Do you know what happens to the face and body of a person that is alive and awake, but cannot move their face, – move their eyes – to acknowledge their world around them, but instead they remain seated within their stilted gaze and stare. This may sound like a description of a Hitchcock movie, but in fact is an apt description of Ray Winstone in director Mat Whitecross’ (Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Road to Guantanamo) latest film Ashes.
Ray plays Frank, a man slowly drained of his strength, now bitter sweetly easing into a forced stillness, by Alzheimer’s. The film is anchored on his son James (Jim Sturgess), who desperately breaks him out of the nursing home to go anywhere but back; alongside Cathy (Lesley Manhill) Frank’s wife, who only appears in the longing flashes of hallucination in Frank’s mind.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT THIS FILM?
When I was working on Sex Drugs & Rock & Roll the director Mat Whitecross and myself were discussing doing something else together, then when Mat had finished the film he went away and came up with this superb script.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REACTION UPON READING THE SCRIPT?
I judge a script on one thing, if I read it all the way through without putting it down, which was the case with Ashes, then I want to do it. Sexy Beast, 44 Inch Chest, War Zone, Nil By Mouth and Proposition were such scripts; they had the elements that touched my heart.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE FRANK?
It’s a difficult question to answer, I guess in a way I had to forget about Frank’s history and play him as if he had nothing to describe his situation. Heartbreaking.
THE FILM IS PRIMARILY ABOUT A MAN WITH ALZHEIMER’S, AND MAT HAS TURNED THIS INTO A TENSE THRILLER. HOW DID THE GENRE AFFECT HOW YOU PLAYED FRANK?
Firstly I read, met and spoke to anything and everyone I could , that was affected by Alzheimer’s. Mat Whitecross and his family were the real backbone of the performance, then I had to make this work within the workings of the script. The difficult thing was not to compromise the illness and with the help of Mat and Jim Sturgess I believe we achieved this. In terms of the physical side of it: I used muscles I didn’t even know I had because of the way you walk, stand, sit and the movement in general. It seems my body was tense all of the time. But on the mental side it really makes you think. You start noticing things in other people and you really become aware of the saying ”There for the grace of God go I” . It’s heartbreaking.
YOU’RE KNOWN FOR VERY MASCULINE ROLES BUT HERE WE SEE A FRAGILE, VULNERABLE MAN. DID YOU WANT TO PLAY THIS ROLE TO SHOW ANOTHER SIDE OF YOU?
No it wasn’t the main reason, firstly you do it because it’s a great script, being made for the right reasons, like Nil By Mouth is about abuse or self abuse and War Zone is about child abuse. I believe these films were written and made for the right reasons. I think films such as these are important as they hopefully help the public to be more aware of this terrible illness and be more understanding. And yes then it’s about the part, the character and the challenge.
DID YOU HAVE ANY WORRIES WHEN FILMING?
Yes, fear. I wasn’t sure if I could play it. And fear that I wouldn’t do it justice, meaning the illness, the people who suffer through Alzheimer’s, carers and families. So I wanted to be spot on. I’ve seen Alzheimer’s played before and generally its been portrayed in the early stages. I wanted to play it, when the disease is further down the line.
IT’S A VERY POWERFUL PERFORMANCE, DID IT AFFECT HOW YOU LOOKED AT YOUR OWN FAMILY AND THOSE CLOSEST TO YOU?
Yes it did. I’m much more aware of the illness, I’m more aware of myself memory wise, i’m generally just more aware of people, just walking about. A couple of months ago I saw an elderly man in just a vest and trousers walking down a country lane, it was cold, so I called the services and got the old boy picked up. I was for the first time in my life, aware of the situation. I hope this film might help in that way.
THROUGHOUT THE FILM FRANK IS VERY OBVIOUSLY TRAPPED BY HIS DISEASE, DID PLAYING SUCH A ROLE AFFECT YOU EMOTIONALLY?
Yes of course, you can’t play a man like this, within a movie like this and not feel completely emotionally drained, during it and after it. If you don’t feel like that, you shouldn’t be doing it.
WHY DID YOU WANT TO WORK WITH MAT AGAIN?
The fact that I feel he is a real talent in every sense of the word and I really like him…in a man way!
THIS IS A SMALL BUDGET INDEPENDENT FILM, HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO YOU TO WORK WITH BRITISH INDIE DIRECTORS, PARTICULARLY IN THE FACE OF SUCH AUSTERE ARTS CUTS?
This wasn’t what I would call a low budget movie, it’s what I’d call, a really low budget movie. But having said that it was probably very difficult to finance anyway, so we were lucky to find people who would invest. Thank God we had the producers we did. As for working in British Indie movies, low budget is sometimes where you get to play the roles you wish to play.
HOW CAN THE ARTS COMMUNITY ENCOURAGE NEW, YOUNG BRITISH FILMMAKERS?
I think the arts and the British film industry do support new talent, you can’t blame them for everything; the problem for me is the amount of crap that is finances, but again that is not to everyone’s taste. The one thing I think the British film industry and the Arts council could do is own their own string of cinemas up and down the country. British films are made, but are never released onto the big screen, just like Ashes.
DOES THE GOVERNMENT GIVE ENOUGH SUPPORT?
No. Plain and simple.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN TAKING ON THIS ROLE?
The best parts have been, working with Mat, the cast and fantastic crew, our beautiful producers. All proper dedicated film makers. I love them to bits, all of them. And the challenging parts, making this film was tough emotionally and physically, but what an education.
IF YOU WERE TOLD THAT YOU’D LOSE YOUR MEMORY IN THREE MONTHS, WHAT WOULD YOU PRESERVE IN A TIME CAPSULE TO BE CONSTANTLY REMINDED OF?
My wife Elaine. My daughters Lois, Jamie and Ellie and where I live.
WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LEAVE THEM?
No matter what, I love you.
WHAT HAS SHOOTING THIS FILM TAUGHT YOU?
Fear and a sense of helplessness. And that we are not supermen, we are mortal.
Ashes is released on DVD on 28 January.