Ray Winstone is delicately splashing chilli oil on to a slice of pepperoni pizza and describing the time he drunkenly told an NYPD officer to fuck off. “It must’ve been 1980, and I was walking down the road in New York at about three o’clock in the morning,” he says, that distinctive East End croak burbling up from deep within him. “I’m wearing a bright-red suit. A police car spins round, pulls up and the guy goes, ‘Where you going, bud?’ I went, ‘Fuck off, I’m going to my hotel.’ Because that was how we talked to the police back home.
“He goes, ‘Get in the car.’ I say, ‘I ain’t getting in the fucking car.’ He insists: ‘Get in the car.’ So I go, ‘Why?’ And he says, ‘Because you’re going to get killed walking around here, sir.’” Winstone lets out a big laugh, and takes a bite of pizza. “I was basically walking around with a pound sign on me head, so they took me to my hotel.”
This is just one tale that neatly illustrates the 60-year-old Homerton-born performer’s existence. His life story is peppered with moments of benevolent intervention. And now, 38 years after his cosh-wielding film debut in Scum, this former schoolboy boxer has bobbed and weaved his way through bankruptcy, on-set disputes, wayward years and the odd Hollywood misfire to emerge, in 2017, as a rejuvenated force, visibly happy to be talking about one of his most quietly powerful performances in years. “What a lucky boy,” he says, reaching for his pack of Benson & Hedges and smiling broadly from the sunny terrace of an east London flat.
The film we’re here to talk about is Jawbone, a semi-autobiographical star vehicle (and screenwriting debut) for This Is England actor Johnny Harris about an alcoholic former boxer called Jimmy McCabe who drifts back to his old club and is offered a shot at redemption in the amateur ring. Winstone plays Bill, McCabe’s grizzled trainer/father figure, and while it’s a well-worn tale (think Rocky with a bottle of Glen’s Vodka in its hand), Jawbone boasts a bruising soulfulness, original songs by Paul Weller and an honesty that personally spoke to the former welterweight currently sitting opposite me.
“It’s my world and [Johnny’s] world as well,” says Winstone. “I was an alright boxer but John was a hell of a fighter, and his trainer and my trainer were good friends. What these trainers do is take boys from the streets and give them a discipline and something to live for. It’s close to my heart, so the film meant something to me and it was done in the right way.” Winstone threw all his lived experience at the role (“I’ve still got the moves in the ring, they’re just an hour behind everyone else’s,” he laughs) and this understated understanding comes across on screen. To see him, as Bill, doling out gruff ringside wisdom and improvising warm-up scenes with young boxers – particularly after creaky recent films like The Sweeney and the Point Break remake – is to see him return to the indomitable vintage of Nil By Mouth and Sexy Beast. It’s a role he’s already regarding as a significant career turning point.
“It gave me a little buzz again,” he notes. “I’ve been doing lots of studio [projects], and the way they work can be soul-destroying. And because of what’s going on in the industry today, with the films made by Marvel and all that, you wonder: is there room for a film like this? I hope so, because it’s a proper bit of work.” Is it fair to say he’d grown disillusioned? “You do kind of fall out of love with the game,” he admits. “I think you do in any job. Things change. Scripts aren’t what they used to be for my age group. They’re very studio-directed and you haven’t got a chunk of it, so you don’t get a feel for the whole film. Then when you get into it you get sent home for two weeks.”
As the working-class son of a greengrocer, Winstone is too grounded to complain about his privileged lot (“Look, I could be unemployed or digging an’ ’ole for a living”), but he paints a vivid portrait of life as a disposable cog in the blockbuster machine. Particularly when remembering his time on the set of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull with the late John Hurt.
“Me and Johnny [Hurt] were next to each other all the time, having a fag and fucking everyone off,” he cackles. “I’ll never forget, in Hawaii, there was a big hurricane coming in and everyone fucked off and left all the actors. They went off in their private jets! We had to make our own way to airports to find a plane and get out. ‘Oh, the actors are insured, it doesn’t matter.’ Well, f*ck you, do you know what I mean?”
It’s not just the bewildering process of large-scale filmmaking – and occasional exposure to unpredictable weather patterns – that Winstone finds perplexing about the modern movie business. As more pizza arrives (alongside a bowl of salad that remains resolutely untouched) we talk about the pressure on today’s leading men to be muscle-bound action figures made of flesh. “It’s part and parcel of the job today,” he says, in between bites. “It’s a look. But the trouble is everyone starts to look the same. Which is OK because films about the guy next door are few and far between now. I was lucky enough to come out just after the Sixties, when ‘kitchen sink’ dramas like Look Back In Anger and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner had come out. Films like that are rare these days. Us old boys can kind of get away with it, but if I wanted to be an actor today, I’d have to train.”
He even acknowledges that, regardless of his career, he’d probably be chugging protein shakes with the best of them if he were a young man now. “If you’re going to the cinema and watching some guy pulling birds because he’s ripped and looking the bollocks, that’s what you’re gonna do,” he reasons. “Because, at the end of the day, men are hunters.”
In any case, the wilder elements of Winstone’s youth – getting expelled from school for vandalising a teacher’s car, say – seemed to lend his pivotal early roles a fearsome authenticity. He’s candid about the fact the initial success that followed Scum led to an unruly period coloured by physical altercations with directors and late nights out before a day on set. He once even made the mistake of preceding one performance in a 1986 play (Kathy Burke’s Mr Thomas) with a full-blooded afternoon pub session. “I went out on stage that night and thought I was brilliant,” he remembers, laughing. “But we finished the play something like 35 minutes early. Kathy went, ‘You cut a whole fucking scene.’ So she wrote the scene out of the play just to punish me.”
This hellraising, he admits, is long behind him (“It takes me a few days to get over a night out now”). And the second uptick in his career – triggered by that reunion with Burke in Nil By Mouth and continued through Cold Mountain, The Departed and plenty more – seems to have coincided with a mellowing of character. He may specialise in onscreen hotheads but, in person, Winstone takes a philosophical approach to most things. Films that didn’t quite come together the way he hoped were “a learning curve”; Jack Nicholson – who he didn’t gel with on The Departed – is “fabulous to watch but not my cup of tea”; a recent loss for his beloved West Ham is OK because “the boys had a go”.
Even a missed chance to star in The Wire – he was reportedly offered the role of Jimmy McNulty before it went to Dominic West – isn’t a source of regret. “I didn’t want to go to Baltimore for four years,” he says, tugging on another cigarette. “My kids were at an age where I wouldn’t have seen them [growing up]. You make these decisions. My career’s been fine and the programme was brilliant the way it was. I would’ve come at the character a different way and might’ve fucked it up.” Family, it’s clear, is important to this dad of three. He swerved a Hollywood relocation (“It’s basically like living in the shop,” he sniffs) and instead lives in Essex with his wife of nearly 40 years, his two younger daughters (Ellie and actress Jaime), son-in-law and one-year-old grandson, Little Raymond.
Despite joking that – in this sitcom-ready set-up – he’s “just a grumpy old man”, Winstone calls himself a feminist (“I’ve got no choice – I’m a feminist because I was made into one”) and notes that a proximity to the politics and beliefs of a younger generation can only be a good thing. “They’ve got to be there to educate you,” he says. “The world is changing, and if your kids aren’t more open about it than you are then you’ve done something wrong as a parent.”
So, as our time together comes to an end, what does this new world hold for an old-fashioned onscreen force like Winstone? Well, he’s hopeful that the momentum from Jawbone will lead straight into a role alongside Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent and Michael Gambon in a proposed film based on the Hatton Garden heist. “At the moment we’re still in negotiations, but I’ve read the script and it’s blinding,” he says, with tentative excitement. “It’s basically about old boys who’ve still got dreams.” In the immediate future, though, he’s returning to one of his stranger modern roles: namely, his long-running sideline as the ever-bellowing face (and giant floating head) of the Bet365 ads. He’s booked in to film the latest one tomorrow, and brushes aside any criticism about the ethics of advertising gambling (“I’ve never done insurance and I wouldn’t do banks”). But does he not worry about it tarnishing his reputation? Or about it detracting from his film work? Doesn’t he get sick of people yelling “have a bang on that” at him in the street?
“Listen, I’ve been getting up and going to work every day since I was 17,” he says, with a calm smile. “Every penny I’ve earned, I’ve worked for. I’m only a kid from Plaistow who educated himself along the way and got a lot of help. You can’t begrudge anyone that. People can do what they like.” The grin widens. “I’ll have a bang on that all day long.”
Jawbone is at selected cinemas 12 May