It has become a journalistic convention, when interviewing Ray Winstone, to say that he is nothing like the hard man he plays on screen; that, actually – who’d have thought it? – he is a rather calm, reflective and polite man. It has become a convention, in other words, for the journalist to dress up a bitter disappointment as an interesting human paradox.
Imagine my joy then when I arrive at a Soho hotel to find the actor in a state of agitation. His blood is up. He has, he tells me, just been sitting in traffic on Shaftesbury Avenue for 40 minutes. ‘I was going about a mile an hour. Facking terrible. Everyone was getting the ‘ump. You find yourself screaming at people out the window. Major rows going on. Facking Livingstone. I would beat that man with a baseball bat.’
I would beat that man with a baseball bat. This from a former boxer who, at 51, still looks as if he could go a few rounds. He has a barrel chest and a jawline like the prow of a ship. His stomach looks fairly flat, certainly not as paunched as it has been. ‘Yeah I’ve been keeping fit. Just had six weeks off. Swimming every day. Steam room. Walking on the treadmill. At the moment I’m drinking once a week and eating sensibly. Cutting out pasta. Have a roast at the weekend. Mind if I smoke?’ This is said without ironic timing. He runs his thoughts together, as he does his words, in a fast-paced East End patter. The cigarette seems to calm him down. Makes him more reflective and polite. Damn.
Ray Winstone is not a leading man exactly, but he is one of the most sought-after character actors in Hollywood – a favourite of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, no less – and the story of how this West Ham-supporting son of a Plaistow fruit and veg stallholder got there, via bankruptcy (he neglected to pay his taxes) and bouts of unemployment and hard drinking, is worth a movie in itself. His big break was to be cast, almost by accident, in Alan Clarke’s hard-hitting borstal drama Scum in 1979. He went along to the auditions to keep a mate company and the director spotted him in the corridor, or rather he spotted his arrogant, shoulder-rolling boxer’s walk. That was the film in which Winstone delivered the immortal line ‘I’m the daddy now’ after working someone over with an iron rod (as opposed to a baseball bat). It was clear this actor did anger and violence like no one else, not even Robert De Niro. Like a dark forest or a stormy sea, his anger and violence was a force of nature, what the Romantic poets would call ‘the sublime’.
The assumption that he is not acting is partly to do with his voice. He speaks rapidly in a cockney accent so thick you could stand a spade up in it, on screen and off. He does occasionally do accents, as he did playing Jack Nicholson’s major domo in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed, but he always seems more comfortable in his own voice, as in Sexy Beast, the film in which he played an excruciatingly convincing run-to-seed villain on the Costa del Crime. Winstone speaks without Ts and Hs. He doesn’t bother much with middle Ds either (as in ‘di’n’t’), or Ms, come to that. Written phonetically, ‘something’ becomes ‘sa’i’. It seems to emphasise the anger and violence.
Yet, as he demonstrated in Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth in 1997 and Tim Roth’s The War Zone two years later, there is more to Ray Winstone than anger and violence. Don’t get me wrong, he was angry and violent in those films – very – but he also proved he could bring subtlety to his performances and, most importantly, the camera seemed mesmerised by his moments of unblinking stillness. His natural gift as an actor is that you don’t think, can’t believe, he is acting, which is why journalists are always disappointed to discover that it is an act, sort of, and that he is calm, reflective etc.
On that point, though, perhaps we ought to clear this up once and for all. He doesn’t actually get the red mist, does he? ‘It’s more a matter of being intensely into what I’m doing,’ he says. ‘I do get exhausted. It’s the mental energy. The concentration levels. I could spend two weeks in bed after a film like Nil by Mouth or War Zone. There is one scene [in Nil by Mouth] in which I’m talking about how my father dies and we done that on the first day. The picture and the sound went to the lab and they lost the sound. So we did it again almost on the last day of shooting. It was the best take. I think it needed the energy levels to drop a bit. You think you switch off when you go home but you don’t. It was mentally and physically demanding, that film.’
What about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, his latest movie? ‘That’s just physically demanding,’ he says with a laugh. Go on, Ray, I say. Tell me the plot. I won’t tell anyone else. ‘I can’t. It’s for your own good. I’m contractually obliged to kill anyone I reveal anything about the movie to. It’s a brilliant way of selling a film. Swear everyone to silence. Great salesmanship.’
The last Indiana Jones was 19 years ago. Winstone never imagined he would appear in one. Apart from anything else, it seems so mainstream compared to the dark, art house films he is known for. ‘The script starts off at a gallop and gets quicker, the camera never stops. I’m in it all the way through. The first shot is where I get dragged out of the car and they throw Indy’s hat on the floor and all you see is his shadow putting the hat back on and Harrison’s voice saying ”Russians.” From that moment you know you are in an Indiana Jones movie. Harrison is so fit. Forget the age thing. He’s in his 60s but he moves like he’s 30. He’s like a stunt man. Drives the jeep. And he can hit that spot on the door with his whip.’ Winstone jabs a finger. ‘Ping! He can pull a gun out of your hand with his whip, too. Harrison is a geezer. Pretty straight. Bit introverted. Loves to tell a joke. Doesn’t tell ’em well.’
So how did Winstone unwind after a day’s filming? ‘Radox bath. Vodka and Coke. Indy was fun to make. Didn’t need much unwinding. You’re laughing all day.’
I can imagine Nil by Mouth was a laugh a minute, too. ‘You don’t realise when it’s crowding in on you. War Zone as well. Both about abuse. You have to ask yourself how you feel about what you’re doing. Nil by Mouth I played a wife-beater. OK, that was bad but War Zone I played a man who raped his own daughter. I thought, why am I doing this film? It made me question my own moral parameters. Like going to see a shrink in a way. If you’ve got problems, don’t go and see a shrink, become an actor and act these things out.’
Has he ever seen a shrink? ‘Na. I think a shrink would need to see a shrink after seeing me. I’ve never needed to, I think because I always boxed and got rid of aggression that way.’
I ask him to try a little self-analysis now, ask how well he knows himself. ‘I know I rabbit on. Give it large. Think I’m more important than I am. I also know when I’m starting to feel down, feeling lousy and when I’ve got a brew coming up. I know it. I can do something about that. It follows a pattern. I know how to get out of that. Feeling physically low pre-empts feeling mentally low. So I take more exercise. I don’t need no geezer on a couch telling me that. That’s what my wife’s for. She tells me all that stuff. She’s cheaper too.’
He married Elaine, a northerner, 28 years ago. They have three daughters. The eldest two, Lois and Jaime, are actors. ‘I can be completely candid with my wife but she’s never really asked me about work, and that’s kind of cool. I never tell her about the job I’m doing. I wait for her to see it on the screen because she’s very honest and will tell me what she thinks.’
What! He didn’t tell her about War Zone? He grins. ‘Na, actually I did warn her about that. That was the one exception.’
How did that conversation go? ‘It was fine. The hard conversation was with Laura, the actress playing my daughter. I wanted her to meet my three children, three gals, so she could see I was all right. She’s a great kid, Laura, she looked after me in the end because I weren’t coping. Even when I slept it was still going on in my head. When we got to the final scene I thought f— this, what am I doing here? But it’s a film I’m very proud of now it’s done.’
For all his flippancy about analysing himself, I get the impression that he gives a lot of thought to how he plays a role. He sounds like a method actor, in fact, one who immerses himself. We discuss the Laurence Olivier approach versus the Dustin Hoffman one in The Marathon Man. When Hoffman was doing press-ups before a scene in order to look exhausted, Olivier asked him why he didn’t just act exhausted. ‘I think Sir Laurence should have tried acting as well,’ Winstone says. ‘Because I’ve seen films he’s been diabolical in and Dustin Hoffman has never given a bad performance. Maybe he should have tried doing some press-ups and running round the block himself. Who the f— was he to give a comment like that? It annoys me.’
Excellent. He’s annoyed again. His eyes are bulging behind his black-rimmed glasses. So does he analyse his role in the way Hoffman does? ‘Nine times out of 10 I don’t have a clue how I’m going to play it and I think it ain’t gonna happen. I think, what am I going to do?’ A sort of actor’s block? ‘Yeah, but the fear keeps you on your toes. Keeps you buzzin’. I like to paraphrase. They call me Ray Paraphrase Winstone because I paraphrase everything. Sexy Beast was one of the few I didn’t change a word on because it was so tightly written.’ When I ask if he has ever considered directing, he laughs. ‘One day maybe, when my legs ain’t working properly anymore. Trouble is, I’m impatient. If actors started f—ing around I’d probably lose it, you know.’
I know, I know. But presumably, with his hard-man reputation, actors wouldn’t dream of ‘f—ing around’. ‘Yeah I reckon I could…’ He trails off. ‘Boxing stood me in good stead. Control and discipline and the way you look at someone. In boxing you can give someone a look and they know they can’t beat you. You look right into their soul. It’s not the verbals, it’s the look. Usually the one giving it large, mouthing off, is the one who is scared.’
Winstone grew up watching boxers fight. ‘I used to go to a place called the Cage in Spitalfields market that went on for 15 minutes. Bare-knuckle. Half-way through, they went for a tea break, then came back and finished it. No referee.’
He started sparring with his father. ‘Yeah, one day when we were sparring I saw him getting too close to the armchair and he tripped so I clumped him. He chased me up the stairs and I closed the door and the door knob cut him below the eyes, so then I thought I’m going to die. I put the bed up against the door and then I heard him laughing on the stairs. My dad only hit me once in my life and that was because I was caught cheating at school. He told me I was being hit because I got caught.’
His father is still working, driving a black cab. ‘He’s got a picture of me up in his cab, so I think he’s proud. But dads are the head of the family so maybe it is a bit strange for him having me getting all this attention.’
The house he grew up in, he says, was ‘very loud’. The day would start at high volume and get louder. ‘My dad would get up early and listen to Judy Garland on the Pye record player. It would be loud. There would be rows. Shouting. Everyone had their piece to say. Controlled mayhem. We never bottled anything up. But it was fun. I was told I was a little f—er as a kid. That was not how I remembered it. I thought I was a charming little boy.’
He recalls one day when he and his sister Laura began an argument over Sunday lunch. She threw a knife on the table, it bounced and stuck him in the sternum. With blood trickling down his shirt he dived across the table. ‘I’m strangling her, my dad was strangling me and my mum was strangling my dad. Then me foot went through the French window. It was like a nuthouse. No one sulks in my house. Twenty minutes later we were all sitting down in front of the telly watching The Champ and crying.’
The Champ, of course, is a rather sentimental, father-and-son film about boxing. Encouraged by his father, a keen boxer himself, Ray had joined the Repton Amateur Boxing Club at the age of 12 and, over the next 10 years, had won 80 out of 88 bouts. At welterweight, he was London Schoolboy Champion on three occasions, fighting twice for England. He spent so many hours in the gym as a child, he says, that it put him off gyms for life. ‘I get a nosebleed just thinking about training.’
The Winstones, like so many East End families at that time, lived in the shadow of The Krays, who were also keen boxing fans. ‘Yeah, I was aware of them. My dad knew them very well. I peed all over Ronnie Kray as a baby. He picked me up and I peed on him. He told me the story himself years later.’
The Krays, he now realises, were about the closest he came to glamour in those days because they were always mixing with sportsmen, actors and singers. ‘But no one where I came from actually became an actor because actors were in the category of poofs and poets.’
His career options were limited. Some of his fellow pupils at Edmonton comprehensive school went on to become professional criminals – ‘Well, we didn’t live in Surrey.’ It was his father’s idea that he should try acting, in part because the only CSE Ray had left school with was in drama. When Ray enrolled at the Corona Stage Academy in Hammersmith in 1974, it was his father who dug deep to find the £900-a-term fees. He only lasted a year before being expelled for bursting the headmistress’s tyres (because she didn’t invite him to the Christmas party). ‘I was lucky to go there, though,’ Winstone now says, ‘someone other than my dad might have said, bollocks. I did use to question myself whether acting was a proper job. But I also realised it was the only thing I really liked doing.’
He has been similarly encouraging to his daughters, but he has also tried to instil in them some of the working-class values of which he is still proud. ‘My gels went to state school. We looked at private schools but when we saw the workload and the Ferraris and all that, I thought no, that is not what we want. I’ve nothing against private education. I just think it would be better if everyone got the same education.’ He takes a thoughtful drag. ‘The trouble with the working classes nowadays is that they don’t work. Whereas my family were grafters. We never went without. The house was always spotless. You knew everyone in the street. Front door never locked. There were still bombed houses around us, from the war. We used to play in them.’ He stubs out his cigarette. ‘I remember the first West Indian coming into our street. He had a zoot suit on and the kids used to follow him and touch him for luck. Unbelievable, but true.’
How does he feel about immigration now? ‘It don’t affect me as long as everyone respects everyone else. London has always been cosmopolitan. But I do think the English way is always to say sorry. We get trodden on. I think we apologise too much for what we are. I’m proud to be an Englishman. Now in London you see mosques but if you went to their country you wouldn’t be allowed to build a church, there would be f—ing murders.’
When I ask him to elaborate on what he means by ‘working-class values’ he talks about his belief in the death penalty. ‘Do ’em. Put an injection in them. Child murderers, I mean. People who murder in cold blood, like this guy who murdered five women [Stephen Wright]. I would have no qualms about hurting him. Maybe I could even do it myself. I would like to think I could. But maybe it would f— up the rest of your life.’
Belief in the death penalty is usually associated with being Right wing, I note. Is he? ‘My dad was a royalist who voted Tory. I don’t vote for no cant.’
I can just see that on a Saatchi and Saatchi poster, I say: Don’t vote for no cant. ‘My right to vote is not to f—ing vote,’ he clarifies. ‘I mean, who do I trust?’ He’s getting worked up again, which makes me wonder, again, how much he does act and how much he merely reflects the anger he feels. For an actor, he seems admirably unaffected and unpretentious. That is not to say, though, that he isn’t affected by his performances. On the contrary, they seem to take a lot out of him, leaving him raw and emotional. He doesn’t seem to build up layers, as others actors do, between himself and the roles he plays. I have read somewhere that he has high blood pressure.
Is this still the case? ‘Yeah, but I take tablets for it.’ That’s something associated with a short fuse isn’t it? ‘Is it? Is it? What are you saying?’ He’s laughing again; big, shoulder shaking laughs. ‘I don’t think I have a short fuse any more. I used to have when I was younger.’ His assistant comes into the room and he turns to her and says, ‘Blinding job this, baby. I’m sorted out now. Had my therapy. Not mad any more.’ With this, he swings out of the room, rolling his shoulders. Walking on the balls of his feet. His boxer’s walk.