Posts Tagged ‘Cockney’

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Ray Winstone- The Man ( I had to say that or he’d have me)

March 11, 2008

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Aside from its usual period dramas and flash, empty gangster films, the UK film industry has also managed to continue a longstanding tradition of cinema verite. This began with John Osborne and his emotionally charged kitchen-sink drama, and continued on through the tough and often controversial works of Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. Today, the genre has been very much resuscitated by two movies in particular – Gary Oldmans Nil By Mouth and Tim Roth’s The War Zone. And the star of both, the man chosen to portray the strong, loyal, kind and utterly psychotic Late Nineties British Male? Ray Winstone – seemingly a lucky Cockney journeyman plucked from obscurity for no reason other than the fact that his face fitted. But this is far from true. Winstone has reached this peak by overcoming quite fearsome hurdles in a career stretching back 23 years. The guy is, quite literally, a fighter.

Raymond Andrew Winstone was born on February 19th, 1957, in Hackney, East London. The Winstones were originally from Cirencester – half of the family shifting to London, the other half to Wales. Moving via Plaistow to Enfield when young Ray was 7, his father (also Raymond) ran a fruit and veg business (he’s now a cabbie) while his mother, Margaret, had a job emptying fruit machines. Winstone recalls playing with his friends on bomb sites – until the nation heard the confessions of the Moors Murderers, and all that changed. Raymond was schooled at Edmonton County, which had changed from a Grammar School to a Comprehensive upon his arrival. He didn’t take to academic education, eventually leaving school with a single CSE (Grade 2) in Drama

Drama, he liked. His father would take him to the cinema every Wednesday afternoon (often falling asleep, having been up so early at the markets), and Winstone remembers his first cinematic experience, seeing 101 Dalmations and rushing towards the screen to berate Cruella de Vil. Later, he would witness Albert Finney in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and the bug would bite – “I thought ‘I could be that geezer'”, he said later. Other major influences would be John Wayne and the menacing, unhinged characters of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. So, receiving extra tuition from the drama-teaching mother of a female schoolmate, he took to the stage, appearing as a Cockney newspaper-seller (what else?) in a production of Emile And The Detectives.

Another thing he took to was boxing. Known to his friends as Winnie, at home he was called Little Sugs (his dad already being known as Sugar – after Sugar Ray Robinson). At age 12, Winstone joined the famous Repton Amateur Boxing Club and, over the next 10 years, won 80 out of 88 bouts. At welterweight, he was London Schoolboy Champion of three occasions, fighting twice for England. The experience gave him a valuable perspective on his later career. “If you can get in a ring with 2000 people watching and be smacked around by another guy,” he said “then walking onstage isn’t hard”.

Deciding to pursue Drama, Winstone enrolled at the Corona School in Hammersmith. At £900 a term, it was expensive, considering the average wage was some £36 a week. And Ray was way too much of a rebel to make the most of it. Back then he was a skinhead, into ska and natty tonic suits. Once he turned up to ballet class in a leotard and bovver boots, another time he received an exam mark of zero for reciting passages from Julius Caesar in ripe Cockney. He did make his stage debut proper, in What A Crazy World at Stratford East, but he danced badly and sang terribly, leading his usually-supportive father to say “Give it up, while you’re ahead”.

Then came the crunch. Winstone was not popular with the school establishment, who considered him a bad influence. After some 12 months, he found that he was the only pupil not invited to the Christmas party and decided to take revenge for this slight. Hammering some tacks through a piece of wood, he placed it under the wheel of his headmistress’s car and blew out the tyre. For this, he was expelled. No problem, he wasn’t into it anyway. For a laugh and a farewell drink, he went up to the BBC, where his schoolmates were involved in an audition. Hanging around reception, he flirted with the receptionist and, for an even bigger laugh, wangled his way into an audition of his own. The audition was for one of the most notorious plays in history – Alan Clarke’s Scum – and, because Clarke liked his cocky, aggressive boxer’s walk, he got the part. Amazingly (also considering the part had been written for a Glaswegian), it seemed he was on his way to the top.

He wasn’t – yet, anyway. Due to its sickening violence and outraged condemnation of the borstal service (the government, of course, running that service AND the BBC), Scum was shelved indefinitely. Giving acting up as a bad lot, Winstone retired, working on fruit stalls and as a sales rep. Then, suddenly, Scum was un-shelved. Or rather Clarke managed to get it re-shot as a movie. Winstone was called in again, this time by producer Davina Belling, to re-play the bully Carlin. This led to a part in The Who’s Quadrophenia, and the Belling-produced That Summer – a kind of punky coming-of-age flick set by the seaside. On location in Torquay (in 1979), Winstone met Elaine. They married, had two kids – Lois, born in 1982, and Jaime, born three years later – and, unusually in showbiz, are still married to this day.Still, times were hard. Winstone was bankrupted by the Inland Revenue before his marriage, and again soon afterwards. His near-religious refusal to worry saw him through, as it would his occasional run-ins with the police. Winstone’s face and carriage might win him regular roles as a villainous hard man, but they also attract the attention of the law. As a kid, he was arrested on sus on several occasions. Later, returning from filming an episode of Bergerac on Jersey, he was stopped on suspicion of gun-running. And, a couple of years after that, he spent 72 hours in a Leeds jail, having been “identified” by a member of the public who’d seen an identikit picture of a criminal on Crimewatch UK.After a short run in the TV series Fox, and a role in All Washed Up (alongside Diane Lane, Laura Dern and a hosts of real-life punks like Fee Waybill, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Paul Simonon), Winstone got another big break, being cast as Will Scarlet in the Jason Connery-starring series Robin Hood. He proved immensely popular and enjoyed the role, considering Scarlet to be “the first football hooligan” – though he was not so keen on the dubbed German version, which had him sounding like a “psychotic mincer”. But once the show was over, the parts dried up. He got involved in co-producing Tank Malling, starring Connery, Amanda Donohoe and ex-Page 3 girl Maria Whittaker, and scored a few TV parts – over the years he’s appeared in all manner of shows, including The Sweeney, The Bill, Boon, Fairly Secret Army (as Stubby Collins), Ever Decreasing Circles, Murder Most Horrid, Birds Of A Feather, Minder, Kavanagh QC, Auf Wiedershein Pet and Get Back (with the fledgling Kate Winslet) – but nothing to secure his future. He was increasingly drawn to the theatre, playing in Hinkemann in 1988, then Some Voices in 1994 and Dealer’s Choice and Pale Horse the next year.

And it was in the theatre that it all came good. Winstone was asked to appear in Mr Thomas, a play written by his friend and fellow-Londoner Kathy Burke. The reviews were good, and led to Winstone being cast, alongside Burke, in Gary Oldman’s crushing, claustrophobic drama Nil By Mouth. As a cocaine-fuelled wife-batterer, he was lauded across the board, receiving a BAFTA nomination (he’d actually got one 17 years earlier, as Best Newcomer for That Summer). The psycho tough guy roles would come rolling in – in the likes of Face – but Winstone’s talent for portraying conflicted characters was also recognised, most notably by Tim Roth who cast him in The War Zone as a man who betrays wife Tilda Swinton with his own daughter and simply cannot see anything wrong in his actions. It’s worth noting that both Oldman and Tim Roth were fellow alumni of Alan Clarke. There was one distasteful episode, when Ray did a series of Pils ads where he played upon the phrase Who’s the Daddy, thus undermining the seriousness of both Nil By Mouth and The War Zone. Not good.

Winstone’s obvious toughness would also allow him to play decent men softened by love in romantic comedies like Fanny And Elvis and There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble. In Last Christmas, he even managed to convince as a dead father, now a trainee angel, who returns from heaven to help his young son cope with his bereavement. And he could play second fiddle to other tough guys, in Sexy Beast facing the comically overblown wrath of Ben Kingsley when he refuses to return from the Costa del Crime for one last job.

His career was still on the up. After a brief role alongside Kathy Burke again in the tragi-comic and almost universally slated The Martins, came Last Orders, directed by Fred Schepisi (of Roxanne fame), where he starred alongside the weighty likes of Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, David Hemmings and Tom Courtney. This saw three friends meeting up for the funeral of a fourth (Caine), with Ray playing Caine’s son, Vince. In flashback, the tale of their lives would be told, including that of Vince’s severely handicapped sister, a girl never accepted by her father. Before shooting began, Ray was fearful that meeting these actor-heroes (he loved the likes of Zulu and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner) might turn out to be disappointing. Thankfully, his co-stars were as impressive as he’d hoped.

Next Ray would nab a prime part in Ripley’s Game, the follow-on piece to The Talented Mr Ripley. Here John Malkovich takes over from Matt Damon as the sinister Ripley, playing him as a cold-blooded terror. Ray’s an old friend who asks Ripley to murder some Russian enemies of his – Ripley agrees, as long as Ray persuades poor, innocent Dougray Scott to attempt the murders too (Scott being an enemy of Ripley’s). Ray is superb as the cajoling thug, showing no mercy in bending Scott to his will. Then would come Lenny Blue, the sequel to Tough Love, and the short The Bouncer, finding real feelings in a tough job.

Also on TV, Ray would appear as Henry VIII in a six-part TV series, desperate to beget a son and battling to hold on to an unruly court and kingdom, his situation made all the worse by his inability to control either his wives or his own emotions. Alongside such heavyweights as Charles Dance, Joss Ackland, Sean Bean and Helena Bonham Carter, he put in an excellent performance, showing Henry as exuberant but also paranoid, suspicious and haunted by his own treacheries.

And, having been told by his dad all those years ago to give it up, his stage-work has improved immeasurably too, having in 2000 starred in To The Green Fields Beyond at the Donmar Warehouse – being directed by Sam Mendes, the man behind American Beauty. 2002 would see him at the Royal Court, as Griffin in The Night Heron, then two years later he’d join Kevin Spacey for 24 Hour Plays at the Old Vic, a series of productions that were written, rehearsed and performed in a single day.

Now internationally known, Ray was next chosen by Anthony Minghella to play Teague, the rough Home Guard boss in his civil war drama Cold Mountain. Empowered to execute Confederate deserters, he runs his outfit with relish, killing a mother’s sons before her eyes and also slaughtering a backwards boy. Not believing that Nicole Kidman’s lover Jude Law will return from the war, he sets his sights on winning both Kidman and her land, and proves a thoroughly unpleasant villain.

Perhaps inspired by Kathy Burke and Gary Oldman, Ray now decided to create his own features, setting up Size 9 and Flicks production companies with his long-time agent Michael Wiggs. The first effort would be She’s Gone, where businessman Ray’s young daughter disappears in Istanbul (though filming would be held up by unrest in the Middle East).

In the meantime, there would be more action in King Arthur, where Clive Owen’s Arthur was a Roman general leading Samartian horsemen during the occupation of Britain. Rome is falling, his henchmen are reaching the end of their terms of service and the Saxons are invading. Will he remain behind and lead the Brits in a battle for freedom? Ray would play Bors, one of Arthur’s key knights, in this frantic, romantic drama, produced by the ever-overheated Jerry Bruckheimer. More craziness would follow when Ray provided the voice of Soldier Sam in the long-awaited screen version of The Magic Roundabout.

2005 would provide a neat summation of Winstone’s status in the industry. First he’d skip off to Australia for The Proposition, a seriously gritty Outback tale where he’d play Captain Stanley, obsessed with civilising his new nation, who leaves the comfort of life with wife Emily Watson to hunt down three murderous outlaw brothers – Guy Pearce, Richard Wilson and Danny Huston. Capturing the first two, he strikes a deal with Pearce; hunt down and kill Huston or both he and Wilson will be executed. It was as twisted and violent as you’d expect from the pen of ex-rocker Nick Cave and Winstone was suitably merciless in his law-bringing.

Next would come a part in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, intended to match the success of The Lord Of The Rings franchise. A massive worldwide hit, this would see his War Zone co-star Tilda Swinton bubble with frosty malice as Jadis, the White Witch, with Winstone lending his voice to Mr Beaver, brave enough to shelter the Pevensey kids but also smart enough to scurry away from danger. On TV – for Winstone would still devote time to TV, despite his burgeoning Hollywood reputation – there’d be Vincent, where he play a rough ex-cop-turned-private-dick leading a squad of maverick investigators. It wasn’t a particularly good series, its weak scripts hidden behind a torrent of swearing, but it was popular. The British public, it seemed, now took Winstone’s presence, like that of Helen Mirren, as a sign of high quality.

2006 would see Winstone stick to the same fecund course. Through his own Size 9 Productions he’d deliver the bloody Sweeney Todd, playing the butchering barber as a man destroyed by a traumatic childhood, suffering inner turmoil but killing without conscience. Also on TV would be All In The Game, where he’d play the presurised manager of a failing Premiership football team. Untypically, he’d go way overboard with his performance (and, again, his foul language). In fact, it was a fairly pointless role for Winstone at this stage of his career, and he surely only took it because, as a major fan of West Ham United, he wanted to experience life as a true insider.

On the Silver Screen, he’d still happily slip between the micro and the mega. For his Cold Mountain director Anthony Minghella, he’d pop up in Breaking And Entering, playing a curious cop investigating a burglery at architect Jude Law’s office (Law then doing some investigating of his own and winding up in a relationship with Bosnian refugee Juliette Binoche). Then would come another prestigious part, this time in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, where cop Leonardo DiCaprio would infiltrate Jack Nicholson’s criminal gang and crook Matt Damon would sneak into the police. Nicholson would win huge plaudits for his psychotic and depraved display, and he’d be well backed by Winstone as his suspicious, vicious henchman Mr French.

Somehow – probably because Americans had been so impressed by Sexy Beast – Winstone had risen to unlikely Hollywood heights. And he’d maintain this position in 2007 when taking the title role, alongside Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, in Beowulf, where director Robert Zemeckis would recount the ancient saga using the same motion capture techniques he’d used to such success with The Polar Express. But Winstone, being Winstone, would remain resolutely indie, too, rejoining Nick Cave for the saucy British comedy Death Of A Ladies’ Man, where he’d be a travelling beauty products salesman preying on lonely women.

Having struggled so hard for so long, Ray Winstone’s feet are firmly on the ground. He lives with Elaine in Roydon, Essex, and keeps up the physical training, being a regular at Ricky English’s gym in Watford (English is the guy who trained Brad Pitt for his part in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch). He supports his children (in 2006 Jaime would star in the tough East End drama Kidulthood). And he loves music, sharing his dad’s love of crooners, but also enjoying the soul of Motown, Al Green, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, as well as punky London poets like Paul Weller, Madness and the late lamented Ian Dury.

Having taken a fearful battering in the middle rounds of his life, Little Sugs has come off the ropes swinging. Here’s one guy who WON’T be shouting “No mas”.

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