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Vinnie Jones

Sunday Herald (December 2001)

Vinnie Jones used to get this feeling seconds before punching someone’s lights out. It was half excitement, half fear, driven by the emotional rush of impending violence, and it would take over his entire body. He’d be shaking, almost uncontrollably so, and the only way to snap out of it was with the kind of outburst that usually ended with Paul Gascoigne doubled up in pain. This was fine on the football pitch, a little less so down the pub. But in front of royalty it was another matter entirely.

“I was doing the dress rehearsal for the Royal Variety Show and I was shitting myself,” Jones relates, sitting in a room in London’s Dorchester Hotel. “I just got these shakes. And I could feel my trousers moving. It was nerves and adrenalin. I get like that when I’m just about to have a fight. And I couldn’t control it.” Jones wasn’t worried about performing to the Queen. If he could handle the crowd at Selhurst Park, he could handle anyone. His chief concern was having to sing “Macavity” from “Cats”. “I was doing the dance and fucked it up in rehearsals. Oh my God. But I nailed it live. Half a bottle of white wine and I was alright.”

Jones has certainly come a long way since the days when he was known mainly for holding the record for the fastest booking in English league football (three seconds) and being fined £20,000 by the FA for his dirty tricks video “Soccer’s Hard Men”. His performance as Big Chris in “Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels” led to roles in “Snatch” (with Brad Pitt), “Swordfish” (with John Travolta) and “Gone In 60 Seconds” (with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie), where he kept his mouth shut and let his menacing presence do the talking.

Now, though, the 36-year-old Welshman has taken the lead in a remake of the 1974 Burt Reynolds movie “Mean Machine”. Jones plays Danny Meehan, a former England captain sent to prison for drunken assault who trains a team of convicts to play a suitably violent football game against the guards.

“I wanted to get away from the ex-footballer turned actor, but Barry the director said ‘you won’t be watching a match, you’ll be watching these different characters’,” explains Jones. “Football films have literally kicked themselves in the nuts with the football. Because the camera goes down and it’s someone else’s legs. So we cast the actors on the football field. If they couldn’t play, they were bombed.”

Jones himself is surprisingly convincing as Meehan, running on a sense of roguish charm and the innate confidence of a man who knows he can solve any problem with his fists. He’s the same in conversation: upfront, honest, serious to the point of naivety in some instances and quietly funny in others.

Ask if he thinks he’s a good actor, for example, and Jones is endearingly frank. “I’m still learning,” he says. “Robert Duvall said to me ‘I’m still learning. I know the day to day stuff and there’s always bits that blow in with the wind’. That’s how I’m approaching it.” Which actors does he admire? “Ray Winstone has got more in his little finger than I’ve got in my whole body, acting wise, but hopefully I’ll get there. Michael Caine makes acting look so easy. Bob Hoskins is a fiery little fucker. Brad’s just a natural. Pacino. De Niro. I was supposed to go to dinner with De Niro in New York and I couldn’t. But I’ve met all the other boys.”

When Jones talks to the actors he admires he asks for advice. “I ask them out of respect,” he says simply. Hoskins echoed the thoughts of many. “He said ‘you’ve got screen presence, no one can ever take that away from you. Just go with that. Don’t try and be too clever with it. Do stuff that’s within you.’” So Vinnie’s sticking to hard men with a comic edge. “I love comedy,” he says. “I think that’s my forte. Being quite serious and the comic timing. Me and my mates, that all we do. Tommy Cooper jokes, just silly stuff, but that’s what I love.”

No amount of advice could have prepared Jones for his first love scene, with Sally Phillips in “Mean Machine”. It lasts for all of thirty seconds and consists of the pair snogging and tearing at each other’s clothing, but even so Vinnie was nervous. “It’s filth,” he laughs. “Fucking filth. Sally was nervous as well. She was like ‘oh my god I’ve got to snog Vinnie Jones’. I said ‘you can tell your mates you were the first’. You just have to get over it and then you get into a little bit. It’s more natural. Especially when she heads downstairs. Ha ha ha!”

Did he talk it over with his wife, Tanya?

“Oh, I had a nightmare,” he groans. “I used to take the rushes home and I took the wrong one. So I’m sitting there with Tanya and Kayley my daughter and it just came on. I was going (coughs, trying to distract someone), too late. The girls saw it and they were fucking screaming ‘you hussy!’”

The more successful the actor, the more explicit the sex scene. Will that be a problem? “It can’t be a problem, it can’t.” Could he do a gay role? “Yeah, I mean, you know…as long as it was creditable. If I was going to play this gay guy, it would have to be done properly, be a proper movie with a proper budget. I wouldn’t do it for the sake of working. Fucking twenty grand or something.” Jones decides to change the subject. With not entirely successful results. “Robert Duvall thinks I should do a western. He said you’d be a great cowboy.”

Jones’ mobile phone rings. He’s just sold his house and Tanya is looking for a place they can rent for six months. Jones takes his time, making sure his wife’s happy before turning back with an apology. So how much did he get for his house? “Fucking nosey, ain’t ya?” Luckily, he’s smiling. “I want a bit more land,” he explains. “For shooting, fishing. I was brought up with it. Beating and shooting and rifles and guns and fishing rods. I just love the country. I like going out at night, lamping rabbits. That’s one of my ambitions. Lamping kangaroos at night. Fucking blast them.”

Is that legal?

“Yeah, they do do it. They shoot them with rifles. There’s millions of them. They have to cull them. You don’t like shooting do you?”

I’ve always thought it was an upper class sport.

“It’s getting very trendy again now. Blokes with a few quid, city boys, they go shooting.”

If there’s one thing you don’t expect Vinnie Jones to be, it’s a keen social climber. But look at his life and all the signs are there. Big house, lots of land, hobnobbing with royalty. He’s suitably nonplussed about meeting the Queen, of course. “It was alright,” he shrugs. “It was an honour to be asked but, you know, we never really had a chat. I shook hands and she said thanks a lot and it was quite nice. I’m a big fan of the royals but there’s a lot more other people I’d rather meet.” Even so, he can’t resist reeling off his list of contacts. “I’ve met most of them now. Lady Di. William. Prince Andrew. Prince Charles. Princess Anne.”

And if there’s one thing you <I>really<I> don’t expect Vinnie Jones to be, it’s a namedropper. But the boy done good in Hollywood and – clang! – he wants to talk about his new famous friends. Albeit with a sense of wide-eyed disbelief that makes you feel like you’re on the side of the underdog.

“My first day on set (of “Gone In 60 Seconds”) was Nic Cage, Angelina, Robert Duvall, Ribisi and me. You just don’t know what to fucking do. Weird fucking shit. And it’s hard to take. I had my birthday party out there last January. I invited a few people. And (in a tone of utter amazement) <I> they all turned up<I>. Travolta turned up with his missus. Rod Stewart and his missus turned up. These fucking big high producers. Nic Cage. It was fucking awesome. Who’d have thought they’d have turned up for me? And you think, ‘yeah, I could have some of this’.”

There’s a shadow hanging over Vinnie Jones’s Hollywood dream, however. In 1998, he got into an argument with his neighbour Timothy Gear and slapped him, kicked him, bit him on the scalp, stamped on his head and allegedly threatened to shoot him. Jones was convicted of aggravated bodily harm and if he gets into a punch up again faces prison.

“Can you imagine having all this and then getting fucking put away for nine months for fighting?” Jones says quietly. “The thing is, everybody’s waiting for me to blow up and fuck it all. So that’s why I have to make these decisions. They’re crucial. I know there’s a lot of people out there saying ‘he’ll end up in nick, he’ll spunk it all’. That’s why I won’t.”

The most important decision Jones made was about going to the pub. “I used to have regular punch ups. A couple of blokes tried to glass me in the face with a pint glass. I thought ‘what am I doing?’ My old man said ‘You’ve got to decide what side of the fence you’re going to go. Most of those guys aren’t your real mates, they’re hangers on.’ This bloke said to me that when they see me walk in, they go ‘drink up, Jonesey’s coming in, he’ll get us all a drink’. So I fucking bombed it.”

Instead, Jones is turning his experiences in his local into a screenplay. “I’ve been writing a script about the relationship I had as a sportsman in the public eye with all the characters in the pub. These guys would go to a club til three am, then drive to Newcastle, find my hotel and crash in my room, stinking of beer and BO. Not what’s done now. Managers would have a heart attack. I’d get them breakfast and tickets and meet them back in the pub. I’d jump in the car with them afterwards sometimes.”

And although he’s still struggling with writing his script out longhand, you can’t mistake the satisfaction he feels at trying to make good.

“My satisfaction is being in a good film,” he says. “And obviously being the lead. I love the premieres. I went to ‘Snatch’ and the party after was fucking awesome. Everyone coming up and saying they loved it.”

Thank God no one asked him to sing.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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