Ask Ray Winstone what happened to him between his scorching acting debut as a borstal boy in Scum and his current role as the official hardest working man in British cinema, and you get an answer of unflinching frankness.
"I became a really bad actor," he says. "I got bored and lazy. I've been lucky enough to do some good stuff lately. The real test would be to do a bit of shit now and see if I can pull it off."
He's not likely to be facing that challenge any time soon. In the recent thriller, Face, he brought an unexpected vulnerability to the role of a walking mid-life crisis in gangster's clothes. Now you should brace yourself for his bestial performance in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth. The film imagines Hell as a south London housing estate, and Winstone fits right in. His character, Raymond, is given to rambling bouts of braggadocio and sudden explosions of violence; he tortures his brother-in-law, his wife Val (Kathy Burke) and finally himself. The scenes of his mental disintegration are so unsparing that they make Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant look like Oscar the Grouch.
There are certainly comparative performances. But not many. Brando in Last Tango in Paris. Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. Not forgetting the patron saint of neck-on-the-block kamikaze acting, De Niro in Raging Bull. Films in which it has seemed that an actor's very psychological stability was being jeopardised in the pursuit of truth. Or that's what we like to believe. That conforms to our idea of art as suffering. Ray Winstone would like to shatter that particular myth.
"People have said, `Oh, it must have been so harrowing'," he tells me. "But no. It wasn't. I've never had such a ball in me life."
Didn't Raymond's behaviour affect you? "Only when I got really tired. I came home talking about what I'd done in the film - boozing, bashing Kathy up. I thought that if I can do it so easy - and it was easy - then there's got to be a bit of that in me. I was like one of them nutters. I had to tell myself, `I'm an actor playing a part'. People think acting's all about touching your ear 'ole at a certain point, all that luvvie stuff, but you just gotta believe in what you're doing and get on with it."
While shooting Nil by Mouth, Winstone rented a place in Bermondsey, far from the Enfield home he shares with his wife and daughters. Attempting to work while his nearest and dearest are in the next room can be trying at the best of times. "My girls - one's 12, the other's 15 - they're always going, `Dad, can I read that with you?' I say, `Awight. Don't act. Just talk it.' Then they start giving it a bit of that [imitates big-shot movie star pose] and I end up going, `Right. Out!'"
The things a hard-as-nails cockney actor has to put up with. If it's not teenagers getting their grubby mitts all over your scripts, it's casting directors thinking you're only good for a bit of bovver. They hire Ray Winstone the way other folk hire debt collectors. To lean on people. Make 'em sweat. Only the people in this case are the audience.
Here are some of his roles. A vicious thug in Scum. A vicious wife-beater in Ladybird, Ladybird. A vicious crook in Face. A vicious wife-beater (again) in Nil by Mouth. Doesn't he ever long to play a boy scout? Even a boy scout in a bad mood would be something.
"I'm dying to play a nice guy!" he laughs. "No one's willing to cast me. They know I'm all right at bashing people up, but they don't know if I can do the other stuff. And I can. The thing about villains is most people play them with the shifty eyes and all that, whereas I play them as good guys. 'Cos everyone thinks they're a goodie, don't they? Even Hitler did."
Despite what his on-screen incarnations suggest, Winstone is a charming chatterbox whose conversation takes regular detours into comic territory, like when he imagines himself in a Merchant-Ivory production of Scum - "'Ere, where's your farking tool?" With his tufty moustache-and-goatee combination, and his sharp black shirt opened to reveal a glinting gold cross, he looks the epitome of the East End boy made good.
Yet I should confess to having been more than a little nervous at the prospect of meeting him. Not because I feared he might reward me for an impertinent question with a fat lip. But rather because, for myself and many other twentysomethings, he is something of an icon. We were too short to sneak into Scum when it came out in 1980, but with the advent of video recorders, we were hooked. Whole lunchtimes would be whiled away rehearsing Winstone's victorious battle-cry "I'm the Daddy now" in school toilets foggy with cigarette smoke.
I decide that it might be facetious to enquire whether Winstone ever wheels out that famous catch-phrase when it comes to reprimanding his daughters. I ask instead about his memories of making Scum. "I wasn't even going for the part," he remembers. "I'd been chucked out of drama school, and I turned up at the audition with some mates. I got the role on the way that I walked down the corridor."
When the television production of Scum was banned by the BBC, the director Alan Clarke re-shot it for cinema. "After it got banned, I retired from the industry," Winstone laughs. "Then I got this call offering me the film version. Eight weeks hanging out in Torquay with Clarkie and me mates. I weren't gonna turn that down. 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 quickly followed and in no time this monkey-wrench of a man was the face of untamed British youth, earning himself comparisons with Cagney, and the undying adoration of boys whose nearest brush with real violence was when they got a nick trying to use their dad's razor. And then Winstone seemed to vanish as swiftly as he had appeared. A case of feared today, gone tomorrow. He kept on working, in films that never seemed to see the light of day over here, as well as odd bits of television. Remember his Will Scarlet in the Robin of Sherwood series? Swashbuckling tea-time shenanigans it might have been, but he was still playing a crook just the same.
At some point during the 1980s, Ray Winstone snapped. He can't remember where. He can't remember when. He'd just had enough - of bad scripts, bad choices and his own bad acting. "I was ready to give it all a miss. I'd be in something and I'd watch it like this," he says, clamping his hands over his face. It was his old friend Kathy Burke who came to Winstone's rescue, inviting him to appear in Mr Thomas, a play that she had written and was directing at London's Old Red Lion theatre. "It was the business," he enthuses. "I thought: this is what it's about. I got that buzz again. So it's all down to Kath that I'm still carrying on."
"Still carrying on" isn't the half of it. Winstone has never been busier. He has three films ready for release, and next year he will play a man conducting an incestuous affair in an adaptation of Alexander Stuart's electrifying novel The War Zone. There are many appetising things about this project. The juicy role. The actor Tim Roth directing. A "blinding" screenplay. Oh, and it's set in Cornwall. "That'll be a nice little holiday, eh?" he smiles, his eyes twinkling. Nice to meet a man who's got his priorities right.
`Nil by Mouth' opens on Friday