November 18, 1996 - Theater Week

Bob Hoskins Gets Wicked
by Mark Shenton

There's something about Bob Hoskins. From the moment you meet him, you feel that you've known him all your life. He's the everyman of actors, an ordinary London bloke who happens to have become a movie star. But through his talent, he as made the ordinary extraordinary.

The second he enters the room, you are aware of how he achieves this, for he carries with him an unmistakable whiff of sheer charisma. The charm is in abundance, at least today; but you also sense that danger is never far away. He's affable and easygoing, but you wouldn't want to make him angry.

It's partly a matter of appearances: The heavy set of his body and the sometimes mean demeanor of his face suggest a violent version of Danny DeVito. "I've got a face like this for having a lot mouth with not a lot to back it up with," he explains. "But I'm actually quite a weed."

We're talking in Bristol, a city just over 100 miles from London where he is appearing in the out-of-town tryout of Old Wicked Songs, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jon Marans (also running currently at off-Broadway's Promenade Theater) that is West End-bound to the Gielgud Theater this month, (Previews begin Nov. 13, opening Nov. 18.) It's 11 in the morning and I'm the first of a string of journalists who will be brought before Hoskins today. Such a production line proves to be a familiar enough job to him from the world of movie PR, and he's instantly at ease, though the warmth of the room in which we are meeting causes us both a bit of overheated consternation.

He speaks in a London vernacular where women are birds but wives are ladies, and swears often (sensitive readers, stop here). But the frequent "fucks" are simply part of his conversational vocabulary, rather than out of aggression. He also doesn't stop short of sending himself up - about his appetite for food and drink that has led to his corpulent figure, he quips, "I'm 5-foot-6 cubic." He tells me that his wife Linda sometimes has a go at him, saying he's been living too well again. "I say, 'I'm a fucking film star, I've got to live well.' "

Though he tells it with a great deal of self-deprecating humor, he's certainly earned the right to do so. Fame and success were a long time coming. He stumbled into acting completely by accident. Having left school at the age of 15, he drifted through a number of jobs, before he found himself accompanying a friend to an audition. "We stopped at this theater on the way to a party so my friend could audition for a role, and I was waiting for him in the bar. They came and said, 'you're next.' He got the part he went for, and I got the lead." He was unemployed at the time, and jokingly points out, "One of the reasons I became an actor, I think, was that it was a good excuse for being out-of-work."

Not that he has ever since been out-of-work for long, though one of his earliest jobs was working with Britain's most maverick director/writer/performer, Ken Campbell. "We would walk into pubs and do dramatised dirty jokes-we were living on the hat," he says, talking about the collections they would make afterwards. "I was keeping a wife and kids on what we got out of a hat. You can't walk into a pub where they don't fucking want you in the first place if you're no good-you've really got to grab them." Hoskins retains great affection for Campbell, whose shows these days get put on at the National Theater rather than in pubs. "Now he's older, he's calmer. But he's got an extraordinary anarchic genius."

Real jobs soon followed. For a decade and a half, from 1968 to 1983, he worked consistently in the theater, including regular work at the Royal Court and, eventually, the National Theater. Only once in all this time, however, did he find himself in the West End, playing Doolittle in a production of Shaw's Pygmalion at the Albery Theater (with Diana Rigg as his daughter Eliza and Alec McCowen as Professor Higgins): "I remember standing in the wings, watching an actress called Ellen Pollock, who must have been in her 80s - she was certainly in her 70s - as Mrs. Higgins. She was out there onstage, and she had the audience in the palm of her hand. I remember thinking, 'Yeah, I'm one of them - fuck 'em.' She was a real sweetheart. On matinee days we would go for afternoon tea together. When she was a very young girl, she'd apparently had a bit of a ding-dong with George Bernard Shaw. One day, we went for tea at the Waldorf and it was all very sedate, and I leant across and said, 'Ellen, tell me about George Bernard Shaw. Did you fuck him?' And she said, 'Slightly.' She was wonderful."

Hoskins loves a good story, but he also genuinely loves the theater and the people in it: "I always thought people like me got put away, then I came into this game and found out where they put them. They're all completely barmy - I adore the people in this business." But he's also impatient. Asked why he hasn't done more in the West End, he replies, "Spending years and years in the same job would drive me barmy. Eight shows a week, year in and year out - no, no, no! I need the first night, I need the adrenaline, but then I need to move onto the next thing. I need the next adventure."

His theatrical adventures culminated in a highly-acclaimed production of The Duchess of Malfi in 1981 (starring as Bosolo opposite Helen Mirren in the title role, a show which transferred from Manchester's Royal Exchange Theater to London), followed by a season at the National Theater that saw him starring as the violent brother Lee in Sam Shepard's True West (opposite Antony Sher as Austin) and as Nathan Detroit in Richard Eyre's debut production there of Guys and Dolls (currently, coincidentally, about to be revived at the National: "That show is like a finely tuned Rolls Royce - it'll take you anywhere you want to go").

A combination of classical and contemporary plays has always characterized his work. "I just go with the flow," he says. "I wouldn't know how to do it any other way. I may not have the best taste in the world, but I do the things that interest me. You can't make a political decision about what you're going to do and what you're not going to do-you just do what's there.

But you sense that it's the people he is working with-rather than the particular play they are doing-that makes the experience rewarding for him. "I must admit that I really did enjoy The Duchess of Malfi," he says, pointing out, "It's always exciting working with Helen, and especially in that part. She was born to play it, and I was so proud of her in it." (Mirren and Hoskins had previously starred together in his breakthrough film role in the 1980 British thriller The Long Good Friday). Likewise, an early Sam Shepard play he did at the Royal Court's Theater Upstairs in 1974, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, written while the playwright was then resident in London and directed by Shepard as well: "He's great. We spent most of the rehearsals on a dog track - Sam raced a dog - and he would say that rehearsals are just repeated words, but this was about company atmosphere. So with Stephen Rea and Kenneth Cranham, who were also in the cast, we just had a wonderful time."

Not that his career was all plain sailing. "Of course it wasn't. Some things have gone straight down the pan. But you get it fucking right now and again." Guys and Dolls at the National proved to be one of those occasions. It also marked a particular watershed in his personal life. "It was a big takeoff for me. I'd had quite a bad time before it. I'd broken up with my first wife. None of us knows what we want in life, but if you've had enough of what you don't fucking want, it does narrow down the odds a bit. I met Linda just before we started Guys and Dolls. I saw her in a pub on the Royal Wedding Day, and I thought, 'She doesn't stand a fucking chance, she's mine,' and she was."

The marriage, which is now in its 15th year, has long outlived the Royal Wedding at which it was conceived. And talking to Bob, you are in no doubt about the importance of the stability of his home life. "I'm very domestic. I love cooking and being around the house-once I'm home, you can't winkle me out. It's pointless asking me out. Now and again there are things you can't avoid, but I try to never work during school holidays. My children with Linda are 13 and 11 years old, and I suppose that, hour-for-hour, the amount of time I spend with them is more than most nine-to-fivers." If he didn't have to go away to make films, where would he most like to be? "I would just be in my kitchen." Is he a good cook? "Not bad. Linda's straightened me out on a few points."

But though Guys and Dolls proved to be a turning point in his life, it also marked his last appearance in the theater-until now. Suddenly, his film career began to take off. The Long Good Friday had already established him in Britain, but in films such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, he started to get noticed abroad. In 1986, he found himself winning the New York Film Critics, Golden Globe, British Academy, and Cannes Best Actor Awards for his performance in Mona Lisa, as well as receiving an Oscar nomination. Now he was hot stuff in the cinema world. His co-stars in the years since have ranged from Cher to Jessica Rabbit, from Dustin Hoffman to Anthony Hopkins. "Funnily enough, the theater and television and film are three completely different worlds. If you're in one, you find yourself going along that track; and once you're on it, it's difficult to step over into another one," he says about the fact that theater work was now put on hold.

He resisted, however, the chance to move to Hollywood. "I was offered a really nice house, but I've got a life that means I don't have to live it there. My dad is here, and lives downstairs in my house in his own flat. Also there are the kids from my first marriage, who are 26 and 22, and my wife Linda has her parents, sister and brother-in-law, and their kids here. I couldn't say to my dad, 'You're going to spend the last few years of your life in America,' it wouldn't be fair. And I wouldn't see my older kids. A lot of the films I make aren't in Hollywood, anyway, so I could live anywhere in America. In that case, I might as well live here."

Not that there haven't been offers to return to the theater. "There are stacks of scripts, all over the house-the kids draw on them. But none were for me. I wasn't being offered anything that was better than what I was already doing. I've got no ambition-I just do the next job. For an actor to say, 'I'm going to do theater,' you have to take a year off. The National's, like, a two-year contract. I love Richard Eyre, he's a great mate of mine, and there have been things suggested - The Cherry Orchard, a bit of Shakespeare, God knows what - but it didn't inspire me to return. Though it would be with nice people and in good productions, I wasn't drawn to it. But nothing struck me - until I read this."

He is referring to Old Wicked Songs, the play with which he is returning to the theater for the first time in 13 years. "I may be completely wrong, but I think this is wonderful. My agent told me to look at it, and I always give things the cold bum test - I take them to the loo in the morning, and while I'm sitting there, if I think, 'Hang on, I've got a cold bum,' it makes me realize that I must have been there for a while, so it must be interesting. When I read this, I finished the whole play, my bum was freezing and I had frostbite! It's fascinating, a remarkable piece."

He plays the part of Josef Mashkan, an Austrian professor of music (currently being played off-Broadway by Hal Robinson), with whom a young, burnt-out pianist, Stephen Hoffman (Justin Kirk in New York, newcomer James Callis here), comes to study to regain his confidence. "They're two very, very damaged people," says Hoskins, "both of whom have a love of music but an inner crippling. I found it very moving. It's also very musical - it's about a passion of music, the regaining of passion, and the channeling of passion into something healing. It's extraordinary. It's very difficult to explain this play - you are going to have to come and see it. I think it's the type of play you either go for or you don't. I haven't met anybody who hasn't gone for it yet, but maybe they're just the ones that have avoided me. But we have had people sobbing in the audience. It's sometimes quite unnerving. It's a catharsis - you do go through a journey with these two people."

Hoskins is full of admiration for his co-star James Callis, a young actor who is making his professional debut: "James is brilliant-he's just out of drama school, so he knows he has nothing to lose, but he's not quite sure what he has to win, so he has just come to do the play. There's no sideshow: The play is the most important thing. We're completely different people - the only thing we have in common is this play, and both of us have such an understanding now of each other in the play. There's nowhere to hide - there's just the two of us onstage for two hours. But I know he's watching my arse and I'm watching his. We trust each other completely. Our characters are, like James and me, also completely unlike each other - two different people with nothing in common except music."

For Hoskins, the result is proving to be "an incredible experience. It was wonderful getting back here, and this [the Bristol Old Vic] is the oldest running theater in the country. When it came to the first night, it was like going in front of a firing squad - we were both terrified. But the stage management have been just wonderful - we call them Hoskins's Aunties. They literally mummed us onto the stage-they told us 'everybody loves you, you know your lines, you've got your props' - and suddenly we were there: Curtain up!" Hoskins isn't unfamiliar with stage fright: "I've been standing in the wings when I've seen the firebucket standing there and lunch has gone into it before the first cue."

But it's worth the effort. "I sometimes think that if I wasn't doing this, I'd be robbing banks - it's the same kind of buzz. I love the theater, I adore it. I also think that as you get older you lose touch. Unless you've got a two-way relationship with an audience where they are telling you what they like about your work-to find out what you could get away with before and can't get away with now - it's necessary for an actor to get in front of an audience now and again."

He's signed to do it for just 12 weeks - "I'd be walking across the ceiling if I had a longer run" - and then there are a number of film projects in the pipeline. He talks of one with particular excitement: "There's this kid - I can't name him yet, it would be unfair - but he's just out of film school, and he's made a couple of small films, and wrote a script for me and has sent it to me. I've never met him, but I think he's brilliant. I am determined to get this film together-something's going on in it, and we've got to get in there, have a go, release it and let it loose on the world. It's not that I've got great ambitions to release new talent, but these things turn up, and whatever fucking happens, I'll go with it. You've got to live with your arms wide open - if you don't, you're fucked. You may get a few smashes on the chin, but you also cop the good bits as well."

But for Hoskins, the best bit remains his wife and family. I ask him as the interview ends what he thinks about his status as a sex symbol, and he replies, "People mention this, but I can't see where the fuck it's coming from. I'm a short, fat, middle-aged man with a bald head-what the fuck are they talking about? As long as Linda fancies me, I don't give a fuck. When people tell me about my sex appeal, I say, 'What's it for, to pull young birds?' I'm certainly not going to risk my marriage for half an hour with some soppy cow who can't keep her drawers on, am I, you know what I mean? So I tell them, suit yourself, but keep your drawers on and I'll keep my trousers on, and keep my marriage together, too, thank you very much."

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