Ray Winstone: Playing by Ray's rules

In King Arthur, Ray Winstone brings a touch of Hackney to Camelot, and he's set to do the same to Hollywood, says Ryan Gilbey
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The Independent Culture

For a man who has played snivelling thugs, intimidating crooks, two wife-beaters and one abusive father, it's surprising how quickly Ray Winstone can put a person at ease. As I'm loitering outside the hotel suite where he is holding court for the day to discuss his new film, King Arthur, I can hear that the female interviewer before me has assumed Winstone's style of speaking, all glottal stops and resounding "gor blimeys". When she emerges from the room, she looks like Felicity Kendal, rather than the hatchet-faced EastEnders cast member that her voice had promised. And it happens to me too - not the Felicity Kendal part, obviously, but the sudden descent into overfamiliarity and leisurely swearing. My questions all begin with Ray-this and Ray-that, which, frankly, was not part of the plan.

For a man who has played snivelling thugs, intimidating crooks, two wife-beaters and one abusive father, it's surprising how quickly Ray Winstone can put a person at ease. As I'm loitering outside the hotel suite where he is holding court for the day to discuss his new film, King Arthur, I can hear that the female interviewer before me has assumed Winstone's style of speaking, all glottal stops and resounding "gor blimeys". When she emerges from the room, she looks like Felicity Kendal, rather than the hatchet-faced EastEnders cast member that her voice had promised. And it happens to me too - not the Felicity Kendal part, obviously, but the sudden descent into overfamiliarity and leisurely swearing. My questions all begin with Ray-this and Ray-that, which, frankly, was not part of the plan.

You could put it down to two things. Many people want to be Ray Winstone's friend. (Wasn't that why David Beckham invited him to his birthday bash, even though they had never met before?) Secondly, and this is not entirely unconnected, people may be a little bit afraid of him.

Winstone is 47 now, and a father to three daughters. He looks pink and perky on the morning we meet - shaved and showered and scrubbed raw. He tells me that he used to get a lot of looks on trains shortly after he played the lead in Scum. Travellers would spend the whole journey sizing him up, and only smile weakly or offer a compliment when it was their stop. Winstone has moved into the vicinity of being a national treasure in the 27 years since Alan Clarke cast him as the snarling borstal boy in that banned BBC play (and the film version two years later).

When I last met Winstone, seven years ago, he complained that no one was willing let him play a nice guy. "They know I'm all right at bashing people up," he reflected, "but they don't know if I can do the other stuff."

All that has changed now - he tackled romance in Fanny and Elvis, played a chirpy cockney not especially disposed to punching people in Last Orders, and made a bid for the country's affections by being his cheery, salt-of-the-earth self on TV shows such as The Kumars at No 42 and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? His retired hoodlum in Sexy Beast was a loving portrait of mellowed machismo. And even as he leered after Nicole Kidman and tortured defenceless old women in Cold Mountain, he expressed in that character a melancholy regret, as though he was incapable of halting behaviour that he knew to be wrong.

Despite this gradual softening, the overpowering cruelty of his best work cannot be dispelled. Once you've witnessed the twisted concentration on his face as he puts the boot into Kathy Burke in Nil by Mouth, it is not an image easily relinquished. "People have said, 'Oh, that film must have been so harrowing'," he says, hunting impatiently around the room for an ashtray. Locating one, he takes a hungry drag on a cigarette. "But it wasn't. I've never had such a ball in my life." He leans in close. "Don't get me wrong. That don't mean I weren't concentrating. It's just that I'd already done me homework. You imagine spending all day on set brooding about beating your wife up - you'd be in a nuthouse. I'm one of them blokes who can be laughing and joking and then it's, 'Action!', and - bam! - I'm in there. I can switch from blah-blah-blah to 'You cad'."

Only he doesn't call me a cad. He uses another insult beginning with "c". And he bites down greedily on the word as though it's a leg of chicken.

His character in King Arthur, a loutish warrior named Bors, is an agreeable fellow compared with some of Winstone's other roles. Bors is always wandering into scenes of carnage and saying things like, "What a bloody mess!", or boasting merrily about the size of his penis. And there's no denying that Winstone gives this drab adventure some coarse energy; swinging his gorilla arms all over the screen, he is somehow both meatier and sweeter than his more conventionally pretty co-stars, Clive Owen and Ioan Gruffudd, who look too poised and pampered to ever get any dirt under their fingernails.

The Ray Winstone whom you see in King Arthur isn't markedly different from the one who rubs his hands together and booms, "Yo-ho-ho-ho!", when room service brings in his breakfast. The food has been garnished in such a way so as to disguise the fact that it's a bacon butty, but Winstone isn't one for pretensions. He peels apart each sandwich and administers a dollop of brown sauce before gluing the slices back together and tucking in. "D'you mind if I...?" he asks with his mouth already full.

The way he tells it, acting was just an accident that blossomed into a career. "I got the role on the way that I walked down the corridor. After the BBC version got banned, I retired from the industry. Then they offered me the film. Eight weeks hanging out in Torquay with Clarkie and me mates. I thought it'd be a nice holiday, then I'd go back to dossing around. Only it didn't work out like that."

A role in Quadrophenia followed, and in no time, this monkey wrench of a man was one of the new faces of British youth, earning himself comparisons with Cagney, and the adoration of boys whose nearest brush with violence was when they got a nick from their first Bic razor. "Those films wouldn't have been possible without the 1960s. Your Tom Courtenays, your Albert Finneys. They were the ones that proved you could be an actor even if you didn't speak right." He briefly imagines himself in a Merchant-Ivory production of Scum, purely for his own amusement. "Can you imagine it? 'I say, dear boy, where's your farking tool?'."

Everything seemed to go quiet for Winstone after Quadrophenia: a case of feared today, gone tomorrow. Or, in his words: "I became a really bad actor. I got bored and lazy. I've been lucky enough to do some good stuff since Nil by Mouth. The real test would be to do a bit of shit and see if I can pull it off."

Anyone who saw him riffing on his gangster image in the glorified home movies Final Cut and Love, Honour and Obey will confirm that this is not an experiment that should be repeated in a hurry. But it's churlish to gripe about the occasional mistake, when so much of the material that Winstone has chosen since Nil by Mouth has displayed an uncommon curiosity and self-awareness over any commercial considerations.

One thing at which he has excelled has been placing himself in oddball partnerships that have revealed unexpected complexities in his persona. It might not have been the wisest move to follow his lacerating portrayal of an alcoholic brute in Nil by Mouth by playing a father who abuses his teenage daughter in The War Zone, but the trump card in that film was the casting of Winstone and Tilda Swinton as husband and wife. Swinton teased out the vulnerability in Winstone, never more so than when she scrubbed his bare back at the kitchen sink; she might have been tenderising a slab of meat.

There was even better to come, in Ripley's Game, which should by rights have spawned a spin-off series: a single movie didn't provide enough time to savour the mutually affectionate clash-of-the-titans between Ray Winstone and John Malkovich. But Winstone knows, without prompting, that he was a lucky devil to get a movie as juicy as Sexy Beast, the low-key thriller that allowed this established hard nut to be terrorised by Ben Kingsley of all people. "I know!" he guffaws. "Me and Gandhi!"

When he discusses Sexy Beast, he comes over rather serious, as though to refer to it casually would be disrespectful. "After doing Nil by Mouth, I thought, 'That's it, innit? That's the way to do it'. I didn't know how I was gonna better it. And did I really want to better it? Was it really a competition? And if so, whom was I competing with?" He pauses, chews on his bacon, and gives the matter some consideration. "The only way to choose stuff is based on the quality of the scripts. And when I read Sexy Beast, I thought, 'These are some clever bastards...'."

That film was a hit in the US, but he has so far resisted any overtures from Hollywood, perhaps because the industry there makes him uneasy. "I've cracked it here," he reasons. "And I'm happy. Why would I want to go out there and start all over again?" He had a couple of meetings in Los Angeles, four or five years back, and came out of them not exactly bruised but certainly bewildered. "It was these two women. I went in and they said, 'So what can we do for you?'. I just said, 'I dunno'. And that was that.

"I went off to another meeting later the same day, and I thought, 'I've gotta do better than that'. So, when they asked me, 'What have you been doing lately?', I told them about The War Zone, mentioned Tim [Roth, the film's director]. They said, 'Oh, what's that about?'. And I sat there for an hour and a half, telling them the whole bleeding story: 'And then he does her up the arse... And at the end, they stab him...' They had these frozen smiles on their faces the whole time. They only wanted to make chitchat."

He plays it innocent, but he must have known what he was doing. It's part of the deal, this good-humoured abrasiveness, just as a blindingly insincere smile comes with the Tom Cruise package. And there is something, too, about Hollywood that this straight-up, red-blooded Hackney bloke intrinsically mistrusts. "You go to LA and they've all got these accents. They're like, 'Oh my God, Ray, how are you?'." He stands up and strikes some effeminate poses. "The geezer's got four kids, and he's camp as anything. You think, 'What's going on here? Am I going out of me head?'."

But Hollywood wants him now. And he can return on his own terms - head held high rather than cap in hand. When he tells me that he has some meetings scheduled in LA in a few weeks' time, I secretly pray that he is taking a documentary camera-crew with him. When it comes to Anglo-American culture clashes, Mr Bean will have nothing on Ray Winstone.

'King Arthur' opens next Friday

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