Patron saint of underdogs
By Dominic Cavendish
Kathy Burke is on her way to becoming an institution. As she puts it: "I've got one of those 'national treasure' labels." The 36-year-old actress is often met with smiles from passers-by and a cheery "All right, Kaff?".
Burke has been cherished for some time. Appearing on TV with Harry Enfield throughout the 1990s made her a household name, her gallery of unlovelies inspiring widespread feelings of revulsion and adulation. Most memorably, she gave us Waynetta Slob, fag-in-mouth wife of Enfield's foul, beer-bellied Wayne; Perry, mumbling sidekick to the acned adolescent monster Kevin; and Lulu, the dribbling baby sister of Enfield's vindictive toddler Harry.
It wasn't until 1997, and her tour de force performance in Gary Oldman's film Nil by Mouth, however, that the world sat up and took note of her talent. Burke won the Best Actress award at Cannes as the battered wife of a layabout bruiser (Ray Winstone), trapped in the squalor of a run-down south London council estate.
Burke now stands as a kind of patron saint of the British underdog, able to move us to tears of laughter or despair at the poor, the abused and the ugly. She rarely seems to be "acting". Rather, the parts she chooses seem to be manifestations of who she is: tough on the outside, tender-hearted and good-humoured within - a Londoner through and through.
She was raised on a rough estate in Islington and her mother died when she was two. After a spell in a foster home, she returned to live with her elder brothers and her Irish father, who was often unemployed and often drunk. There was so much pornography at home, she once said, that at the age of six she announced her intention to be a stripper.
Burke's discovery of acting in her mid-teens, through evening classes at the local Anna Scher drama school, and subsequent rise, has the feel of a rags-to-riches fable. She insists, however, that she has never been that bothered about success. "It's very nice to be greeted in the street and all that, but I actually don't care what other people think of me."
We are sitting in the musty back room of a north London studio, where Burke is rehearsing Out in the Open, a new comedy about grief and gay love by Jonathan Harvey that begins previews on Thursday at the Hampstead Theatre. She's directing it, not starring in it.
"I've never been motivated by the money, always by the work," says Burke, reaching for her packet of Silk Cut. Though looking typically green about the gills, she is animated in conversation, which she peppers with good-natured expletives. "It's all about me being challenged. If I feel things are getting easy, I get bored, then
I think, 'This is bullshit. I shouldn't sit around being bored. How dare I!' "
Despite getting her Equity card at the age of 17, when she was cast in Scrubbers, a film about life in a girls' borstal, the parts she was offered afterwards rarely interested her. "I was always playing very stupid people, or the fat mate of the main girl." It wasn't that she wanted to be a beauty, she just wanted satisfying, heavy-hitting leads.
Burke doesn't seem to have the slightest complex about playing unflattering roles. "I remember when I was at Anna Scher's, I heard a story about a director who was working with an actress who had to say, 'I feel so ugly'. She just couldn't say the line. That really stuck in my head. I thought, 'Could I ever call myself ugly as a character?' And it was like, 'Yeah, I'd love to be able to say stuff like that.' "
She struggled through the 1980s, a decade that had little time for people who didn't embody success. For a while, it looked as though it was going to be comedy that claimed her. With bit parts on French and Saunders, she was lined up to go on tour with the duo, "and make huge amounts of money".
She opted instead for the Manchester Royal Exchange and Michael Wall's Amongst Barbarians, a "brilliant, heavy play" about Westerners behaving badly in an Asian country.
It was an instinct that paid off in terms of critical respect. She was spotted by a BBC producer who later cast her as the mute, abused Martha in Jane Rogers's Mr Wroe's Virgins, for which she won a 1993 Royal Television Society award.
Around the same time, she also managed to persuade Ray Winstone to star in a play she'd written, Mr Thomas, about a closet homosexual living in 1950s London. The show was a fringe hit, and got filmed by Channel 4.
"I had to prove that I wasn't stupid and I made my point. People finally began to see that I could use my imagination," she says, beaming. Winstone was to keep in contact, and her name inevitably came up when casting for Nil by Mouth got under way. Since 1997, the film offers have rolled in, but Burke has remained typically picky.
"When it all kicked off, I was supposed to go off to LA for all these meetings, but I just couldn't be arsed. I've got an American manager, but I'm amazed he represents me, because I refuse to go out there." The only US director she rates is Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness). Her favourite British film-maker is Shane Meadows (TwentyFourSeven). These sharp-eyed observers of the miserable and disaffected will meet Burke this year to discuss plans.
This year, her main project will be Gimme Gimme Gimme, which she script-edits as well as stars in. The show has as many detractors as it has admirers. "I'd be really worried if it was universally liked," she says. "The old punk in me loves it because it's so rotten. We wanted to do something incredibly childish and grotesque. I hate it when I hear 'Aaah!' from an audience. I love it when I hear 'Eeeuch'."
In fact, Burke's appeal seems to stem from her ability to prompt a combination of these two responses. She tells me about a dream she had the other night. She has been getting broody of late and wants a husband. "You know that baby that was born in a tree [during Mozambique's massive floods last year]? There was a photo of her in the paper, and she's gorgeous now. I dreamt that someone had left her on me doorstep." She lets out a hearty cackle. "I was ever so upset when I woke up and it wasn't true. I must be a bit weird, me."