20 Dec 2008: Ray Winstone ‘gives it large’ to Spielberg these days. But, says Amy Raphael, he still loves a family Christmas

When he was 17, Ray Winstone was excluded from a Christmas party and it changed his life. Back in December 1976, the head of his drama school didn’t much like him so didn’t invite him to the Christmas party. The young East End lad already felt like a working-class outsider at the Corona Stage Academy, but he didn’t want to follow his father on to the market stall. He wanted to act. His father had taken him to the cinema every Wednesday afternoon, where he had fallen in love with the Hollywood stars of the 1930s and 40s, watched James Cagney’s complex, violent characters with fascination and found a role model in Michael Caine.

  1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  2. Production year: 2008
  3. Country: USA
  4. Cert (UK): 12A
  5. Runtime: 122 mins
  6. Directors: Steven Spielberg
  7. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Harrison Ford, Jim Broadbent, John Hurt, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, Shia LaBeouf
  8. More on this film

After a role in Emil And The Detectives at school and some acting tuition from a friend’s mother, Winstone got a place at the Corona and his parents somehow managed to stump up fees of £900 a term. He was a confident student – he started boxing in front of rowdy crowds at the age of 12 and went on to box for England twice – and wasn’t prepared to accept being blacklisted from the Christmas party. He wanted revenge. So he put tacks under the wheels of the head’s car and was promptly thrown out of drama school.

Which turned out to be a good thing. The following year, director Alan Clarke spotted him swaggering down a corridor, cast him as the leader of a borstal gang in Scum and kick-started his career. Some three decades later, Winstone, 51, has become a proper Hollywood star, rated by Scorsese and Spielberg. Christmas is as important to him as ever but these days he gets to choose who comes to his party. And, he’d like to point out, the head invited him back to the Academy 10 years after throwing him out; he didn’t go.

This year more than a dozen people are invited to the Winstone house in the Essex countryside. There will be old friends and extended family, including his three daughters, Ellie Rae (seven), Lois (26) and Jaime (23) and Jaime’s boyfriend Alfie Allen (son of Keith, brother of Lily). “Yeah, Alfie’s coming round this year because his mum’s going away. I like him. He’s a really good kid, a good boy. They are just kids, aren’t they? I’m all right with them.” Isn’t it a bit intimidating having Winstone as a prospective father-in-law? “Who, me? I’m a pussycat! It could be worse, I could be your husband.” And he lets out his raucous laugh.

He has a childlike zest for this time of year and still believes in Father Christmas. “Always have done. I know he exists; I’ve seen him.” On Christmas Day, Ray gets up early, puts on the turkey, makes bacon sandwiches for everyone and insists on a festive medley of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin. Sometimes he cooks a goose, although he once flooded the kitchen with the bird’s fat. Elaine, his wife of almost 30 years, thinks he should do the washing up, too. “But I ain’t doing that. Cooking the turkey is the manly thing to do. It’s my special job. I like a big bird because then I get to make turkey stew afterwards, with sweetcorn and all that.”

Is he a good cook? “I’m all right. I make great stews and a good Italian puttanesca. Listen, babe, I’m no chef but I do cook a good joint. Never use a recipe book, just make it up as I go along. I’m away from home a hell of a lot and I’ve had to learn to cook. Otherwise I’d have to eat out every night, or get takeaways, and I don’t want any of that.”

This has been an excellent year for Winstone. He followed up the huge success of 2007’s Beowulf with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Films don’t come much more mainstream than Indiana Jones. Yet Winstone doesn’t appear to have developed a Hollywood-sized ego. Today he’s looking a little weary, with slicked-back hair, Michael Caine glasses and stubble, but then he never seems to stop working. Does he feel like a Hollywood star? “Oh yeah, I’m having it large now. Nah, you just go to work, don’t you? Same job, bigger budget, bigger stars. Working with Harrison Ford on Indy or Leonardo DiCaprio on The Departed is all right. It’s cool. Well, apart from the fact that it took me 30 years to get here and it only took them about two weeks!”

Surprisingly, Winstone didn’t audition for these American films. “It was word of mouth. I got The Departed through [producer] Graham King because he’d seen me in some stuff and told Martin Scorsese about me. Then I met Marty at The Dorchester, which I guess was a kind of audition; he wanted to know we could get along. It was a beautiful meeting. And now I want to cuddle him all the time. Then Marty met Steven Spielberg at the Oscars and told him about me. Steven rang me up and I said, ‘I’m not being funny, but I want to read the script before I commit.’ I suppose I was giving it large. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m not interested in a bit part. So the script came over and I made suggestions about it. It was my idea that my character should be a double agent. Really top directors love you being able to bring something to the table.”

Winstone makes acting look easy. He’s a big guy with a daunting screen presence, but also an incredible subtlety. He was devastating as a father abusing his daughter in The War Zone (director Tim Roth said Winstone was so good he made him want to give up acting), terrifying as the drunken wife beater in Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, and simply brilliant as bloated crook Gal Dove in Sexy Beast.

Now that he’s larging it in Hollywood, what does he tell his two eldest daughters, both of whom are actors? “Not much! They’re doing blinding. I saw Jaime in Dead Set, that zombie series set in the Big Brother house. I didn’t fancy it but it was very well done and she was really good.”

He is pragmatic about the hardcore sex scenes Jaime did in Donkey Punch, too. “I don’t want to see my daughter doing that kind of thing, but I’ve done it, so I can barely say, ‘Babe! I’m having none of that!’ I just tune out.”

For all his alpha-male image, Winstone is, as he says, a pussycat. He even turned down the chance to be in The Wire because the timing wasn’t right for his family. “It’s a great programme, really clever. But I have no regrets. It was flattering to be asked, but it might not have been as good if I’d been in it. You can’t do everything. You shouldn’t do everything. Although I’m having a good go.”

There’s no arguing with that. Recently he’s done the commentary on a football DVD and had a ball making Father Of Girls, directed by his friend Karl Howman. Now he’s hoping to work with Mickey Rourke on a film called 13 and then there’s the movie remake of The Sweeney.

Still, there’s Christmas to look forward to and dressing up in “something silly” at the New Year’s Eve party at his local country pub. Just don’t ask him about new year’s resolutions. “Pointless. What should I say, ‘Be a better person’? I stop drinking every now and again anyway, sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for four months.

But I can’t ever see myself not drinking, because it’s what you do to socialise.” He grabs a cigarette and flings open a window. “What am I going to do if I stop drinking? Take up knitting?” And his shoulders shake with laughter.

• Ray Winstone’s Football Blinders & Blunders is out now on 4DVD