Interview: Ray Winstone (The Sweeney)

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By Simon Miraudo
February 12, 2013

Ray Winstone is one of the most imposing hard men in cinema; the go-to geezer for esteemed directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Zemeckis. But no one starts at the top. He’s been toiling in the industry for nearly four decades, breaking out in confronting dramas Nil by Mouth and The War Zone before bulking up his filmography with such works as Sexy Beast, The Proposition, Beowulf, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Departed, and Hugo. One of his earliest parts came in classic British cop drama The Sweeney. Fittingly, he now takes on the role of Jack Regan – the grizzled detective formerly played by John Thaw – in the gritty film adaptation. The project has been gestating for the past six years, which has given Winstone enough time to question his involvement and make peace with the fact that he’s “there to fail, in a way.” Ahead of the picture’s release, we asked Ray about his early role on The Sweeney TV series, whether he had any advice for “the young Raymondo,” what it was like to work with Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe on the upcoming Biblical epic Noah, and why he wants to kick the British film industry “in the bollocks.”

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SM: I understand that one of your first acting roles was in the original Sweeney TV series, where you played ‘2nd Youth’. Can you tell me if you have fond memories of that gig?

RW: Well, yeah, it was kind of my first job, and I wasn’t supposed to talk. Then there’s John Thaw standing at the bar in his scene, and there was a guy sitting next to me buying a gun. I kept talking, and I kept adding lines to it. They kept telling me not to do that, ‘cos I didn’t know the rules, yeah? So, I continued doing it because it sounded better to me. I was told not to do it again. I realised years later that they would have had to give me 30 quid.

SM: [Laughs]

RW: So, it’s kind of full circle for me, going round. I was lucky enough to work with John Thaw on four or five different occasions, you know? I got to like the man a hell of a lot. He was a good guy. So, full circle. I’m playing a character of a man I liked; who was an icon. It’s funny how things turn out.

SM: I was curious, wondering if you did you get to know John Thaw, at all, before he passed away?

RW: Yeah, not personally. Not out and about, having a drink.

SM: Sure.

RW: But, professionally, I did. He was a great pro and a fabulous actor, so it was a real pleasure to be around him and watch him and learn from him, you know?

SM: Was there anything in particular about his performance as Jack Regan that you wanted to re-capture, or were you building it from scratch for the movie?

RW: No, for the movie from scratch. That would have been totally confusing. You can’t go in and play somebody else; that someone had done. Not only that, he’d done it so well. You have to kind of reinvent it in a way. You don’t want to compete with that, because you can’t. It was so good, what he’d done. So, you have to really go away and sit down and think about it, and approach it from your angle.

SM: On that note, were you hesitant at all about getting involved in a reboot of a series that is so beloved?

RW: Yeah, a couple of days before. Not six years before, because you’re just excited. The closer you get to filming, you think, “Why am I doing this? This was an iconic show with the biggest icons of British TV. You’re gonna get kicked in the arse here.” But then you get over that because it’s a challenge and you want to do it. You’re there to fail, in a way. If you come out the other end smelling of rose, you’ve done alright. Then you’ve succeeded. And I can honestly say I think we have. That’s what we’ve done. It’s not a better program series or anything like that; it’s different. And that’s what we set out to do.

SM: Going back quickly to your early role in The Sweeney TV show. Do you ever look back on some of your older work from the 70s and 80s, and even perhaps the 90s? Is there anything you wish you could tell the 20-year-old you based on your experience in the industry over the last few decades?

RW: Yeah, everything.

SM: [Laughs]

RW: [Laughs] But that’s part of learning. That’s what it is. I wouldn’t change it. But you watch it and you squint, or you go, “Oh my God, please no.” I guess everyone would do the same. I was watching a bit of Quadrophenia last night, and it was the same. You’re thinking, “Oh God, no.” But, without it, you wouldn’t be where you are today, doing what you’re doing today. No regrets, but yes, you’d like to say a few things to the young Raymondo.

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SM: Well, look, it has all paid off, so that’s the good news. And you have established yourself as one of the biggest and best ‘hard men’ of cinema, and you’ve been able to work some of the great directors, like Scorsese and Spielberg. Do you feel that reputation has maybe kept you from getting other kinds of roles? Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on anything?

RW: No, not really. I haven’t missed out on anything. I pick up the script that I’m sent and if I like it, I’d love to do it. If I’m lucky enough to get the part, it’s great. Parts I might have missed I don’t know about because I haven’t been sent ’em. You can only play with what you got, and if someone is ready to take a chance on you playing a different part. It’s all pretty safe the film industry now, it seems. It’s up to you to try and bring something else to it when you play the characters, you know?

SM: Do you feel like you have to push sometimes to get something a bit edgier out there?

RW: I think you gotta create your own risk in the part that you’re playing. I’ve been lazy at times, where I haven’t done it. That’s when you get, sort of, like, a little bit bored with the industry. But then you get something good again.

SM: I understand you’re one of the producers on The Sweeney movie. Is that one of your moves?

RW: I’m not really a producer on it. An Executive Producer means absolutely nothing. I did a little bit, but the producers are the producers. They put my name on it as Executive, but that’s more in title than anything I’d done.

SM: I’m glad you got the credit, anyway.

RW: We’re doing interesting stuff at home. We’re producing good TV over the last few years, so we’ve got that. Producing ain’t really my cap.

SM: You’ve played plenty of memorable characters. What do you get recognised for the most?

RW: It spans over the decades, really. It goes from Scum; it goes Sexy Beast; Nil By Mouth;  Love, Honour and Obey. Sometimes The Proposition, one of the films I liked.

SM: An excellent Australian film.

RW: The Departed. It’s different with different age groups, to be honest with you.

SM: Well, I understand you do have a key role in Noah. Can you tell us a little about how Darren Aronofsky courted you for that?

RW: It was kind of weird. A mate of mine, Billy Budd, was working on it. He’s one of the guys who trains the armies in battle scenes and that. He’s a good friend of mine. An old Falklands hero, he is; works in films, and he’s probably one of the best at what he does. They were talking about characters and who would play that, and Billy brought my name up, and it just so happened that Darren knew me, knew my work. He had a talk with me on the phone, and that’s how it came about. It came about from a mate, really. He just mentioned it.

SM: And how was that shoot? Was it an arduous shoot?

RW: It was gruelling, some of it. But Darren’s a very clever man. Working with Russell was blinding; I enjoyed working with Russell Crowe. I knew a few of the guys on the job. We were shooting in New York and Long Island, so you’re not really anywhere better. I had a great time on the shoot. Really enjoyed it.

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SM: Excellent. Can’t wait to see that one. I also understand that you go down to Afghanistan on occasion to meet the troops, the British troops, and help ex-servicemen produce their own plays. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

RW: Yeah, where do you start? I got mates who are in the RAF and the Services, and I was up in Doncaster one day, in Leeming, and we was having a drink, getting very drunk, as you do. They said, “You should come out there,” and being drunk I said, “Yes.” Next thing I knew I was meeting the MOD and I was on the plane to Afghanistan. Anyway, I went out there and went out on patrols. Stayed there for about five or six days with some friends in the services. Met the Yanks, met our mob, met all the boys out there. When you go out there, you’ve got young kids going out there; within the day, they’re men. They’re running the city, you know? And they’re only kids like my kids, like your kids. These fabulous kids. When I came back, I went to see the kids who were injured. Met the guys up there – kids who lost arms and legs – and their families and all that. I went down to Knebworth House where they rehabilitate, and someone came up with the idea of ‘Charlie Bravo 22’ and it’s what you do. How you build their confidence back up, these guys. They’ve got gallows humour; they’re game boys, you know? By them writing about their experiences and putting them into a play. Getting the ones who were interested – and there were a lot of them who weren’t: “Ah, poofter plays” and all that kind of stuff – but getting them into it and then going out on stage in front of an audience in the Haymarket in the West End of London, and put on this fantastic play; one of the best plays I’ve ever seen, to be honest with you. Their confidence just grew. It’s done so well for them. And then they went on tour with it. It’s the sort of play that people can come into and write their own bit into it and change the play and hopefully it will continue. It’s a great thing. It’s one of the small things that can help. There’s a lot of other stuff that needs to be done, but it’s like a full circle in a way.

SM: Yeah, that’s remarkable, and I’m sure rewarding for them as much as you as well.

RW: Oh, for me as well. Listen, you hear people say it, but it’s inspiring. They’re inspiring. There was a kid next to me at Knebworth House, who’d lost both his legs four months before, and he’s standing up on artificial legs and he’s running about. They’re not all like that, because psychologically it really can damage, but that’s the whole point about doing the play. To talk about it and get it out in the open, and tell the public their story. And the confidence they get from walking out in front of an audience – an audience having to look at them, and them looking them in the eye – is just incredible.

SM: You do have The Sweeney coming out. You have Noah coming out in 2014, I believe. What will we see you next in, besides these?

RW: I’m not sure. I’ve got a little film called Ashes that’s floating about. It’s about a guy with Alzheimer’s disease; it’s a thriller with Jim Sturgess, and was directed by Mat Whitecross. That’ll be floating around at some point.

SM: And how was the experience playing someone suffering from Alzheimer’s in that?

RW: Yeah, well, a lot of homework to be done, and obviously you’ve got a responsibility to the audience as much as the people who look after them, the carers. It’s a thriller, and we’ve made a terrific little film. It’s a tough one to actually distribute, because people are frightened by the subject matter. But there you go. You make these films, and you make them for the right reasons, and hopefully people will want to watch it.

SM: Have you had any other frustrating experiences with a confronting film?

RW: Oh, you deal with that in the British film industry all the time. They make films, but they’ve got nowhere to show ’em. Because cinemas are owned by the big studios. Instead of investing in making a movie, they should invest in building their own cinemas. You’d think they’d learn by now these people. If you ain’t got somewhere to show the film, what’s the point of making it? Build a cinema. Own them. It’s simple as that. Every time a British film is made that you think is worthy of showing, they can put it in a British cinema, and then they can build an industry. It’s like talking to a brick wall.

SM: It can be like that sometimes, Ray.

RW: Oh, mate, I’d love to kick them in the bollocks. I really would. But there you go.

SM: Well, we’re going to get that message out there, okay. So, hopefully it we can’t get a change over the years, maybe this interview can push that forward a little bit.

RW: Let’s crack on kid, we can do it.

The Sweeney arrives in Australian cinemas February 14, 2013.

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