The first thing I ask Ray Winstone is a rhetorical question. “This is Bruce, he’s going to take pictures while we chat – you don’t mind, do you?”
Winstone’s answer brings the whole room up short. “Oh, you ain’t,” he says. From possibly any other actor, this would have been a joke, laughed off with ease. With Winstone there’s a beat in the room immediately he asks the question.
It’s a beat entirely justified when “oh you ain’t” is said by the man who played a terrifying wife-beater in Nil By Mouth, a terrifying gangster in 44 inch chest and a terrifying henchman in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed – in a film career that was launched when he played a terrifying young offender in Alan Clarke’s Scum.
A wolfish smile curls Winstone’s lip and we can all breathe again. He was joking.
Later, when Winstone has relaxed some, I ask him if he enjoys the reaction he gets when he enters a room carrying with him such a fearsome reputation. “I dunno why people are scared.” There’s the smile again. He knows full well why people are scared. The night before we meet I watch 44 Inch Chest again, and it is surely one of the most visceral, animal, brutal performances committed to film.
“I suppose if people think a certain thing, it means you’re doing all right in the films, because if people believe I’m like that... well, I must be doing something right....
“I been married 30-odd years, I’ve got three daughters, that wouldn’t be the case if I were like I am in my films. I suppose that’s what you get for making films like Nil by Mouth and Scum and War Zone (in which he plays a violent father having an incestuous relationship with his daughter).”
At this point I should make clear that I have tidied up Winstone’s quotes. Three is pronounced “free”, something becomes “somin” and there is colourful language sprinkled throughout.
It would probably become tiresome to render all his words in the vernacular, but Winstone has such a distinctive, East End boy gravelly growl, that it would be impossible to not hear his voice in his quotes.
If you’ve seen more than a minute of his films, you get the idea.
We meet in Bradford at the city’s National Media Museum, the main base for this year’s Bradford International Film Festival. Standing on the top floor, looking over the city he declares it “lavverly”.
Winstone was appearing at the annual festival where his life in film was being celebrated with a retrospective, including screenings of several films that were not just key to the development of his own career, but of British cinema.
Scum, the Alan Clarke exploration of life inside a British Borstal, was initially made by the BBC as a Play for Today in 1977, but never screened due to the violence that appears through the story. Clarke remade the film intended for cinema a few years later and, after eventually beating a private prosecution by morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, made it to the screen.
“Thirty years, thirty years. Was Scum really that long ago? That’s what a retrospective like this makes me think,” says Winstone.
“Oh man, and it’s funny, ‘cos I had no idea what I was doing on Scum, thank God I had Alan Clarke with me.
“I was just a kid who’d been to drama school but in truth who had no real interest in being an actor. I actually done Scum for a bit of a laugh really. I just thought ‘I never done anything like this before, I might as well do it’.”
The story goes that Winstone hadn’t even intended to audition for Scum, but was there supporting a friend. The actor confirms that it’s true – Clarke spotted his tense-shoulders-first gait and offered him the lead.
Scum launched the actor’s reputation, but not necessarily his career. He didn’t have a clue what he was doing, he says, spent the £1,800 fee on a holiday with his girlfriend and ran up tax bills. He admits he has “been a bit naughty”.
He didn’t really wise up until Robin of Sherwood, a 1984 television series in which he played Will Scarlett as “the first football hooligan”.
“Working with Alan Clarke I sort of learnt too much and found it very difficult to adapt to other styles of films. He allowed me to be me and wanted to find the truth and that’s what I wanted to do and that’s not always what’s needed for a film,” he says.
“We was on Robin of Sherwood for three years and that was a schooling for me, that was. Being around a camera every day with actors who are in the same boat as you – and knowing that you need to perform and come up with the goods if you want to be in it.
“You sit back and just walk through it - you’re not going to be in it. So you got to bring something to the table. It was a great education.”
The problem was, despite it being a great education in how to act, Winstone didn’t necessarily learn from the experience how to work the business.
A West Ham football fan who still lives a short drive from his beloved London, he is, as he describes some of his films, “proper”.
That definition meant staying true to himself and that resulted in a heavy drinking, heavy-partying couple of decades. He’s calmed down now – although he does admit that “we had a Robin of Sherwood reunion the day before yesterday, all the boys and that. We had a heavy one...we had a heavy one...” So he’s not beyond enjoying a drink or two, despite now being in his mid-50s.
In the 1990s, he had bit parts in film and television, but it was with Nil By Mouth that the world sat up and took notice of this intensely powerful performer.
In 1997, Gary Oldman cast Winstone in the film that depicted, in an unflinching manner, a relationship between a man and wife, the wife played by Kathy Burke, that was almost too violent to watch.
“He put his life, his career, in my hands,” says Winstone. “People knew how good Kathy was, but no-one knew anything about me really. It was Gary writing that part for me that sort of kick-started things. I couldn’t get in the door before, but before we’d even finished filming I was getting meetings and people were talking about me.
“I wasn’t doing anything great, nothing to warrant the faith Gary put in me. I was bumming around, doing this, doing that, I was a loose cannon, then Gary gave me this thing where I was let loose a little bit.
“I loved it, loved it.”
From there the kick-start to the career was vigorous and impressive.
He went on over the next decade to work with Martin Scorsese, starring alongside Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, had parts in Sexy Beast with Ben Kingsley, the fourth Indiana Jones adventure and countless other movies.
He has mixed up his appearances in Hollywood fare with low-budget British movies. “I like working with directors, I like being on set. With something like The Departed, it’s brilliant ‘cos you’re working with icons of the industry like Marty and Nicholson and that – and they listen to your ideas, but they’re not necessarily looking for you to sit there and come up with things,” he says.
“On smaller films, where you’re in all the time, every day, you get to have more of a say and I like that. If I’m sitting around I get bored. I’d much rather be doing something where I’m the lead and I get to be proper involved.”
Not that he doesn’t enjoy the big Hollywood movies. In Beowulf he famously was rendered digitally as a 6ft 8in Viking. “My wife’s got a picture of me hung up in the room of me as Beowulf, and I keep saying ‘take it down and use your imagination’. That was a great part ‘cos you get to use your imagination all the time – you’ve got to see the dragon and you’re in there with John Malkovich and Anthony ‘lovely man’ Hopkins and Angelina (Jolie).
“I got to kiss her. I kept getting that scene wrong.”
He’s not inured to the lure of Hollywood then – the perk of kissing Angelina Jolie is not lost on him.
Yet he remains resolutely a homebody.
It turns out, unsurprisingly, he is not a fan of playing the movie game.
“It’s OK in the States, but I couldn’t stay there and be there all the time. I don’t want to live above the shop.”
“People in the industry are funny – it’s why I love coming to film festivals like Bradford where you meet real people, the actual people who come to pay to see your films. It’s an honour to be here with a retrospective and all, but I love coming to meet the people.
“At Cannes and all them other festivals, it’s full of industry people and they want to talk about nothing but the industry. They say ‘let’s have dinner to talk about the script’. Why would I do that when I can have dinner with my wife?
“They go out for lunch and spend a monkey, £500, on lunch and say ‘we’ll put it towards the budget’.”
Despite these views, Winstone is raring to go after four months off.
At the end of last year he found three film projects overlapping and, having learnt from his mistakes, didn’t drink while filming and was “a lot more professional”.
The three projects were Great Expectations for the BBC, Snow White and The Huntsman, a take on the fairy tale and The Sweeney.
“Films are like London buses – I got three come along all at once. You have to take a bit of time off every now and then and by the end of last year I was absolutely mullered,” he says.
“I’m recharged now. I had a few months off, did a bit of partying, but I got that out of my system.
“There’s kids out there coming through that are proper near the mark and I want to get back out. I feel like getting back at it, doing a bit of sparring.”
He smiles when he says this. No matter how big the smile, how charming he is, I’m still not sure I’d want to be at the other end of the ring if he was “up for a bit of sparring”.