Sean Bean on Playing Andy McNab

Last Update: 22 December 1998

Sean Bean was attracted to the role of Andy McNab in Bravo Two Zero for a very simple reason. "It's a very human story. I had read the book a couple of years before and I was very impressed by the story of how this man got involved and how he coped with the capture and subsequent interrogation."

Sean had no idea what to expect when a meeting with McNab was arranged. "I walked into this room and saw a man smiling at me and thought that must be him - because of course I had no idea what he looked like.

"We got on immediately. I suppose I was expecting a secretive, veiled character and Andy was quite open and honest about his experiences with me.

"You hear a lot about the SAS and I suppose everyone forms an idea of these cloak and dagger organisations but Andy gave me a different perspective.

"We spent a lot of time together so we got to know each other quite well and have kept in touch".

Sean had played real people before but this is the first time he'd played someone he'd spent so much time with. "I got closer to him than anyone I'd ever played before.

"He was on hand every day so I was able to ask questions about what happened and how he felt. He was invaluable to me in that way."

Did knowing and working with Andy make playing him a harder task? "Obviously I was always conscious that he would see the end result but I always try and portray people as truthfully as possible.

"I'm not a carbon copy of Andy so I decided I'd try to portray his spirit, his enthusiasms and his personality. We are very different physically so I didn't want to paint a copy of exactly how he speaks and how he looks. I concentrated on what makes him tick. That dark humour that gets you through situations is entrenched in his personality and I particularly wanted to capture that. It was the humour that the group shared and that often kept them going,

"We met up a a few times before going to Africa and he brought bits and bobs over so that I could get used to the kit and the paraphernalia. It was mostly pretty basic, a kit with a water flask and some ammunition..

"I'd done a lot with weapons before in Patriot Games and Sharpe and there's nothing very subtle about them, they're lumps of metal that shoot people, but for this role I had to make it look as if I had carried this thing for a few years and that I was familiar with it.

"I learnt a lot from watching him in action and I tried to pick up on the speed and precision with which he could change a magazine. Obviously I'll never have the same degree of skill and he's had years of experience, practice and discipline. I only had a few weeks so I just tried to learn a few little tricks."

In preparation for filming, the actors spent a week training with soldiers in South Africa. "You can't get cast in a role like that and then just expect to start running about with all the kit on. You've got to build up your stamina and endurance levels.

"The training was a crash course in fitness. We did a lot of running in the desert with burgens on our backs which was quite tough and physically exhausting at times. But it was good to have somebody kicking you up the arse or you wouldn't have done it. It was also good because we got to know each other and everyone else was as committed as I was to making it look the convincing and as if we had a system of how we worked together."

Despite having been injured during the shoot for Patriot Games, when Harrison Ford accidentally cut him above the eye, he insisted on doing all his own stunts in Bravo Two Zero. "You are working in a controlled environment, with very safety conscious people but there is always a risk of something going wrong. I put great trust in the expertise of the armouries and special effects people but you do sometimes wonder what will happen when a bomb goes off. Even when they're blanks you're very conscious that they can do a lot of damage."

Following the early action filled scenes, the film moves onto the capture and interrogation of Andy McNab at the hands of the Iraqi secret police. "Tom [Clegg, director] and I spent lot of time talking to Andy in the nights leading up to shooting the scenes and Andy was happy to give us information. I just listened in and let it sink in. They're quite harrowing scenes and they are especially upsetting when you know the man it had happened to.

"I can't imagine going through such consistent punishment over that period of time, it's terrifying. I suspect I wouldn't be able to hold out like that - it takes years of training and discipline. I don't think you could take a normal individual and place them in that situation and expect them not to crack. It also depends what you're holding out for. That group trained together, relied on each other and trusted each other so they formed a very strong bond. I think that's what carries you through because you're holding out for your mates, not just yourself. That was Andy's strength and resolve. His loyalty was first and foremost to his mates and then to the other soldiers in the Gulf who could be put in danger, rather then a case of Queen and country. And of course the thought of his daughter kept him going."

Andy McNab is not the first soldier he has played, having made his mark as the dashing Napoleonic hero Sharpe. "There are no similarities, they're totally different methods of warfare," he explains. "Sharpe is fictional and, if anything, the more glamorous figure. Bravo Two Zero doesn't give a glamorous view of war at all," he stresses.

The army never held any allure for the young Bean growing up in Sheffield. " I don't know whether it was the image it had when I was a kid, but it didn't seem that attractive, exciting or interesting to me. It seemed like a bit of a drudge, a bit like being in prison but getting paid for it.

"I suppose it is a way out for some people and some of my friends from school joined up but I was quite happy doing what I was doing; being at school, working for my dad, going out with my mates and enjoying myself. I couldn't understand why you would want to join the army when you have to be in at a certain time, get up early in the mornings and run around in sludge.

"By the time I left school I was more interested in painting than joining the army. You can't join up for art class! I was totally into reading novels, George Orwell's "1984" and all that sort of stuff, and thinking I might be able make it as an artist. So I suppose it was the opposite of considering joining the army.

"My granddad had been in the navy during the second world war but the family's background was industrial rather than military. But my family it is quite artistic. My mother is great storyteller and my dad was quite good at drawing, so maybe I inherited some of that."

After a variety of jobs that included working as a welder in his father's steel fabrication shop, Bean went to study art at Rotherham College and it was there that he discovered acting. He went on to win a scholarship to RADA in London, one of 30 successful applicants out of 11,000.

After spending his early acting years in theatre he moved on to play a variety of roles for the BBC's Screen One and Screen Two before unintentionally sealing his reputation as heart-throb with the parts of Lovelace in Clarissa and Mellors in Ken Russell's Lady Chatterley, both for the BBC. Lately his career has focused on feature films, playing evil-eyed villains in GoldenEye and Patriot Games, the illicit lover in Anna Karenina and, most recently, as Spence in the thinking man's action spy movie, Ronin.

"I've been lucky as I've had the chance to stretch myself play a lot of different roles and I've never been stuck with one type of role. It's easy to categorise characters as "goodies and baddies" but I sometimes think the qualities of both overlap and that's what makes them interesting. There's always a good side to a villain and that's what you've got to look for first.

"Villains tend to be meatier and more rewarding to play because you are behaving in a way that the audience might like to but couldn't get away with. You're doing something you're not supposed to be doing then people compliment you on it and slap you on the back for it. I like the paradox - the worse you are, the better it is, and the more they like you and the more you're rewarded for it."

There aren't many "regular guys" in Bean's credits. "I think it's incredibly difficult to play a likeable, regular good guy with no side. Harrison Ford is the best I can think of at playing a normal person."

But off screen, Bean is more of a "regular guy" than you might expect. He is not to be found mountaineering, jet skiing or living an all action life-style. "It's exciting to get the chance to ride horses or drive fast cars for films but I don't really have an urge to do it in real life. Apart from anything else I don't want to put myself in a dangerous situation."

With Bravo Two Zero transmitting in the New Year and a couple of projects in the pipeline 1999 is looking like getting off to a good start for Bean - except he doesn't have high hopes for his beloved Sheffield United. "We just sold the top scorer, Dean Saunders, and we've got an injury ridden squad so things aren't looking to good but maybe things will pick up". But this doesn't mean he might switch allegiance to another team. "If you support a club you support them forever," he says emphatically.


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