Ray Winstone: Hard act to follow

He was typecast as a tough guy, and is back on TV next week playing a serial killer. But Ray Winstone knows how to show his soft side - especially when it comes to family. He tells Liz Hoggard why he's a lover, not a fighter
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Ray Winstone is having trouble getting a baby-sitter. "My elder daughters are 24 and 20, and you'd think you'd have a ready-made baby-sitting service, but it don't work that way. They love the little one to bits but when you say 'Mummy and Daddy are going out tonight,' they're like, 'Up to you. You chose to have another baby. We're off out.'"

It's rather nice to see Winstone juggling childcare at 48. But then for an actor who spent his early career cast as either a villain or a wife-beater, he inspires surprising devotion. He's the man most men would like to go to the pub with. Recently he came fifth in a poll of sexiest actors - after Orlando Bloom, Jude Law, Ewan McGregor and Sean Bean. It's that combination of raw physicality and paternalism that appeals.

Today he is one of Britain's most bankable film stars. And he doesn't just play gangsters any more. He was unrecognisable as a brutal confederate officer in Cold Mountain. He won an Emmy for the television drama Henry VIII. And he's just finished filming an all-star version of the Old English verse saga Beowulf.

But arguably his most important role is as a hands-on family man. Five years ago, he and his wife Elaine decided that now their children were grown up (daughter Jaime is an actress, Lois a musician), they wanted another baby. Ellie Rae was born in 2001. Does she know her dad is famous? "Not really, though I took her to the premier of Narnia - I'd forgotten I was in it - and we were walking down the blue carpet with all the flashbulbs going off. I looked down and she's talking into the microphone, giving interviews, going, 'My dad's Mr Beaver.' And I thought, 'What have I created?' She's very, very funny."

When he's filming, his wife and Ellie travel with him. "I've been away for nine months this year and when you come home no one knows you. So I made the decision that for long jobs, they come with me. I mean if you let me loose on location, I'm staying in a hotel and I'll be in the bar most nights. You get really lonely. I went home once when we were filming Cold Mountain. I just got on a plane. They phoned and said, 'You're supposed to be here,' and I said, 'Well, call when you want me for the next scene.' I got tired of sitting on a mountain and looking at grizzly bears. I wanted to be home. I had a little baby and she changes so much every day."

Winstone is one of the hardest-working men in British showbusiness. But reading the clippings, you detect a whiff of class snobbery. The feeling seems to be that the man they call "The Daddy" is a great instinctive actor, but maybe not that bright. In the flesh, though, Winstone is the very antithesis of a cockney wide boy. Self-taught yes, but extremely astute. We meet in the offices of Size9, the production company he co-runs to green-light new scripts. Because although he could jump ship to Hollywood at any time, Winstone is passionate about British television.

"I don't want to live in America, I love the green fields of England. When I came back last time I couldn't wait for it to rain. I'll go anywhere I have to work, but I'd much prefer to be doing films for our own film industry."

Dapper in a checked suit and open-necked shirt (no medallion), Winstone can play the lovable geezer to the nth degree. But what's surprising is how serious he is - he wants to talk about his craft. "I'm a lover, not a fighter," he insists. "I'd much rather be kissing someone than getting punched." He talks easily about his emotions, and clearly adores women (he's been married for 26 years to Elaine, who he met on the set of TV drama That Summer). Even some of his most violent films - Nil By Mouth, Sexy Beast and the new Western, The Proposition - have all been love stories at heart.

"Some of the best jobs I've done have been with directors who are very feminine, or who are women, because they look for other things in a man. They're not interested in the macho shit, you know. And I find that much more interesting because the strengths are already there. Physically I'm quite a big man, with a strong voice, but then you have to find the other stuff."

Directors still seek him out for harrowing roles. In The Proposition (with a screenplay by the rock musician Nick Cave) he's a British police captain battling murderous gangs in 19th-century Queensland. And he's on our screens next week in a BBC1 drama playing the demon barber Sweeney Todd. But what's great about Winstone is that he always plays the villain as the good guy. "If you make him more of a man, you make him more of a monster."

Winstone is otherworldly as Sweeney Todd, with shaven head and eyebrows. The inspiration came from a Hogarth painting. "There's a guy laying on the floor with his wig off and he's bald, so I used the wig as my hat. Having no hair changes your face completely. I remember meeting Ellie Rae at the airport. She came running out, saw me standing there, then looked both ways and ran back in. She was quite freaked."

Sweeney Todd is violent melodrama. But Winstone gives a performance of rare subtlety. Todd, the murderous barber, is an abused child who grows up with a confused sexuality. "It's that thing of feeling dirty about sex. Wanting to be loved but not knowing how to go about being loved." Unable to consummate a relationship with his neighbour (a splendidly vampish Essie Davis), he spies on her and her lovers. "He's very mixed up, not because he might be gay but because he's killing people."

Winstone co-produced the film. "We didn't have the time to do it, but I wanted to make a film like Tin Drum. You know that metaphor of the person who stops growing when Germany succumbs to Hitler. I love that film. I've got it at home and even watch it in German."

For all the larky chat, you sense there is a core of steel to Winstone. He tells a story of how a friend's mother, "a lovely lady", came to watch him film Henry VIII. "She took a seat and immediately went 'Don't do it like that.'" He's laughing but a look of pure irritation crosses his face. "I was like, 'What? What?' It just kills you."

Raymond Andrew Winstone was born in 1957 in Hackney, east London. He started boxing at the age of 12 (he fought twice for England). In his teens, he studied drama andwas spotted by director Alan Clarke, who cast him as the leader of a borstal gang in Scum. Quadrophenia followed, but then things went a bit quiet. It wasn't until his friend Kathy Burke cast him in her play Mr Thomas that people sat up and took notice.

He's had an impressive stage career since (Sam Mendes's To the Green Fields Beyond; Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice). But he admits he's an anarchic performer. "I love the intimacy of small venues like the Royal Court Upstairs, it's like cinema. I remember messing around one night. I had to lie on this bed, with the audience sitting around me, so I'd put my hand in their lap. Or when I was on the phone I'd look at someone directly. The director Ian Rickson used to say, 'Don't do it.' But I knew the audience loved it." Would he be tempted back on stage? "Only for a six-week run. I worked at the National one summer, every night I'd go past people sitting in pubs. And you start thinking, 'Who the fuck invented matinees? Kill 'em.'"

By the mid-1990s Winstone was getting typecast in geezer roles. It took fellow actors Gary Oldman and Tim Roth to drag him back to the frontline with the powerful social dramas Nil By Mouth and The War Zone. Then came Sexy Beast. Who can forget that brilliant opening scene where Winstone lies by the pool, portly in yellow swimming trunks, casually admiring the arse of the Spanish pool boy?

"It was my favourite job. I got there early and asked, 'What do you want me to do?' and they said, 'Just lie on the beach and get a sun tan, and eat as much pasta as you can.'" Winstone still has the yellow Speedos. "After filming we went to Maui for 10 days. Everyone out there wears these surfing trunks and I was in those Speedos with my dong hanging out. My wife kept saying, 'You can't wear those!'"

He has just completed Martin Scorsese's The Departed, a remake of Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs with Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson, and raves about working with Scorsese. "It's just the way he talks to you and makes you think it's your own idea. He's standing behind you at the monitors, editing as he goes along. But other than that he's just a really blinding guy." No doubt the feeling's mutual: after a dinner with Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger on the Romanian set of Cold Mountain, Winstone's daughter Lois said, "It's good for them to meet someone like my dad, I think, who's so comfortable with himself and so natural. All the fawning around stars is bad for everyone. I mean it's taken my dad years to get where he is, but he's never arse-licked any one. That's a really important thing he's taught me."

It's an attitude that's certainly appealed to Paul Abbott. The Shameless writer tells me that he is writing a Channel 4 drama set in the cut-throat world of Premiership football especially for Ray. Winstone's only fear is that he's spreading himself a bit thin. He never really wanted to start a production company. "I've got great people around me, but if I'm going to do it properly and make films I want to make, I've got to be more hands-on." Is he good at is reading scripts? "Yeah, but the trouble is I have to read them all to the end. I learnt that from watching They Shoot Horses, Don't They? It's a really boring film right until the end, then suddenly you understand the beginning and everything falls into place. So I have to read all the boring ones in case something happens."

Recently he moved out of London to Essex. "Not because of the job I do, but because of the pace of it. When I get on the M25, I go, 'Pheeeeew'." He plays football and golf, and takes long holidays. But Winstone is no luvvie. He's vocal about how nurses, teachers and firemen do more important jobs. "They can't strike because it's a vocational job. It's blackmail really, because they are the people you depend on." He is a tireless fund-raiser for his local hospice.

And he's curiously moral about acting. He'd never recycle real-life tragedy. "I'm very funny about things like that. I think it would be doing a disservice to someone to use it in my work. I don't go to them places. And I hope I can do my job as an actor without having to."

Sweeney Todd is on BBC1 on 3 January at 9pm

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