Ray Winstone interview: Snow White And The Huntsman, Rupert Sanders, and The Sweeney

Ray Winstone chats to us about Snow White, his hard-man image, and why working with first-time directors gets his, er, balls tingling...

Ray Winstone’s ‘hard man’ reputation precedes him, but it takes no longer than a second for it to dissipate.

In a Central London hotel room, at an advance press junket for Snow White And The Huntsman, in which he plays one of the eight (!) dwarves in newcomer Rupert Sanders’ radical, epic reworking of the well-known fairy tale, Winstone stands at the window, slowly working his way through a packet of cigarettes.

He’s super cool, but before long he’s gushing. Gushing about working with confident filmmakers, about the relevance of fairy stories, and about how lucky he feels to be a hard-working, in-demand actor.

He even talks about that ‘tough guy’ image, but by then the spell has been long broken…

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How did you get involved in Snow White and the Huntsman?

I got a script through. I read it, and I thought, ‘oh god, do I really want to do Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and be in prosthetics for five or six hours a day?’ And I talked to Rupert, and a little spark went off there, and I thought ‘I like this man’. And then, when I met him at Pinewood, I liked him even more, and saw the artwork, which blew me away, and saw this little film he’d made of how he was thinking of shooting it, and all that. And I was just sold. I was sold more with him than with the making of the film, because I got a vibe that he’s a really clever kid, this kid.

He’s come out of nowhere, hasn’t he? This is his first film.

They must think a lot of him, to give him a movie this big on his first film. But you can see why as soon as you start to work with him. Then you find out who the other guys are in the film, and they’re fabulous actors and actresses. It was a no-brainer, then. I guess that’s the new term they use, no-brainer! But it was, and I thought, do I want to be in this or don’t I? And of course I want to be in it, I want to work with a man like this, and learn something, and enjoy it! And it was, it was a very enjoyable way of going about it.

Is that how you decide on projects, then, the people you’re going to work with?

No, I mean, sometimes you pick up a script and you read it, and it blows you away, and you want to do it. It wasn’t so much the script, because more than the script it was the idea, and I didn’t know the idea at that point. But the first thing that sold me was Rupert.

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What convinced you about him, in particular?

He was very comfortable, and he’s a good man. He already knows how he wants to go about it, and what effect he wants from that moment, but he relays that to you, and to the people around him. And it’s all right talking about it, but actually putting it up there is a hard thing. We can all have ideas, can’t we?

True, and to enact it is a completely different thing. One of the main ideas behind the film is quite a different approach to Snow White. It’s not the Disney Snow White at all, is it?

No. Then again, the Disney Snow White was frightening. It was frightening! The witch turning in the apple, and her eating it, and dying… So it was frightening, especially when it was made. So it was, really. And I think we lose sight of that a little bit. But, the original stories, well, fairy stories in general – the Pied Piper! – it’s what we tell our kids. Stories of warnings. Don’t follow the man with music down the road, because he’ll take you away from us. Hansel And Gretel – don’t go in the woods, don’t go to that strange house. It’s all warnings. And Snow White is kind of like a story, from the Queen’s point of view, of vanity and jealousy, and if you’ve got someone in the house like that – the house being the land [in Snow White] – it puts a darkness, a cloud over the place, and it causes arguments, it causes rows. That hatred for people blackens your heart and your soul, which affects everyone. And in a way that’s another lesson. And they are like that. They murder people, jealous people. Vanity is a terrible thing, it really is.

And that theme is still present in Snow White and the Huntsman?

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It is, yeah. The hunt for beauty. But I think that, for me, fairy stories have all got those kind of messages. And maybe sometimes they’re forgotten about. They become watered down.

Or it can be overshadowed by the songs and the colourful characters. Where do the dwarves fit in, this time around?

It’s greed. We were down the mines, and came up one day and all our families were dead. We had to get on with life, and that hatred… So we kill, and we rob. And when Snow White appears, we’re going to kill her. And, gradually, one by one, we start to see the goodness. And she starts to cure us. That’s quite a beautiful thing for a nightmare, for a horror show. It would have been very easy for Rupert to make a film of effects, but he understands all those bits and bobs. I ain’t clever enough to work that all out, I’m all right after the event where you look at it, and go ‘you know what, there is that and there is this’. I think he had all that in there from the beginning.

But you also need top-notch actors to bring that across, and the dwarves are played by the likes of Ian McShane, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones and Bob Hoskins, what was it like getting together with them?

Aw, fantastic. It’s like a nice dream, that. All really fine guys, and they’re a pleasure to be with.

Over the years, you’ve been seen as embodying a sort of tough-guy stereotype…

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It’s all right, I don’t mind it!

But if you look at the films you’ve been in, you’ve not only been in tough, gangster roles, you’ve been in fantasy films…

Fantasy films! [laughs]

You’ve been in adventure films, you’ve been in all sorts! Do you feel you’re up against that stereotype?

Yeah, but I don’t mind it. I think a lot of the time we do pigeonhole even the films we make. We say it’s a thriller, but what you want to know at the end of the day, is if it’s a good fucking film. It’s a British film, yeah, but is it a good film? And that’s the be all and end all. We just have a habit of pigeonholing things, and that’s okay, I have no problem with that. If they didn’t call you a tough guy, then what else would they call you? Something worse than that? I’m playing parts, and if they call you that, it’s because I played the part right. And that’s fine! It’s not affected me, and it doesn’t worry me. It doesn’t hurt me. I don’t go around thinking ‘oh my god, I wish they knew me for my Shakespeare!’ Because it doesn’t matter! I’m quite happy with the body of work that I’ve done, and I’ve done some really good work over the years that I’m proud of. I’m proud of some of the people that I’ve worked with, been lucky to have worked with. It’s all right. I’ve got nothing to prove to no one. And, at the end of the day, who cares?

You certainly work hard. You’ve been in something like seventeen films in the last two years.

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Yeah, I’m a lucky boy! I could be holding a gun in Afghanistan. There’s boys out there doing what they’ve got to do, and there’s people digging holes, and there’s people driving buses. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s getting a living. There’s people doing jobs maybe that they don’t want to do, don’t like. They’re brave people, in a way, because they have to do it to feed their families.

Or kids go to college to learn a subject, come out and can’t get a job. Seems like a waste of education if they can’t get that job. So, fucking hell, how lucky am I? So they call me a hard nut!

You’ve worked with some of the most renowned filmmakers in cinema history. You say that Rupert Sanders has a great deal of confidence and vision, and can communicate that vision. Is that in keeping with your work with other directors?

There’s other filmmakers like that, obviously, because you know their reputation anyway. But Gary Oldman was a first-time director, Tim Roth was a first-time director. But there’s something fresh and rule-breaking about them. A stubbornness in the way that they want to make their film. Jonathan Glazier was probably the same. A different way of making films, but he had an idea and a look.

The rest, when you’re talking about the Martin Scorseses and the Steven Spielbergs, the reputation precedes them, so you already know that they’re good. But still, when you talk to them, they do give you a buzz. Your balls do tingle! And you feel, you know, you’re not just Steven Spielberg, you actually really want to make fucking films, and really like doing it, don’t you! And they love you while you’re doing it. And then they forget you and go on and work with someone else. But they do! But while you’re there, you’re part of their family. And that’s acceptable, because you’re part of that family for that moment, and they love you and nurture you, and they’re you’re off on your way again, and the new family move in. And that’s all right. You’ve learned so much, you’ve had so much experience with them. That’s the way it works!

You compared Sanders to Gary Oldman there. So do you not really differentiate between different films, and different directors? Between the Nil By Mouths and the Snow Whites?

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I put them in the same way, because they give me the same buzz. And even if they make films in a different way, they want to make them their way, and they know how they’re going to make them. There’s a brilliance in their nut that they have, and you want to be a part of that. So I put them in the same category, of course. And I put Spielberg in that category, along with a million other people.

So, whether it’s small British films, big Hollywood blockbusters, or voice acting in animations or video games – is it all the same work?

Well, the difference is, in a big American blockbuster, studio film, I’m playing the wolf that’s probably on screen for probably fifteen minutes if I’m lucky! The difference with the small British film that I’m doing, is I’ll be in it for an hour and a half, two hours. I’ve got more time to show and develop what I’m going to do. That’s why you like doing it, because you like showing off or whatever it is. In the American blockbuster, you’ve not got that time, because you’re not the lead. I was in Beowulf, and I had a good part in Edge of Darkness, but nine times out of ten, you come in to do a job with the rest of them, and that’s the way it is. And it pays you well. You have some fun doing it, and hopefully you learn something and you work with some great people, and that’s fine!

I love to be the lead, but you can’t always be the lead. There’s other people to play those things sometimes. I never wanted to be an also-run, or a bit player, but I don’t consider it being a bit player, because you have something to bring to it. The one thing I don’t like is if I go on a film when I’m playing someone little, that you don’t have the director’s ear. You’re not being allowed to offer anything. I don’t like that, and that kind of pisses me off, because I think everyone’s got something to offer on a film. And it does happen sometimes, you have directors who don’t want to listen, don’t want to sit down and talk to you about what you feel, any ideas that you might have, or the props man might have. If you’re making films, you’re making films together.

It’s interesting that we’re talking about this Hollywood film in the same timeframe as there are trailers for the new Sweeney film hitting the internet, and as Elfie Hopkins, which is produced by and stars your daughter Jaime, is being released in the cinema. So it all comes together. The Sweeney must be, like you said, the kind of film where you get a good hour and a half of screen time?

And it’s a fucking good film. I saw a rough cut of it the other day. I was so fucking pleased with it. It’s lived up to everything I wanted it to be, and Nick Love’s done a great job, and the people who worked with him. I enjoyed every minute of that.

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And it’s a smaller role in Elfie Hopkins?

Yeah, well, it’s my baby’s film. And I went and did something on it for her, which I was happy to do, and I’m very proud of her, getting that all together with her mates. Great young director on that. And I’m looking forward to seeing it. I was down there for about two or three days. But you know, these kids do things that we never used to do. They’ll know one another from colleges, and one of them is a dresser, and the other is from the art department, one’s a director and one’s an actor, and they stick together, and they make their own projects. And that’s great. You can do that today, I think, these kids are doing it much more. That’s fantastic.

Mr Winstone, thank you very much!