He might be known as a hard man on screen but, as Ray Winstone tells Susan Griffin, on this occasion he was happy to leave the skirmishes to his mate Sean Penn

SUCH is Ray Winstone's reputation for partying, that news he'd apparently given up the late nights made headlines. "Rubbish. I'm an animal!" says the actor, grinning. "When I was younger, you could go out and come back in the morning, but it catches up with you, hun, and it's caught up with me. "Every now and again I have a dive off the deep end, but not that often now," he adds, in that familiar gruff East End growl.

Winstone, who has a pub in the back garden of his Essex home, has enjoyed a fair few memorable nights out over the years, including one with Sean Penn, his co-star in the new action thriller The Gunman. "I'm lucky to have met him a few years back, and we had an evening out. That was interesting."

Anything he wants to share? "Nothing I'd tell you," retorts the father-of-three, who's starred in the likes of Sexy Beast and The Departed.

He laughs heartily, and I note that Penn's not a fan of speaking to press, is he? "Lucky ol' Sean, hey? So it's left to mugs like me. I'll pull him about that..." says Winstone, smiling.

Penn's reluctance to open up makes it difficult to know what he's like. Is he a serious man, or just serious about his work? "We all moan about things that go on, and sit on our arses and do nothing about it. He gets up and goes and does it," notes Winstone. "I don't always agree with everything he has to say, but all power to him."

The opportunity to work with Penn was one of the major draws for The Gunman. "Sean's a good boy and probably one of the best screen actors who's about at the moment. I want to work with people like that," says 58-year-old Winstone, folding his arms across his chest. "Then you read the script and meet Pierre [Morel, the director, who also helmed Taken], who's fantastic. I liked him a lot. And you find out who else is in it - Mark [Rylance, recently seen in Wolf Hall] and all that, and you go, 'Oh good God, there's a bit of class going on here'. It's an action movie but it's got story, reality" - and Penn looking in the best shape of his life, of course. "Sean is only a few years younger than me, but where he has an eight pack, I've got a party pack!" Winstone jokes. Penn stars as Jim Terrier, an ex-special forces government contractor who's betrayed by the organisation he once worked for, and has to go on the run in a relentless game of cat and mouse across Africa and Europe.

Winstone plays Terrier's close friend Stanley, a broken, grizzly and paranoid man, who he reportedly compared to an ageing actor. "I don't know what I said. I was probably drunk at a party," he quips today. "But Stanley's a man who's a bit further down the line than Sean's character. He's seen the same atrocities, he's been in the same position and I think he's really died as a man; found drink, drugs, and just wallows in it. "I was happy to sit in a scene in a pub and watch Terrier bash up a couple of guys. All that is in the past for Stanley."

This year, the actor celebrates 40 years in the business. Born in Hackney, east London, he moved to Enfield as a child and started boxing at the age of 12, going on to fight for England twice. He studied acting at the Corona Theatre School and, in 1975, was cast in the TV series You And The World.

But it was Alan Clarke's Scum, four years later, which made his name, and a year after that, he earned his first Bafta nomination, for Best Newcomer for That Summer! It was on the set of that 1979 drama that he met his wife Elaine. They have three daughters; Lois (33) and Jaime (29), who are both actresses, and Ellie Rae (13), who has also appeared on screen.

Winstone won a second Bafta nod for 1997's intense drama Nil By Mouth, and these days is the go-to bloke for tough, no-nonsense geezers and gangsters. Given how dark the material can often be, Winstone considers himself "pretty lucky" that he doesn't take roles home with him. "There are some people who do. There's nothing wrong with that because they deliver a performance. But no, how could you take Nil By Mouth home with you, something like that? You couldn't. I'd go off my head. And I wouldn't be married any more. That's a thought..."

He recently wrapped on the TV drama The Trials Of Jimmy Rose with his Sexy Beast

co-star Amanda Redman, as well as the much anticipated remake of Point Break, which starred Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze in the 1991 original. "I wasn't at all tentative [about the remake], because I met the director and it was going all over the world; the first one was confined to California," reveals Winstone. "And it has actors from all over the world, and young 'uns, all beefed up looking good. Then there's little podgy me."

* The Gunman is in cinemas from today.

* The production company had sent actor and humanitarian Sean Penn many scripts before but this one "spoke to him - he knows people like Jim Terrier", says producer Andrew Rona.

n The script is based on the French novel The Prone Gunman, written in the 1980s; Penn worked with scriptwriters to update and expand it.

n Director Pierre Morel rose through the ranks working with the likes of Luc Besson, while his movie Taken, starring Liam Neeson, launched the whole notion of the older action man.

* The film also stars Javier Bardem, Idris Elba and Italian actress Jasmine Trinca.

* Mark Rylance has said people might be confused by his character's voice. In the script, he'd been shot in the throat, but that bit of information was later edited out of the film.


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