This article originally appeared Sept. 10, 1999.
The Cockney accent is still thick, and the wide shoulders and thick hands make Bob Hoskins always seem somehow like the local English shopkeeper, friendly, unpretentious and given to fits of pugnacity. At 57, he’s a pudgy, bald, untrained actor of remarkable versatility. A natural Everyman, playing everything from taxi drivers to mob bosses, Mussolini, J. Edgar Hoover, detectives and thugs, American or English. From Mona Lisa to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to Mermaids to Super Mario Brothers, he’s been a touchstone of reality in a lot of strange movie tales.
Years ago, he got his start when watching a play in a pub; they needed an extra person and he volunteered. (Before that he’d been a steeplejack, porter in a market, fire-eater in a circus and seaman.) He still lives in North London, with his wife and two teenaged children, in a modest house not far from where he grew up.
As well as being reliable, Hoskins is one of those film actors (like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro) who does obsession really well. Never is that more obvious than in Felicia’s Journey, Toronto director Atom Egoyan’s new film – which had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last night – about a mundane English caterer who first helps, and then kills, young women.
Egoyan and Hoskins have joked that they set out to make the most boring serial killer ever (by comparison, Psycho’s Norman Bates seems almost a sexy bon vivant). Hoskins has also described the character, Hilditch, as a cross between Winnie the Pooh and Jack the Ripper.
Hoskins, sitting with his knees apart, hands pressed together on a wing chair in his Park Hyatt hotel room, admits he didn’t know a lot about Atom Egoyan when he was first asked to do the part.
“I had seen The Sweet Hereafter, and I must admit, it really disturbed me. I mean, it ain’t The Sound of Music, is it? Funny enough, when I read the book [Felicia’s Journey] first, I was attracted to the character because it showed both sides. He was a serial killer, but he was also a victim. And I actually thought to myself, ‘If I were doing this, I’d want to do it with a guy like Atom Egoyan.’ “ When he finally met Egoyan, though, he expected a lot of sturm und drang.
“I thought he was going to be this very moody, intense Armenian guy, and I guess he knew what I thought and he kind of set me up.”
Set him up?
“Yeah. You know. He put on this Boris Karloff kind of voice and said, ‘I want you to get inside the soul of the balls of this character.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ And then he started laughing when he saw the look on my face.”
The actual filming of the movie, says Hoskins, “was extraordinary and kind of painful. First of all, it was just the three of us [Hoskins, Egoyan and co-star Elaine Cassidy]. It was like building a house out of matchsticks with no glue. One misstep and you had to start all over again.”
Egoyan kept pushing him to go further. “Sometimes, I was like, ‘Eff off, Atom, leave me alone.’ There were times when you’d find yourself going into actual nightmare territory.”
The experience, says Hoskins, was like wearing “someone else’s dirty underwear” for a week. But as an actor who has never been much interested in Method acting, he found no difficulty of being personally affected by the experience.
“I certainly wouldn’t bring the characters I’ve played home to Linda and the kids. Otherwise, my marriage would have lasted about five minutes.”
Hoskins saw the film at a private screening and found the final results surprising. “I found it quite balanced between the characters, more than I’d expected. But no doubt, it’s a very strange piece of work, isn’t it?”
Among other things, says Hoskins, it’s not really a thriller.
“It’s not like Hitchcock, where you build the suspense. Instead, it’s like this one very long slide down a razor blade.”
Hoskins has often expressed surprise at his own success, modestly claiming he doesn’t know why he keeps getting roles. But he has made a point of knowing what he’s doing at every stage.
“Generally, I think few people know what’s going on with film acting, but it depends on this extraordinary thing where the camera can read your thoughts. When I first started I did theatre, of course, and I started noticing that anyone who had done telly or movies got the best parts. So, I decided I’d better do some television [his breakthrough was Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven in 1979].” “Suddenly, you’re not acting for an audience but this pipe, which is the lens. And I got ahold of a cameraman and said, ‘Let me have a look at that.’ And I saw what you could do with a lens.”
He doesn’t mean, he says, simply the familiar truism that a camera can read thoughts in an actor’s eyes.
“It can know your thoughts from the back of your head. It’s extraordinary. If you’ve been working with a good cameraman for a week, they’re into you. They know what you’re going to do, what your next thought is. The director’s already yelled cut but the cameraman knows just the right moment.”
When it comes to the deeper nature of the movie business though, he says he’s a naif, and has never considered anything as daring as moving to Los Angeles.
“I’ve never really considered setting up there. There are lots of places in the United States that are brilliant, but that isn’t one that comes to mind. When you’re making a film, the process is pretty much universal, wherever in the world you work. The fandango that goes around it though, is very different in Hollywood. It’s something I’ve never understood. I’ve got this amazing agent, Fred Spector, who’s like my Hollywood guru. I’m in a world I don’t understand at all and he’s giving me lessons. He says, ‘Now Bob, this is how they talk here.’ Or, ‘Now Bob, this is what they do now.’ If not for him, I probably would have run amok by now.”