He's every hard nut's favourite actor and with several films and a TV series on the go this year directors are pretty keen on him too. But, as Clive King discovers, Ray Winstone's path to success has been as tough as his screen persona. These days Ray Winstone is keen to talk about his work, but he will always remember the times when, "I was so bad it was unbelievable". Having it large Ray Winstone is living it up and loving it. The 41-year-old star tops up my wine, to match his own full glass, and leans back in his armchair with the air of a man who has it all. Although taking time out from filming, he seems relaxed and genuinely glad of the chance to talk about his work. In fact, he is happy to have work to discuss - lots of it in the past few years and much of it extremely impressive. The psychopathic thug from Scum has evolved, through a series of reinventions and disappointments, into one of our finest actors. In just over two years, Winstone has made more than ten movies and a major television series. He appears as a deranged intruder in the new British film Darkness Falls, released in February. Although the movie may well contravene the Trade Descriptions Act by calling itself a thriller, Winstone transcends the limitations of a poorly written role.
When we meet, he is on leave from the Dublin-based shoot of The Mammy, directed by Anjelica Huston. He is, he says, in awe of Huston. He also has high praise for the writer Kay Mellor (Band of Gold), who has cast him in Fanny and Elvis, her first feature as a director. In fact, as a good, old-fashioned gent, he hasn't a bad word to say about any of the women in his career. "I've been very lucky. There has been Maggie O'Neill (mesmerising as his wife in the forthcoming television four-parter Births, Marriages and Deaths), Kathy Burke, Pauline Quirke. I've just played Tilda Swinton's other half - now there's a double act! I've acted with some amazing women. These aren't bimbos, these are proper actresses. Proper birds, as we say." His pairing with art-house star Swinton was brought about by Tim Roth, for his directorial debut The War Zone. Winstone portrays a man who rapes his own daughter. "It was the most difficult film I've ever done. I had to do this one scene with the child and she was great, but I came off the set and I wanted to hit Tim. He's my friend and he's a great actor, a great director, but I just wanted to rip his throat out. The actress came up to me afterwards, gave me a cuddle and said 'I'm really glad it was you.' But I was thinking, 'this is only a film. Back at home I've got my kids and my wife'. Films aren't the most important things in the world."
When Winstone is good, he is very, very good, as evidenced by his portrayal of a wife-beating alcoholic in the 1997 film Nil By Mouth. When he is bad, he is honest: "I became a really crap actor," he admits, remembering a period in the late Eighties when the work had dried to a trickle of guest appearances on television. "Sometimes I was so bad it was unbelievable."
In 1990, Winstone's enthusiasm and self-esteem were revived by Mr Thomas, a fringe play written and directed by Kathy Burke. "There was no money, but it was a good play and I got the buzz back," he recalls. "I knew I was good in it. You can kid everyone else, but you can never kid yourself."
For most bear-like actors with presence to spare and a neat line in menace, the obvious role model is Brando. Not Winstone. His big influence is James Cagney, the original upstart with a heart. "I can tell when someone's performing," he explains. "I always believed in Cagney. He had love, he had power. If you're playing the guy on the street corner, play the guy on the street corner. Don't perform it."
Born in Hackney in 1957, Winstone grew up in Plaistow. Like many East End lads, he took up boxing and could have been a pro - out of 88 bouts, he lost only eight, and he boxed for England twice - if he had not inherited a love of cinema from his father, a taxi driver. "My dad's a film nut. He took us to the pictures every Wednesday. When I wanted to study drama, no one did that where I came from, but he insisted on paying for me."
For a while, Ray senior must have doubted the wisdom of the investment. His son lasted barely a year at stage school. "I got chucked out. The headmistress considered me a danger to the other kids, because of my accent. She didn't invite me to her Christmas party so I sabotaged her car tyres with tacks. It was a stupid thing to do." His barely suppressed smile explodes into a grin. How did she know he was the culprit? "I got grassed up by another student." His eyes narrow and he hisses "Graaaassss...."
Not long after, he accompanied a friend to the audition for Scum. The legendary television director Alan Clarke noticed the 17-year-old swaggering along the corridor and cast him on the spot. "It was nothing to do with ability," Winstone insists. "It was the walk and the look." He leans forward and demonstrates. Believe me, you don't mess with the look. The film finally surfaced in 1979, remade by Clarke as a feature after the BBC refused to broadcast the original. Winstone then starred alongside Phil Daniels and Sting in the musical Quadrophenia. On location in Torquay for the comedy That Summer!, he met his wife, Elaine. Apart from a brief separation in the early Nineties, when Winstone was declared bankrupt, the couple have remained together. They live in Enfield, north London with their two teenage daughters. With disarming soppiness the actor describes his marriage as "a holiday romance that has lasted 20 years."
In 1981, Winstone was summoned to Hollywood to appear in the un-released movie All Washed Up, a title that must have seemed prescient when he returned to Britain for an extended stint as television's rent-a-thug, punctuated by frequent bouts of unemployment. One golden opportunity, the BBC comedy series Get Back, set during the recession, tarnished quickly and Winstone blames himself. "That was a good show, but I was terrible in it," he insists. "I was a bit snobby about sitcoms, saying, 'I'm a proper actor' - you know, giving it large - and I blew it."
After Get Back, he retreated "into slumberland" for a time, finally re-appearing as a stage actor at the Royal Court. "I'd gone straight into television and films and I used to think I'm not doing that for thirty-five quid a week and a bowl of rice. But I loved it." He would like to return to theatre, he says, but only in smaller venues. In 1995, he enjoyed doing Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice at the Cottesloe, but had a miserable time during the West End transfer. "You got all the Japanese and German tourists in. God bless 'em, but they don't have a clue what you're talking about."
The experience confirmed his preference for a handful of attentive punters above a pub. He leaps suddenly to his feet to mime the occasion when his hair caught fire accidentally on stage at the Old Red Lion in Islington, north London "and the audience stayed with me, with the play, because you're all so close. It's like you're all in it together".
That feeling of camaraderie inspires Winstone. His conversation is full of references to his mates, showbiz and civilian, and he freely attributes the resurrection of his career to old pals such as Nil By Mouth director Gary Oldman and the television writer Tony Grounds. It was Grounds, a drinking buddy since they were teenagers, who held out for Winstone to star opposite Pauline Quirke in his powerful drama Our Boy. The producers wanted someone with a higher profile - this was shortly before Nil By Mouth - but Grounds insisted. His loyalty was rewarded by Winstone's heart-achingly subtle portrayal of a devoted father who falls apart after the death of his son. I ask how he prepares for such a demanding role. "I don't really. I would never go and talk to a couple who had just lost a child. And I know some actors might imagine the loss of their own children, but I'm too superstitious. I would never tempt fate." He admits that he finds crying to order difficult. "When I lost my mum to cancer, I think I also lost an emotion. I watched her die for two years and for almost two years afterwards I became hard and bitter. Since then I rely on happy things to make me cry, like remembering a great family party. Sad things don't work because whatever that emotion is, I don't think I have it any more...."
Grief features prominently in Births, Marriages and Deaths, to be screened on BBC2 in February, also scripted by Grounds. Winstone heads a magnificent cast, including Philip Davies (his co-star in Antonia Bird's gangster yarn Face) and Mark Strong (Our Friends in the North) as the lifelong friends of Winstone's character Alan, a patio tycoon with more mouth than insight. Directed by Adrian Shergold (Holding On), the four-parter begins with a drunken stag night visit to an old school-teacher and gathers pace as three families watch their guilty secrets unravel.
Winstone more than compensates for all the bad acting he claims to have inflicted on us in the past. "I like Alan," he declares. "He means well but he's got his priorities wrong. In a way, he looks down on his mates because they don't have what he has - a big house, a nice car, good clothes - but he still looks out for them. There's a lot of me in Alan. Like making sure everyone's looked after, to the point of obsession."
How does Alan differ from the character he played in Nil By Mouth? "That man was really ill. Alan isn't like that. He's more calculating. Slippery. Even when his world is falling apart he keeps some control, which makes him more dangerous."
Asked why he hasn't directed, he shrugs and cites insufficient patience. I appeal to his competitive spirit, the boxer in him. If his mates Gary and Tim can do it . . . "Yeah, but they've been at the top for 15 years. I've only been on that level - well, I hope I'm on it now - for three years. I enjoy what I do and I want to get better at it. Let me get this right first."
He empties the rest of the wine into our glasses, sits back and gives the notion a little more thought. "You know, directing is a hard game and life is too sweet for all that aggravation. When I finish a film I go home. Sit in an editing suite for three months? Sod that. I've been paid, thank you very much - see you at the premiere."
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