Ray Winstone talks about 'Nil By Mouth'
In person, Ray Winstone is one of the friendliest, most down to earth men one could hope to encounter. He has, perhaps, a glint of hellraiser's mischief in his eyes and, belying all the clichés about British reserve, the actor from East London seems to make a habit of saying exactly what he thinks.
However, nothing about Winstone's offscreen demeanor suggests the terrifying ferocity he demonstrates as the main character in Nil By Mouth, the widely acclaimed film that marks the directing and screenwriting debut of Gary Oldman.
Nil By Mouth takes its title from a British medical term, meaning that a patient should not have anything administered orally, though here it has a double meaning. "I quite like the name Nil By Mouth", Winstone explains, "because it's about people who are throwing a lot of stuff in their face, down their throats and when they talk, not a lot comes out.
"It's one of those films - I don't know whether you can actually put a stamp on it and say, 'It's about this'. We're not talking about cops and robbers and car chases. It's about people who live within a certain part of a city, people who are involved with drugs and drink, wife-beating. It's a very honest and true account of the way people in certain areas of any city live. It's the language of these people".
He thinks it translates to US audiences as well. "We've had American people come over and watch the rushes and they just - it's like someone comes out of the screen and kicks you between the legs, it's that sort of film".
"I'll tell you the only way I can really put it together. When Raging Bull first came out, I went to see it. It's not about boxing - it's about the way people live. Boxing just happens to be in it. I saw it cut on TV - they had cut all the swearing out of it, and it's a totally different film. It then becomes a film about boxing. But when you see it at the cinema uncut, it's actually about the language and the way these people live."
Winstone didn't know Oldman well before being approached to play the lead in Nil. "I bumped into him once before, and I have a lot of respect for what he does and who he is, but I didn't know him as a friend or anything like that. I'd heard rumors round and about that he wanted me to be in this film that he was going to do, but you know, you hear things like that and you never really take notice of them.
"And then I met with Gary in London and we sat down for two or three hours and talked it through. I'm always reading things like gangster films, but this was something different. It was the best script I've ever read. I loved it. It was certainly written by someone who knew what they were writing about."
Winstone and his fellow performers discovered that they knew what Oldman was writing about as well. "It's like with anything that someone writes - they take from what they know. It's about people where he used to live when he was a kid. There are some pale that are probably close to members of his family, but mostly it's people who were around him.
"When I finished the film, I was completely mentally and physically drained. Because the people who are in this film - myself, Jamie Foreman, Kathy Burke [Best Actress winner at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for her performance] who plays my wife, and others - we come from those same sorts of areas.
"We were brought up in the East End or in South London, around these sorts of people all our lives. And it's quite disturbing to you when you look back and think, 'Oh Jesus, that could have been me'. Because the things you put on, the resources you pull on to play the part, there must be something in there that you know, an instinct in there that you know. And it's quite frightening actually. I spoke to Kathy Burke and Jamie Foreman about it, and we all felt the same. But that's all part of the learning process as people."
However, working with Oldman was a pleasure. "I did one film a long while ago that was directed by an actor," Winstone says, "and he really didn't have a clue. With Gary, it was a great advantage, because he knew exactly what he wanted out of a scene and how he wanted to do it.
"He knew how to relate it to us, he knew as an actor himself what we needed to be told and how we needed to be told to actually make it work. He's the sort of guy who's very aware of other people's feelings, he's very aware of the way other people approach their work.
"I think he's a genius. It's a word that's bounced around quite easily, but when I say the word 'genius', I mean I think he is a genius. His eye for a shot, his eye for a script, he knows the technique of it all. You just felt a buzz come from him, and you didn't have to work so hard. It was the most enjoyable experience I think I've had for a long, long time."
One disconcerting element for Winstone was his character's name: Raymond. "You're usually playing someone called 'Billy' or 'Peter' or 'John'. But to be called your own name when you're in a character - it was really weird," he laughs.
"The first time someone called me Raymond in the film, we had been working for four or five days, and it was all going well, and I had to walk down these steps, Jamie Foreman, who plays my friend Mark, shouts 'Raymond!' across the room. It totally threw me. I just had to stop and go back up the stairs and do it again."
There are other actors who, like Winstone, can truthfully say they were hired for their first professional acting job on the day they left acting school. The difference is that most graduated, whereas Winstone was expelled.
"Quite rightly so, 'cause I did something completely stupid. By this time, I'd decided I didn't want to be an actor. The day I got slung out of drama school, all my mates were going up for a thing at the BBC, so I went with them, to have a drink with them and say goodbye. I started talking to the receptionist while I was waiting for my mates, and she said, 'Why don't you go in and find out about the job?'"
Still planning to quit the business, Winstone went in and auditioned "for a giggle," and won the lead in Scum, a bleak, violent drama about the British juvenile prison system. Winstone was cast as the toughest of inmates, a youth willing and able to conquer the yard by beating his enemies senseless.
Director Alan Clarke later told Winstone he'd been chosen "for the way I walked down the corridor. I used to walk like I liked to fight, like a boxer."
The BBC version of Scum was filmed and Winstone's career prospects looked bright despite the rocky start. Then, two weeks before Scum was scheduled to air, it was banned. "Which caused a hell of a controversy," Winstone notes. "The government ran the BBC, and the government also ran borstals [juvenile prisons]. It was like sending up their own system."
At the time, the setback seemed permanent. "I said, 'That's the final straw. I've been fired from drama school, the main lead I've got in a film out of luck got banned so I'll go out and get a proper living'. Two years later, I was about 20, 21 - I didn't act, I was living with my granddad - and I got a phone call. 'Would you like to do the feature film Scum?'"
The bemused Winstone agreed to reprise his role in the new for-theatrical-release version. While waiting for filming to commence, Scum producers Davina Belling and Clive Parsons cast Winstone in That Summer which, besides landing the actor an additional lead, introduced him to his now-wife Elaine. When the second Scum was at last released in 1979, "because it had been banned, everyone wanted to see it."
With the lead in a controversial hit behind him, Winstone at once went on to.... nothing. "I never worked for two years. And then when I did start working, my first job was in a children's play for Thames TV. So it was like starting again. And then I did a series called Fox, and then there was no work again."
Despite appearing in acclaimed pieces such as The Who's feature film Quadrophenia, the London stage production of Hinkemann and a three-year stint playing near-psychotic 12th century outlaw Will Scarlet in the British Robin of Sherwood TV series (shown here on Showtime cable), Winstone found the erratic employment schedule debilitating.
"The [worst] thing for an actor is to lose your confidence. You don't forget how to act but you forget how to go in and go to work. You start to become a bad actor 'cause your confidence starts going. I'm sure there's thousands of other actors in the same boat. You need to work all the time or you don't learn anything."
With Glen Murphy and future Nil By Mouth co-star Jamie Foreman, Winstone co-produced and starred in a low-budget feature Tank Malling. Although the film was not a financial success, stage and TV work began coming more regularly. Winstone had the lead in tow seasons of the anti-Thatcherite British sitcom Get Back, which featured a then-unknown Kate Winslet, and appeared to tremendous reviews in the West End in Dealer's Choice and Pale Horse.
Winstone finds that working in smaller-sized houses combines the best of film and stage acting. "Small theatre is almost like cinema: you're very close to an audience. It's not like throwing it out front and giving it large every night. You learn how to, if you like, manipulate an audience, and know when you've got an audience in the palm of your hand. Sometimes you don't sometimes you lose it, but you learn not to do that again. I think I've improved a hell of a lot by doing it. You know right away whether you've done it right or wrong, you see And there's something lovely about not having to go over the top, not having to throw something away, because technically the performance needs it to get it across to an audience. When you can be so small, so tiny and so real - that's the beauty of it, that's what I like about theatre."
Any advantage in playing larger theatres? Winstone laughs. "You get paid more money."
Winstone currently has half-a-dozen films awaiting release: Face with Robert (Full Monty) Carlyle, Woundings with Guy (LA Confidential) Pearce, Martha meets Lawrence, Daniel and Matthew [sic], Sea Change, Final Cut and Dangerous Obsession. Many of them see him playing a tough working-class fellow who's ready with his fists.
"I've got the feeling that I'm just pretty good at it," he laughs. "I don't believe in the word 'typecast' any more. Whatever you get cast at, there's a million ways to play it, and it's up to you as the actor if you are being typecast to make it more interesting. I mean, all they can do is give you the part. It's up to you to show them something different when you're doing it."
Winstone's next film will be War Zone, actor Tim Roth's maiden voyage behind the camera. Does Winstone think he'd like to direct? "Maybe when I get older, but I'm quite happy doing what I do at the minute".
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