from iF Magazine, December 1999

Face to face with RAY WINSTONE the brutish star of THE WAR ZONE and NIL BY MOUTH

In person, Ray Winstone comes across as friendly, thoughtful and humorous. Anyone encountering him for the first time might not guess that he’s best known in the U.S. and his native England for playing singularly violent (if complex) characters. He first hit the big screen as a reform school inmate in 1979’s SCUM (he originated the part in the 1977 BBC-TV version) and more recently had a career-boost as an agonized, alcoholic batterer in Gary Oldman’s 1998 directorial debut NIL BY MOUTH. In between, he’s played all manner of hard men, albeit with time out for gentler turns like a card-player in the National Theatre production of DEALER’S CHOICE, a determined paint salesman in the short PAINT and lately a romantic lead opposite Kerry Fox in FANNY AND ELVIS. He’s done nude scenes, murder scenes, countless punch-ups and even some vigorous swordfights in the 1980s British TV series ROBIN OF SHERWOOD (as the angriest interpretation of Will Scarlet to date).

In short, it’s hard to imagine much on screen that could intimidate Winstone. However, there’s a sequence in director Tim Roth’s THE WAR ZONE that gave Winstone pause when it came time to shoot. Winstone’s character initially appears to be a genial family man, but in fact, he forces himself on his 17-year-old daughter (Lara Belmont), which we see in one horrific scene.

“I made a mistake, I think,” Winstone says. “I kind of put certain scenes in the back of my head like they were never going to happen. And when the day came, I wasn’t fully mentally prepared to do it. It was a day I nearly just packed up and went -- " He imitates a muffled explosion. “I got a bit angry with Tim; I got angry with myself. I thought, ‘I’m an actor. There’s a million films to go and make out there, if you’re lucky enough to get them. Why on earth would you want to put yourself through this?’ But thinking back on it, it’s quite healthy, in a way. There’d be something wrong with me if I didn’t feel that way about [the scene]. You go through so much pain when you’re doing a scene like that. I mean, the girl who was doing it, Lara, she’s the age of my oldest daughter, which kind of freaked me out. I was beginning to worry about her [state of mind].”

Despite Winstone’s concerns, Belmont seemed to feel that everyone involved was behaving with complete professionalism. “She came up to me [after filming the scene] and thanked me,” Winstone recalls, “which really did disperse any ghosts. That helped me a lot. I did say, ‘I never will make a film like that again’ while I was doing it, but I’ve changed my mind, because [acting is] what I do. And I’m very proud of the film. It’s really responsible -- it’s not a Saturday-night repeater, but it’s a fantastic film. The one thing I wanted to do with [the part] was make him [initially seem to be] a good guy. Because that’s what [child molesters] come over as. That’s why they very rarely get caught. It’s not this guy with a moustache and a bald head and a beard and little pebble glasses that is everyone’s fear of what a child molester is, a picture of this monster. It’s a banker, it’s a bus driver, it’s a doctor -- it’s every man on the street. A child trusts its parent to love it and to nurture it and to protect it through its life. You know, even though I'm 42, my dad still tries to protect me now. So I understand all that. And the thing with [parents who commit incest], in a way, they murder their child every day. The trust they’re given and the love they’re given, they abuse. They educate a child from a certain age that [incest] is all right, until a child gets older, and by that time, the child is damaged.”

Winstone says that his experiences on THE WAR ZONE caused him to rethink his attitude toward his earlier work on NIL BY MOUTH. “Both films are about abuse, abuse to yourself and abuse to other people. [On NIL BY MOUTH], I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t take the work home with me. I don’t come home at night as a wife-beating, alcoholic cocaine-head.’ I was that light about it. Now, abuse is abuse. If I can walk away from NIL BY MOUTH going,” he claps his hands together, “ ‘that’s another job, that was a great film,’ and then get myself into such a state over a film that [showed] abuse to a child, I had to rethink the responsibility you have when you make a film like NIL BY MOUTH. Again, I’m very proud of it, I think it’s a great film, but just the way I thought about it after [changed].”

NIL BY MOUTH also changed the way the British film industry thought about Winstone. “All of a sudden, good scripts are coming through.” The BAFTA nomination for his performance in the film, the European Actor of the Year nomination for THE WAR ZONE and his British Independent Film Award for his portrayal of a bereaved father in OUR BOY have also helped. “I never thought that [awards] really worried me before,” Winstone says, “but yeah, it is important, because all of a sudden, your status goes up, the scripts you’re getting are of a different quality, you’re more in demand, so then you’re getting the top jobs and your money goes right through the ceiling. I wouldn’t want the quality of the work to suffer for the money to go through the ceiling,” he adds with a laugh, “because in the long run, how much money do you actually need? But it’s nice when people in your industry [nominate you]. You’ve been accepted. And it’s lovely when someone in the audience gives you a slap on the back and says, ‘Well done.’ "

Since THE WAR ZONE, Winstone has completed work on SEXY BEAST, which he describes as “a sort of gangster love story,” Anjelica Huston’s AGNES BROWNE in which he plays an Irish money-lender and a reteaming with FACE co-star and good pal Robert Carlyle in JIMMY GRIMBLE. “It’s about football,” Winstone says of this last. “I’m just this gentle, big teddy-bear sort of guy who’s the stepfather. Bobby plays the football coach. It’s been a pleasure to do.”

FANNY AND ELVIS, currently on screens in England, is a bit of a departure for Winstone. “I wasn’t looking for a romantic comedy,” the actor laughs, “because I didn’t think anyone would want to cast me in a romantic comedy. But [director] Kay Mellor wanted to make a romantic comedy about a man and a woman, not the male model and the female model. I went to see it the other week with an audience, and they’re crying, they’re laughing and they’re enjoying it. There’s me kissing someone instead of punching them, and it’s kind of cool. I’d much rather kiss someone than punch them -- especially when they’re really attractive. But no, I didn’t consciously pick that. You don’t do a gangster film and think, ‘Right, next I want to do a musical.’ I think some [actors plan that way], and it’s to their cost, because then they go and do a piece of shit. But this turned out all right.”

Winstone’s next two projects are the telefilm TOUGH LOVE and the theatrical feature TOSSPOTS. He’s very happy with the way things are going and with his work in independent films, especially for new directors like Oldman and Roth. “The last three years, 98% of [the directors] I’ve worked with have been first-time directors, and I think that’s been really important. I’ve learned a lot from first-time directors. They don’t know the rules, so they break them. The enthusiasm and the talent that is coming through is fantastic. I just think I’m a very lucky boy to have worked with the people I’ve worked with.”

ISSUE 10.2 - 12/17/99

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