'Before doing a really violent scene, I like to laugh'
John Meagher meets Ray Winstone ahead of his new TV drama 'Moonfleet'
Ray Winstone has built a career around playing tough-as-nails characters in the grittiest of dramas, and the barrel-chested actor is every bit as imposing in reality.
His pronounced East End accent enhances the notion that you mess with this man at your peril, as does his chatter about how he prepares for the hard-guy roles.
"Before doing a really terrible scene, a really violent one," he says, with a smile, "I like to laugh. That bit of levity just works for me. And then it's quite easy to turn it on for the nasty parts."
It's an admission that puts his fearsome performances in such films as Nil By Mouth and The War Zone in a whole new light.
The Londoner is in Dublin on promotional duties for his new TV drama, the swashbuckling adventure yarn, Moonfleet.
Yet, rather than the sanitised, family-friendly version that will air tomorrow, Winstone would have relished a far darker production. "I would have made it as really down and dirty -- a horrible thing -- killing left, right and centre. But of course, that wouldn't have been true to the book."
Moonfleet was written in the late 19th Century by J Meade Faulkner and is considered a classic in young adult fiction.
Winstone hadn't read the novel before accepting the part although he had loved the 1955 movie version. "I was a big fan of Stewart Grainger who had played the part that I would take on," he says. "He was a beautiful-looking man and here's me, The Beast. I had to take it in a completely different direction."
The book also proved to be an inspiration for Chris de Burgh, who released a concept album called Moonfleet and Other Stories in 2010. "Did he really?" Winstone says. "You know, he can be a genius songwriter sometimes." Ray Winstone a fan of the 'Lady in Red' crooner? So much for the hard-man rep.
The two-part series was filmed in Dublin this summer, with some of it set at Kings Inn's -- where this interview takes place -- and the adjacent Henrietta Street, which has been used in period drama shoots for everything from Strumpet City to Albert Nobbs.
"This is such a brilliant setting for the time the book is set -- the late 18th Century -- and it helped that it never rained. The last time I was in Ireland for work was for King Arthur and it never rained then either. I must be a good omen."
At 56, Winstone is one of the most prolific actors of his generation. The International Movie Database lists 120 acting credits since his first part in 1975.
"That many?" he says, with surprise. "I just like to work and to have projects on the go all the time. It might come from my mum and dad -- they were working-class people who believed in grafting -- but there's also the need to be able to pay the rent."
The Londoner is a long way from the breadline, but cheerfully admits to accepting projects he hasn't cared for in the past because of the pay packet.
"Have I done that? Absolutely. I would love to be in that bracket where you're an American A-list star and you're making €30m a film.
"I could never understand how they could be paid that sort of money and want to keep working. I'd retire and become a playboy."
His daughters have followed him into the world of entertainment. Jamie is an actress while Lois is a singer who has just signed a record deal.
"I think they're great -- I'm their old man, so I'm going to say that, but I think they've got great talent.
"They're under no illusions about how tough the industry can be, but then again they're not digging holes in the road or getting up for a nine-to-five job."
More and more, Winstone finds he is drawn to TV projects rather than movies. "The TV scripts, on the whole, tend to be better," he says.
"And there's a real feeling now that we're in a golden era of television drama, especially when you think of the sort of productions being made by HBO and Sky Atlantic."
Winstone points out that while cinema attendances are going down, it's become more affordable to have "an authentic cinema experience" from the comfort of your living at home.
"You can get really big TVs and surround sound for about 1,200 quid now," he says, "so it's no wonder that television dramas are looking more and more like films.
"But the great thing as an actor is that you can develop a character over many hours of television in a way you just can't in a feature film."
MOONFLEET AIRS ON SKY 1 AT 8PM TOMORROW AND SUNDAY.