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Ray Winstone: 'I like going to work, it's the way we were bred'

Down-to-earth Ray Winstone discusses his new film, cutting down on the booze and why he didn't go to the Baftas

By Craig McLean

With a gravelly chuckle that is equal parts beer and Benson & Hedges, Ray Winstone is considering his epitaph. "Here lies a transvestite schizophrenic." He's only joking, mainly. There haven't been (m)any cross-dressing moments, but you can perhaps see what he's getting at with the "schizophrenic" bit. Since his first major role in Scum (both the banned 1977 BBC Play for Today, then the 1979 film version), this working-class East Ender has had dozens and dozens of roles on TV, in independent films, in blockbusters. Ray's roles encompass cops, gangsters and wrong 'uns aplenty, for sure, including turns for Martin Scorsese (The Departed) and Steven Spielberg (the last Indiana Jones film). But it also includes, in the past decade alone, the lead role in the motion-capture rendering of Old English epic Beowulf, a reboot of The Magic Roundabout, a beaver in the first Narnia film and a dwarf in Snow White and the Huntsman. No, not so many romantic leads.

Most recently, Britain's most famous - and most stoutly unreconstructed - cockney actor played an argy-bargy descendant of Cain, giving it ark-threateningly large to Russell Crowe's Noah in Darren Aronofsky's stormy biblical epic. Next, we'll see him looking out for old military pal Sean Penn in action thriller The Gunman.

No matter, the 58-year-old wasn't entirely serious when reflecting on his tombstone legend. A spade's-a-spade grafter like Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy', a gentle luvvie retirement, or the more la-di-da elements of his chosen career. When we meet in a Soho hotel in central London, it's the day after the Baftas. I ask if he attended the ceremony, and Winstone splutters an 'as-if' negative.

"I don't mind them if I'm getting something. But I'm f****d if I'm gonna watch other people get it! Sit through all that!" he exclaims. "God, you don't want none of that."

We're sitting round a small table in a hotel room that's been hired for his sole interview to promote his new film. He's popped into town from his home in Roydon, Essex. His driver, an old mate dressed in threads as impeccable as dapper Ray's, sits on a sofa, minding his own business. There are no glasses for the large bottles of water, so Winstone suggests we chug straight from the neck. When room service arrives with lunch, he proffers me his bowl of chips with hearty encouragement and an ursine paw. Straight-up, no-nonsense, down-to-earth Ray. Just like we want him to be.

"I wanted a big beard for Stan," he continues of his Gunman character. "He's an old soldier who's probably turned to everything he shouldn't have done. But they don't like you with beards, some producers and directors," says this pragmatic veteran, aware that filmmakers prefer their leading men to be largely recognisable. "So I shaved it off a bit."

An ex-military type, Stanley is the one man on whom Penn's titular character can count. The double Oscar winner plays Jim Terrier, a 'contractor' in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That is, the eye-poppingly muscular tough guy is ostensibly there doing one job - protecting an airfield servicing Western mining interests - but really doing another: preparing to execute a hit on a politician jeopardising those interests.

So far, so thriller-like. But The Gunman is a rollicking ride, directed by Pierre Morel, who made the first Taken film with Liam Neeson. Penn - who co-wrote the script and co-produced the film - is forcefully convincing as the Western strong man who belatedly realises that pillaging the world is an imperialist wrong as prevalent today as it was 200 years ago. For a campaigning actor who's been loudly active in efforts to rebuild Haiti after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, The Gunman is clearly an opportunity to smuggle in a geo-political message to a chase 'em/shoot 'em/kill 'em romp.

"I think it's got a good message," nods Winstone. "He's very political, isn't he, Sean, and I think he had a lot to do with (writing The Gunman). And he carries the film so well. There's very few around who can carry a movie like that - especially at our age. And he looks fantastic as well. I mean, he's buff!" he laughs of the 54-year-old. "But boy, he can act."

Winstone says he's looking after himself a bit more these days. Yes, he still smokes. But he's slowing down on the drinking. Seeing himself onscreen in The Gunman for the first time the other week seems to have reinforced his resolve.

"I was well overweight on that film. I wasn't too well. What I'd done was, I'd overworked." He wasn't long finished on the gruelling shoot for Noah. "I felt a bit rough. I dunno, maybe I was burning the candle as well ..." he concedes. "And when I saw The Gunman I thought, 'Yeah, the size of you, you really gotta do something about that'. Which I kinda have."

Is drinking the worst thing for his waistband? "Oh yeah. I just look at a drink ... But I've kinda cut down on that. I used to love a booze. But I get bored with it now. I've got other things to do."

On the one hand that means ever-hectic film commitments. Last year, he was away from home, on and off, for eight months. (He insists his wife of 36 years, Elaine, is well used to it.) And on the other, that schedule also means making, next month, another round of those annoying adverts for that betting company. Winstone is unabashed about what he acknowledges is a money job.

"Listen, they look after me really, really well. I don't mind doing betting commercials, 'cause you have a choice: you want to have a bet, you have a bet. If you don't, you don't. Insurance and banks - I don't do them commercials. And I have been asked. 'Cause I feel like it's all a lot of b******s, you know?"

And beyond that? There's the usual flurry of scripts. Some might be goers. Or none might be.

"I do like going to work. It's the way we're bred, I guess. So I do over-work sometimes. But I'm getting older now. I'm like a footballer - rest him for a couple of weeks ... So there's a few ideas punting about. And if one happens, it happens. And if not, I'll lay about in the sun somewhere. That'll do me."

  • The Gunman is out on March 20

Ray's standout roles

Scum (1977/1979) - a breakthrough role for the young Winstone as the tough but fair young offender in director Alan Clarke's now infamous drama set within the brutal UK borstal system in the Seventies.

Nil By Mouth (1997) - another landmark role for Winstone as the violent and unstable head of a dysfunctional family in a London sink estate in fellow actor Gary Oldman's directing debut

Sexy Beast (2000) - Winstone often seemed in danger of being overshadowed by co-star Ben Kingsley, but held his own to show the frustration of a former gangster trying to resist being sucked into doing one last job

The Proposition (2005) - musician Nick cave wrote and scored this Australian-set 'Western' movie, in which Winstone plays a burned-out police captain seeking to capture a gang of murderers in the baking Outback

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