Lovely scented soap, that’s what Bob Hoskins likes about this restaurant around the corner from his house in North London. I know this because when he returns from what Americans call the bathroom he says: ‘They have lovely scented soap ’ere.’ He doesn’t call it a bathroom, by the way, even though he has spent a lot of time in Hollywood working with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone.
‘I reached a point where they said you may as well live here, Bob. It’s where the work is. Where the money is. Get yourself a nice house with a swimming pool. It was an attractive offer but I couldn’t possibly have brought my kids up there.’
Though he does a decent American accent, notably in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, you only have to hear him say a couple of words in his natural speaking voice to know that he is as cockney as jellied eels. He couldn’t live full time anywhere other than London – even his country retreat in East Sussex, an oast house.
Today he is sitting in an enormous, high-backed chair which seems to emphasise his height, or lack of it. He is 5ft 6in. Pauline Kael, the film critic, once compared him to ‘a testicle on legs’. For his part he describes himself as a cube and says that ‘not even my mum would call me pretty’.
But the camera loves him. He grips you with his eyes as he talks. And he has a mischievous grin, which he deploys generously.
Where were we? Scented soap. I was about to explain why this observation was telling. Hoskins, for all the high testosterone of The Long Good Friday, his unforgettable film debut in 1980, is oddly in touch with his feminine side. You could see it in his first television drama, Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven in 1978. He did a rather delicate, skippy little dance in that.
‘The choreographer got me to rehearse in a room without mirrors and convinced me I was Fred Astaire. Then when I saw the film there was this little hippopotamus running around.’
Getting in touch with his feminine side came as a revelation to Hoskins. ‘I realised one day that men are emotional cripples. We can’t express ourselves emotionally, we can only do it with anger and humour. Emotional stability and expression comes from women. When they have babies they say “hello, you’re welcome” and they mean it. It is an emotional honesty.
‘I started my career by becoming a stalker, watching women in the street, the way they greet each other. I thought if I could capture some of that expression, that depth of emotion, it will make me interesting to watch as an actor.’
What is he like now, away from the camera? Can he express emotion in private?
‘No, I’m terrible. I can only do it on screen. My dad died recently at the age of 93 and I found myself crying, then I stopped and thought this is acting. This isn’t honest. You’re not giving him the honest emotions he deserves. But the truth is, I didn’t know how to anymore. I was completely confused. It had become a curse. I can turn the tears on professionally.
‘When my dad died I thought I’m doing this for the people around me rather than for myself.’ And when he was on his own? ‘Didn’t cry. Partly because whenever I remembered my dad I grinned. He was a funny old stick.’
Hoskins’s father was a shy man, a bookkeeper; his mother, a nursery school cook, was more of an extrovert. Bob was their only child, born in 1942 and he perhaps felt he missed having siblings, given that he went on to have four children himself, two from his first marriage, two from his second.
He has been with Linda, his second wife, for 28 years and is devoted to her to the point of being uxorious. He has suffered from depression in the past and when he is feeling ‘fragile and pathetic’ only a cuddle from his wife will help.
I ask if he ever catches himself using his actorly skills with her, manipulating emotions to win an argument, say. ‘You do sometimes think, Oh, I could pull one here. But I’m not going to give you specific examples because my wife will kill me when she reads this.
‘One of the things I’ve realised is that I am very simple. My wife asked me once if I loved her. I said: “Look love, I’m a simple man. I love you. End of story.” But I guess you gotta keep saying it with women. I guess she needed reassurance. Blokes are very arrogant, they always assume the woman still loves them.’
Hoskins left school at 15 with one O-level and drifted from job to job: porter, lorry-driver, window cleaner. He then did a three-year accountancy course but dropped out.
His life changed dramatically in 1968 when he accompanied a friend to an audition and got mistaken for a candidate. He was asked to read for a part and ended up being given the lead. As soon as he started acting he knew it was for him.
‘I fit into this business like a sore foot into a soft shoe. But when I started I thought, Christ I ought to learn to act now I’m doing this for a living. I was a completely untrained, ill-educated idiot. So I read Stanislavski, but I thought it was all so obvious. Same with Strasberg. He just seemed to be saying look busy. Impress the boss. I soon realised actors are just entertainers, even the serious ones. That’s all an actor is. He’s like a serious Bruce Forsyth.’
The other great turning point in his career was when he realised that the camera could read his mind. It was when he was playing the doomed London gangland boss in The Long Good Friday. In the film’s closing scene his character realises he is being driven to his death. In two long minutes, without a word, Hoskins moves with measured facial gestures from shock to terror to wry acceptance.
‘For that last shot,’ he says, ‘John Mackenzie said I’m going to put the camera on your face Bob for five minutes and I want you to just think your way through the film. I said “you’re f—ing joking, ain’t you?” So I thought my way through the film and there you see it in the final edit.
‘We drove all round London for that scene. What I learnt from that was that if you was thinking the thoughts of your character, whatever you are doing is right, it is conveyed in your eyes and body language. The camera can see your mind. It takes quite a bit of concentration. You feel exhausted afterwards. But it’s worth it.’
Sometimes though, the camera delved too far into his mind. His latest film is Disney’s long-awaited Christmas Carol. It stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge and Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit. Hoskins plays Old Fezziwig, to whom Scrooge was apprenticed as a young man.
The film uses ‘digital performance capture’ technology which captures the movements of the actor on computerised cameras in a full 360 degrees. It also uses groundbreaking 3D technology and animation.
Endearingly, when I mention this, Hoskins says he hadn’t realised the film was in 3D.
The director is Robert Zemeckis, the Oscar-winning director of Forrest Gump. He also made Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That film left Hoskins feeling very odd indeed. His doctor told him he should have a five month rest after that.
‘I think I went a bit mad while working on that. Lost my mind. The voice of the rabbit was there just behind the camera all the time. You had to know where the rabbit would be at every angle. Then there was Jessica Rabbit and all these weasels. The trouble was, I had learnt how to hallucinate. My daughter had an invisible friend called Jeffrey and I played with her and this invisible friend until one day I actually saw the friend.
‘I was following where she was seeing it. If you do that for eight months it becomes hard to get rid of. I went to this one do where I got talking to a very county lady with a big hat and there was this weasel in her hat with a big pr–k!’
Does he think now that he did actually go insane around that time? ‘My daughter, when I came back from filming in San Francisco, she said “Dad, slow down, slow down. You’re going barmy, mate.” And I was.’
He was hyperactive? ‘Probably talking too much, yeah. The character that frightened me most though was when I did Felicia’s Journey. I played a serial killer in that. Two weeks after filming, Linda said: “Bob, you do realise you are being very strange don’t you?” And I thought, Oh f— I’ve still got a killer inside me.’
Another psychological tipping point had been the break-up of his first marriage. In the aftermath his first wife accused him of being violent, though he denies it.
He now says he simply wasn’t mature enough to be married. He had a nervous breakdown, he says. ‘And funnily enough theatre cured it. I used to go to see a psychiatrist in Harley Street but then my friend Verity said if you are going to have a nervous breakdown you should do it on stage as a one man show instead, so I did.
‘I wrote a play called The Bystander about a bloke looking through a hole in the wall and talking to pot plants. On the first day, when the tickets had been sold and I was supposed to be on stage, I wondered off in a trance and Verity had to come and find me. I was talking to the ducks on the pond. She said: “There is not one f—ing duck here who has paid for a ticket. I’ve got a full theatre waiting for you get yourself in there.”
She grabbed hold of me and dragged me down the stage in front of the audience. I did the show and when the audience applauded at the end it was like something popping. I was fine after that. Verity opened a bottle of champagne and said: “Welcome back to sanity”.’
After his first marriage failed he assumed marriage wasn’t for him. ‘But obviously it was. I thought: what would my ideal wife be? I made this woman up in my head and on the Royal wedding day in 1981, when they kept pubs open to midnight, she walked in and I thought that’s her. Sweetheart, you don’t stand a chance.’
He claps his hands and grins. ‘I didn’t need to project. She was what I wanted. That’ll do. I’m very romantic. I’ve emptied flower shops.’
How important has his second marriage been to his mental health? Does Linda keep him grounded? Tease him? ‘Yeah. She will say, all right, you’ve done well, but remember you live here with a family and two kids. That’s more important than your work.’
I ask what he is like as a father. ‘I had quite a lot of time away from them, but Linda always used to bring the kids out with me on location. With my first kids it was difficult because I didn’t see as much of them growing up as I would have liked.’ Fame puts a strain on relationships, he says, because one person has a lot of attention and the other doesn’t.
‘But it also puts a lot of pressure on you. It separates you from the human race a bit because you can’t talk to anybody about anything apart from your career and who you know. That is all anybody wants to ask you about. You can’t have a normal conversation.
‘I just want to say: “F— my career, how’s your life?” I met a little old fella in Regent’s Park when I was walking a character around. He said: “You are who you are, ain’t you?” and I said: “Yeah, I am who I am.” And he said: “That’s good. I grow roses.” And we sat talking about roses all afternoon. It was wonderful.’
There have been occasions, though, when the attention from the public has become tiresome and he has lost his temper. Linda gets quite embarrassed when this happens, he says.
‘The thing is, when the kids were babies I used to take them up the park. There was one occasion when this group of people started pointing and if you have two kids you have to give them your full concentration and so I said: “Sorry I’m with my kids today” and this woman said: “Without your fans where would you be?” And I lost it and told her to f— off. I said: “I don’t need you. If you’re a fan then pick someone else.”’
The majority of people don’t see him as a celebrity, though, he reckons. ‘They think they know me. I was in Marks & Spencer the other day when this woman said “Bob, where’s the tea?” and I showed her and she said: “No, not that fancy organic tea. Real tea, the sort of tea we drink. PG Tips. Typhoo.”’
Although Hoskins has had requests from publishers to write his memoirs, he says he hasn’t got the memory for it. He has no film posters in his house, not even for Mona Lisa, the 1986 film for which he was Oscar nominated.
‘Dementia will be a friend. It will grin at me and say: “How you going son?” I’ll be like my dad. He phoned me up one day and said: “The mafia is laundering money through my bank account.” I shot round there and realised it was the pocket money I was giving him. “You prat,” I said. “It’s the money I’ve been paying into your account.”’
I suggest that he could always have told his father: ‘The mafia? I s–t em.’ He rolls his eyes, recognising the line from The Long Good Friday.
‘Yeah I suppose I could,’ he says. ‘I still get people coming up to me and quoting lines from that film. They will say “Cut ’im” and I wonder what the hell they are talking about because I haven’t seen it for years.’
He rarely watches the films he has starred in and having made more than 80, he often can’t even remember which ones he has been in. ‘I’ll be watching a film on television at home and then realise with a shock that I’m in it.’ That’ll be the dementia kicking in, I say. ‘Yeah,’ he says with a grin.
‘I’ll be ringing my son up and telling him the mafia are using my bank account to launder money next.’