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Where’s my facking Oscar?
After years of playing all manner of scum, villains and bit-parts, Ray Winstone is definitely the daddy now.
He’s played some right unsavoury bastards in his time has Ray Winstone. In fact, you might say that playing right unsavoury bastards is his stock in trade. A hardened bruiser in Scum, specialising in stuffing billiard balls into socks and swinging them repeatedly against people’s heads. A wife-beating scumbag in Ladybird Ladybird. Another wife-beating scumbag in Nil By Mouth. An unscrupulous, rat-finking gangster in Face. Memorable characters one and all. You wouldn’t want to spend the night down the boozer with them, any more than you’d want to meet them down on dark alleyway on a foggy November night.
“You’re probably right about that,” says Winstone. “Like with the character I play in Nil By Mouth. You could probably have a good laugh with a bloke like that. But you’re also aware that he’s an explosion just waiting to happen, I mean, here’s a violent bloke who’s liable to go off at any moment. Anyone who would want a bloke like that as a mate needs to see a fucking doctor if you ask me. In the same way, I wouldn’t want to sit in a pub with the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas. Would I want to sit around and chew the fat with Joe Pesci the actor? Of course I fucking would. But his character in Goodfellas? A total psychotic! Do us a favour! I’d give that a wide berth, mate. No that you very much. But that’s the problem. People start confusing you with the roles you play. That’s where my hard man image comes from. But I don’t see myself as a hard man at all. I don’t go round looking for fights. Then again, I don’t suffer fools gladly. I like having nice people around me. In general, if people are good to me, I’ll be good to them. Though it depends what I’ve been drinking. If I’m on the vodka, I’m a happy drunk – sweet as a nut. But if I’m drinking Scotch, someone can come up and say, ‘Alright Ray, how you doing?’ and I’ll turn round and say, ‘Fuck off you nosy cunt!’. See, it’s a bad drink is Scotch”.
As it happens, Ray Winstone turns out to be just the sort of bloke you’d happily trade in your left kidney for a night down the boozer with. A diamond geezer, all in all. Happy as Larry to chew the fat about this, that and the other. Sweet as a nut, as he says. Unless, that is, you get a bit too personal with him, when he’ll arrange his features into a “don’t fuck with me” shape, and let you know in no uncertain terms to behave yourself. Like, for instance, when I suggest he looks like the sort of bloke who’s sowed his fair share of wild oats in his time. “I dare say I have”, he replies guardedly. And then, with just a hint of threat, “But I’m a happily married man these days. So, let’s keep it that way, shall we?”
If you say so, squire. Meanwhile, get him onto a subject he warms to, and he’s off like the clappers. On his beloved West Ham, for instance. “Let’s face it, England are never going to win the World Cup again until they’ve got at least three West Ham players in the side.” On his hatred of most comedians: “They don’t make me laugh. Especially all these so-called New Wave comics. All these wankers going on about Socialism. Then, the next thing you know, they’re doing fucking adverts for Barclays Bank.” On his unswerving devotion to loaded cover girl Kathy Burke: “She’s beautiful, she is. She’s like my second wife. ‘Trappy Lil’ I call her. ‘Cos she’s always rabbiting on. Except first thing in the morning when she’s really quite and miserable and turns into Rita Rottweiler. But she’s fucking great is Kath. I’d work with her any day. A great sense of humour. And she fucking needs one working with a cunt like me.”
All of a sudden, it’s all going off for Ray Winstone. Just as the extraordinary Nil By Mouth (1997’s bravest and most accomplished movie) has sent Kathy Burke’s reputation into orbit, it’s also transformed the fortunes of the bloke who first come to public notice with his raw-boned performance in Scum. That was all of 20 years ago. Back then, he was being talked about as the British actor who was going to take the ‘80s by the short and curlies. “Watch out Hollywood”, ran one headline of the time, “Ray Winstone is on his way”. Except that he wasn’t. While the likes of Gary Oldman and Tim Roth pulled out all the stops and cleaned up, Winstone’s career, as he puts it, “went straight down the fucking toilet”.
Not that he ever went away completely. From time to time, you’d catch him on the telly, playing all varieties of toe rag and tear-up merchants in shows like Robin of Sherwood, Fairly Secret Army, Minder and Auf Wiederschen Pet. Then, every so often, he’d pop up in some film like Number One or Tank Malling that came and went without troubling the box office statisticians. He was never less than watchable, but it was difficult to avoid the thought that, somewhere along the line, he’d taken a wrong turning somewhere and drastically lost his way.
“You’re fucking right I lost my way,” he laughs. “In the ‘80s, I lost interest in the whole thing and became a very bad actor. So the work just stopped coming. There were times when I was so quiet, I might as well have been in a coma. I just lost it. And it got to the point where I thought I’d never get it back. Then it all sort of turned itself around. I suppose your time comes when you’re ready. And, when Nil By Mouth came along, I was totally ready for it. Now I suppose I’m on a bit of a roll.”
Only a few years back, he was being written off as a spent force, reduced to bit parts in episodes of Boon and Kavanagh QC. Now, on the back of Nil By Mouth, he finds himself being compared to the likes of Brando and De Niro. He’s on a roll all right. Having the time of his bleeding life. But then you suspect that he’s never had much of a problem living it up to the hilt.
“Well”, he says, “that’s what it’s all about, innit? You could say that I’ve always lived my life to the full. Burned the candle at both ends. Been there, done that, read the book. I’ve been all over the place, mate.”
Indeed he has. Starting out in London’s East end where, growing up, he was faced with the choice of the usual escape routes for working-class boys. “Boxing, football and villainy – those were the ways out. I was a decent boxer and could place a bit of football. But I knew I was never going to be good enough to crack a living at them. And I knew I’d be totally fucking hopeless as a villain. I could never have been a thief, ‘Cos I knew that I’d be the one who always got caught.
So, for me, it was always acting. As far back as I can remember. From five or six years old, my dad would pick me up from school on a Wednesday and take me to the pictures. Jimmy Cagney and all that. I fuckin’ loved it. Then we had films like This Sporting Life and Saturday Night Sunday Morning. You’d have these normal working-class blokes playing the parts. And you’d think, ‘Blimey! I could do that.’”
By all accounts, he was something of a tearaway during his youth.
"Nah," he scoffs, "that's just newspaper talk. They always call me 'a crafty Cockney chappie' or 'a former East End tearaway'. But I was never really a tearaway as such. I got up to my fair share of mischief, like most kids. I had the odd skirmish. But I was never the sort of kid who hung around in a gang and got into trouble. I'd set fire to stuff occasionally. As you do. But nothing too serious. When I was about seven, I set light to this chair on a dump and ran away. For months afterwards, I believed the rozzers were after me. Frightened the fucking life out of me. But that's the sort of thing you do when you're a nipper. Your mum tells you not to play with matches. So your first thought is, 'What can I set fire to?' It's just a giggle, innit? It's just part of growing up.'
Trouble surfaced a little later on, when he found himself suspended from school for bunking off to go to the Derby.
"That was my dad's idea. He got hold of all these umbrellas. So he thought it'd be a good idea to take me off school for the day and take me to the races to see if we could sell these brollies. It was a bright, sunny day and we had all these umbrellas to shift. It looked like we were on a hiding to nothing. Then, just before the big race, it started pissing down. So we got a result. The next day, I told the headmaster why I'd been absent and he sent me home for a week. My dad was fucking livid. As far as he was concerned, going to the Derby was a great education for me. He couldn't see the problem at all."
However, Old Man Winstone wasn't quite so positive about the prospects of his son treading the boards. "I remember him coming to see me in my first ever job at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. I danced the wrong way. I sang out of tune. I told jokes that nobody laughed at. I went up to my dad afterwards and said, 'What do you reckon?' And he just took a sip of his gin, looked up, sniffed and said, 'Bit of advice, son. Give up while you're in front.' But I wasn't going to be put off so easily. I thought, 'Fuck it, I'll give it another go.'"
Before and after drama school, he earned a few bob in the usual dead-end jobs. Mostly working the local markets - standing on soap boxes, attempting to convince punters they couldn't live without the particular items that had fallen his way in sizeable bulk.
"The hardest thing I ever sold? Ladies non-reusable underwear. You couldn't reuse them 'cos they were made out of cheap paper. Fucking horrible. Not surprisingly, no one wanted them. In the end we sold them as a job lot by taking out an advert in The Evening Standard".
As it happened, he got his first acting break by accident.
"It was the day I got chucked out of drama school. I got the hump because one of the teachers was holding an end-of-term party and she invited everyone but me. To get my own back, I put all these tacks under her car so that when she drove off, her tyres gave out. They kicked me straight out. That afternoon, I knew there was an audition for this TV play called Scum, and a few of the drama students I knew were going to it. So I went up there, just with the idea of having a few drinks and saying my farewells. It hadn't even occurred to me to go for the part myself. The director Alan Clarke just happened to see me walk down the corridor. He liked what he saw and gave me the part. Fucking remarkable really. One of those weird twists of fate, I suppose."
Having been banned by the BBC for its "dangerous content", Scum was then remade as a full-length cinema feature. In the role of chief borstal headcase Carlin, Winstone turned in one of the most incendiary performances seen in years "This boy is set to go all the way," blared The Daily Mirror. Following up Scum with the role of the greaseball rocker Kevin in Quadrophenia, Winstone could seemingly do no wrong. Then it all went bollock-hairy and belly-up.
"I suppose," he says, "that, after Scum, I got a bit carried away. I thought this acting game was a fucking doddle. I'd watched these other actors struggle for years before getting a break. I'd just walked into it. It was a piece of piss. I suppose I took it for granted that the good parts were going to keep coming my way. I thought I'd cracked it. But I hadn't. I'd got a couple of good breaks. What I needed to do was what Gary Oldman and Tim Roth did a bit later - which was to knuckle down and work really hard at it. Instead, I just fucked around for a couple of years. I wanted to see a bit of the world. So I moved around a bit. Lived it large. In the meantime, it all started to slide.
"I suppose I was too full of myself at the time. Like, after Scum and Quadrophenia, I started to get recognised when I went out. That sort of thing can go to your head. I'd be out having a drink and someone would be staring. I'd think, 'What's that cunt looking at?' Then I'd realise that he probably recognised me from one of my films. You'd get the odd bit of aggravation. Blokes coming up and saying, 'You're an actor, aren't you? They're all fucking poofs, aren't they?' You've just got to learn to handle that sort of thing."
It was around the late '80s that it dawned on him that his career had just started heading around the U-bend and was in danger of reaching the point of no return.
"I did an episode of Boon. I was absolutely fucking terrible in that. I was playing the third henchman from the right. I looked like someone had hit me round the head with a baseball bat. And I thought, 'Do I really need to be doing this?' Then I did this terrible film called Tank Malling. John Conteh was in it. I know that, when I did that, I should have been nicked for impersonating an actor. Without a shadow of a doubt. Fucking diabolical it was. When your own kids tell you it's a load of shit, you know how bad it's got. There's no escaping a truth like that. You can't run from yourself when your own kids are telling you that you've made a turkey. Clearly something had to give."
Which, as chance would dance, it did. His old mucker Kathy Burke had written a theatre play called Mr Thomas, roped him in for the lead and bingo, he rediscovered his hunger for the acting game. "That was a huge turning-point," he recalls. "Absolutely crucial. Doing that play, I got the buzz for acting for the first time since Quadrophenia. I really wanted it again. I was right up for it. I knew then that all I needed was the right part - and, sure enough, Gary Oldman came up with the part of Raymond in Nil By Mouth."
Which was the part he'd surely been waiting for all along. A belter of a role which brings a performance from Winstone so relentlessly intense and so painfully real that you can't help wondering how he emerged from it all unscathed.
"Well, I didn't emerge unscathed. That's the truth of it. I mean, Nil By Mouth is a very harrowing film. But it wasn't harrowing to make. We had a ball doing it. Lots of laughs. It was only when the filming was over that I started asking myself was there something in me that was like the character? Was I capable of showing that kind of rage myself? It can be quite frightening when you start wondering about stuff like that. But it soon passes. You get offered another role and start getting into that."
And, at the minute, the offers are raining in from all directions, ensuring that Winstone is going to be busier than an epileptic conducting the London Philharmonic for some time to come. He's just knocked off a TV drama called Our Boy in which he stars alongside Pauline Quirke as a couple who lose their child through a hit-and-run accident, plus a movie called Dangerous Obsession, in which he stars with Sherilyn Fenn, the dangerously attractive lass from Twin Peaks. Then, early next year, he starts filming The War Zone, another harrowing affair, this time tackling the thorny subject of incest.
As for the future, the hard man of British cinema obviously hasn't given it a moment's thought.
"Nah," he snorts. "I'm too fucking busy enjoying it, aren't I? And, if it all falls flat tomorrow, so fucking what? I've made some good films. I've put myself about a bit. If it all goes quiet tomorrow, I'll live with that. I'm in no hurry, mate. I'm well sorted. No fucking worries, know what I mean?"
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