Ray Stevenson’s career is a reminder that if an actor is meant to find success, he’ll get there on his own schedule. Stevenson was in his mid-20s before he ever gave serious thought to going to an audition. Another 15 years would pass before he landed his big-screen breakthrough. But now, at 47, Stevenson is enjoying the best year of his professional life.
In the first half of 2011, Stevenson appeared in a pair of films that required very different performances: Kill the Irishman, in which Irish and Italian mobsters clash over control of 1970s Cleveland, needed a leading man who could anchor the film’s realistic milieu. Stevenson, sporting tight slacks and a fearsome mustache, fit the bill perfectly, playing the conflicted gangster Danny Greene with incredible intensity. Thor, a comic book movie that arrived in theaters two months later, called for a different approach. Though his fat suit took some getting used to, Stevenson soon settled into his role as Volstagg, an overweight ruffian.
Next up for Stevenson is Paul W.S. Anderson’s update of The Three Musketeers, in which he co-stars as Porthos. The action-oriented adaptation of the classic novel plays firmly to the strengths of the Ireland-born, English-bred actor, who first caught the eye of American viewers in the HBO series “Rome” before landing the lead role in the action flick Punisher: War Zone and co-starring with Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli.
MovieMaker spoke with Stevenson about how he got his (relatively late) start as an actor, his reservations about playing the vigilante Frank Castle in Punisher and what he learned from watching Oliver Reed as Porthos in the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers.
Kevin Canfield (MM): How did you get into the business?
Ray Stevenson (RS): Growing up, [acting] was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t tell anybody. I grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England, and I had no contacts or references for actors or plays. I kept quiet about it until I was actually working in London. I was an interior designer in an architectural practice, working in structural and spatial design, and I met this Australian actor who was looking for representation in London.
One or two glasses of Chardonnay later—more like three bottles of red wine later—I opened up to him and said I had this desire to be an actor. He then set me on a path to go to a bona fide school with people in the business. I was about 25 at the time. I went to the first audition of my life and, basically, I knew within two weeks that it was going to turn my life around. I had to give it a shot. I was on a huge voyage of discovery—trying to read as much as I could, see as much as I could and expose myself to as much of the business as I could.
MM: You got into the business a little later than most. Did you feel like you had to make up for lost time?
RS: It was synchronicity. Things happened at the right time. I was kind of glad I didn’t push myself to get involved in acting at 18 or 19; I would’ve been too young. I needed a bit of life experience. But if I waited until I was 30, I probably would’ve talked myself out of it. With acting, you try to be real about what’s around you, but you also get yourself full of wishful thinking, projecting what you want to be and what type of career you want to have. But you have to be careful that you don’t miss out on the career you’re having. It’s a tough profession at the best of times.
MM: In America, most people first came to know about you through “Rome.” Tell me how you got that part.
RS: For many years while I was in England people would say to me, “Why don’t you try the States?” Again, I had to listen to my instincts. I thought that if I went there certain doors would open, but if things didn’t happen straight off the bat, the doors would be closed again. If it was going to be in my path, it would happen organically, and I would be able to bring something to the States, so that people would say “He’s a new face, but he’s also got this body of work that he can reference.”
Soon I was doing King Arthur. I thought: Here’s my first big Hollywood movie—Jerry Bruckheimer, Touchstone, Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone—but I was aware enough to say, ‘You know, it’s a good movie, but it’s not a great movie.’ Being part of it certainly opened my eyes to the business. Then I got cast in “Rome” and, in a weird way, garnered a lot more interest Stateside than I did on my own turf.
MM: That series does have big pockets of diehard fans.
RS: Absolutely. I get asked all the time, “Is there going to be a movie? Is it going to come back? Why did they stop it?” I can’t complain about it. I loved doing it, it changed my life. It really did. And now I’m with the lady who was my landlady in Rome. She’s the mother of my children.
MM: Is that how you met?
RS: [When we were filming] the series, I changed apartments and moved to a smaller place in an older part of Rome. In walks my landlady, and it was like Sophia Loren walked in and said, “So, you want to rent my flat?” The rest is history, as they say.
MM: Then came the blockbuster, Punisher: War Zone. How did that happen?
RS: I was sent the script, and I thought ‘My God, this is such a violent piece.’ It was really off-putting. So I got the books, and I read the original series. I thought it was brilliant. The writing doesn’t pull punches, it doesn’t try to glorify violence. It does the opposite, in fact—it puts you in such a dark place. We had a meeting with Lionsgate where I said to some of the studio execs, ‘We can’t glorify the violence, because I don’t want anybody walking out of the cinema wanting to be Frank Castle, wanting to be the Punisher.’ It’s a very violent piece about a violent man doing violent things to violent people. I felt that the only way it was going to work was with absolutely no desire for redemption or light at the end of the tunnel. It just gets darker and darker. It’s not something that someone would desire for themselves.
MM: Once you’re cast in the role of action hero, does that open up a lot of doors? Do you then get your pick of roles in this kind of movie?
RS: Oh, no, no, no. It wasn’t a box office success. For many reasons, [among them] the press and the advertising, not enough people found out about it. The people who saw it were thrilled about it. It didn’t do too badly, but it didn’t do what it really should’ve done. But Marvel still came back to me, and I got to play Volstagg in Thor.
MM: You’re a big guy in real life, but Volstagg, he’s a behemoth, right?
RS: We couldn’t re-create the cartoon proportions of Volstagg [from the original comics], but I was wearing a full fat suit and a red wig, and I had to give a larger than life performance than I’d ever done.
MM: Compared to Thor, a gangster movie like Kill the Irishman requires a much more realistic performance.
RS: It’s a very nice detachment. I’ve been doing very different kinds of roles, which is great.
MM: And then there’s The Three Musketeers. Tell me about that.
RS: I was coming to the end of shooting Thor in New Mexico, and I got the most excruciating toothache. We were about a week away from the end of the movie, and I was planning to fly back to Europe, but this toothache was debilitating. I had an infection in the bone, and they had to do an extraction, which meant that I had to stay an extra week after I’d finished filming. During this week I took an extra meeting and I was offered the part of Porthos. It’s weird the way fate just throws curveballs at you.
MM: How do you go about putting a new spin on such an old story?
RS: It was basically by having discussions with Paul [W.S. Anderson] and [producer] Jeremy Bolt, finding out what kind of world they wanted to create. They were also very clear about the demographic, [which sometimes directors are not]. You’re not doing some opus for yourself.
I remember we were in Berlin and I asked if we had to wear the floppy hats? There are stories about Oliver Reed playing Porthos and how he hated his felt floppy hat. If you watch the movie, every time he’s about to fight he whips the hat off, and the first thing he hits somebody with is the hat.
MM: So is it safe to say that you made the right choice when you switched careers and started acting?
RS: People around me would say how brave I was to leave the profession I was in. I had a car, suits and stuff like that. But there was no bravery in it. If you’re on the right path, things work out. If you’re not, they quickly reveal themselves.