How does a pudgy 50-year-old Cockney like Ray Winstone get to play the warrior, Beowulf? Ellie Genower hears how.
ON the face of it, Ray Winstone wouldn’t be the obvious choice to play a 6ft 6ins, stronger-than-an-ox Danish warrior with a six-pack to boot.
Having turned 50 this year, and with a touch of middle-aged spread, the star was as surprised as anybody when Back To The Future director Robert Zemeckis cast him as the lead in his new movie adaptation of Beowulf.
Six weeks of shooting and two years of computer wizardry later, Ray was transformed into a blonde, muscle-packed alpha male on screen.
“I loved it!” Ray grins, as he relaxes in a dapper light blue suit in a Beverly Hills hotel. “My wife loves it – she has a little chuckle when she sees the trailer. It’s funny because looking at the picture, it doesn’t really look like me. Until you see the film move, and that’s when you start to recognise yourself.”
Beowulf uses a revolutionary technique in which the cast, including Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich, were ‘mapped’ using motion capture technology. Myriad digital sensors were attached to their faces and bodies via a special Lycra suit, so the actors’ live performances in the studio could be ‘captured’ by a computer – ready for a touch of animation.
The result is an effect where the actors’ faces look slightly computerised, and in Ray’s case altered completely, as a multitude of digital effects are added in to complete the final film.
“The big thing for me was movement,” says Ray. “I’m 5ft 10ins, and an older man now, so playing a warrior with bulk was something I had to really think about before the film. To move like a 6ft 6ins eight-pack warrior, you can’t cheat that – the computer won’t do that for you. You go in there and you perform the moves and become the man. It’s incredible when I watched it on film. It works.”
It was lucky that technology meant Ray didn’t have to work out to do the role.
“Bob (Zemekis) and I talked about fitness and that,” he says. “I asked Bob if he wanted me to do some training because obviously I’m never going to look like that. And he said, ‘No you can drink as much vodka and eat as much pasta as you like’.
“What a job! The only other job I had like that was when I did the film Sexy Beast. We went out two weeks early to Spain and the director told me to lay on the beach and get brown, eat pasta and drink loads of vodka because he wanted me to get really big.”
As Beowulf, Ray is the legendary warrior who comes to save the ancient Danish kingdom and its leader King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) from a menacing and disfigured monster called Grendel.
In return, Beowulf succeeds to the throne after making a pact with Grendel’s sea monster mother (Angelina Jolie), which leads to a terrifying end fight with a fearsome dragon. The story is believed to be the oldest in British history.
“I told Robert Zemeckis I knew the story but I didn’t,” admits Ray. “Where I went to school we read Al Capone and things like that. Beowulf was very new to me. All I knew about Vikings was Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas.
“In a way it was a good thing reading the script not knowing the story,” he adds. “Because it seemed to me, it was kind of a modern story too. It was about ambition, greed and hate, and then love at the end as well. It reminded me of Hollywood in a way, and that’s kind of how I approached it.”
With a wife, Elaine, and three daughters – the youngest, Ellie, is six – back in England, Ray has never been bothered about moving across the pond permanently, even though he enjoys working in Hollywood.
“I never really thought about it. I liked the work I’d been doing at home,” he says of his surprising success in LA. “I’d never really worried about coming out here. But because you’re offered it, you feel really guilty if you don’t have a go, because there’s plenty of kids at home who want to, who are really working their lives away. So you have a go, and it’s no different from being at home working.
“I’ve been having a ball. I come over here, have a bit of sun when it’s raining at home, and do some really good work, with some great people. I’ve got some good friends here, and my kids come out and my family and that, so it’s great. But I live at home.”
Ray’s clear patriotism shines through many of his roles, and he frequently makes no effort to disguise his Cockney accent. He controversially employed it to play Henry VIII in an ITV series and he uses it again in Beowulf.
“It’s an English thing,” he says. “How do you talk? How did people talk back then? It’s like playing Henry VIII. Do you want me to talk in Latin? Who’s going to understand that?”
It was Ray’s performance in Henry VIII which alerted Robert Zemeckis to the possibility of him playing Beowulf.
“Robert Zemeckis saw me in Henry VIII, and he loved the sound and the voice and the way I did it,” says Ray.
From a King, to a warrior, the progress of computer technology in movies could mean actors playing pretty much any part they wanted.
“It opens so many doors,” he acknowledges.
A huge fan of historical films like A Man For All Seasons and Jason And The Argonauts, Ray reckons motion capture might give him the chance to play another favoured historical role.
“Henry V,” he says firmly. “A bit of England, but do it differently. Do it as a passion and part of our culture.
“I thought I was too old to play it, but not any more.”
Beowulf opens nationwide on Friday.