Diamond geezer: Ray Winstone on fame, films and how to survive family life

James Mottram
Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

Some actors endorse watches, perfumes or cars. Not Ray Winstone. He recently put his name to a pie, a steak-and-kidney concoction called The Winstone.

It's hard to imagine Hollywood whippersnappers like Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon doing that. But then, Winstone has never been concerned about image – though, at 52, even he concedes he needs to shed a few pounds. He's on a dry spell when we meet. "I haven't had a drink for 12 weeks," he tells me. "I'm not getting any younger so I've got to keep myself a little bit trim." With his navy pullover stretched over his belly, I'm tempted to ask if he has indeed been eating all the pies, but I don't. After all, he may not be lean, but having boxed in his youth, there's still plenty of muscle there. We're in a flashy hotel just behind Liverpool Street Station – which makes a change from the usual Soho and Mayfair gaffs that most actors hole up in when they're promoting a movie.

Perhaps it's because this son of a grocer from Plaistow feels at home here on the edge of the East End, where – just yesterday – he was watching his beloved West Ham nick a 2-2 draw with Fulham in injury time. In fact, he says, this locale is much more convenient to get home from to his little Essex village of Roydon where's he lived for 10 years now. That's Winstone all over: salt-of-the-earth, he's no Flash Harry when it comes to the film business. Just do the job, and get home to the family. While he may not be drinking right now, spending time with Winstone – who now sports a silvery beard and glasses – is like having a chat down the pub with one of the chaps. Fuelled with bonhomie rather than beer, he's generous to a fault; someone who's loyal to his friends to the last. Like when we discuss 13, the American remake of a Georgian film about an underground game of Russian roulette, which he recently completed. He starts to reel off the "blinding" cast: Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham and 50 Cent. "Good guys. Really good guys." What you don't get with him is any trenchant self-analysis. It's simply not in his make-up. Like when I ask him about crying on-screen. "Well, yeah," he says, nervously playing with a cocktail stick. "I've done me bits. Done me bits of that."

I last met Winstone almost 10 years ago, on a beach in Cannes, where he was pressing the flesh for the football-themed charmer There's Only One Jimmy Grimble. "I think I drove down there, that time," he says, in another anecdote that suggests how he shuns the high-life as much as possible. "'Cos otherwise you can't get out. So what I do, when I've had enough of it, I can drive out when I want." At the time, Winstone was more than happy with his lot: two performances for his old mates – as an alcoholic abuser in Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth and a paedophile in Tim Roth's The War Zone – had raised his profile. He was no longer just the teenage tearaway from Scum and Quadrophenia. This guy had chops, all right.

Then came Sexy Beast, the film that "put it there" as far as Winstone's career is concerned. Not that his career criminal yanked out of his Costa Del Retirement by a volcanic Ben Kingsley was much different from the hard-men, thugs and geezers he'd played in previous films. But directed by commercials whizz Jonathan Glazer, it cast Winstone in a new light. All of a sudden, he was in demand like never before. Anthony Minghella cast him twice, first as a manipulative landowner in Cold Mountain and then in a small role in Breaking and Entering. He teamed up with the likes of Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Michael Caine for Last Orders and stole scenes like crazy in King Arthur.

Then it really started to get silly. All of a sudden, Winstone was in Hollywood, playing the right-hand man: first to Jack Nicholson's crimelord in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed and then to Harrison Ford's iconic hero in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. So how does he look back on the past 10 years? "Ain't been bad," he says, with typical understatement. "It's been all right, yeah." Is he surprised? "I didn't see it coming. You crack on. You read something you wanna do, and hopefully it takes you somewhere, y'know. But I never envisaged this at all, y'know. How can you? I'm a little fat geezer from east London."

This month, the little fat geezer continues his march towards world domination with three new films, arriving "like a London bus", he chortles. The first is just a brief appearance, playing father to Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a rather cacophonous biopic that stars Andy Serkis as the Blockheads singer. "He's one of my favourites," says Winstone. "Like Paul Weller. They're poets. I love their music. They're the bollocks." He then rather aptly recites lyrics from Dury's song "My Old Man" – "My old man was fairly handsome / He smoked too many cigs" – before telling me the only other role he'd liked to have played would've been Dury himself.

At the opposite end of the scale, Winstone also turns up in another Hollywood vehicle – this time opposite Mel Gibson (another "good guy") in a film remake of the epic 1980s BBC nuclear thriller Edge of Darkness. Winstone, who plays a British version of the CIA agent Darius Jedburgh (originally played by Joe Don Baker), was actually drafted in to replace Robert De Niro, who left the project due to "creative differences". "You can't replace De Niro," says Winstone, swiftly. "But I can understand why [he left]. The first scene we had to do again and again. It just wasn't working. It was a very hard scene. But that happens in films sometimes. I don't know what happened politically, or what the row was about ... but I was brought in."

No more than stocky support in both films, it's Winstone's third effort this month, 44 Inch Chest, that truly shows us what he's capable of. Reuniting him with Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the writers of Sexy Beast, Winstone plays Colin Diamond, who begins the film prostrate on the floor of his wrecked living room listening to that break-up classic, Nilsson's "Without You". Turns out his wife Liz (played by Joanne Whalley) has left him, after confessing to an affair with a young French waiter. Soon enough, Colin's mates – played by John Hurt, Stephen Dillane, Tom Wilkinson and Ian McShane – rally round, helping him kidnap the luckless lover-boy and waiting to watch the cuckolded husband exact his revenge.

At first glance, it seems like Winstone's simply adding another character to his considerable rogues' gallery. But Diamond is different. "He's a man who loves too much," says the actor. "He literally loves – loves – his wife to bits. And that becomes overpowering, I guess." Films like 1999's Fanny and Elvis have showed a softer side to Winstone before. But Diamond is like a wounded animal: vulnerable, raw and ready to lash out. With the film set largely in the room where Colin comes face to face with his tormentor, though flashing back to past moments with his wife, there are times when it's hard to sympathise with him – not least when he hits her after learning she wants to leave him.

Yet 44 Inch Chest is no run-of-the-mill crime flick. In fact, we're never even really sure if the characters operate on the wrong side of the law. "It's quite irrelevant what they do," says Winstone. "It's about men." A meditation on masculinity, male pride and the complex emotions that churn below their rhino-thick skin, as Winstone puts it, it's "about maybe the way men go about things when things go wrong and how they band around one another, and say what they're going to do ... whether they do it or not is another thing. And [it's about] how they can be spiteful. I'm sure there's the same kind of film to be made about women. They'll probably be even more spiteful!"

Given that Winstone has been with his spouse, Elaine, since they met on his third film, 1979's That Summer, and wed that same year, I wonder if making the film made him think about his own marriage. "Well, yeah. But I ain't gonna worry about that," he says. "I've been married 30 years. But can you imagine that happening? After 30 years, with your kids and everything ... anyone who comes into that sort of scenario, and that circle, you'd have terrible thoughts. Whatever you do about it, I don't know. Please God, I don't find out. But you would have some terrible thoughts about what you could actually do to someone."

As anyone who reads the gossip columns knows, Winstone has three daughters of his own: Lois, 27, Jaime, 24, and the much-younger Ellie Rae, now 8, who came along after her parents decided, one day, that their life wasn't quite complete. As Winstone puts it, "We just thought, 'Where's the kids? This is when we should have kids.'" It's understandable: financially secure, now is the time to enjoy raising a brood. He was 25 when Lois was born – scraping a living playing the young Will Scarlet in TV's Robin of Sherwood. Much of the Eighties was like this – bit parts in Bergerac, Boon, Minder and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. He even sailed close to bankruptcy – twice.

Now, it's different. "I've got my babies. My little clan," he smiles. "I can retire and they can look after me." While Lois, who initially trained as an actress, now goes under the name Baby Bo in hip-hop trio Crack Village, Jaime has been making a name for herself in TV and film. In the past, he's worked with both – with Lois on the films Everything and Last Orders and with Jaime on the show Vincent. What's that like? "They do bully me," he jokes. "They say, 'You don't do it like that, Dad. You do this.' They drive me mad a bit. I get more direction from them than the director." As it happens, Jaime glows with pride when she speaks about her father's career. "It's really inspirational," she tells me. "I can only learn from my Dad, and have done."

He admits he's not surprised his eldest two took to showbiz. "They've grown up round it. I suppose most people in our industry, their kids do grow up round it. And probably that's the natural progression. Kids either like what you do and the industry you're in, or they don't and they go the other way. Jaime never wanted to be an actress at all. I think she wanted to be a director. And she's producing something next. But she's really enjoying it. She did a play in Hampstead called The Fastest Clock in the Universe – and the reviews have been fantastic. I've seen her. She's blinding. And my Lois is singing with a band, and she can sing. So good luck to 'em."

You certainly get the impression that Winstone might be a bit of a softie with his children, but then family is everything to him. Doubtless, it stems from his own tight-knit East End upbringing and the support his parents gladly provided. After attending drama classes and elocution lessons – in between boxing, which saw him become three-times London schoolboy champion and twice fight for England – he left school with just one qualification, a grade-2 CSE in drama. While it was just enough to get him into the Corona acting school in Hammersmith, the fees were £900 a term, a lot in those days, which his mother and father paid. Still, Winstone wasn't that bothered: on his first day, he turned up in a tutu and Doc Martens, later got zero in an exam for performing Julius Caesar in a Cockney accent, and famously got expelled for putting tacks under his teacher's car tyres.

His first screen appearance was as "Second Youth" in a 1975 episode of The Sweeney (ironically, years later, Winstone was touted to play the John Thaw role in a big-screen remake, though he now confirms "that's gone"). But it was Scum, Alan Clarke's unflinching look at a late-1970s borstal, that gave him his first lead, playing new inmate Carlin. The scene where he whacks a rival with a sock-clad pool ball before proclaiming "I'm the Daddy now!" has followed Winstone ever since. He still gets it quoted at him wherever he goes. "It's nice," he grins. "It's better than being called a cunt. Well it is, really, innit?" We then digress into a brief discussion about swearing, something Winstone is rather good at. "I think one of my favourite words is bollocks," he says. "It's so graphic."

As it happens, so was Scum – shelved by the BBC for its violence. While he briefly considered quitting in the aftermath, until he got cast in the 1979 cult mod film Quadrophenia, Winstone never again worked with Clarke, though he remained an ardent fan. "He was a one-off," he says. "Clarkey was very honest about the subjects he done." Did they keep in touch? "Not really. I was a young 'erbert. I was out and about. But obviously when he got ill [he died in 1990 of cancer], I got in touch. I miss him actually. I didn't know him as much as I would've liked to have known him." It's the first time in the interview that Winstone drops his guard, showing genuine emotion beneath the Cockney bluster.

While Winstone has set up his own production company, Size Nine – which, among others, produced the ITV drama She's Gone about a father looking for his missing daughter in Istanbul – he has yet to follow Clarke into directing. That doesn't mean he hasn't considered it. "When I can't walk no more, and when I'm older, I would love to direct a film. Whether it's any good or not..." He trails off for a second. "But I'm enjoying doing what I'm doing. To get where I've got, it'd be a shame not to carry on doing that." Indeed, aside from the aforementioned 13, he's also completed London Boulevard, with Colin Farrell and Kiera Knightley, for his old "drinking partner" William Monaghan, who wrote The Departed.

There's even talk of Winstone playing Caesar in Steven Soderbergh's planned 3-D musical Cleo, opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones. An all-singing, all-dancing Ray Winstone, "that'd be great," he exclaims. "I'll have a go at that." Despite all this, he has no desire to move to Hollywood. "That'd be like living above the shop, wouldn't it? I love going to LA and I love working there, and I've got some good mates there now. But I wouldn't want to live there. I've stayed there for four, five months, but believe me, it's not half nice when you fly over the green fields and you go, 'Ah – England!'" I'm half expecting him to get a Union Jack out, but he doesn't. Instead, he wishes me "Good luck", before turning to his publicist. "I gotta have another wee," he exclaims, and off he pops.

'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll' is out now. '44 Inch Chest' opens 15 January. 'Edge of Darkness' is released on 29 January

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