Vinnie Jones: Russia’s Toughest, LA’s sunniest and the UK’s just depressing

The footballer-turned-actor on killing reindeer by hand, his neighbour Quentin Tarantino and a European Britain past its sell-by-date

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It’s not only the tough-guy reputation of Vinnie Jones that precedes him into a bar behind Waterloo Station in London, but also a posse of PR people and fixers, who appear to case the joint before going back into the street to facilitate Vinnie’s emergence from a shiny black limousine, as if this were the President of the United States arriving.

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Immaculately suited and booted, and looking every inch the movie star that he plainly believes himself to be (and no wonder, for the PR machine has billed him a trifle excessively as “Hollywood superstar”), Jones takes a seat at a corner table. We are here to talk about Russia’s Toughest, a six-part series in which he experiences life in some of the least hospitable parts of Russia as endured by hard-as-nails construction workers, trawlermen, bodyguards, and others perhaps even more rugged than 48-year-old Vincent Peter Jones.

What isn’t on the agenda is the kiss that the married Jones was photographed sharing with a Russian singer while filming the series in Moscow. Before our conversation begins, a PR woman shepherds me away to the far corner of the bar, and makes it clear this isn’t something that should be raised. Throughout this exchange, Jones has been sitting quietly, exuding a slight air of menace.

On his own terms, though, he is an engaging conversationalist, and seems genuinely enthusiastic about this series, whipping out his iPhone to show pictures of the Russian wilderness as he recalls an encounter with a nomadic reindeer herder. “This guy shows us how to lasso a reindeer and kill it by hand, and we eat the liver still warm. What a character! He looked about 200 years old, and in sub-zero temperatures he just had this old cagoule on.”

Jones scrolls gleefully on through his pictures, showing me a huge bear that stomped towards him with such purpose that the guide had his AK-47 assault rifle locked and loaded. “I’m expecting her jaws around my neck at any second, but she just heads straight past us to catch these salmon. All sorts of things flash through your head in a situation like that: the golf course in Los Angeles, the pool in the back garden…”

Jones and his wife Tanya have lived in LA for eight years now, although the familiar Watford growl hasn’t developed the slightest mid-Atlantic twang. Moreover, a large Union flag flies outside the house on Mulholland Drive, yet his patriotic allegiances are not about to propel him home.

“There’s nothing to come back to here,” he says. “To me, England is past its sell-by date. It’s not the country I grew up in. It’s a European country now. If someone blindfolded you and put you on a plane in LA, and you landed at Heathrow and they took it off, you wouldn’t have a clue where you were.” It sounds, I venture, as if Jones might make a poster boy for UKIP. “You what?” he says. I explain. “I’m not familiar with them,” he says, “but I just think we should get our own house in order before we open our doors. It’s mind-boggling to me.”

Of course, there’s not much point complaining about cultural diversity in Britain when you live in America, the biggest melting-pot on earth. But there are other reasons why Jones prefers LA. “The weather here is depressing. People say you can get bored of the sunshine in LA. No, you can’t. I play golf six days a week, and I’ve still got my football team, the Hollywood All-Stars. Those are my two main things.”

We’ll come on to football, because it’s easy enough to forget that Jones was a footballer – an FA Cup winner no less, with Wimbledon – before his turn in Guy Ritchie’s 1998 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels ignited an improbable, but by no means unsuccessful, acting career.

First, though, let me fly the flag for Britain. Surely there are other things that he misses? Our sense of humour? Baked beans? “We can get all that in LA, though you sometimes have to pay through the roof for it. A bottle of Ribena is $14. But I get my Walkers crisps delivered one a month. I have a box of Roast Chicken, a box of Salt and Vinegar, and a box of Monster Munch.

He adds, “And there’s more Premier League football on TV there than there is here.” So what does he – still the holder of the record for the fastest-ever booking in a league match, after three seconds – make of the modern game, in which negligible contact between two players results in one rolling around in apparent agony? “Yeah, well, that rolling around, that’s the foreign players. I said it all 15 years ago, that diving would creep in, and also that the England team would suffer, because none of these foreign managers would buy English players. It’s all happening, just like I said it would. The likes of Frank Lampard and John Terry at Chelsea, English players with proper status at a club, they’re going to be like the dodo bird. Extinct.”

Jones is a pundit for Fox Soccer in the USA, but it’s the film career that has brought him wealth. “Robert Duvall told me I should do a western, and I’d love that,” he says. He’s a shameless namedropper, telling me he lives next door to Quentin Tarantino – “I’ve been round to his screening room, that’s all he does, gets people round to watch old movies” – but then who of us wouldn’t mention that we lived next to Tarantino?

“I’ve just done a big movie with Stallone and Schwarzenegger,” he adds. “It’s called Escape Plan [due for UK release in November]. People say, ‘What’s it like working with Stallone, and all that?’ But I’ll tell you something. Americans are crazy about sport. [Basketball star] Kobe Bryant is bigger than Brad Pitt. Even the President wants to shoot hoops with Kobe Bryant. So, that gives me massive credibility. Massive. Nic Cage said to me, ‘Hey man, I didn’t know you were a pro soccer player, that’s awesome.’ It means I’m going in on an even keel with them.”

Jones knows that his hard-man schtick is only in the cause of entertainment. His 22-year-old son Aaron, however, has served for almost six years in the British Army. “I’m very proud of him, although I think he’s going to come out and go to flight school in LA. It’s his lifelong dream.”

His stepdaughter, Kaley, 26, has just acquired her own licence to run a food truck in California. “It’s going to do fish and chips, and it’ll be wrapped in the Union Jack. I wanted her to call it ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Haddocks’, but she wants ‘Cor Blimey, Guvnor’.”

I ask him whether fatherhood exposes his softer side? “Well, I like spoiling them. I love ’em not to be worried about money and all that. But if you want to know what makes me emotional, it’s nature stuff. I haven’t got Tarantino’s films on my iPad, I’ve got Attenborough. Growing up, Glenn Hoddle was my hero. But away from football, it was Attenborough. And it still is.” 

Russia’s Toughest is tonight at 8pm on National Geographic


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