Ray Winstone: "I'm a lion that likes its belly tickled"
He may be Britain’s most famous cinematic hardman, but even Ray Winstone gets nervous. After a lifetime spent starring alongside Hollywood’s most famous names, it’s the thought of reviving a TV classic that’s giving him the heebie-jeebies. “Whenever you go up against an icon, you get the jitters,” he explains.
The man who’s been spooking Winstone is John Thaw, star of seminal 1970s police drama The Sweeney. Although Winstone first achieved fame with his role as the terrifying prison ‘Daddy’ in Scum, one of this earliest acting gigs was actually in The Sweeney, where he played an ‘unnamed youth’. Now, 35 years later, he’s back playing Inspector Regan, the character made famous by Thaw, who died in 2002.
“John was tremendous, a blinding guy,” Winstone recalls. “But it’s a tough old job, bringing a new character to something like The Sweeney, especially when John was such a legend.”
Winstone has spent his career playing tough guys, from the alcoholic wife-beater of Nil By Mouth to the retired gangster of Sexy Beast, but in person he’s a bit of a charmer – a sweetheart in fact. We meet in a dark cinema in the East End of London, an area that has transformed almost beyond recognition since Winstone grew up there.
He walks in, still carrying himself with the boxer’s swagger that won him his first lead role in Scum, and claims to remember my face from a time I served him a drink in a London boozer more than a decade ago.
He’s a gentleman, sure, but that doesn’t mean Winstone’s a wimp. “I ain’t a softie,” he insists, but I sense something more. Forget the awards, the films and the big paydays. The achievement Winstone is most proud of is bringing up a close-knit family.
He’s raised three daughters, including the actresses Lois and Jaime, and has been married for more than 30 years. “I’m surrounded by women,” he says. “I keep pigs and even they are girls. I like it though, because they look after you. I’m like a lion that sits under a tree. The women go out and do all the hunting, whilst I lie in the sun. Sometimes they come back and tickle my belly, which is nice.”
He’s also starred alongside some of the most attractive women in the world, including Angelina Jolie. When he appeared in a television drama called Compulsion in 2009, his character seduced a 21-year-old woman, played by ER actress Parminder Nagra. The scenes were so steamy that Nagra called them “sizzling clinches”.
Winstone’s often described as a sex symbol, even joking that Brad Pitt was afraid Jolie would run off with him during the filming of Beowulf, but he claims none of the screen sirens have ever turned his head.
“When you’re in my game, you’re surrounded by so-called beautiful women,” he says. “But I happen to be married to a beautiful woman who’s been with me through thick and thin. Why would I think at 55 years old, as a pot-bellied little geezer from Plaistow, that some gorgeous young beauty would want to run away with me? Are you mad?”
Family values are clearly important to Winstone. He says his “biggest regret” was not seeing his mum, who died of cancer 26 years ago, every day of her life, and wishes she was able to share in his success.
Other family members have been a little bemused by Winstone’s journey into luvviedom. “My dad, who’s still alive, is my hero. But he doesn’t like all my films, especially ones like Nil By Mouth. He likes a bit of escapism, rather than all that realism.
"Dad might swear in real life but he’s old-school, so he doesn’t want to see that in films. When I was working backstage at the National Theatre, I took him to see a play and the first word was ‘cunt’. Half-time came along and he just said: ‘I think it’s time to leave, son.’”
The actor’s hulking presence and growling voice make it pretty easy to see why he’s been called upon to play the tough guy so often. And yet he’s not entirely comfortable with the underworld, because although he admits to knowing a few gangsters, as you “can’t avoid them where I grew up”, he is critical of criminals “who feed off ordinary people making an honest living”. Unexpectedly, he even has a few good things to say about the police.
“I’ve had a few run-ins with the Old Bill,” he says, “but not all of them have been bad. Once they stopped me in my car just outside my granddad’s house, where I was living at the time. I was totally blotto, drunk, and they just broke the breathalyser in half and said: ‘If you do this again, we’ll nick you.’
"They gave me a chance. There are a lot of people in the police force who join because they want to make the world a better place. Then there are those fuckers who get it wrong, or who don’t know the difference between a parking ticket and a murder. It’s usually those ones we hear about.”
His is an accent you don’t hear in London as often as you used to. Like so many cockneys, Winstone has taken the time-trodden path to the Essex countryside. He now lives in a rural pile somewhere near Roydon, a far cry from the gritty suburb in which he grew up.
This distance from the city and its social problems has, he admits, made him a bit of a “dinosaur”. “A lot of people from my generation are,” he says. “We don’t understand what happens out on these estates in London. We read about all the kids selling drugs and killing one another, but don’t see it for ourselves.”
To learn a bit more about what is so often called ‘broken Britain’, Winstone roped in Plan B, real name Ben Drew, who is famous for his gritty urban rap music and films, to star alongside him in The Sweeney. “Just talking to Ben was an education, because he puts his money where his mouth is.
"He knows a lot about that sort of thing, but he also does a lot about it. He was nervous at first, because he’s a shy kid who only manages to overcome that in what he does, but his confidence just grew and grew. This kid has irons in lots of fires, but he’s not a jack of all trades because he’s not just alright at all his trades, he’s really good.”
Winstone and the young rapper are now firm friends, although he doesn’t like all of Plan B’s music. “I like that soul sound of his, because I’m a big fan of Frank Sinatra. I like that I can hear the words too, because I’m getting old. I’m not a rap fan though. I don’t like rap and all that ‘yeah yeah’ stuff,” he says, throwing a few hip-hop shapes.
Winstone doesn’t mind dissing rap or sounding a bit old-fashioned because, at the grand old age of 55, he’s proudly old-school. Previously he’s talked about his wife doing chores (though he does a little ironing).
His views on where Britain is heading are almost Conservative in their values. “I know this is an old guy talking, but I think some of the problems we have today is because we don’t have that family thing any more,” he says. “I have two daughters aged 30 and 26 who aren’t married. Without the commitment, you can just walk away from responsibilities.”
The moral code Winstone picked up from his family has guided many of his career choices. Although he recently became the face of Betfair, the world’s largest online betting service. But some adverts would be beyond the pale. “I don’t gamble, apart from a little bet on the races. But if you do, that’s your choice.
"I won’t do bank or insurance commercials, because you don’t have any choice there. You’ve got to insure your house and you need a bank account to do anything. Doing an advert for them feels like it’s putting the heavy on people.”
His characters have done exactly that over and over again, but don’t believe what you see in the films.
Ray Winstone really is a big softie... although you wouldn’t say that to his face.
The Sweeney is in cinemas from September 12