Hard man s career comes full circle
Hard man's career comes full circle

As a boy, British actor Ray Winstone got into plenty of trouble. He grew up in council estates and played on old bomb sites. He kicked down doors, told people to "nick off" and even beat them up. He became a schoolboy boxing champion until he was expelled for vandalising the headmaster's car. He never returned to school.

Instead, after several blue-collar jobs, the laddish 20-something found a quid could be made standing around on film and television sets.

"I started out as an extra," Winstone admits from his Essex home, sounding more like a jolly geezer than the grumpy gangsters he often plays on screen.

"The first one I didn't even work on because I turned up late. The second one the director blew a whistle and all these girls stripped off naked. I said to myself 'If this is the film industry, I'm in'."

It was his third job as an extra, however, that really had Winstone hooked.

"The third one was on the old TV series The Sweeney (which ran from 1975 to 1978) and I was still learning the ropes," the 55-year-old recalls. "I had to just sit in a pub with (original stars) John Thaw and Dennis Waterman and say nothing. I wanted to say something but I learnt later that they'd have to pay me an extra 30 quid if I did. So I made sure I got a word in from then on.

"The rest - as they say - is history."

Having now carved a niche playing cold, calculating hard men in films such as Sexy Beast, Edge of Darkness and The Proposition, Winstone admits his latest role in the big-screen version of The Sweeney is some kind of karma.

"I guess doing this movie means I've gone full circle in a way. The Sweeney was ground-breaking stuff. British television was very conservative back then. Then all of a sudden this down-and-dirty show came out and everyone loved it."

"So I jumped at the chance to do The Sweeney movie. I come from the 1970s and I'm a bit of a dinosaur. I've kicked down doors and bashed people up and told them to nick off. So I could bring the old style of policing - which is the flavour of the old Sweeney - to the modern world where it's all politically correct. That's the kind of film we wanted, where an old-school cop clashes with the modern policing ways."

In the film, Winstone takes Thaw's role as detective Jack Regan, who leads London's elite Flying Squad crew of crime fighters. They prefer swinging baseball bats to reading rights. A seemingly routine robbery and murder they investigate puts Regan in the firing line of his officious superiors, who want to close the book on his old-school methods of policing.

Given his reverence for the TV series, Winstone admits he was nervous when it finally came time to shoot the film.

"I thought 'What am I doing?' This was an iconic show with two guys who were the icons of British TV in the 70s. Why would I think I could get away with this? I'm gonna get my a... kicked.

"But you sit down, you regroup and you think about meeting the challenge of making your own film and bringing your own stuff to the table. And you just have a go."

It's that attitude that won Winstone plaudits for his heavyweight performances in acclaimed British films such as Scum and Nil By Mouth. It also endeared him to Hollywood, where the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have deployed his rare ability to mix his bullish presence with comic charm in films such as The Departed, Hugo and the last Indiana Jones film. He's also just wrapped on Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic Noah, playing the trouble-making Tubal-Cain to Russell Crowe's Noah.

"I guess I read scripts and some press my buttons more than others. They catch me by the short and curlies and I want to do it."

Though the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks didn't set out to play stone-cold bad guys, he seems happy to take that mantle now that he's older, wiser and relaxed in his own portly body. In real life, however, Winstone is the opposite. He's chatty, charming and even calls himself, "a softy . . . an old teddy bear". When he's not filming he's being spoilt at home in Essex by his wife of 32 years and their three daughters.

"I'm like a lion that sits under a tree," he says of his home. "They look after me and I love them all to death, but they drive me mad. I've got two pigs and they're women. Our only geezer is my little dog, but even he likes to sit in my chair and think he's me."

'The Sweeney was ground- breaking stuff. British television was very conservative back then.'


The West Australian

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