Born In London's East End, Ray Winstone made a name for himself playing hard characters in films like Scum and Quadrophenia (both 1979). But he's been mixing things up since the 90s with a string of acclaimed roles in films as diverse as Nil By Mouth (1997), Sexy Beast (2000), Last Orders (2001), Cold Mountain (2003), The Proposition (2005) and Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006). He's back playing the tough guy hero of Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf and here tells BBC Movies why the role brought a few surprises...
How was working in performance capture format?
Sometimes when you're making a film, something happens during a scene that you've just thought of, and it can be missed if the wrong lens is on or you're shooting in the wrong direction. But this [performance capture] doesn't miss a thing. So, you might do something that's genius - very rarely, admittedly - but it doesn't miss it. Sometimes you also work with people who don't explain or express to you what they're actually looking for from the shot but you haven't got that problem with this because whatever you're going to do, whether it's good or bad, it will get picked up. So, in that way I guess it's pure cinema.
What did you think when you saw yourself for the first time?
Well, when I read the script and it got to the part where he's [Beowulf] 6 feet 6 inches, with an eight-pack and he was about 20 years old as a warrior, I thought there was probably another Ray Winstone somewhere in the world. But then you look at the artwork and you talk to Bob [Zemeckis] and he tells you what his vision is and you hear these great stories... I had the beauty of not reading the book, which I understand portrays Beowulf as a very one-dimensional kind of character - a hero and a warrior and that was it. So, I didn't have any of that baggage to bring with me to the script and I attempted to bring something else to the character.
But then when you go through the process of making the film and you sit in the cinema two years later and your jaw hits the floor, it's actually quite sad in a way because you're looking at yourself - facially anyway - and see the way you looked when you were 20.
I didn't have the eight-pack, more's the pity, but it's like revisiting someone you used to know. I guess you always think [when you're younger] that you're always going to be a young, rather good-looking man and then you get sad about that. It's kind of a strange feeling actually. When I first saw the photo of Beowulf, to me he didn't look like me.
The other thing about this process is that when people mention computers - and I'm pretty much the same - they find it hard to comprehend that there's a performance there. They look at it as something that's just been made by a computer but in a way the difference is that when you make a normal film - and I'm simplifying it here - you put on the make-up and you put the scenery in before you start shooting, but with this you still perform in the same way, but then you put the make-up on after, along with the costumes and scenery.
What are your thoughts on the way your high-tec pyjamas enabled you to give your sexiest ever performance, alongside the likes of Angelina Jolie, without incurring an 18 certificate?
I think the difference is that Angelina didn't need any CGI enhancement and I did! You can't really think about some things too much, you just get on with it and do it. It's about the way you move and the way you sound. It's not hard to be sexy when you're standing in front of Angelina Jolie or Robin Wright Penn. They're two of the most beautiful women in the world and two of the finest actresses. I think that if you're with people who are good in your profession they become sexy because they're good at what they do. I enjoyed being 6 feet 6 inches, having an eight pack and a long todger, you know?
How do you connect to these characters when you're not in uniform?
Imagination, I guess. You've always got to have an imagination in the game we're in but it explodes on this. You get to try the costumes on before you start and feel the weight of them, which is great. But then you're opposite some of the greatest actors in the world and away you go. You find your imagination takes over without you even thinking about it.
You obviously headline the film as Beowulf but you also share the last cast credit as the dragon. Can you explain?
Well, I'm the dragon [laughs]! I think they sprang it on me at the last minute about playing another character. But I also play the midget and the son - although I played a lot more of the son and they cut it, so I obviously didn't do that very well! It's about the only time in the film that I wasn't acting with another actor. With the dragon, I did one day playing Beowulf and the next day playing the dragon. So I went from climbing ladders and jumping onto the wings of a dragon to actually becoming the dragon - your arms become the wings, your legs become the talons and you perform the act of being a dragon, which is kind of crazy. It's like being a five year old again.
Where do you think cinema goes from here?
I think that goes from silent movies to talkies, from black and white to Gone With The Wind, to cinerama to smellavision, to earthquakes and CGI. People like Bob Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg and co. are just continually re-inventing it. Do you know what? Their minds are such that I wouldn't even try and think where it's going. What I think is clever about the film - other than the fact it's a great story - is that even though it was made in Hollywood it has a really strong European feel to it. It's an English story, if you like. It doesn't feel like I'm watching an American blockbuster - not that that's a bad thing.
Beowulf opens in UK cinemas on Friday, 16th November 2007.