Beowulf's Ray Winstone Interviewed
by Alex Billington
November 13, 2007
He's starred in countless movies since his first on-screen debut in Scum from 1979 and now he plays a rather tall and efficient warrior in Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf. He's Englishman Ray Winstone and in Beowulf he dons a leotard and acts for motion capture to be later altered into Beowulf - an 8-pack totin' CGI killing machine. You may recognize him as Mr. French in The Departed or as Bors in King Arthur or as Gary 'Gal' Dove in the indie hit Sexy Beast, but you won't recognize him in Beowulf, thanks to the wonderful world of CGI. We recently attended a roundtable interview with Ray Winstone, who discussed everything from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to his boxing career as a kid, and want to share with you everything he had to say.
If you haven't already seen it, watch the trailer for Beowulf as well. That's Ray Winstone kicking ass as the main guy Beowulf, who you'll only recognize by his voice, his facial features, and his acting talent.
Did you know [Beowulf] was going to be this homoerotic? I mean, somebody came out and said he's like a man magnet?
Ray: It's really odd to know what you're going to get because I've never seen this process before. And the one you do see is Polar Express. Which we couldn't be doing this now without Polar Express being done. I'm sure the more this is done, the better it's is going to be. When you're doing it you just have to forget about the technical side of it and you just perform, like you would on a normal film. The beauty is you got more freedom, you can walk around.
Why do you think Robert Zemeckis thought of you to play Beowulf?
Ray: Well he's obviously a very intelligent man. [laughter]
Did he say there's something?
Ray: Yea he did, Henry VIII. What I done in England. And he liked that. The weird thing was, the day before… The first day on, because Brendan Gleeson, he's Irish and he's got that Irish sound to him, I started putting an Irish sound into it. Talking like in a really deep voice, you know? And he went, what are you doing? Well, it's Celtic… And he says, I want that. I want Henry VIII, that sound. And I knew exactly what he wanted then. Then I was kind of free to go and find it for meself in a way.
Is this something you did in a theater?
Ray: No, no, it was a TV thing we done at home, a two parter.
How many pounds of ego do you have to pour over yourself to play Beowulf?
Ray: Well, it's more guts really at the beginning because you are quite vulnerable. You walk out and you got this really tight suit on, so every bulge is showing. And you're standing there like that. Then you got Angelina who's beautiful and Robin Wright Penn who's stunning and they look great in the suits, and then there's me, playing this guy with an 8-pack supposedly. So at first you gotta get over that. And just go…
You have to play a very ego-centric person.
Ray: Yea, and I think that's the great thing about not knowing the story, not knowing the book, and reading the script. You come into it in a very open fashion. To me it was about egos. It's much like being an actor or anything really, that you start believing your own press. The stories of Beowulf, you know, you start believing that. And I did do that. Obviously he's exaggerating the stories, and you believe that. And then the greed and the ambition sets in. And that's what the story for me was about. Greed and…
And celebrities, too.
Ray: Yea. So it's kind of to me it was a story that's about today as much as it was about the past.
You said in the press conference that you're 5'5" and your character is 6'6"…
Ray: I'm 5'10".
Ray: It's alright! [laughter] I was sitting down at the time!
Was there any issues with eye-line?
Ray: Yea! When I came close to people, they put a trail of boxes out, so I was walking above them, looking down on them. So, obviously when I was on tables I was above them anyway. That was all thought out, it was thoroughly though out. That really was the only time I didn't have the freedom to move where I wanted, because we might have gone through it once and seen where I was going to go and that kind of stuff. But, it's the most freeing experience I've ever had of working on a film or anything…
What about the big battle between Beowulf and Grendel? How were you flying up to the rafters?
Ray: Yea, I'm on wires.
Oh you are?
Ray: Yea, but also I'm climbing up them because they built this thing. And I'd climb up him with no wires. You know I've done all the stunts in it. I said to the stunt guys, what do you want me to do. What do you feel you can do? Well, I'll do whatever you think I'm capable of doing. Thinking yea, that's great, the stunt boy will have done it all. And I'm really pleased I did, because I felt like I really achieved something at the end. And you know you feel the aches and pains the next day, and you break things. I broke ribs…
Ray: Yea! With the dragon, when I'm fighting the dragon at the end, and I swing out and I come in grab the heart. Well there's a big bar, it's all metal, and its framed and its wire because you have to see through it. And I swung out, you know thinking I'm Errol Flynn, and came back like that and went smash and just done on the ribs. And there's nothing you can do for ribs, when you break ribs…
Ray: You can't tape them no more, it's no good. But it was probably six weeks of real physical performance as well. You was acting with some of the greatest actors in the world.
People have known you from going to film festivals and seeing art films like Sexy Beast and things like this. But this is like, I think, your first big mainstream international huge movie. One, do you think it's going to make a difference in your career--
Ray: I think way you go it'll go right out the window! I'll last about 12 months I suppose before I jump off a building. [laughter] Ah, you don't know! I'm kind of glad I'm older… Maybe when you're 22 that kinda can happen. I got enough family around me to kick me in the ass if I need it.
And you got Indiana Jones next!
Ray: Yea, that was fun.
Have you finished?
Ray: Yea, done it, finished a couple of weeks ago.
What can you tell us?
Ray: No, I'd have to kill ya if I told you.
Ray, tell us and kill him! [laughter]
Ray: [Joking…] Did he mean that? Yea, it's like that eh? Ok…
Were you out of the country?
Ray: Yea, we was all over the place. I just had a ball doing it. It was fun. I mean, you're a kid again, you're playing!
So I wanted to ask, the second part of that, if you could tell people a little about your story, your history. We heard that you were a boxer when you were in your teenage years. How did you get into acting?
Ray: When I was at school, I done a play for whatever reasons, I don't know why I done a play.
Is this in London?
Ray: Yea, I kind of enjoyed it. And around my area there weren't many kids who became actors. There weren't, it just didn't happen. And I think my mum and dad allowed me to go to drama school. And they paid for it, it was about 900 £ a term, three terms a year. I'm going back 1974 that was a lot of money. God knows what my dad was doing, he must've been out selling. I went for a year. I was kind of lucky, my face kinda fit, and I was kind a little bit, I don't know, different I suppose. I had no idea what I was doing. I was just lucky to work with someone called Allen Clark. Who was a teacher, he was a great teacher. And without me even knowing he was teaching me, he did, and I believe that. Because a lot of stuff that he was all about I kind of use now, I didn't even know he was doing it.
And working with Gary Oldman 10 years ago [on Nil by Mouth] was… He's another great teacher and probably the best director I've ever worked with. For my style of acting and what I like to do. Gary to me, he's just above everything.
And where did the boxing fit in when you were studying acting?
Ray: I didn't think it did, but it does. If you're losing a fight and you get punched in front of 5000 people, that hurts. Getting booed on stage is nothing, believe me. I just think there's an instinct, there's something about a one-on-one, like when you're in a scene one-on-one and you're looking into someone's eyes and you know what's coming, and you can feel it and you can smell it. Timing and everything, and respect I guess as well.
And what kind of accent would you say you have?
Ray: I'm an East London boy.
You're a likely lad!
Ray: I'm a cuntney chappie!
Are you good at accents?
Ray: I didn't think so… I kind of start late with all that. I played the guy from up the mound from somewhere around Tennessee or wherever it was. Because I had a great teacher, Tim Monich, who's the voice coach, he explains it so simply. And it's just a matter of moving your tongue. And you find the sound, you always find the sound first, deeper or higher. I started to enjoy doing that, and I was playing with it a little bit. So yea, I don't think there's anything you can't do.
And when did you become a star?
Ray: Oh, years ago. [laughter]
Is there a movie where you can look back at your career and say--
Ray: Well the first film I ever done, Scum, was really famous in England.
No, it was famous here, too.
Ray: Was it? I think Sean Penn actually made an American version named Bad Boys, I think it was. And he's another actor, I can watch him all day long, I think he's fantastic.
So right out of the gate you became famous?
Ray: Yea, but then I never worked for years. The film industry [in London], we do it every now and then. We have an industry and everyone gets excited about it, then it collapses. It's just what we're all about, ya know? But I enjoy making films, I like the style of films we make at home. But its films we can make here as well.
So talk about working with Angelina. In some way I think her abilities are being overshadowed by her personal life.
Ray: Well she ain't, really, I think everyone else writes about that, they take away from what a fantastic actor she is. The first time I became aware of her being a great actress is the film she done Gia. I mean, that is some… I couldn't believe that, it was fantastic. And I was lucky enough to meet Angelina years ago in England, in Scotland actually, at a friend's wedding. So I don't know her well, I see her every now and then. She's a really good actor, I've got to say that I suppose, but she is.
Was this the wedding in the castle?
Ray: No, I don't get invited to those. I drink too much, I think. No, you know, just a mutual friend of ours.
Has she changed?
Ray: Well, I don't know her enough. I wouldn't say so. She smiles and she's lovely and you feel like you could talk with her all day.
What is Death of a Ladies Man?
Ray: Oh that's, Nick Cave wrote that. And I done a film called The Proposition with Nick. Yea, he wrote that. And some honest people can write one thing and it's very difficult to recreate and be as good. And certainly he's better. He's one of those writers who's going to get better. This is his script that John Hillcoat directed again, he done Proposition. He had a choice, he was going to do that and he said look, I've been asked to do this film I'd like to do in America, in Hollywood. Well you should do that. And make sure you do it good cause it'll help us when we do our film. So we're going to do that probably next year.
So what else can you tell us about Indiana Jones IV?
Ray: Now come! Do you know what I like about that? It keeps everyone wanting to know what it's about. And to me, I got to tell you this, it starts at a gallop and it finishes at pace. I've never been in a film at a pace like that. It's a ball.
Why do you think Beowulf is important to be seen in 3D?
Ray: I don't think it is. I think it's great to see it in 3D or on IMAX, but the thing about it without that you got story. And you still got a great story. So I don't think it's the most important thing, but for visual and to be there and to actually feel all that sort of stuff that's going on, yea 3D, pick it every time. But what I love about this film is its got a story. And it's a fabulous story as well. At the end you just want to see a bit more, I want another half an hour of it. That's how you should feel after a good film, I think.
How much did you have to exercise and diet to gain that body?
Ray: Actually, I was very lucky, it took me about 3 weeks.
It was funny because I invited a friend of mine to the screening yesterday, he's gay, and he didn't know it was you, I told him after the movie. But, when you see this guy getting naked, you're like oh come on, it's way too much! He's like honey, he must have that kind of body but he's enhanced, they enhanced him. He must be like strong and everything, but of course they enhanced him.
Ray: The thing is, it's the movement. I'm not built like that, but the thing you got to thing about before you do that is the way you would move if you were built like that. You've got to actually move like a 6'6" warrior who's got arms like this. So I work like that, I'm all over the place. So it's the way you move.
How did you do the swimming stuff?
Ray: It was what Angelina said, you're on the floor, you're on this thing and you swim and you're kicking your legs. We also had wires, because there was a tunnel bit which we didn't use in the film funny enough. But there's a tunnel made out of wire with a hole at the top and they take you through on wires, so you're up in the air because they're filming from below you. And you're swimming, but on wires, and you've got to maneuver your way through this cave, this wire cave. But no, you're just swimming in air. It's a laugh, you think that's ridiculous, but you got to get over that.
How tough a time do you think your family and friends will give you when they see what you look like in the film?
Ray: That's quite an interesting question, I think they'll have a little chuckle. As my wife said, when she saw my picture, she showed me a picture of me when I was 18, 19. I ain't 6'6" and I haven't got the 8-pack, but I was boxing at the time and it is. I was blonde and I was a fit kid. I was a bit fiery.
How many victories did you have as a boxer?
How many of those were knock outs?
Ray: I lost 8 out of the 88.
Wow! And do you think you could take Liam Neeson?
Ray: He's a big boy, Liam. He's a big boy!
Different weight class?
Ray: Yea, yea, I'd have to give him a little bit. I think he's a big love, he's more of a heavyweight. I'm an actor now, not a fighter.
So are you moving to Los Angeles now?
Ray: No, no, I live in England! I live in Essex. That's where my family owned all that. I like coming here, but it's not my home.
Thanks especially to Ray Winstone and everyone at Paramount for the opportunity to interview the always cheerful Ray Winstone about Beowulf. I strongly suggest you go out to see Beowulf in 3D, as it's the only way to experience this film. It was made for 3D and you can see it in its true glory without it.