Ray Winstone: A tough act to follow

Ray Winstone reprises his hard-nut persona in ITV1's She's Gone. But it's not typecasting - there are a million ways to play a gangster, he tells James Rampton
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At the end of the shoot for BBC2's acclaimed 1999 serial Births, Marriages and Deaths, in which Ray Winstone delivered a typically mesmerising performance as the unhinged Alan, his co-star Phil Davis breathed a sigh of relief and exclaimed: "I've been shitting myself for 10 weeks just looking at Ray!"

Since he first burst on to our screens as the scary Borstal bully Carlin in Scum three decades ago, Winstone has been having a similar effect on audiences. He exudes raw menace on screen. The writer Tony Grounds, a lifelong friend who accompanies him to West Ham United's home matches and has penned roles for him in his dramas Births, Marriages and Deaths, Our Boy and The Ghostbusters of East Finchley, points to the actor's presence. He avers that, as they put it down the East End, his old china is a force of nature.

Winstone is not classically good-looking, but under the right direction, he's unstoppable. You can see beyond his eyes, into his soul. He's Harvey Keitel with added surprise. He is now lending those qualities to She's Gone, a taut thriller by Simon Tyrell, which goes out on ITV1 this Sunday.

We're spending a drab Wednesday afternoon in a west-London lap-dancing club - as you do. Doubling as the East/West Club in Istanbul, the club has been designed to give it a Turkish feel: ornate filigree lamps, swags of plush velvet, murals of semi-clad women languishing provocatively on sofas - and lashings of dry ice.

Winstone is slap-bang in the middle of the club, master of all he surveys. He is playing Harry Sands, a middle-aged man whose world starts to spin off its axis when his adored 18-year-old daughter, Olivia, appears to have been abducted while teaching in Istanbul in her gap year. Harry has come to this decidedly seedy venue because he is convinced that the owner knows something about Olivia's whereabouts. In his tight-fitting suit, Harry is sitting distractedly watching the dancers do their thing with the pole. Without warning, he springs to his feet and produces a gun. Sweating profusely, he aims it at the owner and demands to know where his daughter is. All that's missing are the words that have virtually become the actor's catchphrase: "You slag!"

It is classic Winstone: moody and menacing. His collaborators on She's Gone agree. Gary Lucy (Kyle from Footballers Wives) plays Harry's son, Michael. "I grew up watching Ray in films like Scum," Lucy recalls. "He's got tremendous presence. Your eyes are irresistibly drawn towards him. If I can't learn from Ray, I don't know who I can learn from."

Later, Winstone and I retire to a smart hotel, where the sign above the reception reads: "You make my heart go boom-boom" - which is, I imagine, the impact the actor has on all those he meets. He radiates an infectious lust for life. In the wake of such characters as the demonic Alan in Births, Marriages and Deaths, the equally monstrous Henry VIII, the retired thief Gary in Sexy Beast, and the deranged wife-batterer Ray in Nil by Mouth, Harry is another corrupted diamond geezer.

So is Winstone bothered about being cast as another likely lad who knows how to look after himself? "I've never felt I've been typecast. I've never approached a drama thinking, 'This is just like something else,'" he asserts. "Anyway, you can play a gangster in a million different ways."

He takes a drag on his cigarette and smiles wryly. "You've just done a gangster film, so you think, 'Now I'm going to do a musical, then a comedy.' But you get sent another blinding gangster film, and the rest of the offers are rubbish, so what are you going to do? The gangster film, of course. And do you know who was the biggest gangster of the lot? Henry VIII. What makes him king is the way everyone reacts when he walks into the room - that's what gives him his power."

So which megalomaniacal figure does he fancy playing next? "Elizabeth I," he deadpans, before letting out a characteristic booming laugh. What unites all Winstone's performances, of course, is their authenticity. His characters are plausible because they are flawed - he makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with the audience. "I've played all kinds of unpleasant people, but I never worry about public reaction," says Winstone, who is executive-producing, for the first time, on She's Gone.

"In Nil by Mouth, I was playing pissed all the time and beating up my wife, but everyone loved the film. I hope people watch things like Nil by Mouth and say, 'We can cross the line.' The minute you start thinking about what the audience might like, you're compromised.

"If you're making a film about a subject and you don't tell it how it is, you're belittling it. Like those scenes where someone is hit with a chair and they get straight back up again - what sort of message does that send to children? It's irresponsible. When you hit a man with a chair, you kill him - and you have to show that. If you're making a film like that, holding back would be like cutting the bottom off a Picasso painting."

Winstone, himself the father of three daughters (Lois, 20, Jaime, 16 and Ellie, one), reckons that She's Gone has that same uncompromising approach. He was drawn to the project because he could believe in the emotional journey Harry undertakes. "I wanted viewers to feel they were watching a film about one subject, and by the end it turns into something else. At first, you're watching a film about a girl who's gone missing. But by the end, it has become a film about how parents push their kids away. It's about the father rather than the daughter. My own eldest daughter lives in Manchester. Why? I must drive her mad! Children are desperate to become adults, but we parents get in the way.They can't wait to get away from us. It's not wrong; it's natural."

Tyrell, who was previously responsible for The Vice, chips in that during his search, Harry learns things he never knew about his daughter. "If your kid is going away on a gap year, you want to encourage adventure, but there's a scary side to it as well.

"One character says, 'You hold your child's hand when you go into a dark wood - why?' Harry replies, 'To make her feel safe. But also to stop her getting away.' That's the heart of this story.It's about his fear of the unknown. It's not about a daughter going missing; it's about a father growing up - and that will resonate with everyone," Tyrell says.

Having enjoyed success on King Arthur and Cold Mountain, Winstone could easily move, lock, stock and two smoking barrels, to Hollywood, but he has not been impressed thus far. Happily married for the past quarter of a century to Elaine, the 47-year-old actor confesses that he was homesick during the very long Cold Mountain shoot. "It was tough sitting on the top of a mountain in Transylvania for six months, with just brown bears and a bottle of vodka for company. I had to put garlic on the windowsill - or the vampires would have got me!"

Nor did King Arthur do much to bolster Winstone's sense of well-being. "I spent six months in Ireland. You know what the national sport is there, so at the end my liver really needed a rest!"

Perhaps he has gained such a sensible perspective about the business because for many years he struggled in it. After Scum, his career went into a bit of a black hole. "I was doing crap to pay the rent," he sighs. "I thought of giving up."

He made a triumphant comeback in 1997 with Nil by Mouth. Now he is relieved that stardom came to him when he was in his thirties. "Imagine me getting success at the age of 21. I'd have been dead by now!"

The self-styled Plaistow boy has learnt never to take the work - or himself - too seriously. "You have to have a laugh, or else you'd go off your head. Can you imagine the set of Nil by Mouth if we didn't have a laugh? People would have been killing each other. I hear about actors who are hostile to each other on set because their characters hate each other. That's bollocks. Life is too short."

'She's Gone', 9pm, Sunday, ITV1