`PURE nepotism," shoots back British actor Bob Hoskins, with gruff good humor, when asked how he ended up as Dustin Hoffman's pirate sidekick, Smee, in the Steven Spielberg film "Hook."
Not literally nepotism, but Hoskins makes sure no one labors under the illusion that there was any evenhandedness involved. Being old pals, he and Hoffman had been looking for a chance to act together. When "Hook" materialized, it was a matter of course that if Hoffman took the title role, Hoskins would be his partner.
It's a typical Hoskins response. There is nothing suave, smooth, or diplomatic about this actor's actor. He says what he thinks - hang the politesse - and, more often than not, his views are delivered with one or two sledgehammer expletives, just to make sure you've got the point.
Hoskins is a curious phenomenon. While more than four-fifths of British actors, according to the most recent Equity (actors' union) figure, are unemployed at any one time, he is constantly on some director's payroll - usually in Hollywood. Amazingly, to his added credit, the Briton is frequently imported to play an American.
With no shortage of actors in the United States, why on earth has Hoskins been chosen for such archetypal American characters as a Chicago gangland leader ("The Cotton Club") and the tough-but-tender big-city gumshoe (for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination) in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
"I don't think I'm particularly good at playing Americans," says Hoskins, after a thoughtful pause. "In fact, sometimes it's very difficult. I suppose what I do - the thing that's extraordinary about me - is that this business is full of people who are totally extraordinary, and I am completely ordinary. I present the common man. And in a business like this, that's extraordinary."
All American actors are, at the very least, he observes, only half-jokingly, "thin and have hair." Hoskins is absolutely convinced that possessing, these days, precisely the opposite qualities has been a boon for him. "I am very ordinary," he repeats, with unmistakably proud emphasis. He cites the example of when Cher was searching for just the right romantic lead for her film "Mermaids." As she later told Hoskins, she wanted someone who "looked like he eats hamburgers and goes to ballgames." She scoured
the legions of American actors, to no avail. Only the Britisher, Hoskins - who, incidentally, doesn't eat hamburgers and never goes to ballgames - fit the bill.
If, a couple of decades ago, someone had told Hoskins that he would one day be an international film star, he probably would have punched the guy in the chops for teasing him - such was the improbability of the then drifter, down-and-out cockney ever achieving even a professional career. Indeed, after leaving school at 15, Hoskins spent the next decade on the road in a vast array of blue-collar incarnations, including ditch digger, box boy, and steeplejack.
"I was never a ballet dancer," he says, with just a hint of a twinkle emanating from an otherwise deadpan face. He fell into acting by sheer accident as a result of accompanying a friend who was auditioning for a London community play. The director looked in to where he was waiting for his friend to finish and said, "You're next." In his life, until that day, he had never even set foot in a theater. Bemused, the odd-job laborer took the script handed to him, did a reading - and landed the lead. An agent sitting in the opening night audience came backstage and told Hoskins he should do acting professionally. He retorted simply, "Get me a job and I will." The agent did, and Hoskins has ever since.
I AM talking with Hoskins at London's Athenaeum, an elegantly discreet hotel just off Piccadilly. Clad in a cotton-knit, short-sleeved sports shirt and nondescript casual trousers, the bespectacled, pugnacious face perched atop a stout neck and Pillsbury doughboy body seems to be at distinct odds with the surroundings. He is here to promote "Hook," which is just opening in London and will later travel to the rest of the country. I broach the subject of the film's so-so reception from American critics. In
mentioning this beforehand to his agent, I was told that, if I must ask the question, to do so carefully. "He might throw you out the window," she warned.
I'm happy to report that the windows at the Athenaeum are still intact. My impression is that Hoskins is definitely not one who requires deferential pussyfooting.
"As far as the critics are concerned," he replies, eyes narrowing, "no, the film hasn't done well. As far as the box office is concerned, though, it's nearly up to 'E.T.' But Steven has always [thumbed his nose] at the critics anyway.... The problem with the critics is that Steven is a sort of one-man industry and has done it all; I don't think they can ever forgive him for being that talented."
Trying to be as objective as possible, I wonder out loud if he himself has any criticisms of "Hook."
Hoskins ponders for a moment. "Yes," he answers finally. "I wouldn't have had it as sentimental as it is. But that's very, very English. Americans are much more likely to walk around with their heart on their sleeve ... plus, a lot of good bits, purely because of time, were cut."
Just beneath the quick one-liners and hard-man demeanor there are intimations of another side: that of a profoundly sensitive person, made all the more so by having grown up at the less socially fortunate end of a deeply class-demarcated society. The moment he walked on stage the first time, he confides, he at last felt completely at home. "I loved it immediately," he recalls. "I was never made to feel uncomfortable or inferior or out of my depth. But, in another profession, I suppose I would have. It wa s also the happiest place I'd ever been."
Hoskins has stuck to his roots: He chooses, for instance, to live within a mile of where he grew up, in walking distance of the rest of his clan.
"I don't have a big house," he says. "I don't drive a big car; I don't have a yacht." Moreover, when initiating screen projects, which he likes to direct as well as star in, they invariably have a strong socially conscious theme. For example, an upcoming film of his based on the Joseph Conrad novel "The Secret Agent," currently being adapted by British playwright Christopher Hampton ("Dangerous Liaisons"), contains important resonances of the darker side of the relationship between the authorities and mo dern-day terrorists.
Hoskins does not deny that he enjoys his success, but says it's his family that is most important to him. He refers to them often and indicates that fatherhood, generally, is the underpinning of his life. He even credits his young daughter with providing valuable help for his highly acclaimed performance in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." He smiles at the memory. Acting to thin air in an otherwise all-animated film, he acknowledges, was the most technically difficult task he has ever had to do.
To demonstrate just how difficult, he has me hold up my hand, focus on it, then take it away. My eyes, of course, immediately break their focus. On film, that's a cardinal no-no. The secret?
"I went to my daughter, who was three at the time, and explained what I had to do," he says. "You see, she had an invisible friend, Jeffrey, that she'd been playing with for awhile. And she taught me how to hallucinate. I soon had my own Jeffrey. It worked." The deadpan face with the hint of a twinkle returns, as he adds: "The only problem was that, after I'd finished on the set, I'd still see weasels pulling people's hair."