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Since hanging up his welding mask, Sean Bean has played a host of cads, bounders and ladies' men in a career ranging from Derek Jarman to Andy McNab. Nicole Carmichael talks to the actor as he faces the challenge of his career, playing Macbeth in the West End.
Sean Bean is trying not to be superstitious. He's currently rehearsing The Scottish Play and would rather not think about the perils that have befallen some of the past stars of Shakespeare's dark tragedy. Catching up for a chat after his first week of rehearsals for Macbeth, the Sheffield-born star gets a bit jittery and impulsively touches wood when asked whether he is nervous about taking on the role.
Then again, he only has himself to blame. Ever since he first left school and saw a production of Macbeth at a theatre workshop in Rotherham, he has wanted to play the part of the power-hungry hero, which is hardly surprising when you consider that the lead in that production was Ian McKellen and his Lady Macbeth was Judi Dench.
Fast forward to the year 2000 where the (now) world-famous actor finds himself in a hotel room in New York with time on his hands in between filming. 'I went out to a bookshop and decided to buy a copy of Macbeth to read. I immediately rang my agent and said, "I've been thinking about this role for the last 20 years and I really want to try and give it a shot." Due to the various work commitments of the proposed cast, not least his own, it's taken two years for the production to come to fruition. But on 14 November his dream of playing Macbeth on a West End stage will finally become a reality.
The new production, directed by Ed Hall and co-starring Samantha Bond as Lady Macbeth, is set against a backdrop of a 'non-specific war-torn republic'. "It's somewhat similar to Kosovo, with various warlords vying for position, and it's quite an ambivalent style with not much space for ornamant and indulgence."
Because it's a 'timeless' production as opposed to something incongruously modern, it's more swords and leather jackets than guns and Armani suits. "The set is also very interesting and adds to the claustrophobia that the play dwells in," says Sean.
Sean is relishing the experience, which marks his return to theatre after a 13-year absence. "It's one of those roles that allows you to plumb the depths of humanity because of the sheer nature and horror of what's happening. There are so many wonderful things about this character, it's so rich and so meaty and he suffers terribly from his guilt. He has a wild imagination and a racing mind, which continue to torment him throughout the piece. It's just my ideal role and I'm really enjoying it."
"I've made sure I've blocked enough time off and it's really great to actually get started on the thing. We started with the nuts and bolts and the metre to really make sense of the story and the dialogue, the rhythm and the verse. It's wonderful to be able to sit down and discuss this wonderful literature and language."
In the past, Sean has played a cast of villains with a range of accents, but won't be adopting a Scottish voice for Macbeth. "Because the play itself is timeless and the location isn't placeable, I think it should be the same with the voice. There are qualities in a northern accent that are quite similar to a Scottish one in that it is very strong, very flat and powerful, and I don't want to lose those particular elements of the dialect. I just want to do something unobtrusive that isn't distracting."
Ever since Sean gave up his job as a welder to attend RADA and then enter the acting profession, he has clocked up an impressive number of credits. On TV, while men tend to recall his role as SAS soldier Andy McNab in Bravo Two Zero, it was his passionate portrayal of Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover and his role as the dastardly Robert Lovelace in Clarissa that established him as a British sex symbol. Between 1993 and 1997 he appeared in no less than 15 feature-length adventures as the swash-buckling Napoleonic hero, Richard Sharpe, and still found time to star in several movies, including the James Bond film Goldeneye, Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, Patriot Games with Harrison Ford and the first two parts of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. This year he has also filmed a children's movie, Tom and Thomas, and a sci-fi thriller, Equilibrium.
Prior to going into rehearsals for Macbeth, Sean had to return to New Zealand to shoot several scenes for The Two Towers, the second part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy - even though we saw Boromir, the character he played, die in the first. "I'm in the next movie as a flashback and I don't really have a great deal to do. It was quite weird going back after two years and putting the wig on again and, because it's been such a long project - over five or six years - we've all really aged. I look remarkably young at the start and Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo, was only about 17 when we started filming - he's now 22!"
In terms of movie credits, The Lord of the Rings is without a doubt Sean's biggest project, "but then to play Shakespeare's tragic hero, work-wise, is the biggest challenge that I've ever had," he says. "It's the biggest thing that i've ever done in my mind."
The critics might be ready with their slings and arrows for Sean Bean, protesting sniffily that he is more of the housewife's TV choice than a credible thespian; but before he became a famous TV star, he was a member of the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre and the RSC, where he played the lead in Romeo and Juliet. It takes more than just good looks to carry off Shakespeare.
In The Flesh
Sean Bean is incredibly charismatic and much easier to talk to than his reputation would have you believe. Journalists have tried and failed to extract information from him about his private life but he'll reply with good grace, a smile and a 'nice try, but...' rather than luvvie histrionics. However, it goes with the turf that if you play sex symbols, your private life is suddenly more interesting too. For the record, he's been married (and divorced) three times and has three daughters - Lorna and Molly to his second wife, Melanie Hill (who is most famous for her role in TV's Bread); and Evie, daughter of his Sharpe co-star Abigail Cruttenden, whom he married in 1997.
Now 42, Sean Bean is not actively seeking the kind of sex-symbol roles that originally made him famous. "I seem to be playing more of a scrapper these days," he laughs, inhaling deeply on a cigarette. "I just take jobs as they come, on their own merit. I'm not necessarily looking for a role where I have to take my kit off.". Does that mean he doesn't want to? "Well, I don't mind..." he grins.
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