Ray Winstone can play any character it seems, from the irreverent to the understated or even King Henry VIII. Currently appearing as a cuckolded gangster in the brilliantly subversive "44 Inch Chest", Winstone will next be seen opposite Mel Gibson in the US remake of the classic British miniseries "Edge of Darkness".
Here he plays a reserved shadowy figure involved as Gibson’s character searches for his daughter’s killer. In this exclusive interview with Paul Fischer, Winstone discusses the film, acting and future projects.
Question: It’s interesting that you do play a character who’s very emotionally cut-off, I guess. And you’ve played the antithesis of those kinds of characters in much of your work.
Question: Do you find this a much more challenging approach?
Winstone: It is because as an actor, until you get a bit older and learn the game of it more, you want to go out and perform in such a way to show your stuff off I guess, These can always be the more interesting characters to play. The only other time I’ve really played a character like this was in "The Departed" when I played Mr. French who was a killer. I’ve got to say, the people that I’ve met through the years – especially people in the services – they have a way of looking through you when you talk to them. They have a way of not, at least not showing an emotion, Could be really nice guys, but they’ve seen so much death and destruction and caused so much of it through their life that they have to switch off.
Question: In the original miniseries he works for the CIA.
Question: In this particular version, we’re not quite sure who he works for, or what his deal is.
Winstone: I remember the series, and I remember Joe Don Baker’s character a lot, but times change. Through recent history anyway we’ve watched people down in Africa with mercenaries, and guys from different armies who are coming out of the army and not necessarily having a lot of money, that they feel they’ve been left on the shelf a little bit and so become mercenary, They’re like guns for hire. It just kind of fell into place for me that governments use these people, really, so there’s no fallout. If they get captured they’ve got no affiliation to certain countries.
Question: Do you think Mel has lost his sense of humor?
Winstone: No. I think Mel and myself work in more or less the same way, I look at the other end of the scale. If I’m playing a character like Mel was playing it – you can't walk around for 24 hours a day feeling like you do in the film because you would go off your head, For me I think it’s easier if you take it right to the other end and have a laugh, and then switch it back on, bang, there. You know you can go from one end to the other. It doesn't always work – I mean, some people don’t work that way.
Question: Do you think the politics in Edge of Darkness is downplayed, or do you think the film has a very strong political message?
Winstone: No, I think the film, the story, is an emotional journey for a man. It’s about a man who’s lost his daughter. The politics of it just so happens to be part of the story and then you portray that part of the story best you can,
Question: You’ve been at this acting game now for some three decades, I guess.
Winstone: Yeah. About 35, 36 years.
Question: I do find it amusing, as I was reminding myself of all the work you’ve done, that back in 1976, you were in an episode of The Sweeney.
Winstone: Yes, I was. Yes.
Question: And now, depending on what one believes, you are set to be in "The Sweeney" movie.
Winstone: I don't think it’s gonna happen.
Question: Oh, that’s a real shame.
Winstone: Yeah, it’s a shame. But, even more really weird for me was turning up on a film set that first day on "Edge of Darkness". I look in across at the camera, and there was Martin Campbell and Phil Major, the DOP. Phil was the DOP on my film, Scum, that I made in 1978 and Martin Campbell was on the production team. So, we’ve all kind of come full circle in a way. So, I actually had a little smile to myself.
Question: How surprised are you that you are still as incredibly busy as you are at the moment?
Winstone: Oh, very surprised. It’s been kind of like the last 10-12 years, it’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster in that way. I've probably learned more in that 12 years, working with the people that I’ve worked with, than I probably did in the 20-odd, 26 years before that,
Question: You’ve gone from something like "Edge of Darkness" to "44 Inch Chest", which I know you probably shot before that. Was Colin Diamond one of the more interesting and emotionally resonant characters you’ve played in a while?
Winstone: Yeah. In a way, he’s kind of a mirror of what Mel’s playing in "Edge of Darkness". He’s a man who’s going through loss, who’s having a breakdown. Of course they’re the parts you can really get your teeth into, as Mel did, and hopefully I did as well in "44 Inch Chest".
Question: Well, what’s interesting about "44 Inch Chest" is that it’s basically a bunch of guys in a room, swearing at each other for an hour and a half and doing such a brilliant job at expressing themselves verbally.
Question: I mean, obviously you must have been attracted to it, because you’re also a producer on it.
Winstone: Well, I’m called an executive producer, which means absolutely nothing. But – [LAUGHTER] as what we’ve done to get that – myself and Ian McShane, was we punted the film around for about seven or eight years, before we got it done. So I guess we warranted being called executive producers which I’m very proud of, but means nothing. We didn't do the groundwork after that. Once we got the film up and running, the producers took over and away they went. I was too busy acting.
Question: Now as good as you are in "Edge of Darkness", and as good a film as that is, something like 44 Inch Chest allows you to chance to really, purely act, doesn't it?
Winstone: Well, yeah. But at the same time, it was probably more difficult a character I was playing in "Edge of Darkness", because I had to keep all them emotions away, and keep them back. The more difficult choice for an actor is to play that kind of part because you want to be emotional in films, and you want to be emotional when you act. To keep them all pent up and keep them back is probably more difficult, I don't know. It might be easier for some people. It wasn’t necessarily for me.
Question: Now, I was looking through the latest group of films that you’ve completed, or that you’re rumored to be in. I don't know how you keep going.
Winstone: I’ve got to work. I’ve got to work like you do every day. If I was driving a lorry, I’d have to get up in the morning and drive a lorry. That’s what you do – that’s what I do for a living. I like doing it and I’m not getting any younger. So, you make hay while the sun shines,
Question: Let me ask you about a couple of things that sound really intriguing to me. First of all, "Ben Hur".
Question: I’ve never thought that that would be a kind of genre that would be of intrigue to you.
Winstone: Well, it’s historical.
Question: Now you play Quintus Arrias in that, don’t you?
Winstone: Yes, I do. Yeah. Well, to be honest with you, I was quite thrilled and quite surprised when I was asked to play the character, to film the film with Jack Hawkins.
Winstone: But, actually, it’d be nice if they paid me.
Winstone: Yeah. Yeah, the fuckers knocked us. But there you go. Yeah. So, the less I’ll say about that, the better.
Question: Okay! Let me ask you about – I mean, apparently every English actor who can speak is in Chris Columbus’ Percy Jackson movie. Are you one of the gods in that?
Winstone: No, I’m not in the first one. I’m not in the first.
Question: You’re in the second one?
Winstone: Yeah. Possibly in the second one.
Question: And who are you gonna be in that?
Winstone: I’m not really sure, yet.
Question: Oh. Because according to IMDB, you’re supposed to be the God of War.
Winstone: Yeah. There’s talk of that, yes, in the second one, but not the first one.
Question: What’s happening with Soderbergh’s "Cleo"?
Winstone: Well, "Cleo" was put back from last year. It was gonna be made last year. Then for whatever reason, Stephen went off, and he had another film to make, and Hugh Jackman did as well. So, it was talked about going this year. I haven’t heard anything more about it yet, but I’m sure we’ll hear about it in the next month or so, what’s gonna be happening. I’d love to do it – I would love to.
Question: And you’re playing Julius Caesar.
Question: And you’re going to be doing a singing Julius Caesar.
Winstone: Of course, yes.
Question: Have you been practicing?
Winstone: Not yet, no. I usually do on a Friday night. Have some beers, and I’m on the karaoke, yeah.
Question: Tell me about "London Boulevard".
Winstone: Ah. It’s Bill again, Bill Monahan, directed his first movie. He took to it like a fish to water. You could see he’s smiling every day when he came to work with Colin Farrell, and little Keira Knightley, two brilliant actors. Filmed in London. I really enjoyed doing it, and it was a place to work with Bill. Because I know Bill anyway. Bill was a bit of a drinking partner of mine when we was in New York and Boston during "The Departed". And to be in a film with him and watch him on set every day putting his words into action and directing them, was an absolute joy. He just had a smile on his face all day. I just – I hope, and I’ve got a good vibe about the film. I think it’d be a good film. Brilliant film.
Question: Are you a gangster in this?
Question: That’s a bit of a stretch for you, isn’t it?
Winstone: Yeah. It’s really difficult. [LAUGHTER]
Question: Tell me about "Tracker".
Winstone: "Tracker" is a film I made with a director I worked with about 26 years ago on a show called "Robin of Sherwood" called Ian Sharp. English director. It’s myself and Tim Morrison, from "Once Were Warriors". It’s set just after the Boer War in South Africa. My character’s a Boer farmer, who was one of the top rebels during the war. He leaves South Africa and heads to New Zealand to start a new life, and ends up working for the British as a tracker to track down Tim Morrison’s character, a Maori who has been accused of murder. I track him across New Zealand, and I catch him, he catches me.
It’s one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever worked on actually, a fabulous job, in probably a country that is God’s own country. Most beautiful kind – I love Australia, and now I love New Zealand as well. I spent four months in a bush in Australia and I loved every minute of it. But New Zealand’s a different place. Different scenery, and every corner you go around, is stunning. I had one hell of a time, making hopefully a fabulous film.
Question: Now, do you do this with a South African accent?
Winstone: Yeah. Yeah.
Question: How was that for a challenge for you?
Winstone: Well, it’s not for me to say. I guess you need to ask a South African. But that’s what we do, I had a really good girl looking after me, teaching me before I went out there. I couldn't listen to the New Zealand accent too much. Had to stay away from that. But, it was good and you feel like you’re achieving something.
Question: What about "Minutemen"?
Winstone: Oh, "Minutemen". I’d love to do "Minutemen". Two crazy brothers wrote it, and I’d I read these scripts, and it’s a very surreal kind of script. I’d love to do it. It’s gotten very quiet now. I mean, it’s been kind of at the bat for the last couple of years, But it’d be a goodie to do. I thought it was a great script. Something different. and go and have some fun.
Question: Now, having been in front of the camera for so long, do you have a desire to step behind the camera?
Winstone: Maybe one day. When I can't walk any more. I kind of think there’s so many great directors out there, who am I to think that I could do a better job? I don’t think I could do a better job. Obviously, when you become a director, or you want to – as an actor, you want to go and film something in your way. And I have got ideas how I’d love to film, and how I’d like to shoot a movie. I’m enjoying myself doing what I am doing at the moment. So, really, that’s something for maybe the future maybe. I don't know.
Question: Are you very picky about what you do?
Winstone: Well, sometimes you can't be and there’s been times you’ll do a job because you need to pay the rent. They’re the ones you don’t really enjoy, I’ve been very lucky over the last twelve years – with stuff that’s come through and been offered. I’ve wanted to do, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you do need to go and pay a bill.
Question: You still live in London, don’t you?
Winstone: Just outside, yeah.
Question: Was there always a conscious decision for you to avoid living in the States? Was there any pressure?
Winstone: I’m lucky enough to come and work in the States. I love working here. I love working anywhere to be honest with you. But the thing about England, the more I live in England, it’s just where my family is. That’s where my friends are. That’s where my roots are. That’s probably the place that keeps my feet on the ground.
Question: When you started out, all those years ago, what was it about acting that really appealed to you in the first place? I mean, why did you want to do it?
Winstone: I’m not so sure I wanted to do it in the first place. I mean, I used to go to the cinema on a Wednesday with my Dad. Like most kids, I grew up watching the cinema and I just kind of fell into it, I never really thought that I could be an actor and be in movies, not movies like I watched. Now I’m actually in films that I used to watch as a kid. I mean, "Edge of Darkness" is a thriller like I used to watch when I was a young kid. So I’m just really lucky. The more you kind of do it, the better the work becomes, the more classy it becomes, and the people you work with - the love for it kind of grows. I can understand when people get stale and don’t want to do it anymore, because I’ve done that. I’ve actually retired from the business when I was younger, twice. But I wasn’t getting the work that I enjoyed doing. So that’s why I kind of stopped doing it for a while.
Question: You’ve been married for about as long as you’ve been acting.
Winstone: I’ve been married just over 30 years, yeah.
Question: You’ve got three kids or something?
Winstone: Three daughters, yeah.
Question: Do they keep you grounded? Do they also help determine the amount of work you do?
Winstone: No. Well, I determine how much work I do because you go to work for your kids and for your family, because you want to give them a good life. So, in that way, they do. They don’t ask me to go to work. I go to work because I want to go to work, for the reasons I’ve just explained. They keep me grounded, because they’re my kids. Everything that I do revolves around them.
Question: Does your wife ever ask you to take a break?
Winstone: No, not really. I guess they know what I do. I guess sometimes they’d like to see me a little bit more. If I’m away a long while, I do take my kids with me, and I take my wife with me. But my two older daughters now are 27 and 24 and they’re in the work environment now. They’re working themselves, so.
Question: One of them’s a singer, isn’t she?
Winstone: My oldest girl, yes, she’s a singer. She’s an actress, but she’s a singer. Hell of a singer actually.
Question: Do you encourage the kids to follow in your footsteps?
Winstone: No, but if that’s what they want to do, then I would encourage them, yeah.
Question: Do you still support West Ham United?
Winstone: Oh, without any shadow of doubt, baby. There’s no – you don’t stop supporting a team. It’s in your blood. [LAUGHTER]
Question: How are they doing?
Winstone: Not too good, at the moment. But they’ve got spirit and they’ve got art, and they come from East London so they’ve always got a chance.
Question: What’s next coming up for you that you’re really excited about?
Winstone: Oh, nothing yet. After we’ve done this – all this press stuff, I go home and I do a little couple of days with the film school at home. Just a couple little commercials for them. Then really, I’m just having a read, and I’ve got a bit of time at home.