Tough at the top
From Scum to Nil by Mouth to Sexy Beast and beyond, Ray Winstone will go down in history as one of British cinema’s great hardmen. He plays it with such conviction, but is he really that tough in real life? DONALD CLARKEgets ready for a dust-up
Watch out Derry~Londonderry. Ray Winstone has touched down to promote the opening film in the excellent Foyle Film Festival. Has anyone got a bit tasty with him yet? Know what I mean? Any aggro?
“I’ve only been here an hour. Not yet. Plenty of time for that though,” he chortles.
Come to think of it, Ray must get awfully bored with people talking to him as if he’s just emerged from a pow-wow with the Kray twins. He did, indeed, come from a proper working-class London background. Raised in West Ham and Enfield, he is the son of a fruit-and- vegetable salesman who went on to become a taxi driver. He boxed as a lad. He admits to getting in the odd spot of bother.
But Ray has been a proper actor for some 35 years. He starred in Gary Oldman’s critically lauded Nil by Mouth. He was cracking in Sexy Beast. He’s even played Henry VIII. But I guess the odd geezer must still try and pick fights with him when he goes down the pub. He is, after all, one of British cinema’s great hardmen.
“Well, usually, the people that do that are wankers anyway,” he says. “So anyone with any brains or who is any sort of man wouldn’t do that. If you treat people right, you don’t get that kind of bother. So, no. That doesn’t happen too much.”
Foyle kicked off with a screening of Mat Whitecross’s urban thriller Ashes. Drawing on incidents from the director’s past, the picture stars Winstone as an Alzheimer’s patient who is sprung from hospital by his unreliable son.
“I think it’s a thriller more than anything else,” Winstone explains. “It’s just about a situation that two people find themselves in. It’s about two guys in a car. You don’t know why they’re there or where they’re from.”
I have heard word that the members of Coldplay – whose videos Whitecross worked on – were instrumental in getting the funds together.
“By all accounts they were,” Winstone says. “They were very helpful to Mat. He has a great relationship with them. They are busy boys anyway and they’re everywhere.”
Well, that’s a good way to spend your millions – better that than buying luxury boats.
“Oh I don’t know. I like the idea of buying boats. Ha ha!” Winstone wheezes.
Steady on. Ray has something of a troubled history when it comes to money. In 1988, a little over a decade into his career, he was declared bankrupt. Five years later, he went broke again.
“Who has a troubled history?”
He does. Doesn’t he?
“Depends what you call getting in trouble,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it that. It’s just about growing up and learning to treat money the right way. What changes your attitude is having family. It’s like, when you’re young, you only have your own prick to look after. Once you have kids and you’re married, then you got a responsibility for them. You learn.”
As you may have gathered, Ray Winstone does not assume any fey theatrical airs. He has never moved away from the outer reaches of London and the city still imposes itself on his gravelly voice and broad demeanour. It comes as no surprise to learn that he was a very decent boxer as a lad. The young Winstone became welterweight schoolboy champion of London on three occasions and fought for England. One presumes he might have had a sniff at a professional career. Was he ever forced to choose between acting and fighting?
“Nah! You make a mistake in the boxing ring and you get a punch and it really hurts. If you are booed off stage, you go home and go to bed. That’s the way that goes. I have always felt lucky enough to be employed in a business I never thought I’d be in.”
It was Scum, in 1977, that changed things for Winstone. Among the most controversial BBC productions of its time, Alan Clarke’s violent drama of life in a borstal triggered massive protests from “decency” campaigners such as Mrs Mary Whitehouse. But it gained a genuine cult following and was almost immediately remade as a cinema production featuring much of the original cast.
“It was just luck,” he muses. “I went along to the casting with a few kids who were in the same college. I chatted to the receptionist and ended up going in for a laugh. I was the last one in and I got the job simply because of the way I walked.”
Did they know, while making the original play, that they were brewing a potential sensation?
“No, no, no,” he says. “Then Mary Whitehouse got it banned. We owe her a lot, because people paid attention, and we had then made it as a film. The banning of it brought that to the front. I was away on honeymoon. We came back, having missed all the hype, and saw crowds fighting to get into a screening at The Prince Charles Cinema. Fuck me! We didn’t see that coming.”
We think of Winstone as being a ubiquitous presence over the past few decades, but – as that bankruptcy filing confirms – the 1980s were not that busy for our hero. A regular role in the TV series Robin of Sherwood helped stuff coffers in the early 1980s. He had recurring part in Minder. It was not, however, until 1997, when he starred as the aggressive Ray in Nil by Mouth, that he established a degree of professional stability. Work for the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis followed.
“Yeah, after Scum came out, the British film industry essentially collapsed,” he says. “It was quiet for a long while. Things didn’t really change until Nil by Mouth. That put me back in the game.”
Where did that cruel, violent character come from? Did such a person lurk in his past?
“You know, it’s all really from Gary’s past. We’re from the same place. There is a river between our areas. But it’s still the same place. I guess I’ve seen those guys, but I wouldn’t put my finger on any particular person. It’s about uneducated people who haven’t got a way of expressing themselves. And because they can’t express themselves, they become violent.”
It seems as if Ray’s own home life has been – by the standards of this business – remarkably stable. He has been married to the same woman, Elaine, for well over 30 years. They have never even contemplated leaving the old smoke. Unless he really is intending to buy those boats, money cannot be in short supply. In the past few years, he’s appeared in Scorsese’s Hugo, the remake of The Sweeney, the smash Snow White and the Huntsman and, as Margwitch in the recent TV version of Great Expectations.
I suspect that living with Ray Winstone is not as difficult as he’d like to pretend. He seems like a man who values family. Mention of his actor daughter, Jaime Winstone, recently interviewed in these pages, triggers a warm, affectionate burr.
“Oh, she’s a good girl,” he says. “They’re quite independent, my girls. You either go along with them or you argue all day long. I would have been happy if she’d done anything else. But you support them.”
What of the indomitable, Elaine? She must be a patient woman.
“Oh no. I wouldn’t say that,” he chortles. “Show me a woman that is. They’re the bosses. Aren’t they? They run it all. Well, she’d have to be fairly patient with me. But I am very good to her – I very rarely go home.”
I don’t believe it for a moment.
The Foyle Film Festival runs until Sunday November 25th