Sean Bean - Man of Steel

Independent on Sunday (UK) - 02 December 2001

Elizabeth Hurley gave him her heart. Harrison Ford gave him a scar. And Sheffield gave him his accent. Simon Beckett meets Fellowship of the Ring star Sean Bean and finds his claims to "ordinariness", well, extraordinary.

Photo by Simon Roberts
Story by Simon Beckett

If it's true that the type of car you have reflects your personality, then Sean Bean's current choice of vehicle speaks volumes. Since his BMW was stolen a few months ago he has been driving a battered old H-reg Vauxhall Nova, bought for pounds 100 from friends who planned to cut off the roof and use it to transport garden rubbish.

Which means for the past few weeks the star of the hugely popular Sharpe television series, who has worked alongside the likes of Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro and Michael Douglas, has basically been driving around London in a skip.

"Have you seen my car?" he enquires, inordinately pleased with his new runabout. If there's one thing you couldn't accuse Sean Bean of it's being pretentious. In his suede jacket, faded jeans and boots, it must be said that the 42 year -old Sheffielder looks less like an internationally successful actor than... well, someone you'd expect to see driving a 15-year-old Vauxhall. Above his left eye is a scar from where Harrison Ford hit him with a boat hook during the filming of Patriot Games. Other than that, Hollywood - like everything else - doesn't appear to have put much of a dent in a persona perhaps best described as "Northern bloke".

After meeting outside the Post Office near his home in Hampstead (he can't think of anywhere else off-hand) we wander around in mutual indecision until a suitable cafe is settled on. There's a polite, unaffected diffidence about him that makes it easy to forget that this is the man who kept women glued to television screens with Sharpe, Clarissa and Lady Chatterley's Lover, or who gave Pierce Brosnan's 007 a run for his money as the villainously urbane 006 in GoldenEye.

Sipping his coffee and lighting a cigarette, he admits to being a little interviewed-out at the moment. He hasn't been back in the UK for long, attending various promotional junkets in the States for Don't Say a Word, Michael Douglas's new heist thriller in which Bean plays a criminal mastermind.

But what's causing most excitement right now is the Christmas release of The Fellow-ship of the Ring. Directed by Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, Braindead) this is the first installment in the long-awaited three-film adaptation of JRR Tolkein's classic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. Jackson famously took his cast, which in addition to Bean includes Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm and Liv Tyler, to the wilds of New Zealand on a marathon 18-month shoot to film all three parts of the $ 270m epic back-to-back. It was a massive logistical undertaking, and a gamble for everyone involved.

"I don't think any of us really expected what we were letting ourselves in for," says Bean, who spent a mere year in New Zealand shooting the films, interrupted only by a couple of brief visits back to the UK. "But it was just sort of magical, to have a group of people all doing the same thing, all going in the same direction, just left on an island. A very beautiful island. They'd chopper us up to mountain tops where nobody had ever been before."

For anyone not familiar with Tolkein's novel, LOTR (as the film trilogy has become known) is a more sophisticated, darker follow-up to his children's story The Hobbit. Bean plays Boromir, a dour warrior who joins a motley band of humans, elves and hobbits charged with keeping a dark lord from laying hands on the all-powerful ring, only to find himself being corrupted by its influence. It's a project that Bean is obviously proud of. He had read the novel in the late 1980s, and when he heard rumours that a film of the book was going to be made he was keen to be involved. He met Peter Jackson in Covent Garden and read for him there. "Had to act it out a bit, you know," he says, self-consciously.

The two of them apparently hit it off, but it was another six months before the call he'd been hoping for came through. "I got the news on the phone when I was driving down the M1 with my kids in the back. I speeded up about 30 miles an hour. Unintentionally," he adds, not wanting to seem reckless.

Driving up the M1 is something he still does quite regularly, or at least as regularly as work permits. Although he admits he could no longer live in Sheffield, his ties to his home town have remained as unbroken as his accent. The son of a steel plater and a secretary, Shaun Mark Bean grew up in Handsworth, a working-class suburb. As a boy he played football, developed an undying passion for Sheffield United (he has "100% Blade" tattooed at the top of one arm) and showed no thespian inclinations whatsoever.

After leaving school at 16 with 'O' levels in art and English, Bean worked as an apprentice welder at his father's steel-fabrication business for three years. "They were great years, you know," says the man who according to OK! magazine is one the highest earners in British showbusiness. "You had to learn to get on with other fellers, you're all in this factory eight, 10 hours a day. We used to have some good laughs. But I'd got a lot of time to daydream, and I did daydream a lot. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do."

Acting was still a long way from his mind. He had always been interested in art, and describes with obvious pride how he used to exhibit pictures in an art -shop window in Sheffield: "And I sold a few, actually." It was enrolling on an art foundation course at Rotherham College that opened his eyes to the possibility of another career altogether. An acting course was being taught in the same building, and Bean found himself drawn to it. He watched for a while - "seeing how it all worked and stuff" - before changing courses.

"He wasn't particularly noticeable, other than being a lively lad. Very personable," recalls Paul Daniels, one of Bean's drama tutors from Rotherham. "You wouldn't spot him in a group." But Daniels describes watching "the penny drop" as Bean realised he had something the other students could only aspire to. "Once the lights were on him, he was just magnetic. You just totally noticed him," he says. "Yet he was clearly one of the lads outside the class. He didn't have airs and graces, because his culture wouldn't allow him to."

After only a year on the course Bean applied to, and was accepted by, Rada. "When I got the letter I was just, like, chuffed," he says, with considerable understatement. Needless to say, moving to London proved something of a culture shock. "You know, you're from quite a close-knit community and all of a sudden everything seems so big and expansive. But I enjoyed that. And at the same time I was learning about various plays and playwrights, and different types of theatre. The Restoration, and Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov. It was a massive jolt, but a really pleasant, eye -opening one."

It wasn't quite the Pygmalion-like transformation it might appear. Bean later changed the spelling of his Christian name, but Shaun the welder remained as much a part of his psyche as Sean the actor. Unlike some of his peers (including another young hopeful called Kenneth Branagh) who toned down their regional dialects, he learnt how to speak standard English but kept his own accent - partly through his own inclination, and partly on the advice of a Rada tutor who told him it would come in useful. "If you have to learn an accent, then you go to a voice coach," Bean shrugs. "You apply yourself to it. That's acting."

When Bean talks about his acting he refers to it as his "job" or "work", as if what he does for a living is no different to putting in eight hours a day at a factory. He's no method actor, preferring to switch off when the filming stops - mostly, at least. "What do they call it, when you can tell your telly's on? Standby. It's like that," he says with a laugh. "I feel like that, with the red light on. And I can put a green light on when I want to."

Even granted that it's an actor's job to step into and out of other characters, the huge dichotomy between Bean's on-screen (or on-stage) intensity and the Yorkshire Everyman of his "resting" state seems extreme. "Sean was incredibly shy and the least flirtatious person I've ever met," says Elizabeth Hurley, who played one of Bean's conquests in the Sharpe series (a pairing that brings to mind the words "chalk" and "cheese"). "Nevertheless, I thought he was gorgeous."

No doubt quite a few women would agree with her about the latter, although the rest is hardly in keeping with the sex-symbol image of an actor who, not to put too fine a point on it, has never seemed particularly shy about getting his kit off in front of the cameras. When Ken Russell's adaptation of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was screened in 1993, the Broadcasting Standards Council bleated that the sex-scenes featuring Bean as Mellors and Joely Richardson as his aristocratic lover were "too long" and "too rough" - a criticism presumably not shared by the show's 12.63 million viewers.

Bean seems not so much an unlikely as an indifferent sex symbol. But he's not entirely unaware of his powers. He's been married three times, the last two to actresses who evidently weren't put off by any lack of flirtation. His first wife Debra Anderson was the Sheffield girlfriend who he married pretty well at the start of his career. The marriage didn't survive his move to London, but the two have remained friendly. "I see her now, and she's great," he says earnestly.

Bean's second wife was Melanie Hill, with whom he has two daughters, Lorna, 14 and Molly, 10. They were divorced in 1997, in what was reportedly a far more acrimonious split. (Hill has been quoted as saying that she felt "like a housemaid".) Later that same year Bean married Abigail Cruttenden, his screen wife in Sharpe; timing that suspicious minds might interpret as being somewhat less than coincidental. They have a three-year-old daughter, Evie, but are now also divorced.

Bean sees his daughters regularly and says he's remained on good terms with his ex-wives, which pleases him (although he admits that it can be awkward sometimes, "with all the arranging things, organising things"). When asked whether his work complicates relationships, he stares reflectively into his coffee cup. "It can be difficult, yeah." He gives a rueful grin. "Look at my past record. I mean, there's some things where you think, 'I could have done that.' But you learn from those. You make mistakes, but you learn from them."

He doesn't go into details, but admits that spending large chunks of time away filming doesn't make for an easy home life. "You go off into you're own world, and when you come back you're still in it. You don't think you are, but you are. It's not a usual nine- to-five job where you come home, you have your tea, you watch television and go to bed. You know, see the kids, get up next morning and do the same. It's always something different. That's the beauty of it, and I wouldn't change it for anything."

Bean's professional acting debut came shortly after he graduated from Rada in 1983, when he played Tybalt in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. In 1986, Bean appeared in the RSC's production of Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican and Swan theatres, this time playing the male lead. "It was a big break for me," he concedes. "That somebody saw something in me of quality that they thought might work, I was quite surprised by that."

In 1992 Bean won the part of Peninsular War hero Richard Sharpe after the first choice, Paul McGann, injured his leg. Bean was offered the role just four days before shooting began in Russia. Sharpe went on to become a phenomenal success, running for five seasons and selling world-wide. And Bean stamped his own identity on the series from the start. Using his natural Sheffield accent, he turned what was originally conceived as a dark-haired Londoner into a dirty-blond Yorkshireman who could call an enemy a bastard with all the contempt of a Blades fan insulting a referee.

"He has a kind of third eye for what's required," says Daragh O'Malley, who played Sharpe's side-kick Sergeant Harper in the series. "He's very easy to get on with. The great passions in his life when I was with him were his family and Sheffield United. And, you know, he was fond of sessions on the high stool. We spent many hours on the bar stools and the battlefields of southern Crimea."

Despite the tough conditions the series was filmed under, the only time O'Malley heard Bean complain was when a new cast arrived on location for one episode. "After the first day Sean said to me, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I don't know, what do you think?' He said (O'Malley lowers his voice into an imitation of Bean's gruff Yorkshire) 'They're fuckin' full of luvvies!'"

Despite his Rada training, being a "luvvie" is something that no one can accuse Sean Bean of. While the actor, who learnt to box in his early teens, can "do" both sensitive and romantic (he plays a struggling artist in the yet-to-be -released children's film Tom and Thomas) he has an undeniable gift for portraying volatile characters prone to, or simply good at, violence: soldiers, warriors and just plain hard bastards.

He's had his moments off screen too. While commenting - quite mildly - that he doesn't see himself as being that way inclined now, he admits to having had a short fuse when he was younger. "I wouldn't say that's necessarily a fault. I mean, in some ways it's helped me in my work, because I can jump into a fit of anger quite quickly. I don't want to sound as though I'm bragging but that can be an explosive quality. I don't think you should try and get rid of qualities which could be useful in your work. But you've got to watch yourself in real life, I suppose."

He has let his attention slip on at least one occasion, when an altercation at a party resulted in him being charged with actual bodily harm (he was fined pounds 50). Bean laughs, a little embarrassed, when the incident is mentioned. "I let that drop in an interview about 10 years ago, and I thought, 'Fuck!'" he says, shaking his head. "It was all a bit of nonsense, really. I got done for that during the first year at Rada. I was only 21. Not that that is any excuse. But I suppose I was excitable, I was excited about where I was, and what I was doing. It was just one of those things."

Less excitable now, Bean still relishes physical parts, and enjoys performing his own stunts as much as possible. "I love doing all that stuff," he grins. "I think most people do. You know, they love it when a fight comes up in the middle of a film and everybody gets a bit..." (rubbing his hands) "...Come on, then, this is what we've been waiting for!'"

It's at this point where he shows me the scar left by Harrison Ford. "We slipped and the boat hook ended up smacking me across my eye and nose." This was at the time of the LA riots, and Bean laughs as he describes returning to his hotel after having the wound stitched. "I'd got this big shiner and my nose was flat across my face. I had this leather jacket on, and jeans, and I walked into the Beverly Wilshire. They're going, 'Sir! Sir! Security!' I said, 'Look, I've had a rough day. Just let me in my room.'"

Bean played an Irish terrorist in the film, but earlier this year he witnessed the real thing when a promotional event for Don't Say a Word meant he was in New York on 11 September. It's an experience he says is hard to describe; wisely, he doesn't try. So far, none of Bean's projects have been affected by Hollywood's sudden aversion to explosions. But he's quick to point out that, while he's played his fair share of action/adventure roles, gratuitous violence has never interested him.

"Most of the stuff I've done has been sort of personal, psychological battles between characters," he says. "I think the most interesting drama is the human drama, and things that evolve out of relationships. Not necessarily where the action and special effects have been pressed on to the film, and you're trying to find your character through all that lot."

Despite its special effects, LOTR is not just another digital extravaganza. Bean says there is real dirt and sweat, the battle scenes enhance what he describes as the "human story", not overpower it. And Boromir is up there with Sharpe as one of his favourite roles, which is praise indeed. There are some striking similarities between the two (think testosterone, swords, fighting). But he sees the warrior as more complex than the straightforward Napoleonic soldier. "He's constantly fighting this battle, to keep down this desire to own the ring," he says. "He goes through quite extreme emotions during the course of the film. And that's what I was trying to get across, this kind of inner struggle."

He's obviously hoping the film will prove the success it is tipped to be. But, even if it is, Bean won't be moving to LA. He's happy here; and if people in Hollywood want him, they just fly him out, he says. Also, he doesn't want to give up the roles he gets to play on much lower budget UK films and television. "I like to try and combine the two. But I don't want to let go of doing character-based, interesting people because I think that's the life blood of what you do."

At the moment his plans for the future centre around a return to the theatre next year to play Macbeth, an ambition of Bean's ever since he was at Rotherham College and saw a production starring Ian McKellen - "Who I've just worked with." He smiles, as though he can't believe his luck. "I had a good chat with him about the part."

But that's still in the planning stages. In the meantime he'll see what scripts come in, and perhaps take some time off before starting again in the New Year. There's plenty to do - his youngest daughter's birthday is coming up, and there's the gardening to think about (a closet hobby he sheepishly confesses to). And he's started getting back into welding again. "I wanted to see if I could still do it, you know," he says, pleased that he hasn't lost the knack.

After obligingly posing for photographs in the wet grass on Hampstead Heath, he heads off for his car. He's meeting a group of friends who are coming down from Sheffield, and he's looking forward to it. As he drives by in his Nova he gives a cheery wave, just another welder off to see his mates in the pub.

'The Fellowship of the Ring' is released nationwide on Wednesday 19 December

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