Feature from the Daily Telegraph, Mon 11 Sept 2000

Interview by William Leith


As a boy at drama school, Ray Winstone was considered so dangerous that he was banned from the Christmas party. Twenty-five years later he has received an invitation from Sam Mendes to star at the Donmar Warehouse. William Leith meets a thoroughly East End luvvie. 'Timing,' says Ray Winstone. A former boxer, he's explaining how to deliver a knockout punch.

He makes a fist, raises it to head height, and flicks it forward a few inches. 'And very short distance. You only need to travel that far.' Again, he flicks the fist a few inches forward. We are having lunch in a fish restaurant near Waterloo station. 'It's timing and them coming on to your punch,' he says. 'Bang. Just drop it. Just drop it. You just do that. If your timing's right. It's not nice, actually. I was quite shocked, the first time I done it. You're more worried about them than you are about yourself. You're meeting a kid you've never met before, and there's something quite barbaric about the whole thing.'

Crowd control: Ray Winstone at the movies

Ray Winstone is not the person you know from his films Scum (1979), Nil by Mouth (1997) and The War Zone (1999). Not precisely, anyway. Some things are the same - the bantam's walk, the deep, deep London accent. But the face is different. We're used to seeing his face eerily lit, emerging from shadows, covered in sweat or blood. In films, he sometimes holds his mouth open, to suggest stupidity or inarticulacy. The real Winstone is unshaven, almost bearded; the face is broad and soft. There is no fish-eyed glare. In real life, the eyes move around more; he appears sheepish, almost shy. He is polite in a formal way. When he accepts the menu from the waitress he says, 'Bless yer.'

But he's not remotely like a normal actor. Brought up in the East End, he is now an East Ender in a world dominated by luvvies. He says, 'I boxed a kid down Canterbury, and I had a lovely pair of velvet shorts on, green velvet shorts, and in the first round I boxed really well. He never laid a glove on me, and this kid had a pair of old shorts on and pumps, no front teeth and a broken nose. So he was easy to hit. And the second round I put him on the floor. And he went berserk. He went absolutely totally berserk. And he bit me, kicked me and everything. I won the fight on points, but I couldn't get out of bed for two days.'

Winstone has had an up-and-down career. At the Corona drama school in Hammersmith in the mid-Seventies, he was, he believes, kept away from the other students because he was 'looked on as a bit of a danger'. This, he thinks, was because of his rough London accent. One year, he was the only student not invited to the Christmas party. He sabotaged the tyres on the headmistress's car. He still thinks he's the subject of snobbery. 'Maybe it's not to do with accents,' he says. 'Maybe it's to do with other things. I don't quite know what it is. It's to do with what they will allow you to play as an actor. What they see you as.'

How do directors see him? In Scum, he was Carlin, an emotionally stunted borstal boy; the film's most memorable moment came when he hit somebody in the face with a sock full of billiard balls. In 1997, in Nil by Mouth, he was Ray, an emotionally stunted wife-beater; the film turned on the moment when he said, 'Where's my gear? Where's my gear? Where's my gear?', and exploded into violence. In the same year, in Face, he was Dave, an emotionally stunted armed robber, who said, 'Where's the gear? Where's the gear? Where's the gear?', and exploded into violence.

Last year, in The War Zone, Winstone was Dad, an emotionally stunted child-abuser; the crux of the film came when he raped his daughter in a concrete bunker. That's how directors and casting agents see him. 'I'm nothing like what I play,' he says. 'Hopefully. We all like to think we're really nice people. Perhaps in moments I ain't. We all have our moments. I treat people how I like to be treated. I'm pretty easy-going. Really. But then there's other times when I can be, I can f-ing... snap, and fly off the handle, you know.'

The waitress takes our order. Winstone wants oysters, crab, lobster and prawns. He orders mineral water; he's in the middle of rehearsing a Sam Mendes production of To the Green Fields Beyond, a play about the First World War, in which he is a sergeant who begins to doubt his courage before going over the top. Mendes is clearly driving him hard; he has given Winstone only an hour to talk to me, with five minutes on either side to walk to the restaurant. But what an opportunity for Winstone. To act on stage, he is having to re-learn various techniques.

A master of mumbling, an actor who is good at self-exposure in front of a camera, Winstone is learning to project. He has, says Mendes, 'a veneer of toughness' but also 'a heart bigger than you can possibly imagine'. Winstone thinks of himself as a perfectionist, without being ambitious. He does not crave fame or money. He more or less gave up acting for a time in the Eighties, when he thought he had become a bad actor - just as he had given up in the Seventies, when he thought he would not get work. He is full of private doubts. He says, 'I get more joy out of people saying, "That was really good" than doing a piece of shit, for, say, 500 grand, and people telling you you're good, but you know you're not.'

What does he want to play? 'A lover.' The trouble is, his sex scenes are usually comic or desperately tragic. In Nil By Mouth, the closest he gets to his wife is when he punches her; he absolutely smashes her, with deft boxer's clips to the head. When he rapes his daughter in The War Zone, he emits terrible grunts and howls, as if he is the one being raped. In Fanny and Elvis (1999) he romps with Kerry Fox to comically awkward effect. 'The word,' he says, describing himself, 'is "actor". We are supposed to play f-ing everything. I'd jump at the chance to play something different if it's good. But you don't get the chance very often. You get pigeonholed.'

Winstone is wearing shorts and a yellow T-shirt. He says, 'If my dad saw me looking like this, having a bit of dinner, he'd say, "Soapy!" I'd be called Soapy. "Can't you have a wash?" That's the old school.' Winstone, who definitely romanticises the East End, explains the concept of looking 'mint'. 'The East End,' he says, 'is a funny place. ''Cos in the East End, people think of the way they look before they buy food. Which they never seem to get right on TV, by the way. You never see anybody in the East End pull up in a Ferrari, or in a nice Armani or Gucci suit on TV. Where I come from, fashion is nine-tenths of the law.'

He is an experienced seafood man. He peels a prawn, or cracks a lobster claw, with virile precision. He is, Mendes says, 'genuinely physically powerful'. He is a man of deft movements, of physical neatness, which is partly why he can be such a frighteningly good actor. He feels his way into a part, and develops tics; with the troubled, lovelorn Ray in Nil By Mouth, he tightened his mouth, strangled his words, made his accent more 'muggy'. He also worked on Ray's nose; the character, a heavy cocaine-user, is nasally aware throughout; he touches his thumb to his nose, pinches it, wrinkles it. It was hard to believe that this was not, in some deep way, the real Winstone. The way he smashes his wife's kid brother in the face, and bends down and bites his nose, is truly scary; if I was a casting agent I'd have trouble seeing him as a lover.

Winstone cracks a claw, and I ask him about the high and low points of his life, and he's suddenly telling me about the birth of his children (he has two teenage daughters, Lois and Jaime). He says, 'I think it's the greatest thing I've seen in my life. In the space of ten seconds, you shit yourself, you laugh, you cry, you're just lost for words, and you go through every emotion that there is in the world. The baby's born, it comes out, like this...' Winstone clasps his hands. 'It's got like a mohican on the top, you think it's deformed, and as the head turns it goes up, it all pops into place, and there it is. I didn't know if it was a boy or a girl for about half an hour. I wouldn't give the baby back. It's the most fantastic, scary thing I've ever seen.'

What was his own childhood like? Very happy, he says. He feels lucky - his parents loved him, and he had 'good mates'. When he tells the story of his life, it comes in three sections - childhood; then the period after leaving school at 16, when his life 'levelled out'; and then marriage, to Elaine, a designer, whom he met on the set of That Summer in 1979. He doesn't mention the career, or the Bafta nomination for Nil By Mouth. His low point, he says, was the death of his mother 15 years ago. His father was a greengrocer, and is now, at 68, a taxi-driver.

Winstone was born in Hackney in 1957. Then the family moved to Plaistow, and later to Enfield. He remembers standing on a street corner in Plaistow in the early Sixties, waiting for the mods to come back from Margate. He remembers playing on bomb sites. Everybody stopped playing on bomb sites, he says, after the Moors murderers were arrested. At school, he was 'a bit of a f-er'. He was caned at the age of six. 'Six of the best across me arse.' His father went in and complained. 'It looked like there was going to be a war.' Another time, his father took him to the Derby instead of school. He explained this the next day, and was suspended. For telling the truth! Winstone Senior had thought it would be an educational experience. 'My dad: blinding dad, good dad, as was my mum a good mum.' He held the record for detentions. He was 'caned across the hand, and slippered across the arse'.

He asks the waitress for a slice of lime. He sucks down oysters with the air of an expert. When Winstone left school, he worked on fruit stalls, 'screaming out "cauliflowers!" and, you know, mushrooms and stuff.' He had 'plenty of front'. The skill was 'knowing how much to buy. It's like if you're a football manager, knowing when your players are on song and when they're not. It's the same with your punters.' As far as football goes, he's always been a West Ham fan. He got the idea of being an actor when his father took him to the cinema. He loved war films, and especially Jimmy Cagney.

In the Seventies, Winstone was a skinhead, in the ska-loving, tonic suit sense, but by no means in the fascist sense. 'It's West Indian music, so it ain't going to be fascist. That's just bollocks.' He liked punk music, but never dressed as a punk. He always wore smart clothes. He listened to Roxy Music. He liked Bryan Ferry. He's very English. His family come from near Cirencester. 'Half of them went to Wales, and we went to London, thank God.'

It's always bothered him that the English are ashamed to fly their flag. He gets quite animated about this. He says, 'It's taboo to put a cross of St George up. Well, sorry, it's my flag. I think that's out of order, if we're frightened to put our own flag up. I put it up all the time. If England play I have the cross of St George up. It doesn't belong to no fascist movement.' As an amateur boxer he won 80 bouts out of 88, and boxed for England. Boxing, he says, stood him in good stead for acting. He gave up because he didn't think he was good enough to turn professional.

When I ask him how it felt to be excluded from the Christmas party at drama school, he says, 'Things like that run off my back really easy, you know.' He is 'not a worrier. Never been a worrier.' In the Nineties, he was twice declared bankrupt for non-payment of taxes. Was it a frightening experience? 'It was fine.' You can't help thinking Winstone has had two separate careers. After he was expelled from drama school, he auditioned, almost by accident, for a part in Alan Clarke's Scum; he got the part, he always says, because he walked like a boxer.

Later, he drifted into various television series; he could be seen in Minder and Boon, and played Will Scarlett in Robin of Sherwood. Then he just gave up, and hardly did anything for a couple of years. He had become disillusioned. Once, he says, he received a cheque for £16,000 for some repeats of Robin of Sherwood; he 'went to Florida. Went all over the place. Took the kids. Just lived a little bit.'

The second career started with Nil By Mouth. Winstone had debts to pay. 'Three years, it took. Just working and working and working.' Playing abusers, though, worried him. At first, he says, he loved being Ray in Nil By Mouth. I put it to him that he loved it because he was exorcising demons, that Ray's anger was his. It wasn't. 'It was fun. It was great.'

But playing Dad in The War Zone disturbed him. And this discomfort spread. If the child abuser in one film had disturbed him, why hadn't the wife-beater in the other? He says, of Ray, 'He just wants someone to cuddle him. He wants someone to love him. The people round him don't want to show their love. And so he explodes. His only way of doing it is in an aggressive way. And usually, you find that those people - it's out of fear, a lot of the time. I like him and I feel for him.' The War Zone was a different matter. Winstone says, 'I kept thinking, "Why am I doing this? Why would I want to put myself through this and put this young girl through this?" But that's quite a healthy way of looking at it in a way, you know. She's 17, 18. But the fact of the matter is that it's still abuse, whatever way you look at it, I guess.'

I say, 'It's a depiction of abuse.'

'But you do feel like the abuser when you're doing it.' After a solemn pause, he continues, 'The only character I've ever played that I didn't like was the guy in The War Zone, but it probably was the nearest to playing me that I've ever played. I played me as a dad. I cook my kids tomatoes on toast. I sit down and tell them stories about when I was a kid and car crashes and things like that. But there was the one moment when I actually raped my daughter which... it's not me.' Winstone's voice is softer. 'It's really weird that it's the only character that I detest,' he says. 'And I'm playing me.'

'To the Green Fields Beyond' opens at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020-7369 1732) on Thursday

Back to Ray Winstone Articles