Born in London's East End in 1957, actor Ray Winstone has done things the hard way. Sporting a look which befits a three-time amateur boxing champion, he is one of British cinema's most recognisable faces (and voices). Following his debut as borstal psycho Carlin in late 70s drama Scum, he really came into his own in the 90s, starring in Face, Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, and Tim Roth's The War Zone. Sexy Beast, Last Orders, and Cold Mountain maintained his (lived-in) profile. Now he's playing strongman Bors in Antoine Fuqua's big-budget King Arthur, which strips the Knights of the Round Table of pretty much everything bar the circular furniture.
What attracted you to King Arthur?
Firstly, Clive Owen. I worked with him years ago - on Sharman or Chancer, I forget which - and he's a really good boy, a talented boy. Secondly, being 47 and never having done an action film before, this is one of the last chances I'll get to do something like that. Or maybe not - I've got the taste for it now! It's also very different from the films I've done before. Films I've made before were a much quicker process - with a smaller budget you don't have time to mess around. But on King Arthur you could find yourself doing a scene for three or four days. It's a different way of working, but if you're surrounded by the people you want to be surrounded by, it's fine, you get through it.
Did working on such a big project throw up many surprises for you?
Not many, because I'd just worked on Cold Mountain, which was also a big movie with more cameras and more time to get it done. I enjoyed making Cold Mountain but it was the first time I realised there were two different ways of working in film. Being on a film for six months was also a shock. Here in the UK we normally have six or eight weeks to make a film - which I prefer, to be honest. On a six month film, you get tired trying to keep your concentration going.
The other actors went off to boot camp to hone their riding and fighting skills but you missed out on that...
Yes I missed the boot camp, so I had a result there! Everyone else was flogging themselves to death and I was off enjoying myself on something else, and arrived five or six days before the film started.
So how did you create the camaraderie that's integral to the movie?
You're right, they had already bonded and were a scene, really, and I understand how that happens. But I was lucky, because I already knew little Hugh Dancy [who plays Galahad], having worked with him before, and obviously knew Clive. Also Sean Gilder [Jols]. There wasn't a problem, in a way you become like a family when you're filming together for six months.
Was it an arduous shoot?
Shooting those battle scenes can last four or five days. And it's not like you're just doing physical stuff for an hour; you're doing it all day, every day. It was tough, but you haven't got a choice. You just get up and do it. Yeah, it was knackering but it's part and parcel of the job. I think once the adrenaline's going, it gets you through it. But with a film like that, you have this comedown at the end of it, and that's when you feel tired.
The Hollywood Reporter calls the battle sequence on thin ice "one of the great cinematic fight scenes of all time". When you were shooting all of the fights, did you have a sense of what the end result would look like?
It was clear that we were working with a very, very talented director [Antoine Fuqua]. Not just technically but also the way he rallied his troops, if you like. We were very clear about what was going to be happening, but you don't get the full picture until you actually see it on the screen. It's quite wonderful what he's done with it, especially the immensity of it all. I first realised we were on a big, big film when I came over the hill at Ballymore Eustace [film location in County Kildare] and saw Hadrian's Wall, which was a kilometre long and cost £6 million to make!
Were you surprised that a film set in 5th century England was to be made by the director of Training Day?
I knew what his work was, but once I'd met him I had no doubts. I think Antoine's a very talented director, and he brings a truth and honesty to the work.
You've just done two large Hollywood movies in pretty harsh conditions. Are you looking for something a little easier next time?
I don't actually look for anything. If I'm lucky enough to be sent a script and I like it, then I'll do it. I'm not one of those people who likes to punt around a lot, I don't build a career. I don't say, "Today I'm going to play a wife beater and tomorrow I'm going to do a musical." You know? Because the musical's probably going to be ****! I'll wait until I find a script that I like.
Are you definitely going to play [British artist and poet] William Blake in the movie Jerusalem?
I hope so. It's my own company producing it and I'm not going to let anyone else play the part! He's not an easy subject to write a script about, but we've got the right things in place and I'm really excited about it. Hopefully we'll make a start next year. The attraction for me is that he's a London man. And not many people know a lot about him, other than that he wrote Jerusalem and Tiger Tiger. There's a beautiful story in there about his wife, but there's also a horror story in there. I'm not into making period pieces, this is not going to be sitting down with your popcorn watching someone spout poetry, you know?
Any plans to reteam with your Nil By Mouth director Gary Oldman?
I'd love to! I'd work with Gary seven days a week, and twice on Sunday. But Gary's out doing what Gary does, and doing it very well; if the chance ever came up again I'd jump at it.
Nil By Mouth is one of your most memorable roles, but what else are you particularly proud of?
I think The War Zone. And Sexy Beast is a fine film. I'm sure there's other ones, like Scum and TV stuff that I love... Henry VIII - my little girl loves watching that for "Daddy the king", as she calls it. I'm just lucky, because I haven't chosen a career path but things have come along that I've wanted to do.
Are you one of these actors who can't stand to watch yourself on the big screen?
I can't see the point of being an actor and not watching it, because that's what you do. That's part of the process of making the film: you read the script, get the job, film it, and then you watch it. The job's not over for me until you've watched the film. You're not always happy with your performance, but if you can get two or three things bang-on that you're happy with, then you've done a good job. And the next time you do a film, you want to get four or five scenes right. There's always something you're not quite happy with, but you mustn't let it drive you mad.
King Arthur is released in UK cinemas on Friday 30th July 2004.