- Photography by Ms Linda Brownlee
- Words by Mr Alex Bilmes, editor, British Esquire
Mr Ray Winstone is not an especially religious man - "Family's my religion," he says - but he does believe in luck. It's luck, he says, that got him his first job as an actor. It's luck that led him to Elaine, his wife of 34 years. Luck that took him from hard-knock east London to a Hollywood movie career. "I'm a very lucky boy," he says, draining his soup as we dine at London's Dean Street Townhouse. Although luck alone can't explain everything: his success is also the result of talent, drive and dedication. "You work hard, sure," he says. "You don't get nothing for nothing."
Mr Winstone, at 57, is the British screen hardman who is also one of his nation's most effective and beloved character actors - not that he's comfortable with such a description. Mr Winstone is a big man with a fearful growl, but there's a delicacy to his performances that's remarked upon less often than the sturdy bulk, the manly squint, the thickly gravelled voice and the distinctive London accent.
Dapper, almost dandyish in a three-piece suit over a floral shirt, plus prescription Persol sunglasses (he's mislaid his regular spectacles and apologises profusely for wearing his shades inside), Mr Winstone has been telling me his life story, which is how we got on to the idea of fate, and luck. He's also been filling me in on his new film, Noah, which is how we got on to religion. Noah is the director Mr Darren Aronofsky's $130m apocalyptic environmentalist spectacular in which Mr Russell Crowe, as the bearded biblical boat builder, receives instructions from the Creator (there is pointedly no specific reference to God) that a great flood is coming. He assembles an ark to save the world's animals - and his own family - from drowning. Mr Winstone plays Tubal-cain, Noah's nemesis, who believes that the beasts and their environment should be sacrificed to save humanity, rather than the other way around.
There's nothing in there [Noah] that's
offensive. I'm very proud of it. And you can't say that about every film you do...
Even though you have to
Speculation has whirlpooled around the film. Mr Aronofsky is a brilliant director of intense, disquieting movies - Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan - but he has never before worked with a budget this large on a production this complicated. Reports tell of difficult shooting conditions, disputes between director and studio, and frayed nerves over the film's potential to excite controversy among religious groups.
"Darren's stood his ground and made his film, the film he wanted to make," says Mr Winstone. "It's an emotional journey, an epic. There's nothing in there that's offensive. I'm very proud of it. And you can't say that about every film you do." Pause, wolfish grin. "Even though you have to."
From the beginning of his acting career, Mr Winstone has often played the bad guy. But he doesn't necessarily see them that way, certainly not in the case of his character in Noah. Tubal-cain is a hard man, a warrior, but he's not some thoughtless thug. He and Noah are descended from the same kingly bloodline and Mr Winstone plays him as Yin to Mr Crowe's Yang. "I watched a lot of what Russell was doing, trying to get similarities," says Mr Winstone. "I didn't want to play him as the baddie. He's a man with an opinion. But he's also a man who's been shunned by the Creator, and that's turned him to the dark side. So there was a lot in there for me to work with, instead of just playing a one-dimensional bad guy."
Mr Winstone is, to use the parlance, a bit of a ledge. In 1977 he played the terrifying Carlin, in Scum , the late Mr Alan Clarke's short, sharp, shock of a film, set in a prison for young offenders. Carlin's famous line, "I'm the daddy now," spat out after a moment of decisive ultra-violence, was echoed with relish by playground ruffians through the 1980s and beyond.
Scum was made as a TV movie for the BBC, which refused to show it, and then subsequently remade - Mr Winstone played Carlin again - for a theatrical release, in 1979. In both versions Mr Winstone's performance is so naturalistic it seems he is hardly acting at all. But then it always does. That's his great skill.
"People say [of his characters], 'That's you, isn't it?' You think so? Oh, good! I'm glad you think it's me. But it ain't me. Sometimes it's close to me. But it's not me."
This authenticity is the result of nature and nurture: talent and application and also the fact that Mr Winstone really does know something about men from tough backgrounds. He was born in inner-city Hackney in 1957 and he grew up first in Plaistow, in the East End, and later on a council estate in Enfield, a resolutely working-class district of north London, where his dad, Raymond Sr, ran a greengrocer business.
He describes his childhood in 1960s London as "fabulous". He remembers long hot summers playing on WWII bombsites. Milk was delivered by horse and cart. Kids played in the street. "I remember doors being open. My mum used to make dinner for the old girl over the road. Sunday mornings waking up to Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra. Then you get dressed and go and visit Nan and Grandad. Always put something smart on on a Sunday. That's an East End thing: fur coat and no knickers. It was good times."
In a number of ways, for all his success, he's never really left east London. He and Elaine live in nearby Essex, traditional escape route for East Enders made good. And Mr Winstone is a committed supporter of West Ham United, the cockney football team of choice.
Mr Winstone was some distance from top of the class at school. "I wasn't an intellectual or anywhere near it," he says. He couldn't read properly until he was 12. He learnt faster at the famous Repton Amateur Boxing Club in Bethnal Green. He was three-time London schoolboy champion at welterweight and he fought twice for England. "I learnt more about how you conduct yourself in the world from boxing than from anything else. Treat people how you wish to be treated. Show respect. Give people a chance."
Acting came later: "There was a girl I fancied who went in the school play so I thought I'll go in. I had no interest whatsoever other than that." He enjoyed it, was passably good at it, and his parents saw acting as something that would keep him out of trouble.
A thespian? It don't sit right with me. I
feel like a schizophrenic transvestite,
you know? I'm a split personality
dressing up in other people's clothes
He went to a drama school in London: "Great parties, great girls, I had a ball," he says. But the unfinished working-class lad didn't quite fit in. "They looked at me as a bit of a threat with the accent and all that." After a series of petty infringements, he was expelled.
The same day he was thrown out, a group of his fellow students were going for an audition for a TV movie. He wouldn't have joined them otherwise but he tagged along so he could get them together afterwards to say a final goodbye: "I was hanging around, talking to this receptionist who asked me if I would like to go in and meet the director. She was a good-looking girl so I thought I'd impress her, and I got the part." The movie was Scum.
"It's just fate, it's luck," he says. "If I hadn't been expelled, if I hadn't gone with the boys to have a drink with them when I was leaving, if I hadn't have said yes I'd go in and meet him, then I wouldn't be here today. And God knows what I'd have been doing. No idea. I can't see from that point onwards."
The same producers offered him a part in a teen drama called That Summer!. "That's how I met my wife. Fate, again." They married in 1979, and have three daughters.
By no means did Scum and That Summer! immediately lead to a Hollywood career. Mr Winstone was paid £1,800 for each, and went on to work mostly in generic British TV.
"Acting was just a giggle to me," he says. "A ridiculous way to get a living. I wasn't very good either. I wasn't disciplined. It was only later I started to take it seriously, when I done Nil By Mouth."
Written and directed by Mr Gary Oldman, Nil By Mouth is a brutal unflinching family drama, in which Mr Winstone plays Ray, a violent, abusive, self-pitying alcoholic, based on Mr Oldman's father. Mr Oldman, he says, was "a really good teacher. Best director I've ever worked with." Mr Winstone's fierce performance was widely acclaimed. He gained in confidence.
Around the same time he worked at the tiny Royal Court theatre in London with the influential stage director Mr Ian Rickson. "He got rid of my inhibitions, my moods," Mr Winstone says. "I had attitude, without a doubt," he says. "I felt like I wasn't accepted, it was all that inverted snobbery shit. F***ing rubbish."
He still feels it sometimes, the old London resentment boiling up. "You can't get rid of it all," he says. "It's in you."
From left: Mr Patrick Murray and Winstone star in Mr Alan Clarke's film
portraying the brutality of life inside a British borstal
The Departed (2006)
From left: Messrs Matt Damon, Winstone and Jack Nicholson
star in Mr Martin Scorsese's crime drama
sexy beast (2000)
The British crime film stars Mr Winstone as safe-cracker Gary "Gal" Dove
king arthur (2004)
Mr Winstone plays one of the legendary king's
knights, Bors, in the period drama
love, honour & obey (2000)
From left: Messrs Winstone and Jude Law play
uncle and nephew in the gangster drama
Two years after Mr Oldman's Nil by Mouth, another British actor turned director, Mr Tim Roth, cast Mr Winstone as an incestuous father in the remorselessly bleak and troubling The War Zone - further evidence that Mr Winstone was far more than some brutish screen tough.
Then came his most celebrated role, in Mr Jonathan Glazer's devilish Sexy Beast, as the safecracker Gal Dove, safely retired to Spain only to find himself tormented by Sir Ben Kingsley's psychopath, Don. After that Mr Winstone was away, mixing roles in credible indies (Last Orders, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, The Proposition) with Hollywood blockbusters (King Arthur, Beowulf, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). He was a favourite of the late Mr Anthony Minghella, who cast him in Cold Mountain and Breaking and Entering, and of Mr Martin Scorsese, for whom he worked on The Departed and Hugo. On TV he's been a magnificent Henry VIII and a terrific Magwitch in the BBC's Great Expectations.
Even now, though, with all that affirmation, he still struggles to accept his fate. "I've never felt like an actor," he says. "I've never felt like I'm in the right game. I look at the sparks [the on-set electricians] and feel like I should have been one of them. I'm one of the boys. A thespian? It don't sit right with me. I feel like a schizophrenic transvestite, you know? I'm a split personality dressing up in other people's clothes."
He gives me an example of the preposterous nature of his existence, from his experience playing Magwitch: "I'm half naked, I've got chains around me leg, I've all me hair shaved off and me eyebrows, and I'm in the sea just off Essex in December, covered in mud and shit. And you go, 'What am I doing? Raymond, you're 56 years of age, boy! Stop playing!'
"Look," he says, "I'm jesting with you because I love what I'm doing and it's great fun. Just sometimes I sit there and think, 'What am I all about?'"
Whatever he is about, the film industry clearly likes it. Next we will see him as a former mercenary in espionage drama, The Gunman, starring Mr Sean Penn ("Such an intelligent boy") as well as Mr Idris Elba and "the Spanish actor? what's his name?"
"That's the geezer!"
But before that, he's off to Sicily for an Easter break, with Elaine. His life sounds pretty good to me. "Everything at the moment," he concedes, "is sweet. Touch wood." And he knocks on the table. For luck.
Styling by Mr Dan May, Style Director, MR PORTER