Bob Hoskins says he's still waiting to be found out. He hasn't got a clue what he's doing in this business. "I feel I'm the wrong name on the right list," he says. "Keep going, keep prodding, and nobody'll notice. When I told my relations I'm gonna be an actor, they said: 'Don't be fucking daft. Forget it! You've got to be kidding, aintcha?'"
He's got a point. A bullfrog of a man with a boxer's nose and a right gob on him, he's hardly your conventional lead. But he's been working for 40 years now, and in that time has created some of the most memorable characters in television and film - Arthur Parker, the frustrated songsheet salesman in TV's Pennies From Heaven, Harold Shand, the psychotic gangster in The Long Good Friday, lovelorn George in Mona Lisa, the eye-popping private eye Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He does hard bastard and soft bastard equally well. In his new film, Sparkle, he is playing one of his touching – and touched – softies.
Not surprisingly, acting wasn't his first job - it came along by accident one evening in London in the late 1960s. Hoskins turned up with his mate for an audition at the old trade union theater, the Unity. He was just there for a drink, it was his friend who wanted the part. Right, next, said the casting director, pointing to Hoskins. Before he knew it, he found himself on the stage reading from the script of a play about a young thug. He got the lead, and that was that. He didn't have any training or theory behind him, but he was good at pretending to be other people. "There's two things I love about this business. One's acting and the other one's getting paid for it. The rest of it is a mystery to me. But I ain't got the faintest idea what the fuck is goin' on, you know. I've read Stanislavsky, and I thought, well, this is obvious."
Ignorant sod that I am, I ask if he means the Method, as thesps like to call it. "Nah! Nah, that's Lee Strasberg, that's bollocks! Like how to look busy. It's just looking busy, impressing the boss. That's bollocks, going through all this cobblers. Living it out and all that. Bollocks. Total cobblers!"
I think I know what you mean, I tell him - for example, with The Long Good Friday it's pointless killing a few people just to get into character. "Exactly!" he says. "I'm out the door in a flash. Gone. Let's face it, some of the characters I've played you can't take home to the wife and kids."
Hoskins grew up in Finsbury Park in north London, his father a lorry driver, his mother a nurse. He left school at 15. Was he as hard as he seems? "Naaaah. You don't end up with a face like this if you're hard, do ya? This comes from having too much mouth and nothing to back it up with. The nose has been broken so many times." Was he mouthy? "Oh yeah, plenty of courage. I'm the soppy sod who got up again."
It was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that he produced his most outstanding work, partly because he was more fussy with his choices, and partly because Britain was rich in writers and directors. On television, Dennis Potter mingled genres and explored the subconscious in ways that hadn't been seen before. Was he aware that Pennies From Heaven was special when he was making it? "Nah. The thing was at the time the BBC were quite frightened of it. Whasisname, Piers Haggard, the director, asked me to take me clothes off - I come home, take me clothes off, put me pyjamas on and go to bed, about as sexy as a bag of Brussels sprouts. But he says, 'I want full frontal.' Well, Bill Cotton [then controller of BBC1] went fuckin' bananas. 'We can't have that,' he says, 'If you show Hoskins' cock on the television we will get letters of complaint.' Dennis, without a beat, says, 'No Bill, you'll get letters of sympathy.'