Diamond geezer Winstone adds a cut of prime beef
His latest tough guy role is being hailed as his best, but Evan Fanning finds Ray Winstone is driven by the simple pleasures of life
'THAT'S a fine bit of Sexton," Ray Winstone says as he pulls a chair to the table and surveys the steak that is sitting on a plate in front of him.
It's a sentence that is almost too good to be true. Winstone, the Cockney geezer who grew up in London's East End where his old man ran a vegetable stall, assessing a high-end piece of meat in a Soho members' club with a bit of rhyming slang. Sexton Blake equals steak. Got that?
Winstone, 52, may be seen as a bit a of a hard man but as he sits down to a plate of steak and chips (with a side order of fries) accompanied by huge dollops of mustard -- French surprisingly, rather than English -- he is nothing other than charming company.
He looks trim, certainly in better shape than in the film where he is the owner of the 44-inch chest the title speaks of. He's clean-shaven, has a polka-dot silk scarf round his neck and is wearing black-rimmed glasses as he chows down on his grub (by the end of the interview he is holding the steak bone in his hand as he looks for any remaining pieces of meat).
He has reason to be in a good mood today. His latest role, the lead in 44 Inch Chest, is being hailed as the best performance of his career. On the face of it, the film is your classic London gangster flick, throwing up an assortment of unlikely and extremely menacing characters. He's also an executive producer on the film, a role which required him to do "absolutely nothing".
Everything from the film's title to the name of Winstone's character (Colin Diamond, as in diamond geezer) smacks of an ultra-masculine attitude, but in reality it's a deft piece of writing (from the men behind Sexy Beast) where the vast majority of the film plays out through conversation, dialogue and word play in a single room.
Colin's wife has just announced that she has met someone else and the film deals with him struggling to contain his emotions and maintain his hard exterior, while a motley crew of characters who wouldn't be amiss in a Harold Pinter play (played by Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt and Ian McShane) hassle and berate him, wondering what vengeance he will wreak on the poor fellow who had the audacity to have an affair with his other half.
One of the highlights of the film is a monologue Winstone delivers about what love really means. "It's a beautiful bit of language," he says. And he slips back into character and starts reciting the lines. "I felt her walk in the room and felt her eyes looking back. She's left her tights on the radiator and she gives me a little pat on the bum, and a little smile, just a little smile, a little smile, and it meant the world to me. It meant the f***ing universe." Winstone then turns nasty, as if I am the man who had the affair with his wife. "And then you come along and you f*** it up. I had the world and you took it away from me."
I wonder if it is a piece of dialogue which particularly resonates with him as, away from the screen and the adulation it brings him, he has always come across as a simple family man. He's been married to Elaine for more than 30 years (her family come from Rathfarnham, Co Dublin) and they have three daughters, Lois, 26, (an actress and model), Jaime, 24 (also an actress) and Ellie, 8. He certainly agrees with the description of love in the film and its assertion that marriage is something which requires plenty of hard work.
"Love starts off as lust, I guess, and then after a couple of years -- they call it the honeymoon period -- it becomes love: to have the moments with your wife and she looks at you and smiles at you and you're having fun. It doesn't happen all the time, but those moments when it does happen it makes you feel good. It's what it's all about. [Marriage] is hard work. It's like plumbing. You've got to get under the sink sometimes and get the wrench out because she wants it.
"I happen to like being married and I like the whole concept of family and things. That's called old-fashioned today. I don't think it's old-fashioned. I'm not lonely, and sometimes you don't want to be on your own, but I like that and I enjoy that."
Two of his daughters have followed him into the acting profession (his youngest, currently, "wants to have a vet hotel on the moon"). "They're great," he says with fatherly pride. "It's hard to believe because my middle girl didn't want to act at all. She wanted to direct, but then she did a job and loved it. They're both cracking on. They're so far in front of what I was at their age and probably am now. It gives you a proud feeling."
I wonder if he has seen Jaime in Donkey Punch, last year's film in which, among other things, she's involved in a threesome and meets a violent death. "I haven't seen that," he says. "She doesn't want me to see it for obvious reasons, but I said: 'Babe, look I've been doing this for years. It's all right; it's what you do as an actress.' What she doesn't know is that I've got it at home so I'll have to watch on my own and get over it quickly."
His emphasis on family is something that seems to come from his upbringing in London's East End. He boxed for a time, winning 80 out of 88 bouts, before his parents somehow found the money to send him to drama school. "I think they saw it as a way out for me," he says.
While he subsequently made his name in indigenous British films such as Scum and Nil By Mouth, these days he is one of relatively few actors who seems to successfully keep one foot in the independent cinema of his home country and the other in the big Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Departed and the Indiana Jones revival.
I wonder why he feels he has managed to be successful doing this, when so many others have struggled. "I don't know," he says. "Maybe because I was lucky enough to go and work with people like Scorsese and Spielberg. I worked with Scorsese and then Marty was talking to Steven Spielberg and that's how I got the part in Indiana Jones. It's just word of mouth. Allies, but people you go to work with and they like what you do. I wish I knew what the secret was so I could bottle it and sell it. I love going there and I love working there. As for living there, I don't know. It would be like living above the shop. I live where I live and that's where my family is."
His reputation as a hard man is not, he says, something which bothers him overtly. "I don't really give it a lot of thought to be quite honest with you. If that's how people perceive me then it means you're playing the characters all right. That's all part and parcel of it. What I care about is what they feel at home when I go home at night. It's not that I discard it, it's all part of a persona, but I don't really give it a lot of thought. It makes me laugh. I'm 52 -- if I had to throw a right-hander I'd be out of breath."
As he's got older he has become more and more outspoken. Just last week there were stories in the press where he has railed against politicians and even Celebrity Big Brother. Knife crime, however, has sparked his most impassioned pleas. He has just starred in a movie produced by the father of Harry Potter actor Robert Knox, who was stabbed to death outside a London bar last year. Winstone acted alongside the youngster in King Arthur.
"I got kids, and I've seen it change over the years. Every time I turn on the news someone has got shot or someone has got stabbed, and over nothing. Over things that years ago you would have a little shout across the road and maybe have a little tear up, but now they come up and they stab you. Something's got to be done about it."
His other area of passion, albeit it one with far less serious consequences than knife crime, is West Ham United. Following them, he says, "now that's pain". It is, however, something that sustains him when he's filming in America.
"I go to a little Irish bar down the round on Third Avenue. McCormack's is where I go. Seven o'clock in the morning or whatever it is. You say to yourself, 'I'm not going to have a drink because it's seven in the morning'. Then you think 'well it's three o'clock at home' and so you have a bit of breakfast and they say 'do you want a coffee with that or will you have a vodka and coke?' And you say 'I'll have a vodka and coke' and then you watch the game. It's great. If you're going to watch a game and not be at the ground then do it in a bar in America. It's great days."
It's typical Winstone style. There's no mention of satellite channels in his penthouse apartment. Instead it is a few drinks and a bit of banter down the boozer. It's exactly why he's everyone's favourite geezer.
44 Inch Chest is in cinemas now