In “The Sweeney,” Winstone took over the role from John Thaw (who continued the character later in television movies), a character who seems to drunkenly walk the very blurry line between cop and criminal, while still trying to hold up the code of law. (Damian Lewis, in a post-“Homeland” role, plays his scowling boss.) The character seems to fall in line with the Winstone ethos of a conflicted character who very much has a sense of purpose and direction, no matter how flawed. We were eager to talk to the actor about what the original series meant to him, and where the character fit in with his filmography.
Yeah, it was one of the most iconic shows – it was so different and in front of its time, really. It changed the face of British TV. At that time, in the '70s, it was a breath of fresh air that came. They were good in their own way, these other shows, were kind of kitchen sink dramas and “The Sweeney” was real working class stuff and blew everybody away. So when it came to doing the movie, 40 years later, you have to sit down and say, ‘Well, why are we trying to make a film of this?’ You’ve got to step back and make it your own. I think after a couple of days, we realized we were doing really good shop. And it was enjoyable – when you turn up every day and your director is wearing pajamas, you know you’re going to have fun.
Was there any trepidation on your part? Did you worry it was too iconic?
Yeah, there was. There was a moment of – “Am I mad?” Because John Thaw as the original Jack Regan was so good, I wondered if I could go in and play it. But you get over that because as an actor you’ve got to bring something of your own to it, you’ve got to make it your own. Of course, there was that moment of trepidation.
Usually when you get a script – I mean sometimes you do a job because you’ve got to pay the rent, there aren’t that many scripts around that are great. I’ve just been lucky in my career because a lot of scripts I’ve read you pick it up and read it to the end. And you want to do them for that reason. With “The Sweeney,” for me, it was mostly the name and the challenge of trying to remake something that was so iconic while trying to bring something new to it. So that’s slightly different from the norm. I felt something there was actually something there that I could use and make work. As I’ve said, sometimes there’s a script that might not totally work but you’ve got kids who have got to go to school and put food on the table and pay the rent.
You’ve played really good guys and really bad guys and your character in “The Sweeney” is somewhere in-between. Do you like that moral ambiguity or do you prefer playing characters who are more oversized?
Well, you pick up a script and go, “I’m playing the bad guy because it’s written like the bad guy.” But I’ll sometimes say, well, I’ll play him like a good guy and let the story tell you he’s a bad guy and that makes it more interesting for me. With Regan, for me, he’s got these great moments when all is going well and you think, "well maybe I don’t like this guy." But when it’s all going wrong and he does still want to keep the streets clean and make the world a better place, that’s when you see the real Regan and you say, "I wish he was on my side."
What was it like working with Plan B?
Little Benny Drew? I was lucky enough to have met him a couple of times before and I had seen it in “Harry Brown” with Michael Caine. He’s got some weight to him, I mean he couldn’t kick a door down, but he’s one of those kids when he goes in there’s no half measures – he wants to do it well. And he’s one of these actors who is going to get better and better and better.