view, which is when there is fear on both sides, resolutions are only achieved in the right sort of space and with the right sort of support. If we want a solid resolution then it can only happen when everybody, or at least the greatest number of people on each side of the debate, feels safe.” Which is neither defence or attack…
“Hmmm,” say Grainger, who has her own feelings about the noise around the transphobia debate. “I think no one can pretend to be in a position to understand someone else’s experience. The only way you can do that is by listening, and by giving people the space to air their own opinions. I’m not on social media of any kind because it scares me! The soundbites of opinions, it’s not always the deepest, most nuanced conversation.”
She’s not about to criticise Rowling. “Jo is the person who has been a massive influence on me,” she says. “She is always there, she’s made it clear she is there for any questions. She’s really lovely and easy to chat to and is very supportive whenever she comes on set.”
During the transgender row Rowling revealed that she had been sexually assaulted when she was young, a revelation that adds to the poignancy of Robin’s backstory and, in a way, emphasises the sometimes troubling implications of male sexual desire in the series.
In real life, the industry is increasingly inclined to patrol the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Before lockdown, Burke worked with an intimacy coach on another project. “If there was an activity somebody might feel uneasy about on set, there was somebody you could talk to who was there to make you feel safe and that you were not being pushed into anything that you were not happy with. It feels like a step forward and I’d be suspicious of anybody that didn’t accept that onto a set.”
Coached or not, will Strike and Ellacott ever be intimate? We will have a better idea of that when Rowling’s next Strike novel, Troubled Blood, is published on 15 September. That, in turn, will lead to a fifth BBC series of Strike. Would Burke and Grainger still want to star in that? “Yes!” they both say, at exactly the same time.