Ray Winstone is one of those badass actors by whom you would be honored to get gut punched. He carries on the very British tradition of playing thugs (whether gangsters or cops, usually the corrupt variety), and you don't have to look hard to spot him in one of his first acting role as Kevin in The Who's QUADROPHENIA at the rip old age of 22. He's the classic East End boy, who was a boxer before he turned his full attention to acting; he seemed custom made for more physical parts, or at least playing character who were physically threatening.
For much of the 1970s and 1980s, Winstone was known best for his television work, but it was his role in director Ken Loach's LADYBIRD LADYBIRD that caught many an eye on this side of the Atlantic. I especially remember him from a pair of emotionally devastating films, NIL BY MOUTH (directed by Gary Oldman) and THE WAR ZONE (directed by Tim Roth). One of the roles Winstone is probably best known for is as the safecracker Gal in SEXY BEAST, opposite a scary Ben Kingsley.
Winstone has been working steadily for several decades in such works as COLD MOUNTAIN, THE PROPOSITION, THE DEPARTED, as the title character in the animated BEOWULF, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOME OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, 44 INCH CHEST, EDGE OF DARKNESS, HUGO, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, and in the upcoming Darren Aronofsky 2014 release, NOAH, with Ruseell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman. Not surprisingly, Winstone plays what passes for the villain even in this movie.
What brought Winstone and I together last week was this week's release in the United States of the gritty British crime drama THE SWEENEY, based on the wildly popular '70s British TV series, starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman as the old-shcool cop Jack Regan and his younger partner, George Carter. The story has been brought up to modern times and Cater is now played by Ben Drew, known better in the UK for being a hip-hop artist, but certainly coming up in the acting world. The film is filled with ethically challenged characters played by the likes of CAPTAIN AMERICA's Hayley Atwell, Steven Mackintosh, "Homeland's" Damian Lewis, and "Downton Abbey's" Allen Leech. It's a great, rough-and-tumble cop story with loads of energy and a great, enraged performance by Winstone.
With that, please enjoy my chat with the great Ray Winstone…
Ray Winstone: Hello, Steve.
Capone: Hi, Ray. How are you?
RW: Oh, I’m alright. How are you?
Capone: Good, good. Where are you speaking from right now?
RW: I’m in Essex, in England.
Capone: Okay. So the movie is phenomenal; I had a great time watching it and I’ve heard so much about the TV series, but I’ve never seen it. Now I feel like I’ve gotten a taste, and it just really makes you feel like you've been through the ringer.
RW: [laughs] Brilliant. That’s great.
Capone: I’ve read that you had had a small part in one of the TV episodes. Is it something of a milestone for you to be in this movie, because of that connection?
RW: It’s all come full circle, Steve. It was my first-ever job. You’ve got to remember that the series at the time was kind of very iconic, and my first job while I was at college was on "The Sweeney," and I was an extra in it. The two main actors were there, they were big stars on TV--John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, who I was lucky enough to work with on other jobs later on as actors.
So yeah, then to go from that as the first job you ever do to playing the lead, a role that was so iconic in the '70s. It was a big milestone in a way, you know? And it could have been a milestone around your neck [laughs], because you think about it like, “Why am I doing this? This was so good and so iconic at this time, why would you want to go and make it again, and why would you want to put yourself in that position?” You think about it, and then you realize you’ve got to bring something to it yourself, you know? You’re not there to copy anyone, and after a couple of days, you realize that you are making something that’s very good and is something special. You're making the film you want to make, and so you are alright with it. It’s fine, you know?
Capone: Was there something about the original character of Regan that you did want to bring to your version of it? Tell me also about what you wanted to add that maybe wasn’t there before.
RW: I think what I wanted to bring to it that was there in the '70s was this older cop whose morals are basically kicking the doors down and asking questions later. He’s kind of a dinosaur. He’s a cop from the past in a way and he’s not doing things very PC like we hear about the world where the police have the paperwork they have to do, and they have to be careful how they tread. I think the kid in it, Carter, played by Ben Drew, he's the new cop. He’s a kid off the streets and he knows how it works, so I think Regan is drawn to that. So what I wanted to bring was the flavor of the '70s, but obviously you’re playing it in a different time; you’re playing it now.
Capone: I’ve heard that word “dinosaur” thrown around a lot in regarding Regan. It’s not because he’s that old--you’re not that old. I think it has to do more with his methods.
RW: [laughs] Well, I am getting on a bit, but I think his morals are old; they're old values. I think he’s lost when things are going wrong, and that’s when you see the real Regan. That’s where you see he’s a policeman who cares. He wants to protect the kids. He wants to protect the streets, you know? He just goes about it in another way that they used to go about it in years gone by.
Capone: I’m a big fan of British crime dramas in general, whether it’s television or film. In your mind, is there something fundamentally different about British versions of this type of story versus the way Americans tell the story?
RW: That depends on the film. There's some great stuff that the Americans do, that I love. You can look at HEAT, when they're running through streets killing thousands of people, and you think, “Hold on a minute. Is life that cheap?” Then you get to the scene with De Niro and Pacino and you go, "There's a bit of class here." When you look at "The Sopranos" or some of the stuff HBO is doing now is fantastic. Yeah, we’ve got different ways. You’ve got more guns than us, thank God. You’ve got then; we haven’t.
Capone: That’s true.
RW: That’s the main difference really, the shoot-ups. I’m afraid at the end of the day, with terrorism the way and the fear of what’s coming, it’s becoming more and more everywhere you go. You see a man with a gun. You go to the airport now, and there’s a man with a gun, you know? We never had that in this country, but I’m afraid it’s becoming more the norm. It seems the more intellectual and intelligent we are supposedly becoming, the more barbaric we are becoming as well. There’s not a place in the world you can look at now where there’s not something going on, whether it’s drugs, terrorism, or crime. It's people getting murdered, killed, and blown up.
Capone: Speaking of shocking moments, you have a few love scenes in this movie. Did you realize when you signed on that you were going to be taking your clothes off so much?
RW: So much that I put that into my contract that I needed that. [Laughs] There's many a fine tune played on an old fiddle.
Capone: And that's all we'll say about that. The whole dynamic between Regan and Carter is a great sort of old-school/new-school pairing. Talk about working with Ben Drew, because he hasn’t done a lot of acting. Was he looking to you for some acting tips and how to play certain scenes?
RW: In a way, not just me but the director Nick Love as well. I saw Ben in HARRY BROWN with Michael Caine. There was a lot of talking about what actor was going to play Carter, but I thought he looked like a kid who could kick a door down. He looked like a kid who could act. Another thing that was very important to us [Winstone is also one of the film's producers] was that he comes from a generation where in England he's very big in the music world. So it was a business move as well [casting him], to be honest. This isn’t anything I’m saying now that I haven’t told Ben. It's great to bring in new generation to THE SWEENEY as well. I just loved the way he holds himself, and I think he’s a kid who is going to get better and better. He’s very serious about what he does. He doesn't do anything by halves, you know?
Capone: I didn’t realize until after I saw the film that he was a musician too. I thought he did a great job with the part.
RW: He just directed and wrote a film as well called ILL MANORS that came out. He goes to it, the boy. He has a go.
Capone: It almost feels like they set THE SWEENEY up that you could possibly make another one if you were so inclined. Is that something you’d like to do?
RW: Well, we’ve got a meeting today, funny enough, and we'll sit down and come up with a great story for number two.
Capone: Oh good, so that’s the plan?
RW: Yeah, so we’re on it. We're on this now. We'll all sit down. We were all so happy and had such a great time making the first one--and it would be great if it does well in America. If it does well in the states, we’re not hoping for too much, but I think if it’s put out good enough and people go and see our movie, I think trouble sometimes is that people don’t get a chance to go see some of the movies that are made in Britain, you know? They don’t get that much coverage over there. Not all of the time; some of them do, like THE FULL MONTY did, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL did. So we get a little bit interest in it, and you never know what’s going to happen. But we're in good shape to make another one now. So that would be just a bonus, that would.
Capone: That’s good news. I also wanted to ask about your role in Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH. Who do you play in that? And tell me a little bit about that experience.
RW: I play Tubal-Cain [Noah's brother-in-law], who is supposedly the bad guy, but I kind of look at him as being the good guy really. He made a lot of sense to me, but that’s just me. I had a great time, Russell Crowe was a pleasure to work with, and I enjoyed Darren Aronofsky. He’s a very, very clever man.
It’s great working with someone like Russell, because Russell really knows his stuff as well. I remember sitting on the set looking to Russell thinking, “Do you know I’ve never seen him bad in a movie” and that’s right; I’ve never seen him bad in a movie. He’s always, very, very good in the films he’s in, and then you realize when you're working with him why that true--he’s such a pro. He’s bang on it. So when he goes to work, he knows what he’s going to do. He works it all out, and it was a pleasure to work with him.
Capone: I can’t even imagine what that’s going to look like, because Darren has such a unique visual style. Is he bringing some of that to the story? Or is he telling it more straightforward?
RW: As I can remember it, because I haven't thought it about it much lately, but there’s a lot of work to be done on it still in the edit. We were working on actual sets. The ark was actually built. The interiors were built, and they were all working, so you could actually walk and climb through this thing, you know? The animals were all made. There’s a good amount of money being spent on this film, and it’s kind of relevant to today in a way, what man has done to the planet. Even though it’s told in a time it was supposed to be, there was civilization before that. There was a city before that. So you get the idea that this has all happened before, you know? It’s kind of a very clever way of looking at it.
Capone: Were movies an important thing to you growing up? What were the types of films and the actors you loved when you were a kid?
RW: Oh yeah, I used to go every Wednesday with my dad, and then again, probably Saturday morning pictures with all of the kids, you know? So you go a couple of times a week to the flicks. When I was growing up, it was John Wayne, James Cagney. As a baby, you’d watch the Disney films obviously coming through, and then as you got older, you watched films like ZULU, BECKET with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.
Movies were our escape. I mean, I lived in the East End of London, near the docks. That was our thing. We'd play football, we’d box, we’d do anything we wanted to do, but you always went to the movies. You always went to the flicks. My big thing was I’d sit through a film twice sometimes and I loved it. I loved the good old war films we used to get, because I wasn’t born that long after the second World War, so those films were still around. You’d watch 633 SQUADRON, and then you’d watch it again. "Let's watch it again; that was blinding!" So yeah, cinema has always been a big part of my life. I never had any idea that I was going to be involved in it.
Capone: I just wanted to say the same day that I watched THE SWEENEY, I also watched Ken Loach’s new film [THE ANGELS' SHARE], and it made me remember that you had worked with him a while back.
RW: Oh Ken Loach, man I’ve done LADYBIRD, LADYBIRD with Ken. He’s one of the good guys, mate.
Capone: Well this new one is brilliant.
RW: Is it? I must get to see it. You know, the subject matter sometimes, I’m not always on the same page as Ken with his thoughts, but he’s the most honest filmmaker there is out there. He really is fantastic and he’s a great man as well.
Capone: This one isn’t that political, so you will probably be able to watch it.
RW: It’s always great to watch his films if you're like that or not, because all it is is one man’s opinion. But I love him as a filmmaker and I like him as a man.
Capone: Ray, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk.