It started with the strut of the boxer he was. Ray Winstone left his audition for Alan Clarke’s notorious prison drama Scum with a natural swagger, a roll of the shoulders and a spring in his step. “And I got the part,” he summarises almost four decades later, with his dulcet Cockney tones subliminally recalling a lifetime of characters in the space of just a few words. “Not because of any ability. I had none!”
Initially made in 1977 as a TV drama, Scum was banned by the BBC and subsequently adapted into a movie in 1979. The furore around it lasted for years, with the objections of morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse contributing to its infamy. “I owe Mary Whitehouse a lot because without her, I wouldn’t be working today,” Winstone continues. “She had a point about morals and all that: a little bit out there, and a little bit strong maybe. But I actually love her to death. Good ol’ Mary!”
- - -
- - -
After a role in Quadrophenia (“I had a haircut like Liberace!”) and a BATFA nomination for That Summer!, Winstone’s roles dried up. His filmography from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s is sparse.
“It was a forced time-out. I kinda thought I’d cracked it. I wasn’t a rebel without a cause, I just didn’t have a cause,” he laughs. Winstone exudes a real down-to-earth bonhomie, but you suspect his sharp puns are as much for his own amusement as anything else. “I was just lazy and didn’t learn enough about the game. I had a few years when I didn’t do f*cking nothing, and quite rightly so because I wasn’t good enough.”
Part of the problem, he admits, was sticking to the acting style he had already achieved some success with. Or in his words: “When I had to do a different genre, I played it for f*cking real and wouldn’t give none.” He decided to stick with acting, but knew that he had to reinvent himself. He returned to the stage, mastered his craft and started again – almost like an absolute beginner.
So despite his career starting in the late 1970s, the Ray Winstone that we know today re-emerged in 1997 as a thrilling, visceral presence in Gary Oldman’s directorial debut Nil By Mouth. “I got a real good bite of the cherry. Gary allowed me to work how I always wanted to work – without knowing it in a way. Just to go right deep and right into it. And he was there just to tweak me.” He adds an impressionistic attempt at Oldman’s distinctive accent: “Ray, I can tell you’re acting.”
Two years later, The War Zone reiterated his power at capturing characters balanced precariously between compellingly real and disturbingly abusive. He played a father who, in the film’s most profoundly grim moment, rapes his daughter, played by then newcomer Lara Belmont. “She’s my pal and my daughter’s friend, to top it all,” he says, his free flowing charisma slowly dwindling as he speaks.
The rape aside, he considers that character to be the closest to the real him that he’s ever played. “I couldn’t cope [with that scene], I f*cking freaked,” he states, crediting Belmont, director Tim Roth and the film’s crew for their support.
- - -
I do like being at home and I wish that I could … just do something now and then just to keep your hand in, like grow peppers and aubergines. But I get bored. F*cking bored.
- - -
“It hurt, making that film, and it hurt because I was playing me more than anything else. Other characters you hide behind. It’s them, so it’s alright. I had to re-evaluate how I felt about Nil By Mouth, beating a woman up, because it’s all abuse. When you do these things it’s like going to see a shrink, because you become aware of things you already know but you don’t want to know. So you have to think about them and you have to have an opinion on them. When you’re doing it in a film and you have the responsibility for the way you put it across, you have to come out and start talking about it.”
Since then, it seems that barely a month passes without Winstone hitting cinema screens with all kinds of projects: 2008’s instalment of Indiana Jones (“My little girl could watch it. She couldn’t watch any of my other films”); a Scorsese double-bill of The Departed and Hugo (“Martin’s alright, I like him”); voice roles in family flicks (Narnia, The Magic Roundabout, Rango); right through to altogether less-memorable projects.
Not that this month’s Noah (review) is likely to fall into the latter category. Directed with a reportedly huge budget by Black Swan helmer Darren Aronofsky, this adaptation of the grand biblical story sees Winstone cast as Tubal-cain, the counterpoint to Russell Crowe’s Noah. Winstone’s motivations to accept the role were varied: he loved Aronofsky as a filmmaker; Winstone’s friend Mickey Rourke was full of enthusiasm with his tales of working for the director; and the opportunity to work on a big studio movie was enticing, as was the pull of working with Crowe.
The shoot had its problems. Winstone got sunstroke on the first day of filming (“That was 1-0 to Russell,” he sighs) and production was temporarily halted by flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy (the kind of incident that “gives you the pooboggles a little bit”), but he considers the end result to be “the most beautiful film you’ll ever see” as well as film with an appeal far beyond a core religious audience.
“I’d like to think it would make people think on all levels, whether it’s about religion or our planet or the way we are with animals. I think we’re the only animal on the planet that kills to store up food. Alright, a squirrel gathers nuts, but that’s hardly the same thing. But then we’re also the only animal that f*cks all the time when we don’t necessarily want to breed.”
- - -
- - -
And as for his own religious convictions? “I have my own thoughts on what religion is, and what I think heaven and hell is. I don’t necessarily believe that I have to go to church for that, or that I have to be affiliated to any religious order. My heaven is watching my babies being born and watching them grow up to hopefully have babies of their own. To me, that’s heaven. That what it’s all about. My hell would be exactly the opposite: a disaster or something terrible happening.”
Due to geographical issues, his friendship with Crowe is mostly limited to the occasional text message. “I’ll text him, ‘Happy Christmas, how you going kid? Where are you?’ And he goes, ‘I’m on the beach’. And I’ll go, ‘On the beach? You bastard. You’re on a beach and I’m in a f*cking thunderstorm and it’s all going pear-shaped.’”
But surely Winstone now has the freedom to pick the occasional project and spend more of his time in sunnier climes?
“I just come from a working background. Mum and dad had to go to work. It’s what you do as dad and a husband: you go to work. It’s what I do. I do like being at home and I wish that I could not work anymore, or just do something now and then just to keep your hand in, like grow peppers and aubergines. But I get bored. F*cking bored.”
How long before you get f*cking bored?
“About two days.”
Hence a list of film credits as long as your arm, with many more on the way. And long may it f*cking continue.
- - -
Words: Ben Hopkins
Photography: Neil Bedford (website)
Grooming: Ciona Johnson
Styling: Shirley Amartey
Noah is released nationwide in the UK on April 4th.