Ray Winstone: more than a macho man
The actor has played many geezers, thugs and hard men, but the list belies a complex approach to masculinity
Ray Winstone in Sky 1’s Moonfleet
Ray Winstone in his breakthrough role in 1979’s Scum
A bearded Ray Winstone in a velvet-collared coat is handing out chocolate biscuits and larking about with his young Moonfleet co-star Aneurin Barnard, who is doing interviews in the same room. At one point Winstone affectionately chucks him on the chin. He’s a bit misty-eyed about his co-stars and the predominantly Irish crew. And he waxes lyrical about how Sky 1’s swashbuckling new smuggling drama depicts a seaside community heroically fighting a rapacious tax-heavy state.
Does he see in Moonfleet an analogy for British tax law (last March he railed against “high” taxes in a radio interview)? “A little bit, yeah,” he says and laughs. He clarifies that he doesn’t mind paying taxes for hospitals, schools and firefighters, but he doesn’t go into too much detail. He prefers to talk about acting.
Winstone’s breakthrough role was in Alan Clarke’s Scum in 1979. “I got that because of the way I walked down the corridor,” he says. “It was nothing to do with ability or anything because I didn’t have a clue. I was lucky to have a man called Alan Clarke who taught me how to conduct myself when making a film. Whenever I’m doing something, I talk to myself the way he talked to me.”
It was the first in a long run of Winstonian geezers, thugs and macho men, but the stereotypes belie a complex approach to masculinity. His idols growing up were
actors such as James Cagney. “Even when he played a gangster, you wanted him to win. And I always liked actors like Henry Fonda and James Stewart. They had a weakness about them that made them men. James Stewart would cry. In The Searchers John Wayne played a bigot. John Wayne, an American hero.”
So he always tries to subvert expectations. “When you’re playing the good guy, play him as the baddie, and when you play the bad guy play him as the goodie,” he says, “though it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
In the 1980s he had a starring role in ITV’s Robin of Sherwood. “I based Will Scarlet on a football hooligan. It was based on a kid I knew. Will Scarlet is a medieval mugger. He goes out and he robs people. He’s having your dough.”
In 44 Inch Chest he played a man encouraged by his friends to kill his wife’s lover. “It showed the bravado of a man at his worst point.” The War Zone was about a paedophile. “They asked ‘Do you want to meet a paedophile?’ I said ‘No! What am I going to do sitting across from a paedophile? He’s going to lie to me. His whole life is a lie. I don’t want to meet him because I’d want to strangle him’.”
He watched some documentaries instead. “They’re great actors, paedophiles,” he says. “They’ve got to be to survive. It might be one of your mates. Great guy. Great actor. Great liar. I wanted him to seem a normal guy, so I played him as me. The stories in the film are my stories, until you get to a point when he becomes the monster, and then after that he goes back to being Ray Winstone again.
“I think when you see him as a normal person it makes him a bigger monster, because there’s no excuse. He’s not mentally ill; he’s just f***ing horrible. That was the toughest film I ever made in my life, because I had no feelings for him. I f***ing hated him.”
Even though you played him as yourself? “Yeah. F***ing weird.” He says he needs to find those flashes of ambiguity because a lot of his characters “are written as very macho. I remember doing a romantic comedy once called Fanny and Elvis. It was an all right movie but I enjoyed making it because it was just so nice to kiss someone instead of punching them.”
He has had some great scripts and some not so great ones. “Sometimes you just have a bill to pay and that’s a fact of life, you know? It’s like being a cab driver. I’ve got to go out Tuesday night because I’ve got a bill to pay. It’s the same principle. Though as an actor you’re lucky enough to be pampered and looked after, where a cab driver has to go out in the pissing rain when there’s no one about.”
He used to be embarrassed about his job. He recalls how his father would pick him up and take him to the cinema every Wednesday. “Invariably he’d fall asleep because he was so knackered from working in the market and I’d watch the film twice.”
His parents were hugely supportive of him, but it always felt “like a ridiculous way to earn a living”. He says being an actor is like being “a schizophrenic transvestite. That’s what I am. You make out to be someone you’re not and dress up in funny clothes. As a kid I used to think, that ain’t being a man, it’s not work. It was a kind of inverted snobbery.”
He started to take acting more seriously “probably after my second bankruptcy. I started to learn my game. I had no discipline before. I couldn’t give a f***. I had to grow up.”
He has strong views about the British film industry. The BBC, he says, is no longer the teaching institution it was in the era of “the old Play for Today”. British film-makers, he adds, know how to make films but are terrible at selling them. He references the current vogue for public school-accented actors. “But that’s okay, it’s their turn.”
All of this is presented with a boyish good humour that’s also, apparently, very evident on set.
“I remember doing Cold Mountain and I was sitting up on a horse with all my Confederate stuff on – the sword, the knife, the guns, a big beard and long hair – and I looked down on this cowboy town they’d built in Transylvania. Anthony Minghella, God rest his soul, was talking to Jude [Law] and Nicole [Kidman] about the scene they were about to do and I said ‘f*** it’, got the reins, took the guns out and galloped down the high street going, bang bang bang [he does the gunshooting actions with his fingers]. They all stopped and said ‘What are you doing?’ ”
He becomes comically contrite. “I said, ‘I’m really sorry, Anthony. I’ve wanted to do that since I was six’.”
Moonfleet is on Sky 1 at 8pm tomorrow and concludes on Sunday