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Ray Winstone: The Interview

East London’s favourite son, Ray Winstone, talks life lessons and his latest film Jawbone

I wasn’t a rebel, I just thought it was a load of bollocks,” says Ray Winstone, of his teenage drama school days. Sat in leather armchairs at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, Winstone, wearing dark sunglasses and Crockett & Jones boots, begins to regale tales of his youth.

Born in Hackney Hospital in 1957 to Raymond, a greengrocer and, later, a taxi driver, and mother Margaret, Winstone grew up near West Ham Park and then Enfield. He has fond memories from childhood, particularly of playing in the streets before everyone had cars – until the Moors murders of the 1960s made parents a little more fearful about letting their children out to play. 

Aged 12, Winstone started boxing at the illustrious Repton Boxing Club in Bethnal Green, which was a breeding ground for champions and a second home to the Kray twins. Winstone’s father knew the Krays, and as a six-month-old baby, Winstone urinated on Ronnie Kray’s new trench coat – luckily, he saw the funny side.

“Boxing is and was a big thing for the East End, and my family. Today, a lot of boys come out of deprived areas and boxing clubs are an escape from the street,” says Winstone. As a welterweight fighter he went on to become schoolboy champion, winning 80 out of 88 fights. “Forget about the actual boxing, or who becomes world champion, it was a way of gaining discipline. When people don’t know about boxing, the first thing they talk about is the brutality, but it’s the making of you as a person and an awareness of what’s around you that’s important.”

I ask Winstone why he didn’t pursue a career in the sport. “I was never going to be a professional fighter. I wasn’t good enough or dedicated enough. But what it did do for me was give me a work ethic, and a respect for others.”

His latest film Jawbone, which is released on 12 May, harks back to Winstone’s boxing past. It tells the story of a former amateur boxing champion Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) hitting rock bottom – his vice being alcohol. Things couldn’t get much worse for McCabe and we see him homeless by eviction and turning to swigging bottles of vodka by the Thames. In this time of despair, he turns to his childhood boxing club, owned by William, or Bill as he’s known (played by Winstone). He gets back into training to regain his place in the boxing world.

A tale of broken dreams and redemption, Jawbone is as much of a film about boxing as it is a distressing narrative of an alcoholic’s plight. Also written by Harris, a good friend of Winstone, the film is vaguely autobiographical – Harris was a boyhood boxer and homeless, before, of course, his celebrated acting career (which includes London to Brighton and This is England ’86, ’88 and ’90). 

“When he approached me, it was just an idea, there was no script, but I said yes anyway. Eventually the script came through, and it was really beautiful. It gives you that buzz again,” Winstone says. Of course, Winstone has been on the receiving end of a boxing trainer, but how did he translate this into his performance. “My character is based on Harris’s real-life boxing trainer, Mick Carney and mine, Tony Burns. It’s an amalgamation.They had different ways of going to work but they were both men who didn’t have a lot to say, until they had something to say,” he says with a grin. “These were men who gave kids a better way of life and an education in life, so I have the utmost respect for them. They sacrifice their lives, although wouldn’t see it as that, but they give it all to training and guiding young men.”

Did he feel pressured then to represent such a person? “The biggest challenge of the movie was doing them justice. You stand by what you’re doing but you also always question it. You have to be brave enough to make a decision and say ‘this is the way I’m going to do it’.” 

Winstone’s time in the ring as a young boy has had an effect on him, outside the ring, too. “When you’re a boxer, you have a false confidence,” he starts to tell me. “You still stick your chest out. You can learn to lie about it. I’m not the most confident person in the world but I can give off the air that I am. That gets you through the front door – and then you’ve got a chance of making it.”

The film is firmly rooted in reality and its portrayal of one man’s plight and journey through addiction is raw and sincere. “There’s a depression about having nothing and trying to find your way in the world. You only have to walk around here [Shoreditch] to see what I mean. It’s 2017, and it isn’t getting any better. What’s to be done?” he asks. “People make promises when they get into power, but they never follow them up. It’s like fraud in a way.” 

Jawbone is just the start of Winstone’s impressive career résumé, but he didn’t have the most positive start on his journey to becoming an actor. When he decided as a teenager this was the industry he wanted to pursue, his parents scraped money together to send him to Corona Theatre School in Hammersmith. “I came from a different world, I wasn’t ready to conform,” he tells me. “That was me being ignorant. But I was a kid, I was 17, and I hadn’t been out in the big wide world yet.”

He was expelled in 1976, after puncturing a teacher’s tyre because he had found out that he was the only pupil not invited to the Christmas party. He went to meet up with his schoolmates who were auditioning for Alan Clarke’s Scum, a British film about life inside a borstal. He flirted with the receptionist, wrangled an audition and landed the lead part of Carlin.

I ask him if were to give his younger self a piece of advice, what would it be? I assumed he would say something along the lines of “keep your head down and work hard”. He replied: “I wouldn’t, I’d do it exactly the same way. It stands you in good stead and you shouldn’t learn everything overnight.” Winstone also tells me he believes in fate too – which is what led him to the Scum role. “You don’t always have to be a good boy to have a bit of luck,” he laughs. Following this, he landed a part in Quadrophenia and another film called That Summer, which he received a BAFTA for Best Newcomer. It’s starting to feel like maybe Winstone was right about this luck malarkey. 

The next four decades were to be filled with success with a few milestones on his CV which make for impressive reading. From Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth to Sexy Beast, The Sweeney to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Winstone has had a smorgasbord of a career. But is there a role that he’d like to get his hands on? “Tim Roth and I talked about doing King Lear – I’d like to play Lear. I’ve thought about playing Winston Churchill too, but I’ve just seen my old mate Gary [Oldman] doing it [in the upcoming release of The Darkest Hour] and he’s brilliant, so that’s gone out the window. He’s absolutely kicked the shit out of it.” 

Winstone doesn’t feel like your archetypal actor when I meet him. His answers are crammed with honesty – rather than media-trained patter trying to sell his movie. Prior to meeting him, I thought perhaps his ‘tough guy’ persona that I see in his work would reflect in to real life, dismissive maybe. But he’s the complete opposite. He’s warm and loving – especially when I ask him about his one-year-old grandson, also named Raymond. He melts when he mentions him. “He is mint, he’s walking and has started talking and giggles – he’s fantastic,” he beams. “It’s also good to have a boy around me after all the girls.” Winstone is a father to three women, Ellie, Lois and Jaime, you see. 

Downtime is important to him, and he describes to me his perfect weekend. “Going to watch West Ham win and then going for dinner at Smith’s in Ongar, or the River View in Wapping is really good too – they do old-fashioned style chinese… baked crab and all that.”

I have one last question for him: who will play you in your biopic? Without any hesitation, he answers. “Brad Pitt. He looks a bit like me,” he replies. “What about a younger you?” I ask. “Tom Hardy.” 

Jawbone is releasing in cinemas from 12th May, and will be available on DVD from 5th June