Ray Winstone: ‘I don’t wanna talk about acting!’

<span>‘Boxing stood me in good stead’: Ray Winstone. Waistcoat, shirt and trousers, all by <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk=";elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link "></a>; brogues by <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk=";elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link "></a>.</span><span>Photograph: Simon Emmett/The Observer</span>

The actor Ray Winstone, who is best known for his depictions of men muddled in criminality, has a torso so large and legs so thin that seeing him enter the breakfast lounge of a London hotel is like watching a barrel walk in on stilts. Winstone is 67 now. In real life he resembles the characters he has spent a career perpetuating on screen. He maintains the east London accent he developed in childhood. He swears gruffly and nonstop. He chuckles at calling people “fuckers”. It would surprise no one if he were voted film and television’s most specific brand. When, partway through our discussion, I ask if he’s ever troubled by people considering him professionally one-dimensional, he replies, “Not one fucking bit – you typecast yourself.” Then, showing off a bawdy sense of humour that is never far from the surface, he adds, “I’ll play a woman if you want. But you probably wouldn’t like my legs.”

When you’re scared, you don’t say it. You put a face on, put your chest out, you walk forward and stare them in the eyes

Ray Winstone

Winstone and I are here to discuss three new projects: The Gentlemen, a Guy Ritchie series, in which he plays the patriarch of a criminal family in peril; Damsel, a Netflix vehicle in which he plays the patriarch of a family grappling with a regrettable decision; and A Bit of Light, an independent film in which he plays the patriarch of a family struggling through anguish. (A Bit of Light is based on a play of the same name by Rebecca Callard, who has described it as “like Mary Poppins with trauma”.) Winstone’s motivations for working haven’t changed since his first significant production, the 1979 film Scum, in which he played a troublesome adolescent battling for social power in a young offenders institute. “You go have fun for six weeks, see how it turns out,” he says, of filming. “If it turns out great, it’s a plus. If it don’t, it don’t. But you’ve had a great six weeks.” After all of that, you pay what you owe. “You do do films you don’t want to do,” he continues. “But you’ve got to do them because you haven’t worked in a little while and you’ve got to pay the rent.”

Callard has said that, in A Bit of Light, Winstone gives the kind of performance audiences haven’t seen from him before – something more vulnerable, less of a caricature. This seems reductive of his talent. Winstone thinks of both Sexy Beast and Nil by Mouth, two of his best-received films, as complicated love stories, and even his gangsters have been knotty and idiosyncratic. “Most really good dramas is family,” he says. “We’re all fascinated by family units. Whether they’re solid, whether they’re dysfunctional, whatever.” In Winstone’s thinking, the family drama is what he’s been acting all along; A Bit of Light, in which his character deals with the loss of his wife and, in a different way, the loss of his daughter, is to him a natural extension of the career that has come before. “You’ve lost something and you can’t have it back,” he says. “The guilt of that…”

In each of Winstone’s upcoming projects his role involves a turbulent father-daughter relationship. In real life, Winstone has three adult daughters, all of whom are actors, all of whom he gets on with, all of whom seem to have tested him in some way. (His eldest, Lois, recently moved with her boyfriend back to the family home in Essex, where Ellie, his youngest, still lives. Jaime, the middle child, lives “Ten minutes down the road.”) When I ask if, while filming, he channelled his own father-daughter relationships, he replies, “I guess so, at times,” before adding, “Little fuckers.”

Winstone delivers this line with an affectionate cackle. He is the sort of playful company in which you feel comfortable laughing along with someone describing his family this way.

I ask, “Ray, in what way are they little fuckers?” “Listen,” he says. “I’ve got three daughters. Have you got three daughters?”

I tell him I have just one. “How old?” he says. “Three,” I say. “Well, you’ll get there,” he says, smiling. “You’ll understand.”

Winstone and his wife, Elaine, to whom he’s been married for 44 years, invite their daughters to lunch every Sunday. Most weeks they come, but Winstone cannot convince them every time. “I spoke to my youngest the other day,” he says, of Ellie, who is 22. “I said to her, ‘You coming around on Sunday?’ She said no. I said, ‘But we’re doing Sunday dinner.’ And she said, ‘Dad, I don’t fucking want Sunday dinner every fucking Sunday.’”

Winstone laughs when he tells this story. (“All right, all right, all right,” he said to her, in the familiar tone of parent placating child.) But still he persists with the invitations. Sunday lunch forms part of his world view: it is a piece of his heritage he does not want to let slip, like his accent and his commitment to a kind of moral code (be courteous, commit to hard work, protect your loved ones – what he describes as a “cockney morality”) that he was taught as a child.

Winstone was born in Hackney in 1957. He comes from a family of “poor people who sometimes fell on hard times”, he writes in his memoir, Young Winstone. His father, also Ray, was a greengrocer and, later, a black-cab driver, “working out of the airport with all his mates”. When his mother wasn’t helping her husband on the markets, she collected cash from one-armed bandit machines. “My dad was a grafter,” Winstone recalls. “But my mum was shrewd.” Once, she taught Winstone to tip lemonade on to a fruit machine at a particular moment, at which point the machine’s wires would fry and it would pay out its entire quarry.

Winstone recalls his childhood fondly, though it was not without anger and violence. In his memoir, he recalls being expelled from nursery for fighting, though “it was only a skirmish,” he writes. Winstone describes his young self as “a little fucker,” and laughs. “I wasn’t horrible, I don’t think, and I was never a thief.” He considers himself a product of his environment. His father, who had once been a boxer, was also once charged with GBH, and sometimes fought with other men in front of his son. “I’ve done things I’m not proud of,” Winstone continues, without elaborating. “It’s all part of the makeup of who you are.” He’s unsure of the route his life might have taken had he not become an actor. “I like to think I would have been all right,” he says. “But who knows?”

In his memoir, Winstone writes about violence almost affectionately. When I ask what effect watching his father become threatening might have had on his younger self, he does not dismiss it as shocking. In Young Winstone he writes that, though he will not condone violence, he can “understand it”. Of his father, he adds now, “It is what it is. Clump or be clumped. He knew that world. Him and his mates, there was a code they lived by. It wasn’t a bad code. No one got killed.”

Winstone’s mother died at 52, when he was 28. His father died six years ago. Of Ray senior, Winstone says, “It’s funny, how you grow up and lose your dad. Before that, he’s the guv’nor, he’s in charge – you always think that way. When you lose them, it’s a weight off your shoulders, which I mean in the nicest possible way. Suddenly it’s down to you. You haven’t got to worry about upsetting them.”

As an adolescent, Winstone joined the Repton Boxing Club, in east London. “I think what boxing done for me is give me an education,” he says. He had struggled at school. At Repton he learned discipline and, he says, respect. “The men that run boxing clubs, the way they nurture kids, the way they put kids on a level…” Winstone twice boxed for England. “It stood me in good stead,” he said, referring to how boxing prepared him for acting. “When you’re scared, you don’t say it. You put a face on, you put your chest out, you walk forward and stare them in the eyes.”

While at Repton, Winstone enrolled at the Corona drama school. His parents paid the fees. “They saw me in the school play,” he says, “and thought it would keep me off the streets.” Winstone was expelled after a year and before that he had been segregated from other students, “because of the way I spoke – you know, the elocution.” When I ask if he was a bad influence, he replies, “in a way”, and half-smiles. During one early job, as an extra on the ITV sitcom Get Some In!, he head-butted a director for “picking me up” instead of “just asking me to move along”. He was barred from working for a time and his tutors all but gave up. Still, he remembers drama school fondly. Of his fellow students he recalls, “None of them came from where I’m from and that was a great thing for me.”

On the day Winstone was due to leave the Corona, he agreed to meet some friends for a drink. Several of them were visiting the BBC to audition for an upcoming Alan Clarke production, which was to be set in a borstal, and Winstone tagged along. There, he began chatting up a receptionist, who encouraged him to meet Clarke. He did so, begrudgingly. “I was the last one in,” Winstone recalls, “and we just had a laugh.” When he left, Clarke watched Winstone, who’d acquired a boxer’s physique and bravado, walk back down the corridor, and offered him the role of Carlin in Scum. He considers the moment life-changing.

At the beginning of his acting career, Winstone often felt out of place on film sets. Even now he often remains uncomfortable. “I’m not a luvvie,” he says, and chuckles. “I don’t speak like an actor.” Sometimes he’ll be eating dinner with colleagues and all they want to talk about is work, but “I wanna talk about something else. Who’s boxing tonight? Is there any football on?” Most of his close friends are people outside the industry who he’s known for years. “I don’t want to sit around talking endlessly about acting. I go home at night and my wife will be there and she will not ask about acting.”

I say, “What do you talk about?”

“Us!” he says. “How her day’s been. What she’s been up to. She’s got a good radar. Whenever I’ve had to kiss someone on set, she knows. I must give it away when I come in. There’s something witchy about her.” He pauses… “Or she’s got a tag on me.”

Halfway through our conversation a waitress approaches our table, bringing coffee. Winstone stops talking and looks up. “Americano?” the waitress asks.

Winstone is drinking breakfast tea from fine china.

“Not for me,” he says, of the coffee.

The waitress hesitates, briefly confused, and Winstone goes on in an Anglo-Italian accent that is meant to mimic hers.

“No Americano,” he says. “I’m Ingletere.”

I take the gesture to be sweet-meaning, not derogatory – an act to overcome embarrassment. (The waitress, who speaks fluent English, and who Winstone repeatedly calls “darling”, does not seem offended at all.) Winstone owns a home in Sicily, which he visits “when the weather here is fucking like this,” he says, gesturing at the rain outside. He likes to drive there. (“Straight through France,” he told a friend of mine recently, because it’s “full of French people.”)

It isn’t difficult to imagine Winstone as a Brit abroad. Though he has previously suggested he might someday relocate, perhaps to Sicily, perhaps to “farm olives”, perhaps in some way to avoid what he considers over-taxation, he remains proudly and steadfastly English. Much of our conversation focuses on the state of the nation, about which he is downhearted.

Winstone voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. “I didn’t want the French telling me how to eat my pork chops, thank you very much,” he says. It is unclear whether he stands by the decision, but on British politics he is plain. “These cunts who’re running the country,” he says. “Conservative or Labour or Liberal – they’re cunts. They’ve no idea what the people want. They don’t give a fuck. I wouldn’t vote for one of them. I will not vote – my right is not to vote. People say, ‘Oh, you must vote.’ Vote for who? Give me someone to vote for!” He looks briefly enraged. “In any other kind of work, if you promise to do something in the workplace and you don’t do it, you get the sack. If I turn up on set and I don’t know my lines, I get the sack, and rightly so. So when these cunts promise to do something and get into office and don’t do it…” He is clear on what must change in the short term, which includes more funding for the NHS. “Nurses,” he goes on. “They’re trying their best, doing incredible hours, and they don’t get paid fuck all.” After a while he adds, “These people save our lives!”

People say, ‘Oh, you must vote.’ Vote for who? Give me someone to vote for!

Ray Winstone

Partway through our chat, Winstone talks of the necessity of a political “shake up”. When I ask what a shake up might look like, thinking of Donald Trump, Winstone shakes his head. “Don’t even go there,” he says, seeming appalled. “But it needs to change. We need change. We need someone – I don’t know who this is, or where they come from – someone who’s going to be very fucking honest, who, if they don’t know the answer to a question, well, they say they don’t know the answer, but that they’ll find out. Most of them, they refuse to answer questions. Excuse me? You’re supposed to be representing us. If we’ve asked a question, answer the fucking question.”

I ask if he thinks he has a romantic vision of what England should be.

“Yeah,” he says. “’Course.” This vision comes from childhood. “As a kid, you don’t have the worries of the world on your shoulders,” he continues. “You have the warm summers, and the lovely hay fields, and you’d go out into the country…” As a child, Winstone and his family visited the Essex seaside towns of Southend and Shoeburyness. “That England’s still there,” he says. “It’s not the people in England who are ruining the country. It’s the cunts who are running it.”

During our conversation, Winstone portrays himself as a man of the people, which I find difficult to accept. (While discussing his upcoming Sunday dinner, Winstone suggested he might “order in sashimi”, a decision that suggests he isn’t struggling for cash.) Winstone’s views are populist and generational. Asked what his children think of his opinions, he says, “Well, they don’t always agree with what I’m saying. My kids have got their own minds. And I like that. I’ve learned a hell of a lot from my kids, which is how it should be.”

“Over Sunday dinner,” I say.

“We’re usually fighting over Sunday dinner,” he says. Earlier he’d said, “We ain’t the Waltons.”

I ask if he considers legacy.

“Legacy,” he says. “What’s that?”

“Do you think about what you’re leaving behind?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “Things change so much that work can date very quickly. There are new ways of working now, new ways of acting. Some things I’ve done hold up and that’s great. Some things don’t.” He pauses for a while, then moves in a different direction. “I guess my legacy is my kids. They’re the ones that carry on, do whatever they’re doing. And, hopefully, I’ll leave them something that will help them along the way.”

Damsel will be released on Netflix on Friday 8 March. The Gentleman is out on Netflix on Thursday 7 March. A Bit of Light will be released on Friday 5 April