BAFTA’s latest Life In Pictures conversation featured British screen icon Ray Winstone, who proved a big draw despite the unseasonably warm October afternoon. With no new title to stump for (although he did mention his upcoming childhood-focused autobiography Young Winstone), the veteran instead entertained the crowd with a freewheeling look at his four-decade-long career, which includes prominent roles in films such as Noah, The Departed, and Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
While he had plenty of quips about his adventures in Hollywood – including an uncanny Martin Scorsese impression – Winstone spoke passionately about his work in British cinema.
Famous for playing East End tough guys – “My wife asked me why I always walk in a room looking like I’m going to kill someone” – Winstone waxed lyrical about Gary Oldman’s work directing him in the gritty 1997 drama Nil By Mouth.
That film unflinchingly looks at the horrors of domestic and alcohol abuse. Winstone called Oldman “the best director I’ve ever worked with.” High compliments indeed from a man who was been directed by Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Darren Aronofsky.
“Gary let me off the leash,” Winstone said, referring to a particularly memorable scene in which his character drunkenly lashes out. Winstone said he had been drinking prior to filming that scene, all in the name of artistic authenticity, but he also told the audience how important it is for actors not to cross the line.
Fondly remembering his East London childhood, where he “saw more films then than I do now,” Winstone credited boxing with giving him the self-discipline and self-respect to become an actor.
Inspired by the wave of 1960s realist actors who broke through the class ceiling – including Albert Finney, Michael Caine and Richard Harris – Winstone’s big break came with the role of a young offender in Alan Clarke’s seminal 1979 prison drama Scum.
“I was the last person Clarkey saw, and I got the part because he liked the way I walked down the corridor,” joked Winstone. “It had nothing to do with my acting abilities.”
Putting the self-deprecation to one side, Winstone’s filmography reads like a Who’s Who of British movie making, appearing opposite the likes of Caine, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins in such projects as Last Orders, Sexy Beast and Beowulf. Winstone even played the King of England in TV miniseries Henry VIII.
He reserved particular praise for Robert Zemeckis’ trailblazing motion-capture CGI adaptation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf.
“That’s my favorite way to make movies,” said Winstone, who was transformed into a buffed-up warrior capable of defeating one murderous monster and entrancing another. “Your imagination explodes. You’ve got 180 cameras on you and for six weeks, you’re actually playing out the scene. You’re knocking out three big scenes a day.”
As for his love interest in the film, a certain Angelina Jolie, Winstone had nothing but carefully understated praise. “It’s all right kissing what’s-her-name.”
Describing the experience of working with Scorsese on The Departed, Winstone joked about how he had originally been approached to play the role of a policeman.
“But I wanted to play the bad guy,” he said. “I didn’t want to play the cop.” Scorsese agreed to re-write the role of Jack Nicholson’s right-hand man, called Mr. French, specifically for Winstone.
Working with Spielberg on Indiana Jones, “so I could be in a film my kids could watch where there was no swearing,” was a highlight. When it came to his villainous character Tubal-cain, matched opposite Russell Crowe in Noah, Winstone had an interesting take. “I actually thought I was the good guy in that,” Winstone said. “My character wants to save the human race. Noah just wanted to save the animals.”
As for why he finds himself attracted to playing gangsters and bad guys, Winstone had the perfect answer: “There’s a bit of bad guy in all of us.”
Having working with Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers and stars, Winstone was equally passionate about the depth of talent coming out of Britain. His one main business-related comment was the lack of British cinemas catering to independent local films.
“In France and Germany, they have their own cinemas, they can watch their own films,” Winstone said in a rare moment of seriousness. “In this country, there’s only a few independent cinemas left. We need places to show our films. Otherwise, what’s the point?”