BECOMES INCREDIBLY TRANSFORMED INTO BEOWULF
by Brad Balfour
With his gruff, hardened voice, and a face that shows the scars from his early years as a boxer, 50 year-old Londoner Ray Winstone hardly seemed like the perfect choice to play the Adonis-like, all-conquering Norse hero Beowulf. But thanks to Robert Zemeckis and his love of motion-capture animation, Winstone gets transformed in this flawed hero through the wonders of modern technology. Written by author Neil Gaiman and screenwriter Roger Avary, the warrior Beowulf fights and defeats the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) who is terrorizing a Danish kingdom ruled by Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), and later, grapples with Grendel’s bewitching, beautiful mother (Angelina Jolie), who is the real monster and slayer.
In a way it’s a wonder this hardscrabble working-class boxer became an actor but he a natural for starting his career through the part of boxer Kenny Fox in the British TV seriesFox. Ray appeared in a lot of other UK TV series and such English films as Quadrophenia, Nil By Mouth, The War Zone and Sexy Beast. Winstone then played in such higher-profile film as The Departed, Breaking and Entering, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, King Arthur and Cold Mountain.
What was it like seeing yourself as a 6′ 6″ tall Norse god-like figure?
It’s like my alter-ego isn’t it? I thought it was fantastic, I didn’t have to train; I didn’t even have to eat the right foods; I didn’t have to go running. I just ate cheese. My jaw hit the floor. You go in and see the artwork. The only way I can explain this, is when you make a film, you get a feeling for the set, you put your make-up on, you put your costume on and you perform. With this one, you perform, then they put your make-up on, then put your costume on and then they make the set. What it does is, it makes your imagination explode.
You are performing with the greatest actors of the world, and performing you are. I couldn’t comprehend the look of the piece. So I sat down in the cinema with my brother-in-law and my jaw hit the floor. I mean, I’m working with Robert Zemeckis, and he’s a genius, but even I don’t think he meant for it to look like that. And that’s like Polar Express. It’s all that work that they did on Polar Express, that’s where they learned all that. That’s where the word “computer” gets confused with us. That’s us. We’re acting. I think the word “computer’ confuses people, because they don’t know if we’ve done that or not.
But it’s the most physical job I’ve done, especially at 48, which I was at the time [of shooting]. There were stunts, you have to walk like you’re 6′ 6” warrior. At the end of the day, you’re knackered. I’ve never been so tired in my whole life. It was the purest performance you can have.
Were there different challenges for you as an actor?
Well yes, acting like a 6′ 6″, 20 year old with an eight-pack was a real challenge because you have to move like you’re 6′ 6″ with an eight pack. If you move like a 50-year-old man, then that’s what it’s going to look like. And then when you play the dragon…[it’s another thing]. I am in there, hung mid-air, my arms are the wings, my face becomes the face of the dragon, the legs become the talons, your ass becomes the tail and away you go. It all becomes about the body. It was fantastic; you can play King Kong like that. I appreciated what Andy Serkis [who played Kong in motion-capture suit] went through. All of a sudden you’re propelled into another world. It was a good feeling. You can’t really ask for any more than that.
Did you think that one day you’d work with a great actor like Sir Anthony Hopkins, but there you are with blue leotards and…
Yeah, I thought I’d love to play a Viking ever since I saw Kirk Douglas do it. It’s part of our history: Vikings. They are them and we are us. It was a fantastic thing at 48. I thought I would play the top Viking’s grandfather or something. But to play Beowulf, which by the way I knew nothing about before I read the script, it was something really special.
What do you think about a film like this where you play such a macho warrior but the only person you cannot defeat is a woman?
I think that’s right. It’s funny how women always betray [the men] like how Angelina [Jolie] is in the film. And this goes back through time. To me she was ambitious as his greed. It’s funny how women, especially sexy women, are always portrayed as a man’s downfall. They are, aren’t they? Even for Adolf Hitler, [he had] Eva Braun. Your mind goes somewhere else. So women have a lot to answer for [laughs].
Were you a fan of science fiction/horror films?
Not really. Not as much horror films, I’d always wanted to be in a horror film. One of the greatest horror films I’d ever saw is Alien – that sort of waiting to see this monster in an enclosed space, floating about. AndThe Exorcist. Batman and Robin and Spiderman were there when I was a kid, but it never was my thing, comic books.
You’re playing the original mythic hero though.
The original one, that’s right. I wasn’t interested in them, Batman and Robin… I was doing other things.
Were you doing The Departed when you took off to do this? What did you think when Robert Zemeckis chose you for this role?
Well when the script is great and portrays a character that is 6′ 6″, eyes are blue, koochy koochy koo. You go, there must be another Ray Winstone. I’m 5′ 10″ and I’ve got a one-pack. I’m 50. So I thought, “He’s made a mistake here.” I met him and admired what the story was about. It’s about ambition and greed. It’s timeless. It’s stuck in my head that man never learns. We talked about that and he told me how he was going to do it, which makes sense because I was still thinking he was talking about someone else. And I was surprised I got the part. He was surprised that I was surprised. He’d seen me in Henry VIII playing Henry. That’s where it all came from. But I still wasn’t ready for the final assault in the cinema it blew me away.
Now that you know about this technology, are there parts now that you think you can play?
I haven’t stopped thinking about it. [laughs] Honest to god. Yeah, of course. I’m too old to play somethings, but with this technology, I can play Marilyn Monroe. If I was Marilyn Monroe, I’d never go out. I’d stay in with myself.
It’s funny you mention Shakespeare. You’re working with some of the greatest theater actors doing this animation.
And great cinema actors. I’ve never had a classical background. I started that late. I did TV. I started that kind of late. Theater is great, but after two weeks, you think, “God, can’t we do something else?” And I think Anthony feels like that and he’s quite right. They are really brilliant actors and to be opposite of them – they’re there looking after you. To be cast with these people flattering. As long as you don’t become like Beowulf and start believing into the publicity.
It’s nice to hear your accent in the movie.
This is the great thing about this as well. You’ve got Brendan [Gleeson] playing an Irishman and he’s from Ireland. You’ve got Anthony playing Welshman. Then I come along with a bit of London. They say, “Oh, he’s coming on a bit strong with his accent.” But what would Beowulf sound like? He’s Danish. Nobody would understand what I would be saying.
When there’s a movie with new technology like this, and it’s continually progressing, how does it feel to be part of the trend?
It feels like being in the first moving picture. It’s a bit far, but it’s like from talkies, to black and white to color, smell-orama, earthquake vision [Sensurround], CGI and then this. Where is it going next? It’s all part and parcel, taking cinema on. People always innovating film, otherwise we’d be bored. I’ve spoken with a couple of journalists who think, “Oh this is the downfall of cinema.” But you know, it’s just another form. You got to experiment. You try different things. You do it as an actor, a director, as a writer, as a cinematographer. People seem to want to analyze it so much that it boils down to the word computer. But what it comes down to is, “Do you like it?” Yes, or no? Not everyone’s going to like it, but some people will love it. That’s what film is. It’s like having a famous actor. Not everyone’s going to like him, but it’s your tastes.
How did you feel when filming was over?
I actually didn’t want it to end because I loved it so much. We were filming for six weeks, and it took two years for them to put it together. I was in a run of it. I was feeling good about it. You come down and feel tired after because it was very physically demanding. I went to Hawaii, I took my family there, but I didn’t really enjoy it because I really wanted to go home.
Is it tough waiting for that two-year post production time to see the result of your work?
I guess so. You kind of forget about it a bit because you’re doing other things. You lose the idea that it’s an epic because you’re filming it in four walls of white. Your imagination is going while you’re doing it, but after, you just remember four walls of white and being in a blue suit. In a way that gives you a big shock when you sit down and watch it. These beautiful effects, 3D, and then you come on the screen and go, “My God.” You lose touch with it.
What was it like playing a romantic lead as well as a hardened warrior?
I love it. I’d rather be kissing than punching them. Wouldn’t you? I’m too old for that jumping about.
Usually they give the love scenes to the younger actors.
Yeah? Well, tough. Move over. [laughs]
Beowulf in his youth is a very cocky bastard. What was that like for you to play as an actor?
I found that very easy bit to do, being a cocky bastard. It’s me being nice [laughs].
Have you seen your share of Gladiator and epic sword-play films?
I loved Gladiator. Russell Crowe is tremendous in it. Or take Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. I watched 300 in a hotel room in Santa Monica, and it was blinding. Old war films, they are fantastic. But when you’re 50, you never think you’re going to be in one. I was up for Troy, and I didn’t get the part, I lost that one. But I went on and did King Arthur with Antoine Fuqua [as Bors], who’s a brilliant guy. We had fun. There was a huge set that they built; it was 3/4 of a mile long. Its fabulous when you have a huge set that you’re working with. It’s like being a kid again. It’s like playing soldiers. That was wonderful to do.
When you think of war films at your age, do you think you can only play restricted roles like the General?
Yeah. Do you know what I mean? But you can now. That’s my face at 20. I got pictures of me at home when I was boxing at 20. The body ain’t. I only had a three-pack then. But with the film, they pick up everything and you’ve got to make sure you don’t over do it because it picks it up.
It was like CGI plastic surgery.
I guess so. I don’t know the terminology of it. When I watched it, the performance that Anthony Hopkins gives on the screen is what he gave in the studio. And I felt that was mine as well, and likewise with everyone else. It’s just this word computer that freaks people out. It’s a performance. Putting three of the takes together, messing them around. In theater it’s different, if you mess up and they don’t like you they boo you – and quite rightly so.
Did you see the film in the IMAX 3D format?
I haven’t seen that yet. I’ve only seen normal 3D. It blew me away. I’m going back to England, rest a bit and book it.
What was your reaction to see Angelina in 3D?
Well, there’d be something wrong with you if you didn’t think she was beautiful. She’s an absolutely stunning girl – as is Robin Wright Penn. They are two of the most beautiful women in the world. You get that impression when you meet them anyway. They’re just stunning and fantastic actresses as well. Which makes them sexy. Doesn’t matter what they look like, but their acting makes them sexy. They’re beautiful women. They’re really good girls. And I had fun working with them.
Do you have films you want to produce, films you want to make?
I don’t have the money to produce this. What’s this cost? 140 million dollars? I’m lucky if I’ve got 40 pounds. I do have my own company and we’ve made several small films that I’m proud of and we’re making one after Christmas. We’re just jumping along and working with people. I’m doing a film with people who’ve done Sexy Beast, with a new director – Malcolm Venville – called 44 Inch Chest. It’s about a man who loves his wife too much. It’s very well written. I’m doing another film in Brighton with [writer/rock musician] Nick Cave – who wrote The Proposition – with the same director, John Hillcoat. It’s called Death of a Lady’s Man. It’s very dark, funny, and it will break your heart. It’s a really great script. That’s me. I’m back at work.
In doing The Proposition, [playing Captain Stanley] – though it was set in Australia, it was a chance to do a western.
That was one of the reasons I loved it. I loved Australia and went straight to the outback. It’s like London was 40 years ago. They are very direct and open there, like New Yorkers as well. You got to be abrupt here. I was lighting a cigarette outside the hotel here, and I asked a person if they’ve got change and they said “No! Have a nice evening.” But that’s the vibe in doing a Western, all the ranches and aborigines… like New York. I love it.
When they yelled “cut” on the set, I can just imagine you, Brendan, and Anthony going out to a pub. Did you guys do some damage?
Me and Brendan did on a few occasions [laughs], but Anthony doesn’t drink and hasn’t done so for years. He’s the funny one; he’ll keep you laughing all day long. He’d be doing Tommy Cooper [a famous British comic] impersonations and he’d impersonate you. He’s a ball. He’s a pleasure. Me and Brendan would have a beer when we felt like it because at the end of the day you were knackered and wanted to go home and do work the next morning. It depends on what kind of day you had the next morning. We were very professional about it as you can imagine. [laughs]
What about your experience filming in New York?
We did The Departed here and also in Boston. I like this place. I’ve been here many times, and it’s always been the same way. It’s been a ball. But I’ve only worked here once.
Was Anthony jealous that you looked better in the nude than he did?
Yeah, but you didn’t see that, it was all covered up. You don’t know. The funny thing about that is, when you look at it in the theater, people kind of swerve to one side to see if they can see it [laughs]. They want to see what it looks like.
The animation people could extend it if you wanted them to.
I’ve never had that problem, to be honest with you [laughs].
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 25, 2007.