'I've done films for the catering'

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IN HIS time, Bob Hoskins has been a Covent Garden porter, an office clerk, a trainee commercial artist and an accountant - which is probably why he views acting as just another job.

Applying the same homespun philosophy to his work ever since he made his breakthrough in 1978's Dennis Potter drama Pennies from Heaven, he's not the sort to put his profession on a pedestal. "Someone offers you a job, and either you do it or you don't do it," he shrugs, when we meet in the secluded library of a London hotel. "I usually give things the cold bum test. Instead of taking a paper to the toilet, I take a script. If I get a cold arse, it's got to be a good script."

Cultivating a superior rent-a-thug reputation in films such as The Long Good Friday, The Cotton Club and Mona Lisa, this method served him well in the 1980s. But by the following decade, his work stuttered with a series of forgettable roles - the nadir being the execrable 1993 video game adaptation Super Mario Brothers; "the worst experience of my life," he notes. It was only after Shane Meadows cast him as a social worker in his debut 24:7 in 1997, followed two years later by his turn as a serial abuser in Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, that Hoskins finally turned the corner.

Now he's 64, his career is in the best shape it's been in since he received an Oscar nomination for 1986's Mona Lisa. While he's just completed a futuristic disaster film Doomsday, recent works such as Hollywoodland, in which he played a vicious studio head, and Windmill theatre tale Mrs Henderson Presents, which he also co-produced, have seen him in a rich vein of form. Not that he's noticed. "I'm just doing what I want to, like I always have," he says. "Everybody talks about 'going for quality roles', and it's bollocks. Sometimes I've done a film because of the catering."

There can be no doubt he didn't choose his latest film, Sparkle, because of the food on offer. Premiering at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, this ensemble romantic comedy is so low-budget you can imagine the actors were asked to bring their own sandwiches. Not that this detracts from the story of a youthful charmer named Sam (Shaun Evans) who heads to London to seek his fortune. The film is directed by Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, who made 2001's Lawless Heart; Hoskins plays the slow-witted Vince, who hooks Sam up and later falls for his mother (Lesley Manville). "He adores her," he says. "She's the best thing he's ever seen. He thinks she's wonderful."

With Vince certainly the sweetest character he's ever played, Hoskins admits he's not afraid to show his softer side after a lifetime of playing hard men. "Drama is about private moments," he says. "That's why people pay to go and see it, because they don't see it normally. You've got to be unafraid of being vulnerable. That's the job. It's not my job to cover up the character. It's my job to show the character."

It's the first time during our interview he reveals that there's more to his work than just turning up, and it makes you wonder which side of the family this sensitive streak comes from. Raised in London's Finsbury Park, the son of a clerk and a nursery nurse, he says acting was so far removed from his working-class world back then it was "like brain surgery to me".

In his early twenties, shortly after walking out of a promising career in accountancy, Hoskins travelled through Europe to Israel, where he wound up on a Kibbutz. While there, he met a Dutch Jew, who had been in Auschwitz, who gave him the best bit of advice he's ever had. "He said, 'Find something you like to do, then find someone to pay you to do what you like to do, then you've got a career!' Not long afterwards, the Six-Day War broke out and Hoskins, short of joining the army, was forced to leave. "I got home and acting turned up," he says, matter-of-factly.

Hoskins truly stumbled over his calling after he accompanied a friend to a casting and was mistakenly asked to audition. Eventually given the lead in the play, he's never looked back since. "There are two things I love about this business," he says. "Acting and being paid for it." Thick-skinned enough to survive, he says bad reviews don't bother him. "What's wonderful is that I always thought someone like me would eventually be put away. But I came into this business and realised this is where they put 'em. Everyone in this business is completely potty." So Hollywood is an asylum? "Hollywood is Broadmoor," he giggles. "They're really nutty out there."

Hoskins, who has been married to former schoolteacher Linda for 25 years , admits he always resisted the lure of moving to Tinseltown: "I just couldn't bring up my kids in LA." Now "delighted" that his eldest daughter Rosa has followed him into acting, it's this steadfast refusal to abandon his roots that has kept Hoskins - and his performances - grounded.

"If you're playing other people all the time, you have to have a rock-solid 'you'," he says. It's hard to imagine Hoskins any other way.

• Sparkle screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 16 and 17 August, when it goes on general release. Bob Hoskins will be in conversation at Cineworld, Edinburgh, on 17 August, at 5pm, as part of the Film Festival.