Bob Hoskins likes his language salty. In fact, if you said he swears like a sailor, you’d be dead-on. Not only because he punctuates his sentences with four-letter words the way most people use commas or semicolons but also because Hoskins actually was a sailor. When he was 15, he dropped out of school, left London, and joined the Norwegian Merchant Navy. In the end, it didn’t take — he quit after getting stuck in the galley with a short-fused Dutch cook — but the colorfully obscene patois of the high seas remains.
For the past 25 years, Hoskins has made a career in movies, like Mona Lisa and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, playing tough guys and assorted Cockney junkyard dogs. With his fireplug physique, egg-shaped bald head, and gruff North London growl, Hoskins comes across as someone who eats nails and craps bullets. And he’s been so good at playing bad for so long that sometimes it seems like he’s been taken for granted.
But with any luck, his latest incarnation of on-screen evil, in Jet Li’s Unleashed, will change that. In the film, Hoskins plays Bart, a brutal Glasgow loan shark who raises a young boy named Danny into a grown-up killing machine. Treating him like an adopted pit bull, Hoskins keeps a metal dog collar around Danny’s neck, only taking it off when it’s time for Danny to go feral and kick the stuffing out of anyone reluctant to pay back a debt. Make no mistake, Unleashed is a Jet Li star vehicle. And much of it is spent on the relationship between Li and Morgan Freeman’s kindly, blind piano tuner, who helps Danny escape his violent past. But it’s Hoskins, barking gruff threats, who makes Unleashed something fresh and nasty.
”Bart is completely amoral, which I found rather attractive,” says the 62-year-old actor over a lunch of shepherd’s pie in East London. ”If you play someone like Bart, you can’t just play the bad. Because then you’re just expressing a caricature, and that’s not who people are. Bart is a happy man. He found this kid and put a collar on him and he bashes heads in. He doesn’t see anything wrong with that at all!… I once had to play the bloody Pope and it was f—ing agony. Playing badness is easy. There’s loads to that. Playing goodness is more elusive.”
In the flesh, Hoskins isn’t threatening at all — something that should come as no surprise to those who’ve seen his softer side in Mermaids. But he’s no pussycat, either. One thing he unquestionably is, however, is a great storyteller. And when he gets excited unspooling one of his many ill-fated adventures, his bushy eyebrows become animated, as if they were dancing a mad rumba. They get a workout, for instance, when Hoskins explains his impulse to join the Norwegian Navy (”I just fancied being a Viking, you know, rape and plunder!”) or when he describes his earliest memory: ducking and covering with his mother during WWII air raids after the London Blitz (”I spent the first three years of my life under a kitchen table. That’s why I’m so short and wide”). Other Hoskins anecdotes include living as a farmer on a kibbutz in Israel (”I was good on a plow, I loved it!”), a stint as a circus fire-breather (”Forget your sex life because you stink!”), and a brief period in his teens when he lived with a Dutch stripper in Amsterdam (”I learned a lot. A lot!”).
But perhaps Hoskins’ best — and most unlikely — story of all is how he stumbled into acting. At 25, after studying to be an accountant, he and an actor friend were headed to a party one night. On the way there, the friend asked to make a pit stop at a theater holding auditions for a play. Hoskins decided to wait at the theater’s bar. ”I’d had a few pints at this point,” he recalls, ”and this guy came up to me and said, ‘You’re next!”’ Too full of liquid courage to object, Hoskins walked on stage and read the lines in front of him. ”The play was about a young thug. It was me, basically, because up till that point in my life all I cared about is that I could earn enough money for a fight and a f—. They gave me the lead…. And overnight I was a professional actor.” While Hoskins did allow himself another drink to steady his nerves before opening night, he adds, ”as soon as I started, it was one of those things that went click. Onstage was the most peaceful place on earth.”