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‘I don’t like arrogance’: Ray Winstone on healing Guy Ritchie rift and acting with Jack Nicholson

Ray Winstone: ‘There’s no need for it... this feeling of being above everyone else. We all end up in the same hole in the ground’  (Getty)
Ray Winstone: ‘There’s no need for it... this feeling of being above everyone else. We all end up in the same hole in the ground’ (Getty)

Mind your own business!” bellows Ray Winstone. “What are you, a policeman?” He’s kidding. I think. We’re doing an interview to promote Guy Ritchie’s new Netflix TV series, The Gentlemen, and the London-born star is reacting to my inquisitiveness, but with a bit of prodding, he’s prepared to share his views on Jack Nicholson, the Oscars and a certain actor who insulted him in front of 250 people and is going to suffer the consequences (“He was rude. He was f***ing ’orrible... but his time will come!”). When it comes to fighting talk, Winstone’s the daddy.

Born into an East End family, 67-year-old Winstone’s been acting since his teens and, with the help of Alan Clarke, Gary Oldman and Jonathan Glazer, revolutionised British cinema. In the past couple of decades, everyone from Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg to Darren Aronofsky and Robert Zemeckis has fought to work with him, though the receptionist at the Corinthia Hotel fails to get even the tiniest bit excited when I mention his name. Ray Winstone, the insouciantly pugnacious star of ultra-violent classics Scum, Nil by Mouth and Sexy Beast? “Sorry,” the receptionist says, “I’m 21. I don’t watch old movies!”

As it happens, Winstone’s in a ton of new movies (including Damsel, with Stranger Things’s Millie Bobby Brown and A Bit of Light, opposite True Blood’s Anna Paquin). And The Gentlemen is getting a huge push. A spin-off from Ritchie’s highly profitable 2020 crime caper, it features Winstone as Bobby Glass, a patrician west London gangster forced to do business with a resourceful toff, Eddie Horniman (The White Lotus’s Theo James).

Glass hosts a gourmet winter BBQ and when he first meets Eddie, purrs, “Put your legs under the table. Warm your knees.” Today, slick in dark glasses, Winstone says, “Sit your bum down!” He sees that I’m having mint tea. “Smells nice! It’s good for you, isn’t it? Helps you digest.” Having joked that it’s a bit early for champagne, he gulps sparkling water, while keeping a tight grip on his vape.

He explains why it’s taken so long for him to collaborate with Ritchie. “We haven’t always had the best relationship, put it that way. It was back when we were younger, but then you grow up.” Why did they row? Winstone pretends to pull a stern face. “Stop being a journalist! I’ve given you enough!”

Winstone has said, in previous interviews, that he relishes playing characters who aren’t gangsters. Anyone who’s compared and contrasted the dysfunctional fathers he plays in Nil by Mouth, Tim Roth’s The War Zone and Alzheimer’s drama Ashes knows how flexible Winstone can be, as capable of heart-pinching pathos as he is of grizzled bellicosity and spite. I’ve always thought Winstone would make a fabulous King Lear and, it turns out, Winstone agrees. In case you’re wondering, he wouldn’t change a word of the text. (“It’s very cleverly written, innit, by a very clever man … I’d wanna go back to the nitty gritty of no mobile phones, just concentrate on this family and do it down and dirty.”)

Glass act: Winstone in the Guy Ritchie spin-off ‘The Gentlemen’ (Netflix)
Glass act: Winstone in the Guy Ritchie spin-off ‘The Gentlemen’ (Netflix)

Here’s my question: if Winstone had the chance to make a movie version of Lear, would he want Guy Ritchie to direct it or Gary Oldman, the visionary south Londoner behind Nil by Mouth? “With Guy, who’s brilliant at what he does, he heightens everything,” Winstone muses. “He’d give it pace. Someone like Gary would be much more into the reality side of things. It depends what alley you want to go down. I think, for my style, I’d probably go with Gary.” Winstone sits up straight and says, firmly, “I’d want to do it with Gary! But then again…” He smiles, craftily: “If it was only offered by Guy, I’d go with Guy.” Winstone tips his head to one side and adopts a cutesy, finger-in-dimple kind of voice, “Because that’s the kind of guy I am!”

Winstone had beef with Jack Nicholson on the set of Scorsese’s Oscar-winning 2006 thriller The Departed (during a Bafta Q&A, in 2014, Winstone described Nicholson as arrogant). Asked, now, why Nicholson might have taken a dislike to him, Winstone says, “I have no idea, babe. You always look at yourself on set and think, ‘Ooh, I’m alright. I get on with everyone. I do what I gotta do and boom, I go home.’ But it doesn’t worry me. It doesn’t shock me. You clash a little bit. He’s not the first person I’ve clashed with. He won’t be the last.” He’d love to make another film with the Hollywood legend. “Of course I want to work with him again! He’s a fantastic actor!”

Dig a little bit deeper, though, and you get a sense of why Winstone was willing to go public about Nicholson’s behaviour: “I don’t like arrogance,” he explains. “There’s no need for it. This kind of feeling of being above everyone else. We all end up in the same hole in the ground. But some people have this smarmy little side mouth. You know, they make cracks for everyone else, but not for you. You think, ‘Oh, really?’ And there’s different ways of dealing with that. You either say your piece and tell them to shut the f*** up. Or you punch them in the mouth.”

Thick as thieves: Jack Nicholson and Ray Winstone in ‘The Departed’ (Andrew Cooper/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Thick as thieves: Jack Nicholson and Ray Winstone in ‘The Departed’ (Andrew Cooper/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Yikes! Winstone quickly points out there’s a third way. He mimes wiping his hands, in a state of Zen-like calm and explains that, especially nowadays, he’s able to regulate his emotions. So he’s learnt to forgive and forget? Er, not quite. “I worked with some guy, who’s quite high up,” says Winstone, “and I haven’t seen him since I worked with him, but I’m looking forward to seeing him. He knows who he is. And he’s gonna get a real tug from me. Cos he was rude, he was f***ing ’orrible.” What’s a tug? “He’s gonna get pulled to one side. Because you don’t want to do that in front of a crew of 250 people. I just looked at him. But his time will come. And he’ll get it.” Is this man English or American? With exquisite comic timing, Winstone replies, “It don’t matter. English.”

Sophistication’s not about money. You either got it or you ain’t. Someone from the East End can put on a plastic bag and look absolutely fantastic

Winstone insists he doesn’t enjoy conflict but concedes he gets a kick out of testing boundaries. He describes “winding up” director, Ian Rickson, when they were working on the 1995 play Pale Horse at the Royal Court Upstairs. It’s a tiny venue (as Winstone says, “You’re very close to the audience, they’re all around ya”). One scene involved him lying on a bed and, on several occasions, Winstone threw his arm out so it landed on the lap of someone in the audience. Winstone giggles. “The director, he used to say to me, ‘No, Ray, don’t do that!’” Winstone, while making a phone call on stage, would also deliberately make eye contact with the theatregoers. “You catch someone’s eye. So it’s like you’re talking to them, on the phone. Rickson says, ‘You mustn’t do that, Ray! You’re making the audience uncomfortable.’”

Winstone knew exactly what he was doing: “I was breaking rules. Taking away that voyeur thing.” He clicks his fingers and performs a shiver: “I loved it. That little moment of shock. You could feel it go through the audience!” What was he trying to tell these people? Winstone leans forward and, even through his dark glasses, his eyes are shining: “‘Wake up!’” He clicks his fingers again. “‘I’m ’ere!’”

The sparkling water, by the way, is playing havoc with Winstone’s insides. Midway through telling me how lovely it was to work with Rickson and the rest of the crew, Winstone lets out an almighty belch. “Scuse me,” he guffaws, “I’m burping!”

Never a man to stand on ceremony, he claims he’s not intimidated by wealth or prestige. He says, “Sophistication’s not about money. You either got it or you ain’t. Someone from the East End can put on a plastic bag and look absolutely fantastic and some people can wear a three-piece suit, made in Savile Row, and look like a bag of s***.”

Making his point: Ray Winstone in ‘Nil by Mouth’ (Jack English/Group Ltd/Luc Besson/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Making his point: Ray Winstone in ‘Nil by Mouth’ (Jack English/Group Ltd/Luc Besson/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Having a laugh is what gets Winstone through the day. And he thinks fun is what’s missing from a lot of modern life, including awards shows like the Baftas and Oscars. “I used to go to the Baftas. I liked it when you’re sitting round the table as the awards are given out, sitting there with your mates. You have a drink. You get rowdy. But now the Baftas has become like the Oscars, where you’re just sitting down for three and a half to four hours. Do you really wanna do that? To watch someone else win an award? F*** off! It’s like putting red hot pokers in your eye!” He sucks on his vape. “I’m just getting old and grumpy, I suppose. I just don’t want to sit there for four hours, at my age, dying to have a wee. Done up in a bow tie. F***ing really?”

Still, he’d be pleased if he was nominated. Especially for an Oscar. “F***, yeah!” He shifts his seat, so he’s looking right at me. “Listen, I’m not gonna get an Oscar. And that’s fine. Babe, it’s fine! I have no problem with that. I won’t lose no sleep over it. I’m just saying I wouldn’t turn it down.”

He’s chuffed Jonathan Glazer’s leftfield Holocaust epic, The Zone of Interest, is getting so much attention and says he’s desperate to see it. He hasn’t, as yet, because “I’ve been working and the last thing I want to do is go and watch something when I’m working... But I must go and see Johnny’s film because he’s one of the cleverest boys I know.”

Beast of Eden: Ray Winstone as an ex-gangster in Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Sexy Beast' (Kanzaman/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Beast of Eden: Ray Winstone as an ex-gangster in Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Sexy Beast' (Kanzaman/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Winstone is just as keen to praise clever girls. Of his Nil by Mouth co-star Kathy Burke, he says, “I worked on a play she done, Mr Thomas. She used to tell me off something rotten sometimes but I’ve always loved her to death. She’s probably one of my favourites who I’ve ever worked with. She’s a remarkable girl. A remarkable woman. Yes, she’s funny, but there’s also lots of other sides to Kathy.” He doesn’t know if they’ll collaborate again. “Working with the same people all the time, I’m not sure that’s up her street.” He adopts a Twilight Zone voice: “Who knows what goes on in Kathy’s head?”

Who knows what goes on in Ray’s head? He and his wife, Elaine, have three daughters (including Jaime, a star in her own right) and one grandchild. During Covid, Winstone spent a chunk of time by himself, in the family’s second home in Sicily, and started writing a script about Repton, the boxing club where he trained as a teen. “How’d you know about that?” he says, tittering. “Yeah, I got a little thing.”

For the first time in the interview, he emits something close to a sigh. “I haven’t shown it to anyone yet. I’m going to show it to my mate, first, who is a writer who boxed for Fitzroy Lodge and a very clever boy. I want him to tell me what he thinks.” What’s his name? I’m pretty sure it’s Johnny Harris, with whom Winstone worked on the bleak boxing and addiction drama Jawbone. “I’m not telling you!”

The electrifyingly clever Winstone wants to break down boundaries and get real but is in no rush to bare his soul. As he says, before warmly shaking my hand, “Got to have a few secrets, ain’t ya?”

All eight episodes of ‘The Gentlemen’ premiere on Netflix on 7 March