Bean there, done that with gusto
Bean there, done that with gusto
14 August 2005
JUST before Christmas last, Sean Bean took part in a London press conference
to discuss the action-adventure film National Treasure. Bean was the baddy to
Nicolas Cage's hero, and so played second fiddle to him with the press.
Their contrasting roles, as movie stars and men, were hard to ignore. Where
Bean answered questions in a relatively normal manner, Cage was in
performance mode, playing a role, spinning a scene. One was being an actor,
the other, you sensed, couldn't help but be himself. It made Bean the more
likeable of two, but then might also explain why Bean may never achieve
A-list, leading man level.
That day, Cage was about conveying what a ball he had with his co-stars, the
villain Bean and love interest Diane Kruger. Chief among the illuminating
incidents was a night out they had enjoyed, drinking and singing karaoke. The
way Cage told it, this was the wildest night in history, but when prodded Bean
was unable to recall his party piece and seemed vaguely embarrassed. And his
reaction illuminated the phoney nature of the situation, the ridiculous material
being made of a single night out, the hollow sense of showbiz bonhomie.
You became aware of Bean as a Lancashire lad in LA, a normal bloke who
works in blockbusters and one who has not been so affected by Hollywood that
he thinks tales from a night on the beer are worth broadcasting.
In London last week, this time promoting his role as villain in Michael Bay's
futuristic action-adventure, The Island, Sean Bean had more room to be
himself. Without song and dance or over-explanation, he simply spun out what
it is to be Sean Bean,a former steel worker in showbusiness, a star but not a
Asked which he'd prefer, an Oscar or for his beloved Sheffield United to win
the European Cup, Bean laughs out loud at this no-brainer. "Sheffield to win,"
he smiles, eyes crinkling beneath dirty-blond hair that falls over his forehead.
"There's just no competition there," he goes on, before pausing, "And then to
win an Oscar. On the same night. Ah, that would be amazing."
Anyone who has ever met Sean Bean comments on how he is both down to
earth and obsessed with football, neither of which entirely square with being a
film star. And yet, therein lies his charm.
He's an unlikely actor, born Shaun Bean in Sheffield, 46 years ago, to parents
who worked in the local steel industry, in which he also laboured for three
years before discovering acting.
According to those who knew him as a young man, Bean was a feisty type
who, by his own admission, allowed temper to get him into trouble on more
than one occasion. Bean was, however, interested in art, and while taking
painting classes happened upon an acting workshop. Once he got involved, it
quickly became apparent Bean had charisma and ability, and at 20 he left the
North for London and Rada.
It is perhaps the remnants of that youthful aggression that see Sean Bean
cast so regularly as the villain, as he is in The Island. He laughs to mention
that he was the calming influence on the "volcanic" director, Michael Bay
(Armageddon, The Rock ) and confesses there may be something worrying in
his ability to switch on his dark side. Bean can do decent sorts, but they bore
him after a while, where mustering bursts of evil has more energy to it.
In The Island , Bean plays Merrick, a cool customer who oversees the enclosed
habitat of a white-tracksuited population who believe they are survivors of a
natural disaster which rendered Earth uninhabitable. All accept their lot and
dream of one day winning the lottery and going to the island, a promised
paradise. Which is grand, until Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) begins
questioning things, things other than why Merrick has nice suits and a Picasso,
while he only has a pair of Pumas to his name. With his friend, Jordan Two
Delta (Scarlett Johansson), Lincoln escapes the compound and then, the
technology-gone-mad, Logan's Run-style nightmare begins to unfold. The
effect is high-adrenaline entertainment and often amusing, though its poor
box-office performance in the States - continuing Hollywood's year of ill
returns - has caused Bay to deem it "a debacle".
Bean's is a moderate-sized part as Merrick, crucial to the plot, but without
the screentime or profile of his younger co-stars. And he marvelled,
apparently, at how Scarlett Johansson copes with major, major celebrity.
"At 20," Bean smiles, "All I wanted was to be part of the Chesterfield
Repertory Theatre. I just wanted to act.
"Scarlett handles it very well, but I think I'd have found it quite difficult. I
probably wanted that kind of thing at some stage, but I imagine now, the way
things have worked out for me, that it would be a wonderful feeling, but very
One wonders, then, if he ever cast an eye over Ewan McGregor's success and
felt a twinge of envy. After Rada and years in theatre, Bean moved into TV
and film acting in the late Eighties, and after a role as an IRA man in Patriot
Games, made his real breakthrough in Sharpe's Rifles.
Sharpe's various, 19th-century wartime adventures ran occasionally from 1992
to 1997, and through it, Bean fine-tuned his appeal as a rough diamond that
worked for both men and women. He played the character in his own accent -
which remains intact with its deep, flat vowels, even today - and stories from
the set tell of a real man's man, more concerned with the football results than
Elizabeth Hurley's bare breasts.
The series sold all over the world and made an international star of Bean, but
it was a double-edged sword. "I couldn't get any work for a couple of years
after that," he says, shaking his head in slight disbelief still.
"There was no work for me in England and it was so confusing, because
everyone was saying Sharpe had been great and it was so successful and it
would lead to big things, but the real result was that I was typecast and
difficult to employ."
There is no way to prepare yourself for that, Bean says with a thin smile. It
happens to almost every actor and how you cope with it is the only thing you
can control. During this career dip, however, Bean's personal life was also in
turmoil. His second marriage, to fellow-actress Melanie Hill (Bread,
Emmerdale), with whom Bean had two daughters, Lorna, now 17, and Molly,
13, had ended.
She said publicly that the marriage made her feel like a servant and there
were suggestions his football fanaticism had caused problems. Soon after
their divorce, Bean married his Sharpe co-star Abigail Cruttenden and they
had a daughter, Evie, now seven, but that marriage also ended in a divorce,
in 2000. Bean himself blamed the unsettling nature of his work, admitting
that this was something he enjoyed but that did not lend itself to
commitment and family life.
"You have to keep the faith that things will come right again, but that's quite
difficult," he says. He looks down at his hands as he says this, as though
'difficult' barely touches the recalled pain of those years.
By his own account, Bean's comeback was effected by the British film, Essex
Boys, in which he played a gangster character entirely without redeeming
"It didn't lead immediately to work rolling in," says Bean, "but it was great for
my confidence and getting that back led to more work. You make your own luck, sometimes."
From that point, Bean scored the role of Boromir in The Lord of the Rings
trilogy, raised his profile in the States as more than an English actor, but one
with the versatility to play American, German, anything at all. But, it seems,
best of all, the bad guy. Forthcoming films, Bean rushes to inform, see him
playing regular American Joes, alongside the likes of Jodie Foster and Frances
McDormand, but one suspects the villain is the role to which he is fated to
It is, perhaps, something to do with his essential normality, that allows Sean
Bean to tap into his darkness without fear of losing his charm. It is, perhaps,
a lack of desperation to be liked, learned the hard way. Whatever, it works,
without need to resort to tales from the karaoke bar.
'The Island' is on general release. Cert: 12A
Return to the Main Features Page
Return to The Compleat Sean Bean