”They bleeped it! How can they bleep it? But they gone and done it anyway!“
On a sodden London morning, actor Ray Winstone shudders at the memory of a TV edit of The Long Good Friday, John MacKenzie‘s seminal portrait of late 1970s British gangland. ”Every swear word,“ he exclaims, ”bleeped! Then, the week after, there’s a Laurence Olivier film, and he comes on and says ‘fuck.’ But that‘s all right, innit? ’Cause he says it in a nicer way. I mean . . . what‘s that all about?“
The answer, of course, is class: the fulcrum of British life and defining motif of Winstone’s career. It‘s the first thing that hits you when he opens his mouth, the treacle-thick cadence of a childhood spent in the urban marshland of Hackney, east London: a familiar, evocative sound to British moviegoers for whom Winstone, with his drawn-out consonants and bruiser’s face, has become a kind of universal surrogate uncle — if not, as yet, to their U.S. counterparts. Except, having found his second great role (the first coming in Gary Oldman‘s scabrous Nil by Mouth), that situation may be set to change.
The name of the film is Sexy Beast. Now, there are a couple of bad omens here. For a start, it was made by an ad man, Jonathan Glazer, best known in the U.K. for his monochrome shills for Guinness (Winstone, conversely, is currently hawking bottled lager). Secondly, it is a British gangster movie cut, ostensibly, from the same stylized cloth as the grating Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Yet, defying the odds, Glazer’s debut — in which a leathery, bullnecked Winstone dazzles as reformed thief Gary ”Gal“ Dove, desperate to remain in his expat Spanish idyll rather than be forced home for the proverbial one last job — proves a supple, witty piece of comic drama.
Mention you like it, however, and its star shrinks into his thickset frame. Indeed, for those who have only witnessed him, as he puts it, ”screaming and punching“ onscreen, the entire Winstone experience could come as a shock, his heavy build folded neatly into itself, the conversation soft and courteous. ”Thanks very much. Really. But Jon‘s a good boy, you know? A talented boy. So credit to him.“
You might think his approach false modesty. Then again, given that his professional baptism came with Alan Clarke, the iconic dramatist whose death in 1990 robbed British cinema of perhaps its finest talent, you’re tempted to listen when Winstone doles out the plaudits. His break came in 1977, at 19, with London deep in punk and recession. An unlikely recruit to drama school (his greengrocer father also being an inveterate film buff), his tenure lasted a single troubled year. Signing off by sabotaging the headmistress‘s car, he returned to meet a friend and wound up auditioning for Clarke, then preparing Scum, a reform school–set play for the BBC. Searching for his central hard case, Clarke needed just one look at Winstone. For once, there’s a literal truth behind the cliche: Rather than hearing him read, Clarke cast his lead after watching him swagger down the corridor.
”Yeah, I was boxing at the time,“ Winstone explains, ”and when you‘re boxing, you’ve got a little bounce in your step.“ (His pugilistic career, of which he says, ”I done all right,“ saw him become London schoolboy champion on three occasions.) The eventual result of that hallway stroll was a brutal expose of the worst the British juvenile-justice system had to offer. Predictably, it was swiftly banned, languishing unseen while its star ”gave the game up as a bad joke.“ Then, unexpectedly, a feature version was commissioned and Winstone duly rehired. Two decades on, the movie still shimmers with a diamond-hard ferocity.
Yet despite the raw charisma of his perform-ance, Winstone‘s career sputtered. During a lean period even by British standards, an actor this unaffected, with his kind of accent, was never going to impress the cerebral Jarmans and Greenaways that dominated U.K. cinema in the ’80s and early ‘90s. Instead, he picked up TV gigs until, by the mid-’80s (having gone bankrupt twice), he quit again. ”It got to the stage,“ he says, ”where I saw a couple of things I was in, and all I could think was ‘My God — that’s diabolical.‘“ For three years, he simply ”floated about.“ Yet ask if he missed the business, and you get an answer that would sound hokey from any other actor. ”Nah. I mean, I’ve never been an ambitious man. It‘s less stressful like that — a script comes in, and you think, ’Oh, I like that, I‘ll do that.’ Or you think it‘s an important subject.“
Which brings us to Nil by Mouth, the pinnacle (thus far) of Winstone’s professional life. Having returned to acting — driven largely by his failure to find anything he preferred — with a small part in Ken Loach‘s Ladybird Ladybird, it fell to Gary Oldman, another working-class alum of Clarke, to grant him a showcase. The role was that of an abusive alcoholic in the director’s autobiographical study of south London family life — a dark, corrosive film, shorn of British social realism‘s usual didactic urge, in which Winstone’s turn became the primal heartbeat. Although he blanches at them, comparisons with De Niro in Raging Bull are not exaggerated.
Since then, his judgment of scripts has proved shaky. ”I‘ve been wrong before, I’ll be wrong again.“ Still, there have been enough scattered nuggets to remind you just how good Winstone can be, even when wading through shoddy material: Tim Roth‘s The War Zone, for instance, where his commitment shone through an otherwise confused incest melodrama, or Agnes Browne, in which he lent Anjelica Huston’s Irish farrago an undeserved grace. And more, of course, besides, the sorry results of routine typecasting that left many of his best roles — those calling for more than the regurgitation of his trademark slyly avuncular menace — coming onstage in the likes of Sam Mendes‘ recent London theater production of To the Green Fields Beyond.
Now, however, Sexy Beast has again offered him the chance to stretch his legs on film. By turns wry and affecting, there is — despite the gulf in tone — an echo of Nil by Mouth going on here; because, taken in tandem, you couldn’t find better proof that Winstone doesn‘t do just caricatures. ”I suppose I looked for the honesty,“ he says. ”I mean, yeah, he could have been a cartoon, this big fat geezer lollying in the sun and giving it the large. But you have to find something human in that.“
And that’s exactly what Winstone does, delivering a nimble character study underscored with an acute physical vocabulary (a recurring theme in Winstone‘s best work — witness Nil by Mouth’s drunken thug rearranging his underwear after half-killing his wife). Yet you look at Winstone, and you can‘t help worrying that the same authenticity that’s made him such a cult figure has also found him hemmed in, refused him the choices available to his middle-class peers. That he‘s still as much of a square peg as when, at drama school, he unapologetically recited Shakespeare in Hackney patois to his horrified tutors. Only, somehow, you sense that he’s grown used to — even fond of — his outsider status. ”Yeah,“ he shrugs. ”Maybe. But it‘s only the wankers that use it. I mean, you’ve got your Richard Attenboroughs, and maybe he comes from an upper-class background, maybe he don‘t, but either way he’s a beautiful man. Course, it‘s a lot simpler in the States. Over there, it’s all about dough.“
Dough. The States. Two things you could forgive Winstone considering — especially given the departure of so many fellow Londoners in search of better roles and bigger paychecks. So, with the U.S. release of Sexy Beast and the thriller Ripley‘s Game (a remake of Wim Wenders’ American Friend) set to open later this year, is Winstone finally ready to go west? There‘s a moment of amused deliberation. ”Aaah . . . I mean, I’d love to go out there and do something good. But I don‘t just want to be the geezer on someone’s shoulder. I haven‘t worked for 25 years to do that.“ And the money? The response is pure Ray Winstone. ”Yeah, but how much money do you want? I mean, I’ve got mates there who get paid bundles, but then they have to make the next one a bit lively, even if it‘s a piece of crap, just to pay the tax.“ A beat. ”D’you know what I mean? So bollocks to that.“