Everyone knows Bob Hoskins. He was the psycho-gangster in The Long Good Friday, the faithless sheet-music salesman in Pennies From Heaven, the out-of-his-depth bull dog in Mona Lisa, the human component of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the featherless Buzby in a stream of British Telecom ads ("It's good ta tawk"). He's been a window cleaner, a road digger, a seaman, a banana picker on a kibbutz in the Middle East. Compared to other actors, he comes trailing history behind him. Why, then, do I go into this interview feeling I know virtually nothing about him?
The difficulty, of course, comes in separating Hoskins from his rampant public image. Whatever guise you meet him in, his bumptious, knockabout persona comes through loud and clear. In many ways, Hoskins is the British equivalent of Joe Pesci (or Pesci the American equivalent of Bob Hoskins). Both are adept at playing fast-talking, working-class rogues, and both possess the canny ability to vary the tone of this persona. Hoskins can appear before us with perfect teeth or without; as a brutal, psychotic bruiser (see The Long Good Friday) or as a chirpy rascal (BT, Mermaids). But it's all relative. Either way, you wouldn't want to call his pint a poof.
"The great thing about The Long Good Friday is that it's fantastic for road rage," he admits. "If anyone gets out their car and wants to have a fight with me, they suddenly look at me and see themselves hanging up on a meat hook, and soon bottle out."
Hoskins's latest film, the fine TwentyFourSeven, is more complex. Bob plays a small-town saint who sets up a boxing club to help the deadbeat, disillusioned youth of an East Midlands estate. For much of the film, he's your classic salt-of-the-earth do-gooder. Then he goes berserk and all is lost. The film is shot in lush black and white by 25-year-old Shane Meadows, spins a vibrant social-realist story, and Hoskins is rightly proud of it. "This is the top," he tells me. "For me, this is the most important thing I've ever done. It's very rare to get a chance to do something as indigenous as this. It's the story England's got to tell now. For 20 years we've had to keep our fucking mouths shut 'cos Maggie Thatcher considered it out of order. She decided the arts in this country were left-wing and tried to send them the same way as the miners.
"But all the time English culture has been developing, like grass grows. You can't stop it. If you load three feet of concrete on, it'll still grow through; it still gets through. People have got very big stories to tell, they wanna say: 'Cop a load of this.' And those stories would blow your fucking mind."
TwentyFourSeven certainly marks a return to form for the 56-year-old; tackling an awkward, demanding role after too long spent as what writer Iain Sinclair calls "a global cockney", taking the Hollywood dollar and the British Telecom quid. "I can give you half a million reasons," he once told an interviewer who asked why he took the BT campaign. "And all with the queen's head on." But the commercials irked as many people as they charmed. Late Review pundit Tom Paulin sent a stark message: "Use the phone more or I'll come round and beat you up."
The man himself shrugs off such criticism. "No, bollocks to it," he says. "Fuck it, I do what I wanna do. Fuck it." This, in essence, is the extent of Hoskins's self-analysis.
In its place, the actor offers chilled white wine, B&H fags and crisps from a porcelain pot. He lounges in his hotel room in bovver boots and a leatherette waistcoat, a carpet of chest hair spilling over the top of his open-necked shirt. He's charming in a coarse-grained, non-starry way, and endlessly hospitable. But ask him to assess his appeal or examine his career and Hoskins turns blank as A4.
When pressed, though, the man admits to feeling increasingly fed up with mainstream movie-making in the years leading up to TwentyFourSeven. Hollywood, he says, was starting to straightjacket his talent. "I did a film called Super Mario Brothers, which totally turned me off Hollywood. I just had it with the mould I was getting put in." What mould was that? "Well," says Bob, "I'd work hard on a film and they'd just fuck it up." I try again: But what mould were they putting you in? Did you think they were trying to pigeon-hole you? Hoskins parries. "They can try, but fuck it. I do what I wanna do." One last attempt. Were you starting, I ask, to feel trapped by people's image of you? Hoskins looks at me balefully. "I have not got the faintest idea what my image is," he says, flatly. "I am not interested. What the fuck do I care?"
The problem in a nutshell. One: Hoskins dislikes giving interviews ("fucking hate it"). Two: Hoskins is dismissive of acting in general ("bunch of kids playing cowboys and Indians").
And yet acting, for all its frivolity and high bullshit factor, was the making of Hoskins. "It saved my life," he admits. "Without it, I'd probably be in the nick now." Born to a working-class family in London's Finsbury Park, he moseyed through a host of odd jobs before weaving, drunk, on stage for an audition at London's Unity Theatre. Stage, film and TV work followed, but even here Hoskins was not quite in the clear. Pressures of work precipitated a fractious end to his first marriage, and in 1980 his ex-wife Jane went to the Sun with tales of domestic strife ("Bob is a very violent man," she said). Hoskins had what he describes as a nervous breakdown and took to sleeping rough in his jeep. "Well, that was totally to swag my missus," he claims. "I was so broke. I was earning dough but my first missus had put me in so much fucking debt that the bank had taken over all my debts and were giving me, like, pounds 50 a week to live on."
Then along came Linda, his present wife. "I met Linda on Royal Wedding day. I walked in the pub and there she was, and I thought: 'You're mine, darling.' I parked my jeep outside her house and said: 'You can't leave me out here. Fucking let me in'."
I don't know whether this story is charming or not. Nor can I get a handle on whether Hoskins's rambunctious exterior hides the soul of a saint or a sinner. And maybe this polarity is part of his appeal. Hoskins has grabbed corporate cash and worked in some of the most soulless Hollywood fodder in recent years. But he has also supported TwentyFourSeven and plans to make a docu-drama on the homeless in Cardboard City.
Likewise, he rails against Thatcher yet counts arch-Thatcherite Michael Caine as one of his best mates. "Yeah," he says, mulling it over. "But the thing with Michael is that he's got his own way, his own experience, and he's from a different age. He was the first romantic lead who played in glasses and a cockney accent, so he opened a lot of doors. But he's, like, 10 years older than me, and he came from more fucking rationing than I did. If you come from that and escape then you're gonna look after your own. I had it easy by comparison."
The interview over, we take the lift down. Hoskins is getting off at the Mezzanine. Midway there, the doors open and a middle-aged couple prepare to get in. "Going down or up?" asks Hoskins, but the pair just back away, horrified. Clearly the Long Good Friday effect works in lifts as well as cars.
There are two ways of judging Bob Hoskins. Either he is what he acts: the rough diamond; the cheeky monkey. Or his public image is a mask, the fire guard against his true personality. "He has invented the 'Bob Hoskins' persona," reckons theatre director Richard Eyre, "and it is a carapace." No doubt Hoskins would scoff at such a view. For him it's simple: what you see is what you get. "I'm me," he says low-voiced, and then again because I haven't heard. "I'm me." The actor steps out at the Mezzanine, and the lift doors slide shut behind him.