Wearing a dark overcoat and thick rimmed spectacles, Ray Winstone, makes his way through the lobby of Da Vinci’s Hotel and steps outside for a smoke.
The Hackney born movie star appears every bit as imposing as he is in Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil By Mouth’ and Tim Roth’s ‘The War Zone’ but after a few minutes in his company it becomes crystal clear he’s everything but. Instead, Winstone is unaffected, charming, captivating and hilariously funny.
“The Derry men are fierce aren’t they?” asks Winstone.
“I hear the local team, Derry City F.C., is that what they are called, won the cup a few weeks ago - hopefully West Ham United can take a leaf out of their book this season.”
Winstone, who is a lifelong Hammers’ fan, will play Cubal-cain in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ in 2014 and finished shooting the movie in New York last week before returning home to London to spend time with his family for a few days.
On Wednesday afternoon, Winstone and ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll’ director Mat Whitecross touched down in City of Derry Airport to attend the Irish premiere of their film, ‘Ashes’, at the Foyle Film Festival.
The film is directed by Whitecross and was also the festival’s opening event. It was shown to a sell out crowd in Screen One of the Brunswick Moviebowl and after the film had ended, both Mat and Ray took part in a question and answer session.
In ‘Ashes’ Winstone, plays Frank Barron, a man struck down with Alzheimer’s.
Frank’s estranged son, Jamie, played by Jim Sturgess, tracks Frank down and decides to help his father escape from the secure unit hospital. The two men go on a road trip like no other ever seen before.
Ray and Mat sat at the very front of the cinema during Wednesday night’s premiere and as soon as the credits stopped rolling at the end, the audience was unanimously appreciative of the film and applauded both men.
“That’s the kind of reaction we were looking for,” said Ray.
“We showed the film to the cast, the crew and a few people in the industry but you never know how it’s going to be received until you show it to a normal audience.
“I was delighted with how the people of Derry took to the film - I really enjoyed chatting to everyone afterwards.
“We make films because we want people to go to the cinema and see them. I was a little bit nervous but quite excited but that’s why you make movies, you want an audience there. I thought the reaction was great and I loved watching it again. I enjoyed watching it with a normal audience again.”
‘Ashes’, which is also written by Mat, is based upon his own experience with his father, Richard, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and died several years ago.
“It was a tough subject to tackle but whether you love or hate the film, people were talking about Alzheimer’s and dementia by the end of the night.
“People were talking about their own personal experiences which I thought was amazing because sometimes when you go to those question and answer sessions they are a bit awkward and it’s all about ‘what was the catering like?’ or ‘did you get on with your co-stars?’
“Wednesday night’s question and answer session started off being about the film but it developed into people talking about their own personal stories - I was delighted with that, it was a great experience,” said Mat.
Mat, who also directed the critically acclaimed and award winning documentary, ‘Road to Guantanamo’, explained that because Alzheimer’s and mental health is central to the film’s plot it took a lot of time before the film was green lit. However, Mat said that had it not been for Winstone’s gravitas and personal desire to stick with the film, it probably never would have been made.
“If Ray hadn’t appeared in the film I don’t think that it would have gone ahead.
“Ray is the kind of actor who has the ability to get films green lit. Ray’s an amazing actor with a wealth of experience and he has a big fan base and I think had the character of Frank been played by anyone else then people would not have been as eager to come along and watch it.
“The cinema was sold out on Wednesday which proves to me that there’s an audience out there for this type of film. I think people are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for.”
‘Ashes’ had a very small budget and is a step away from the kind of film that Winstone is traditionally associated with.
Winstone’s acting C.V. is impressive to say the least; he has worked with Jack Nicholson and Leonardo Di Caprio on the set of Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’, Harrison Ford in ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ and Sir Ben Kingsely in ‘Sexy Beast’. The list goes on and on but Winstone insisted that his role in ‘Ashes’ is as fulfilling to the characters he played in Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil By Mouth’ and Tim Roth’s ‘The War Zone’.
“I’d put ‘Ashes’ along with ‘Nil By Mouth’ and ‘The War Zone’. When you talk about those films you are talking about a man who abuses other people. You are playing a man with an illness and without knowing it, he abuses people and has the potential to be abused himself. I think my role in ‘Ashes’ was as difficult as the characters I played in both ‘Nil By Mouth’ and ‘The War Zone’ both physically and mentally. But that’s the joy of it because parts such as the character in ‘Ashes’ come along once in a blue moon but I am lucky to have played three characters like that - not many actors are lucky enough to be able to say that. Some of them only get one great part in their life.
“The legacy of it is that after the movie is made you look back at it with pride. I look back at ‘Nil By Mouth’ and ‘The War Zone’ with pride because they, like ‘Ashes’, are movies that are made for all of the right reasons. I think in a few years time I will look back at ‘Ashes’ the same way I do the other two.
“At the end of the day we have mad a movie, we have a made a thriller about a difficult topic and hopefully that will help someone some where to start a discussion about Alzheimer’s and dementia and it will help society to look at it differently. I am not saying that that’s the reason I made the movie. It’s not the reason why I made ‘Nil By Mouth’, ‘War Zone’ or ‘Scum’ but important discussions took place as a result and I am delighted with that.”
The visit to the 25th Foyle Film Festival was the first time both Mat and Ray had been to Derry. Both men spoke enthusiastically about Derry’s up-and-coming year as UK City of Culture in 2013 and Ray, in particular, was full of praise for the City of Derry of Airport.
“The arts did wonders for Glasgow and Liverpool when they were the European City of Culture. A hell of a lot of stuff has changed in Glasgow and Liverpool because of arts and culture.
“I used to go to this pub in Glasgow years ago called ‘The Cotton Club’ - it was quite a rough place to go back then. I visited Glasgow a few years with a mate and I said ‘c’mon let’s go to the Cotton Club and off we went. I told him we’d be guaranteed a laugh but as soon as we got in there, I saw a geezer reading poetry and another playing the violin. I thought, boy this has changed but that’s what the European City of Culture did for Glasgow and it’s the kind of thing the UK City of Culture can do for Derry. “It can’t do it any harm. It’ll do the place the world of good because not only will it put Derry on the map but it will also put Northern Ireland on the map too.”
“This is my first visit to Derry. I’ve been to Belfast, Portadown and Armagh a few times before but never to Derry. I have to say that the place, of what I have seen of it, is lovely. The people here have been really warm and open with us - I really like that.”
He continued: “You have a great airport here - don’t ever change it. I couldn’t believe it because we walked off the plane, walked through a door and we were there - it was great.
“I purposely didn’t bring a bag but had I known how great the airport in Derry was I would have left my man bag at home and brought a proper bag with me.”
Mat, who lives and works in London, said that because of the interest in his film locally, he can see no reason why Derry’s year as City of Culture should not help the city towards a better future.
“It’s strange because living and working out of London everyone thinks that in terms of arts and culture, that’s where everything happens but that’s ridiculous. I’ve been working in Manchester and Glasgow recently and both places are buzzing at the minute. I think that attitude needs to change because talking to people last night I got the sense that there’s real passion for arts, culture and film making here.
“People might say that everyone’s getting lazy because of the internet but that’s crazy because there is no substitute for sitting in a room full of 250 people, concentrating on what it is you are watching and sharing and talking about the film afterwards. It’s a crucial point because that is why people still go to the cinema.”
Today is the final day of the 2012 Foyle Film Festival; for further information visit the website www.foylefilmfestival.org or on Twitter: @FoyleFilm