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Winstone has a buff rebirth in 'Beowulf'
If you ever find yourself waving a massive broadsword, knee-deep in water in a vast magical cave with a not-naked-but-she-will-be-on-film Angelina Jolie, "remember that it helps to have a vivid imagination," chuckles Ray Winstone. "Very vivid."
The star of Beowulf, a new motion-capture animated film, found himself in many such spots while making the movie, which opens Friday. He would be acting with the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn. But they weren't in costume. And they weren't on sets that give even a hint of 5th-century Denmark.
"When you're left alone in a room with nothing, with special effects filling in everything around you, it all goes back to the simplest thing -- performance," Winstone says. "It's very liberating, because you, the actor, aren't distracted. It's pure performance -- voice, movement, expression."
Motion-capture animation -- the technology used in The Polar Express and Monster House -- means that actors don futuristic suits with markings on them that computers track as they are filmed. When the movie is animated, the "actor" is turned into someone with his or her movements and actions, maybe even their face. Special effects, fantastical beasts and settings are painted in, creating a world that may have never existed.
"For me, it was like a small upstairs theater, a theater with a tiny space and no budget for sets, where the acting has to make it work," says Winstone. "But it's also the most cinematic thing you can imagine."
Winstone, 50, "and all of 5-foot-10," plays the ancient viking hero Beowulf, "who in the movie is 6-foot-6 with an eight pack." The British tabloids were quick to point out, when the first images from the film were published, that Winstone was not the title character in his breakout film, Sexy Beast.
"Fair enough," Winstone says, laughing. "I knew that would be coming.
"But think of what this could mean to my profession, an actor's career. You get to a certain age, and there's characters you could have played that have now passed you by. This opens the door again. There are some actors who can pull off Hamlet at 17. But really, you've got to be older. You've got to know more. And that opens things up and gives us all more parts to play, I figure."
Winstone, a London native with a thick working-class accent, earned a reputation for playing street toughs early in his career. His Sexy Beast (2000) turn, playing a retired thief bullied into doing one last job (by a savage Ben Kingsley and a venomous Ian McShane) was a breakthrough that came after years of British work in small films and TV. He has played heavies in such Hollywood films as Cold Mountain and The Departed, but often escapes his street-wise persona to play soldiers (The Proposition) and monarchs (Henry VIII on British TV). He's in the new Indiana Jones movie and is about to shoot new films by his collaborators on Sexy Beast and The Proposition.
For Beowulf, he had to "learn how to move, how to carry myself as a 6-foot-6 warrior." He had to learn the story.
"That's a book they didn't teach in the sorts of schools I went to. Maybe the fancier ones, yeah. Not mine."
He had to find a way to connect himself to a mythic hero of 1,500 years ago.
"It's like actors believing their own publicity," Winstone says. "Beowulf believes the heroic stories that have been told about him, that he's been telling himself. The stories are basically true. They've just been upped a gear, exaggerated. Once you start going along with your own myth, you can't go back. That's who he has to be."
In the film, and in the original epic poem, Beowulf, a warrior of the Geats, comes to Denmark to rid a kingdom of "its curse," a man-beast named Grendel who slaughters and eats humans. The movie's script takes liberties with the poem. "But what they've done is fill in between the lines of the poem," Winstone says. "What was Beowulf doing in that cave where Grendel's mother lives?"
If Grendel's vengeful and cunning mother looked like Angelina Jolie, we can certainly guess.
"Beowulf, this most ancient story, shows us that human beings don't change," Winstone says. "It's about jealousy and ambition, and how those things can eat you away. All you really want, all anybody really wants, is to be loved, right? And most of us, it's too late by the time we finally figure that out. This greed that's at the heart of the story hasn't changed in the human race over the years. We still fight over land, over wealth, over women. That's human beings for you."
Roger Moore can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5369. Read his movie blog, Frankly My Dear, at OrlandoSentinel.com/franklymydear.