Ray Winstone is one of those brilliant actors who has a chameleonic ability to totally lose himself in his characters (whether it’s the retired thief in Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant “Sexy Beast” or the Bostonian gangster in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”), while remaining 100% Winstonian. In his new film, “The Sweeney,” an adaptation of a hugely influential ’70s British cop series, Winstone plays Jack Regan, a morally nebulous leader of a crack crime force. We got to talk to the actor about adapting such an iconic series, what it was like working with British rapper Plan B, and how he goes about choosing his roles. We also bugged him about motion capture animation, the fate of Nick Cave’s “The Death of Bunny Munro,” what “Noah” was like, and if he had any dirt on filming the infamous “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (yes he was in that).
In “The Sweeney,” Winstone took over the role from John Thaw (who continued the character later in television movies), a character who seems to drunkenly walk the very blurry line between cop and criminal, while still trying to hold up the code of law. (Damian Lewis, in a post-“Homeland” role, plays his scowling boss.) The character seems to fall in line with the Winstone ethos of a conflicted character who very much has a sense of purpose and direction, no matter how flawed. We were eager to talk to the actor about what the original series meant to him, and where the character fit in with his filmography.
What drew you to “The Sweeney?” Were you a fan of the original show?
Yeah, it was one of the most iconic shows – it was so different and in front of its time, really. It changed the face of British TV. At that time, in the ’70s, it was a breath of fresh air that came. They were good in their own way, these other shows, were kind of kitchen sink dramas and “The Sweeney” was real working class stuff and blew everybody away. So when it came to doing the movie, 40 years later, you have to sit down and say, ‘Well, why are we trying to make a film of this?’ You’ve got to step back and make it your own. I think after a couple of days, we realized we were doing really good shop. And it was enjoyable – when you turn up every day and your director is wearing pajamas, you know you’re going to have fun.
Was there any trepidation on your part? Did you worry it was too iconic?
Yeah, there was. There was a moment of – “Am I mad?” Because John Thaw as the original Jack Regan was so good, I wondered if I could go in and play it. But you get over that because as an actor you’ve got to bring something of your own to it, you’ve got to make it your own. Of course, there was that moment of trepidation.
In general – how do you decide what roles you’re going to take on?
Usually when you get a script – I mean sometimes you do a job because you’ve got to pay the rent, there aren’t that many scripts around that are great. I’ve just been lucky in my career because a lot of scripts I’ve read you pick it up and read it to the end. And you want to do them for that reason. With “The Sweeney,” for me, it was mostly the name and the challenge of trying to remake something that was so iconic while trying to bring something new to it. So that’s slightly different from the norm. I felt something there was actually something there that I could use and make work. As I’ve said, sometimes there’s a script that might not totally work but you’ve got kids who have got to go to school and put food on the table and pay the rent.
You’ve played really good guys and really bad guys and your character in “The Sweeney” is somewhere in-between. Do you like that moral ambiguity or do you prefer playing characters who are more oversized?
Well, you pick up a script and go, “I’m playing the bad guy because it’s written like the bad guy.” But I’ll sometimes say, well, I’ll play him like a good guy and let the story tell you he’s a bad guy and that makes it more interesting for me. With Regan, for me, he’s got these great moments when all is going well and you think, “well maybe I don’t like this guy.” But when it’s all going wrong and he does still want to keep the streets clean and make the world a better place, that’s when you see the real Regan and you say, “I wish he was on my side.”
What was it like working with Plan B?
Little Benny Drew? I was lucky enough to have met him a couple of times before and I had seen it in “Harry Brown” with Michael Caine. He’s got some weight to him, I mean he couldn’t kick a door down, but he’s one of those kids when he goes in there’s no half measures – he wants to do it well. And he’s one of these actors who is going to get better and better and better.
You recently filmed “Noah” with Darren Aronofsky.
Yeah, I play Tubal-Cain, and we shot it in Long Island and I think we made a really good film. Russell Crowe was a pleasure to work with and Aronofsky was great to work with as well. I was lucky enough to be on that little film. I enjoyed every moment of it.
Have you seen any of it yet?
No. It’s going to take about a year to edit and put everything in. I’m sure by the time I’ve forgotten all about it, I’ll be called in to do some ADR work on it.
Are you still attached to “The Death of Bunny Munro?” I know it’s kind of moved from film to television.
Yeah I’m still talking to John Hillcoat and Nick Cave. It’s something I’ve been looking at for about five years. It’s a really dark piece and I’m not getting any younger and I think it’s just about fine-tuning. Johnny ain’t got time to direct it at the moment and he’s off doing other things so we’ve got to find another director. I think it’s a great piece of work. When I worked with Nick Cave on “The Proposition,” I thought, “Well this is good but let’s see what the next one looks like.” And he’s one of these guys who keeps getting better and better and better. This guy can really write. So that’s something I’d like to do in the next couple of years.
You were one of the first actors to do motion capture with “Beowulf.” What was that experience like and would you ever do it again?
It was one of the best experiences of my life. When you are doing a scene with Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich, it’s much more like theater than film. It’s not like a typical animated film – physically, every move is captured with something like twenty cameras. Your mid-shot, your close up and wide shots are all in one. It took six weeks to shoot and about two years to put it together. It was a great experience – it’s just playing it out.
With “Rango” you did something like that too, right?
Yeah, we played it out. I just had a little bit in that one. You know – you do your bit and away you go. But I loved working with Johnny Depp. He’s a good boy. He’s a great fucking talent. Whatever you watch him in, it doesn’t matter, you just love watching him.
And just before we go – what was working on ‘Indiana Jones’ like?
‘Indiana Jones’ was a great experience. Working with Spielberg was great – he does each film differently and when he does ‘Indiana Jones,’ the camera moves a certain way to take you into the next scene and all that. And working with Harrison Ford was great. He’s a cowboy. He’s from Montana. He’s got a human way about him – and he’s one of the best fucking actors around. You see him with a whip and he really does it. It was great to sit in his Winnebago and chew the fat and have a nice proper whisky. It was lovely.
So you had a great time on it?
Listen, you’re doing what you love and having a great time doing it. There are moments on films where you go, “Oh fuck this I can’t do this no more.” But I’ve got to be honest with you – we do it because we love it.
“The Sweeney” is in theaters now.