Few people are as intimidating as Ray Winstone. The former boxer born in the East End is known for his gritty performances. He shot to fame playing ex-con Gary “Gal” Dove in Sexy Beast, and since then his roles as a murderous enforcer in The Departed and wife-battering brute in 44 Inch Chest have established his hard-man persona.
But on the phone he doesn’t seem so scary after all.
“Hello Babe,” he says reassuringly, his distinctive accent immediately recognisable. In seconds he is talking about Hackney’s “Vicky Park”, an area that is close to his heart.
“We used to have family gatherings in the Lansdowne Club on Mare Street,” he tells me. “We always went to see my granddad and nan there every Sunday.”
Winstone was born in Hackney Hospital and, although he grew up in Plaistow, West Ham, he remembers going back to his birthplace a lot when he was young to visit family. He is proud to come from this part of London.
“Imagine it, a Hackney boy playing Henry VIII,” he jokes, referring to the 2003 television biopic in which he starred as the English monarch.
And is he a tough cookie in real life? He laughs, but says no. “I made a film a few years ago called Scum and grew up with some tough people. They are very exciting characters to play, but I have played other ones as well.”
Winstone had two months off after Christmas which he says was “strange”, because he is usually so busy – he has any number of projects coming up in the next few months. He just finished shooting Elfie Hopkins, a tale of cannibalism in a rural British village. The film, due for release in April, sees him acting alongside his daughter Jamie, who takes the lead role.
The protective father of three has always been close to his daughters, turning down the part of McNulty in “The Wire” because he didn’t want to relocate his youngest girl to America.
So what was it like working with Jamie?
“Working with her was hard work in a way. I have relaxed a lot more with my kids. I realise they are professionals. Before I was worried about them – I never used to think about what I was doing.”
He adds: “I love the fact all my daughters are independent to be honest with you.”
The star of The Departed is also set to appear in The Sweeney, based on the 70s TV show, playing Jack Regan, one half of a British detective duo. Winstone has high praise for Ben Drew, better known as rapper Plan B, who plays his police partner George Carter. “He has got an old head on his shoulders,” he says.
And he denies claims that he told the musician to shape up. “No, I didn’t challenge him to lose weight,” he chuckles.
“He was on tour and he just thought himself he needed to lose a bit of weight, he had become a bit of a porker.”
The beefy actor reveals he himself keeps trim by detoxing for four months of the year. “I always eat well anyway but I leave out the dairies, the bread, and after a couple of weeks I go to the gym, and walk for three miles. I do some weights and a little light exercise, just to keep myself on the ball and keep my mind fresh as much as anything else.
“It is hard giving up stuff you actually love, pasta and all that kind of stuff. I do it to try and get myself ready for the rest of the year.”
It’s a very different lifestyle from when he was preparing for Sexy Beast, when the actor had to bulk up in the sun to play a reformed gangster. “My work was to go and lay on a beach for two weeks in Spain eating as much pasta as I could and drinking. I mean that is the kind of job I love,” he said.
Despite starring alongside Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, the British actor has shunned Hollywood, living in Essex with his family. He has a lot to say about UK politics, and the riots in particular.
“I think we have a desperate problem in this country at the moment.
“Is there something underneath it all? Making people go out and rob? I am sure people take to the streets and want to protest, but turning your community into a slum…that to me is promoting violence, not sticking up for what you believe in.”
He thinks it is morally wrong to riot but also expresses distrust of the political establishment.
“Listen babe,” he tells me, “when a politician stands up and says this is what he is going to do – if he doesn’t do it when he gets into power he should be thrown out, because that is fraud.”
He says he is voting Boris in the mayoral elections. “I would rather have Boris than Livingstone, I think Livingstone is a gangster. Boris is a politician and I would rather have him than that other clown.
“I met Livingstone for a brief 30 seconds and the man speaks with forked tongue. He is not for me.”
As for his own future plans, he is looking forward to seeing his kids grow up and travelling a bit more. But one thing Winstone is not looking forward to is the 2012 Olympics.
“It will be chaos. I just hope I am not in the country when it is on.
“We are closing down hospitals, we are losing our nurses, we’ve got MRSA in hospitals but we can spend billions of pounds when the world is in crisis on an Olympic stadium. Well that makes a lot of sense to me,” he says sarcastically.
At 55, Winstone has mellowed a lot and admits strange or unusual things rarely happen to him now. He does have an interesting hobby though. “I love watching war aeroplanes. I love planes, Spitfires and Hurricanes – I like flying them and making out I am a World War II pilot,” he says.
Before he goes, is there anything else he wants to say?
“Nothing else at all babe; I’m done and dusted. I have talked myself to death. Hope it goes well,” he says.
And from his crisp, friendly voice, by now oddly familiar, it is clear that he means it. After all, everyone who works with him says how lovely he is – a real diamond geezer.