By MATT WOLF
Associated Press Writer
LONDON (AP) - To hear Bob Hoskins describe it, the pressures of being a movie star pale next to the brief yet intense fears that go with acting on stage.
``It's hard work; it's very hard work,'' said Hoskins, who is back on the London stage for the first time in 14 years, ``but it's two hours and you're on and off.''
Hoskins opened Nov. 19 at the Gielgud Theater on the West End in ``Old Wicked Songs,'' a two-character American play by Jon Marans that is currently running off-Broadway in a separate production.
During the tryout run in Bristol, Hoskins and fellow actor James Callis had to be cajoled to get in front of the public every night.
``Most of the backstage team were women, and they literally mummed (mothered) me and James on to the stage,'' reported Hoskins, his working-class London accent unaltered by his work in American movies.
``It was lots of cuddles, and then: `Everybody loves you. You know your lines, right? Bring up the curtain,''' Hoskins said of the nightly ritual.
The play casts the 54-year-old actor as an aging and bitter Austrian voice teacher living in Vienna during the 1986 elections. On the brink of suicide, he gleans unexpected strength from a young American prodigy (played by Callis, a newcomer fresh out of drama school) who is taking voice lessons from Hoskins' Professor Mashkan.
The third ``character'' is Robert Schumann's ``Dichterliebe,'' a song cycle based on the poems of Heirich Heine whose motifs of sorrow and joy are echoed in the lives of the characters.
``When I got this, I just fell in love with it,'' said Hoskins, chatting in the last row of the theater during previews. ``I just thought it was saying something very, very important.''
Hoskins said he responded to ``any kind of thing that teaches passion, and passion is the subject of the piece. There's not a lot of it about. There's a lot of violence, but not a lot of passion.''
How does he choose his parts?
``I've just gone for the best scripts I've been offered, the things that interested me, whether they were stage, TV, or whatever,'' explained the actor, who won critics' awards, and a 1986 Academy Award nomination, for ``Mona Lisa'' and fame two years later in ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit?''
For over a decade, he said, ``the most interesting thing was films, and I'll admit the money was very interesting, as well.''
But long before he shared a bed with Cher in ``Mermaids'' or joined the all-star ``Hook'' and ``Nixon,'' Hoskins was cutting his teeth on the stage.
He played Diana Rigg's father in Shaw's ``Pygmalion,'' was a bloody adversary to Helen Mirren in ``The Duchess of Malfi,'' and even sang a bit as Nathan Detroit in the National Theater's now-legendary revival of the Broadway classic, ``Guys and Dolls'' - his last stage venture.
Once movies came to call, it was harder to return to his roots.
``If you've got a film career,'' said the actor, ``to do a play you've got to take a year off from it; I've turned down about three or four films to do this.''
Not that Hoskins will be absent from movie screens this holiday season. He has already opened in a film of Joseph Conrad's ``The Secret Agent,'' which he co-produced; Patricia Arquette co-stars.
``It's a very bleak piece,'' said Hoskins, acknowledging early downbeat reviews for the movie. ``It ain't Saturday night out with the missus, you know what I mean? You've got to go and think about it.''
Due at Christmas is Nora Ephron's ``Michael,'' in which Hoskins appears as the publisher of a supermarket tabloid. John Travolta, William Hurt and Andie Macdowell co-star.
Still, the fate of these films isn't uppermost in Hoskins' mind; honoring Professor Mashkan is.
``I'm just letting the man grow,'' said Hoskins, who says he spent time near Bristol ``sitting in ancient stone circles and walking up and down the beach all night'' as he pondered the painful issues raised in the play.
British reviewers seemed impressed, notwithstanding an admirably sustained German accent that isn't always audible throughout the theater. (Theater novice Callis, by contrast, has an easy, clear projection.)
Calling Hoskins' work ``superlative,'' Nicholas de Jongh in The Evening Standard said the actor ``triumphantly casts off his familiar mantle of thuggish menace.''
Wrote James Christopher in The Sunday Express: ``When comebacks work, they can be electric occasions. So it is with Bob Hoskins.''
Unlike many of his colleagues who feign disinterest in critics, Hoskins intends to read all his reviews.
``Funnily enough, most actors have a defensive relationship with critics but with me not having any training at all in the beginning, and because everybody (in the business) says `you're wonderful darling,' the only way I could get any kind of judgment was through the critics, so the critics became my teachers,'' Hoskins said.
``Yeah, admittedly it's one person's opinion, but if you look at it, you can learn from it. I've been scalded alive but I've still learned something from it.''