Ray Winstone is in Bromley-by-Bow, filming for the BBC. Two stops down the District Line and you reach Plaistow, where he used to live as a nipper. Three Mills Island Studios - past a derelict office block, right at Tesco, through the carpark, across the canal and the River Lea, stop at the security checkpoint. Very glamorous. Meeting Britain's reigning cinematic hard man bang in the middle of his old East End manor gives that added edge to our interview.
But instead of the grim, pugnacious stance I'm expecting, instead of the zero razor cut, Winstone is looking almost winsome. Swathed in indigo-blue parachute silk, hair teased into waves and bleached sunshine-blond, he's in his angel costume for Letting Go, written by his old mate Tony Grounds (who also did Our Boy, Births, Deaths And Marriages, Going To The Dogs). It's about a little boy whose dead dad keeps coming back to visit him.
It was his mesmerising portrayal of a very different father, the brutal thug in Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth in 1997, that - finally - put a stop to his seemingly interminable run of poor scripts and predictable casting. In two years his career has transformed into one that can now - justly - be described as illustrious. He's on such a roll, with such an impressive slate of films awaiting release, he needs a nudge to remember all the names.
For starters there's the very funny and tender Fanny And Elvis co-starring Kerry Fox. Written by Kay (Band Of Gold) Mellor (who's also making her directorial debut), it's a walk on the wild side for Raymond Andrew Winstone, 42. After pretty much playing the psychotically unstable and the emotionally crippled for more than 20 years, it's his first romantic lead.
'To be honest, it's quite a different sort of film to what I'd go to see at the pictures, because I prefer something like Once Upon A Time In America. Something with a bit of claret in it, a bit of action. I see those words "romantic comedy" and I go, "Oh, no! I'm not watching that tripe with all that kissing and stuff." It's that macho thing, innit?' And this from the man who cried his eyes out at Love Story and admits, if pushed, to enjoying Four Weddings And A Funeral.
Kay's script is set in the north of England at the end of the Millennium and our cocky London hero, Dave - a secondhand car dealer described as 'sex on legs' and 'a walking sperm bank' - is offered unlimited sex-without-commitment by a suddenly single rookie novelist, Kate (Kerry Fox), whose biological clock is ticking into overdrive. Well, how could a man resist?
'I've been called worse. It was very easy doing the love scenes,' he says. 'There's nothing nicer than giving someone a kiss - much better than punching them. It's lovely, makes you feel 17 again. Although my little girl got the hump when I kissed Kerry.' He got into training by, as they say, not 'fluiding it' for a few weeks to lose his beer belly.
'It wasn't a conscious decision of mine to move away from those hard-man roles. I know how to use emotions in films - I hope I do anyway. But it was still brave of Kay to employ me, because she could have gone with Hugh Grant or someone tried and tested in that genre. But I think with Kay being a northern woman, she really likes her man to be a man, you know what I mean? She didn't want him to be a prissy guy. Lucky for me. I've found this quite a bit with northern women. They like a geezer to be a geezer.'
He speaks with a certain degree of authority. He's been married to the Manchester-born Elaine for 20 years, and he even lived up there for a couple of years in the Eighties (they now live in Epping Forest). Not that he's taking his new sex-symbol label entirely seriously. 'How ridiculous is that to be called a sex symbol at 42 years of age? I'm not saying you can't, but, er, I'm not really Brad Pitt, am I? But if that's the case, it's a good thing because it gives everybody a chance, doesn't it? I look at young geezers today and it might be just me being really jealous and horrible but I find them very effeminate, you know, the way they are, the way they move.'
Parallels could be drawn between this instinctive and quite courageous actor (after Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, he did another bad dad in Tim Roth's The War Zone and it takes guts to put yourself through the mill like that) and his character, Dave, a solid cocksure sort of chap who could hardly be described as Nineties New Man.
'What's all this cobblers about the Nineties New Man? A New Man because his wife goes out to work and he looks after the kids? Well, there's nothing wrong with that. That ain't Nineties New Man, that's a question of economy. I don't understand the term. They make up names, put people in boxes and I can't stand it! It drives me up the wall!' You realise that maybe he doesn't have to dig too deeply for the rage to 'go into one' for the camera. Give him a topic that rattles his cage and he'll go ape.
Another side to Ray Winstone shows up in Tube Tales, Richard Jobson's collection of nine stories based on true-life experiences on the Underground. He's in the segment directed by Bob Hoskins, called 'My Father, The Liar'. Winstone says it's 'about the little white lies and the lies we tell our children to protect them. As an adult and a father, I think there are some things they're not quite ready to know yet. So you don't tell 'em. You tell them something else.' In this case, when a young boy travelling to a football match witnesses a man throw himself in front of a train at Shoreditch, his father tells him that the man didn't jump, he fell. It's a short piece but rather moving.
'If you live in London you can't escape the Tube. Everyone has a Tube tale. I can still remember the nightmares I had as a child from something that happened more than 30 years ago. I was at Whitechapel Tube station. My sister had got on but as mum followed, still holding both our hands, the doors shut and I was still on the platform. She hung on tightly to us both, jammed her foot against the door, finally wedged it open and I shot in.'
An expression of palpable relief crosses his face at this long-ago memory. He's a terrific raconteur. Expect more tales of the unexpected next year from Ray Winstone. Many of them on screen.
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