Saturday, August 30, 2008

Actor Robert John Burke

On Gossip Girl Robert John Burke plays Bart Bass, an extremely wealthy Upper East Side businessman and former playboy who ultimately seems to have good intentions. This role is not a typical one for the actor, who for much of his career has been a regular in independent filmmaker Hal Hartley's films; neither, for that matter, is his role as Mickey Gavin on firefighter drama Rescue Me, another show that is NYC-based albeit set in more blue-collar part of town, but that series hits a lot closer to home than the flashy teen-oriented CW show. Robert John Burke has a hell of a lot going on and here I sit down to talk with him.

So, this is great—I mean, because the first couple of interviews I did, which effectively led me to starting this website, were Gossip Girl interviews.
Oh, you’re kidding me!

No! They came and filmed in my school.
What? Oh, you’re at [the school Gossip Girl filmed at in August 2007]!

Yeah, they came and filmed, and I was at the right place at the right time. I was talking to a bunch of them and I ended up asking Blake Lively and Leighton Meester if they wouldn’t mind if I could interview them for a couple minutes.
Yeah—because it’s worthwhile, it’s high-minded, it’s constructive, as opposed to, “Hi, can I have your autograph? I’ll put it in a drawer!” So it’s terrific that you were able to. It’s so cool.

Yeah, I figured, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with these but I might as well have something that I can do something with!”
Yeah, absolutely. It’s no small feat to get to interview them. It’s going to be even harder and harder as time goes on.

Yeah, so I got to jump to the head of the line.
Oh, good, excellent. That’s cool!

Yeah!—But it’s interesting, uh, reviewing your body of work it doesn’t really seem like the type of project that you normally would…
[laughs] What, Gossip Girl? No, it’s not, it’s not. I’ve never done teen melodrama. And, yeah, artistically it’s not. However, there are realities one has to meet, such as mortgages and feeding children.

And one of the biggest considerations for me is that it’s local, so that’s very attractive. You know, I can be in the city and out of the city as opposed to earlier on in my career when I would go to Africa for six months or Thailand for three months and come back and go back to Africa. I traveled extensively and still do, kind of, but not for extended periods, and so the fact that it’s in New York—and I tried it out and, you know, it’s fine so I’m grateful to be doing it. And they’re great. They’re great kids. They’re hard working, they’re professional, and they care about the project. Lots of times you have people who don’t care and they’re just on there for some strange motivation, but these kids care about the storylines and care about their performances and that doesn’t go unnoticed.

And—I mean, especially when I was talking to Blake Lively, she was just so excited to be in New York too.
Oh yeah!

So that’s another thing. I mean, I’ve read other interviews with the rest of the cast and they just all seem so excited to be working in the city. Well I mean, not so much to be working in the city but to be part of something so...

City-oriented, yeah.
Listen, for many years, because of prices and budgets and unions—I’ll give you, for instance, a good friend of mine. He was from hells kitchen on the west side, constant New Yorker, was pitching me to act in a script: “Bob, it’s real New York; it’s so neighborhood, you know the characters, you know these people!” I said, “Where you shooting?” “Toronto.” And, you know, it just kinda pops the bubble artistically for you, and in your head you’re like, “Oh boy.” And yes, Toronto looks like midtown, basically, but it’s Toronto. So when you’re filming at the Palace Hotel, and it is the Palace Hotel, and you’re filming in Central Park, and—you know, this is by and large one of the greatest cities in the world, so there’s a buzz, there’s an energy that you do get. It’s an excitement. Anybody who says no is not telling you the truth. And it informs your work. You know, it informs your commitment. And I think Leighton was born in New York and they’ve all been to New York and stuff like that, but to actually work here, on location, it’s kind of a cool thing.

Right, yeah. And—I mean, again, Blake Lively especially had been, like, born and raised on the other coast and had done most of her work there, so it was a complete change.
Yeah, total complete change. And, you know, in Los Angeles sometimes the specialness of what you do—there’s a specialness to be doing it in New York, and I think it’s diminished in LA because everybody’s doing this in LA. It’s so industry oriented. There’s an old joke—you could ask a cashier, “Hey, how’s the script coming?” and she’ll say “Great!” You know, a random cashier. But at the same time, there’s a specialness to shooting in New York, really, energy-wise. Sometimes there’s just way too much energy when you’re shooting on, like, Madison Avenue and 50th street, at rush hour. It’s just—it’s insane.

And you know things that are filmed in the city—if they’re going to be filmed in the city they’re going to be city-oriented to some degree anyway, because otherwise they would probably just film in Los Angeles or Canada.
Right, right. And this is so city-oriented, in terms of who these kids are, where they come from, their lifestyle—you know, the Upper East Side, that whole, milieu. And to be actually there is icing on the cake.

Hm. And so you also have a recurring role in Rescue Me as well.
Both for the same reasons! [laughs]

What sort of role do you have in that?
I was the family priest of the Gavin family. Then after the first season I left the priesthood, and I was like the moral voice of the family. Now that’s evolved into Dennis Leary’s character Tommy Gavin—I’m his cousin, but yet I’m his sponsor in AA. And there’s, you know, push-pull, all this conflict there. So that’s where I am now. Our discussion is always sobriety, you know, just how does this flawed and haunted character negotiate life, and so it’s pretty interesting. That’s where I get to really kind of amp up artistically. It’s funny because some of the crew on Gossip Girl switches over to Rescue Me and they joke that my champagne glass gets a little heavy on Gossip Girl. [laughs] That can be really overwhelming—but like my first two, three days back on the set of Rescue Me this year, you know, I was scooping up a dead dog, my character goes drinking again, I get into a horrible fight with Dennis—you know, physical—so more happens dramatically in three days for me and the character I play on Rescue Me in three days than may happen in three episodes—or, you know, three years—on Gossip Girl. [laughs]

Right, because in Gossip Girl the drama’s around the young people.
Yes it is. Well, yeah, I’m a peripheral—I’m the old guy, which I blinked and became. But that’s fine, though. You know, there’s a place for that. I think it was brave of them to cast me because I don’t usually play, uh, billionaires. I kind of didn’t find myself in the beginning, and they were like, “No, no, it’s fine, it’s fine.” I was like, “It is?” and they were like, “Yeah, yeah.”

Yeah. And in the last episode your character married Lily van der Woodsen, which kind of, you know, ties up the only storyline that there has been involving adults in this series.
Yes. Well, it ties it up on one end of the line. There’s a flapping end vis-à-vis Rufus and her feelings toward him, which—you know, I don’t know how that’s all going to progress, but I’m sure that’s going to make for more obstacles in our relationship. But I don’t know. I never know.

Are you coming back in season two?
Yeah, I’ll be back. I mean, they’re up in the Hamptons now shooting—when you first start shooting the first season is referred to as the 100s and the second season is the 200s, so they’re shooting 201 and 202, two episodes, and then I’ll come in for 203 and 204, which is fine because it works out schedule-wise because I’ll be shooting Rescue Me until then.

Yeah. And Rescue Me shoots in New York too.
Yeah. All New York.

So, it’s—I mean, I’m not super familiar with Rescue Me, so I know it’s a show about firefighters.
Yeah, firefighters post-9/11. And elementally that informs a lot of the storyline—what happened in 9/11 and these guys afterward. But it’s all New York, very New York-based. Actually, it’s the polar opposite of the lifestyles of the Gossip Girl people. These are the blue-collar kind who show up…

Who show up at the house after the party to hose down the house after [the Gossip Girl characters] have a party that gets out of hand!
Absolutely, absolutely! So it’s fun doing both.

Yeah. And, I mean, I’ve read that you’ve also been involved with the New York City fire department as well—on a personal level. Have you?
Yeah, well, my best friend, who actually used to live in this room—that’s his helmet. You know, they receive decorations; he was the most decorated fireman in the history of New York—and he was killed in 9/11. So he was my boy Scott’s godfather, my best friend, everything. Afterward I was down there and, you know, did what I could do. And then I moved [out to Fire Island] because I kind of just wanted to get out of the city and I became a fireman here, a volunteer fireman here, which I love. It’s like, I think I missed my calling, I enjoy it so much. And I’m an ambulance crew member, and it’s been therapeutic—it’s been right there in terms of helping your community. So, yeah, everything works out for a reason—that is hidden sometimes, but that was my genesis there. And Dennis Leary knew [that friend of mine], Pat, peripherally, and the fire department consultant on Rescue Me was a good friend of Pat’s, so that’s why he asked. He was like, “Would you be interested to be on the show?” and I was a little reluctant to be a priest. I was like, “Ehh…” and he was like, “No, he’s like straight—he’s this, he’s that, no curveballs with that one. He’s hard-charging. He’s tough. He’s cussing.” And I was like, “Okay.” So that’s why. Dennis knew me beforehand.

So the show about firefighters for you came after the actual…
Yes it did. But actually there’s a term—a buff—that means somebody who’s really into firemen and firefighting and hanging around, but I was never that, do you know what I mean? I’d drop by the firehouse once in a blue moon to visit Pat or lend him my car or he’d lend me his car, or something like that, but I was never really involved per se. A lot of my friends growing up became firemen, coincidentally—well not coincidentally—ethnically coincidentally! [laughs] But it wasn’t until afterwards when we were planning—gosh, I don’t even remember—twenty-some-odd funerals, and families couldn’t always necessarily be there, and I could. I took time off and would do that stuff for them. And it was, you know, it was beneficial and it was honorable to honor your friend.

Yeah. Oh, wow.


Well, I had something else that—while you were talking I thought of something else I wanted to ask you, and now I’ve completely forgotten. So I guess, instead, I’m going to ask you about—are you going to be taking up any movie roles in the near future?
Yea I just did a role in a film called Brooklyn’s Finest with Antoine Fuqua—he was the director of Training Day. It’s a very heavy police drama. So I just finished that, like, two weeks ago, and then Spike Lee has a film coming out called Miracle at St. Anna about the Afro-American 92nd division Italian campaign during World War II and I play the general of that division. And there’s an HBO series coming out called Generation Kill about the initial push into Baghdad by this Marine Division and I play a general. Actually, the real-life general of the core, his name is James Maddis—I played him in that. So, yeah, Miracle at St. Anna is coming, I don’t know when, to theaters, and Generation Kill, and I just completed Brooklyn’s Finest. So, yeah, I always have time to do features too, and it’s great when—at my level, I have complete anonymity. Nobody’s, like, waiting to see what Robert Burke does, which—there’s a lot of pressure when you’ve been—like friends of mine who have been big stars and then all of a sudden they don’t get roles because they’re older. You know, I never had that, so it’s complete anonymity, it’s complete artistic freedom, and that’s a good feeling. You get to do your work and then you get to come home without any of the insanity.

Especially with Gossip Girl, which is just like…

Yeah! It’s just, like, the media darling.
Oy vey. It’s a double-edged sword, I think. And that’s my counsel to certain people—just watch it and really take care of yourself. You know, in and out of work. Because these days, with rehab—that’s your actual life. And how you conduct yourself—it’s very hard to undo things. And, you know, people don’t seem to care anymore. I mean, if you became an actor to do that, that’s fine, but there’s a certain way people should conduct themselves.

Well I mean I imagine there are some people that don’t care and then there are some people that care that just don’t know how to manage it all.
Right, and burn out, and make themselves sick. But the people on the show, they seem to be able to do it, and if they didn’t care about the product it would be one thing—it would be like a sham—but they care about the show and they care about product, and they’re into it and they’re having a great time. And they’re working hard. They’re working very long hours. So good for them, you know, but it’s a lot. I couldn’t do that.

So the HBO series that you’re working on, Generation Kill, is it a mini series?
Yeah, it’s done; it’s coming out in July. It was a mini series. It’s seven or ten episodes or something like that. Yeah, not a lot of audiences are interested in seeing Iraq in movies. Just turn on CNN.

Well, it’s—you know, timing’s tricky too.
I’ll say. But it’s a book based on this marine unit’s experience, but it was written by an imbedded reporter from Rolling Stone magazine, so you go from a highly motivated, accomplished mission, to a little bit of disillusionment, is it true, is it factual. You know, it’s very honest and when I read it that’s what was glaring to me—the honesty. So, it’s made, and I hope people watch it.

And then the two other movies that you mentioned, Brooklyn’s Finest and Miracle at St. Anna, you talked briefly about your roles in each but you didn’t really…
Oh, well, in Miracle at St. Anna I play a man who actually lived. His name was Ned Almond. He was like an adjunct to Dennis McArthur. He was kind of a heavily racist guy, and if you were an officer in the 92nd division it’s almost like an assignment—you had to take a Sunday off to get sent there. But it tells the story of a platoon of Afro-American soldiers who get caught behind the lines and their interaction with an Italian village. Ultimately they don’t sense any bigotry or racism from the two groups; there’s just a sense of being lost. Well, they’re not lost per se, but they’re refugees in their own village, and these black soldiers seem like refugees of their own war somehow. But their interaction, and it’s a beautiful story, starts off as kind of a murder mystery, and goes back in time and everything, and it’s beautifully shot, and I have a small role as this general. And then Brooklyn’s Finest is Don Cheadle, Richard Gere, and Ethan Hawke, and it’s a three-way kind of story. One’s undercover, one’s a cop who never did anything in his whole career, and one’s kind of a gambler. And so it tells their story and, well, I can’t give it away, but I play a police officer who tried to arrest and jail up Don Cheadle’s character.

Is he the gambler?
No, he’s the undercover cop, and then I find out he’s undercover so I’m not able to effect any arrest or anything like that. I’m a very angry, frustrated guy in that, but that should be a great and very realistic film.

And is that like a modern piece?
Yes. Well, yeah, it is modern. Brooklyn’s Finest is contemporary.

Miracle at St. Anna is not.
Well, it starts off contemporary and then goes back.

Yeah, but the bulk of it is not.
Right, the bulk of it is 1943, I think. And that was in Italy, which was fantastic. So, yeah, it’s great to be able to just like duck out and do features, and just come back and do your episodic work. I’m very lucky.

This concludes our interview with Robert John Burke! For more information about the actor and his work visit his IMDb page. Gossip Girl airs Monday nights at 8pm and Miracle at St. Anna opens on September 26.

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