“It was such, for me, a perfect script. It was like reading a kind of London Shakespeare,” fondly recalls Ray Winstone, the Hackney-born star of big screen gems like The Departed, Nil by Mouth and Cold Mountain.
Of course, he’s actually waxing lyrical about Sexy Beast, the suntanned gangster masterpiece that celebrates 20 years since its Toronto International Film Festival premiere today.
To commemorate this platinum anniversary, Winstone (who played Gary ‘Gal’ Dove), Amanda Redman (DeeDee Dove) and Ian McShane (Teddy Bass) sat down with NME to discuss legacy, Sir Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan and compliments from Steven Spielberg.
Around the turn of the century, Guy Ritchie made waves in the UK scene with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but screenwriting partners Louis Mellis and David Scinto were unleashing a different beast altogether – pun absolutely intended.
Teaming up with director Jonathan Glazer, who’d plied his trade creating groundbreaking adverts and music videos, their script and his vision transported the genre’s well-worn sensibilities into a nightmare world unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Unless you count Donnie Darko, that is, due to the films’ shared affinity for horrific man-sized rabbits.
In a league of its own, Sexy Beast almost defies categorisation, which makes it one of the most unique 88 minutes you’re likely to spend in the company of criminals. There’s a black sense of humour driving through the centre of it, alongside “a certain amount of English magical realism” as McShane puts it; hectic music and even an underwater bank heist.
“When I saw a clip of it [with an audience], everyone was laughing because it was me in my speedos and the boulder coming down, so I think they thought they were gonna watch a comedy,” Winstone says of initial perceptions.
The film memorably opens with narration from Gal as he ponders the sweltering Spanish weather – “You can fry an egg on my stomach. Ohhh, who wouldn’t lap this up? It’s ridiculous…” – and straight away you know he’s one of us, someone relatable, but two inches to the left and he’d have been squashed in the very first scene.
The plot is simple: retired career thief Gal gets paid a visit by his old employer Don, who will stop at nothing to bring him back into the fold for one last job. Gal and wife DeeDee (plus the couple’s close mates Aitch and Jackie) have their tranquillity bulldozed in a matter of seconds, as Kingsley’s villain swallows them up with his endless insults and volcanic eruptions.
“There were quite a lot of gangster movies at the time – Brit gangsters – and I thought this was a very different take on it, and I really enjoyed the characters,” says Redman of her first script read. McShane concurs: “The script came up and immediately you go: ‘Oh yes, thank you. That’ll be good.’”
Interestingly, Kingsley wasn’t Glazer’s first choice to breathe life into Don – that ball was in Winstone’s court from the beginning. “There was talk about me playing Don or Gary,” notes the 63-year-old, “I’d kind of played those characters [like] Don before, you know. When I read it, I kind of loved Gary and I fancied playing Gary – I fancied I could do something with that.” The casting aligned spectacularly in the end and Kingsley received an Oscar nomination for his performance (losing out to Jim Broadbent in the Best Supporting Actor category).
On the coast of Almeria, a fishing village named Agua Amarga played host to the majority of the shoot. Winstone, Redman, Julianne White (Jackie) and the late Cavan Kendall (Aitch) buddied up for the first month prior to Kingsley’s arrival – he was busy working on another film – which by some unintended yet beautiful design bled into the fivesome’s relationship on screen.
Redman remembers: “We’d become very, very close and so it felt sort of weird that this outsider was coming in. But that was right, that kind of worked for the whole piece, because that’s what indeed Don Logan was, you know, he came to spoil the equilibrium. So the dynamics worked fantastically.”
“When he finally got there, you see this guy who’s come over from playing Ghandi [in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic] so superbly, to be this psychotic gangster,” adds Winstone. “It’s the weight of what’s behind him – Ian McShane’s behind him, this organisation – so that’s the fear and he just brought that to him. Waiting for him kind of helped, it was a bit like Jaws you know.”
In a parallel universe, Kingsley would’ve actually dished out double the trouble, as McShane’s revelation teased: “Don had a twin in the original script – he was one of the gang [of thieves], completely different character. They took it out because I think it became too much of a gimmicky thing, you know?”
As far as direct impact on the entertainment industry goes, Kingsley’s merciless nutter has undoubtedly caused the biggest ripple. Just look at Ralph Fiennes in Martin McDonagh’s hitman flick In Bruges, his character Harry Waters is a slightly more sophisticated carbon copy of Don – imagine the swear-off those two would have. For their bestselling first album Inside In/Inside Out, indie rockers The Kooks even lifted a line of his dialogue to name one track ‘Jackie Big Tits’ – the fact that the band’s ex-touring bassist is called Dan Logan is a crazy coincidence.
Sexy Beast has achieved a cult status over the last two decades, having failed to make much of a splash at the global box office ($10.2m from a $4.3m budget). Redman suggests it was simply “one of those films where it was a bit marmite” amongst cinemagoers, before adding: “It’s unusual, it’s not run-of-the-mill stuff.”
But when Steven Spielberg’s a keen admirer, deep down you know you’ve played a blinder. “If I remember rightly, it was in his Top 4” reveals Winstone, who collaborated with the master filmmaker on 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
“He loved it, it’s probably the reason that I was in the Indiana Jones movie, because he liked Sexy Beast so much. For him to give the film the thumbs-up like that was quite a compliment. We can pussyfoot about and look at critics’ reviews and all that kind of stuff, but when someone in your industry who you hold to really high esteem comes out and comments like that, I think it means a lot.”
It’s clear through chatting to the trio that Glazer’s film – his feature debut – holds a special place in each of their hearts. Redman describes it as “certainly one of my favourite projects I’ve ever been involved in”, which is no mean feat for somebody who’s acted opposite Denzel Washington, Tom Courtenay and Ricky Tomlinson.
“It’s one of those films you’re very proud of, you know, you can watch [it] any time,” points out McShane, whose crime boss Teddy dominates the final third of the narrative with a sinister calm, before concluding: “Most of all, it makes me smile”.
As a final note, Winstone considers Mellis and Scinto’s electric writing to be some of the best he’s ever had the pleasure of enacting: “It was almost like you didn’t have to act… as long as you said the words, it performed for you in a way. Scenes on the telephone where I’m talking to Dee… I’m this ‘beast in the jungle’ – the way a man connects or expresses himself when he’s not capable of expressing himself, and the words that he can find, you know, it’s just really good writing and it was an absolute privilege to say it.”