The Dangerous Mr. Bean
October 23, 1999
Women swoon over him, men envy him. Sean Bean, the working-class lad from Sheffield who became a star, would seem to have it made. But there has been a price to pay, as WENDY LEIGH discovered when she finally met him.
The Sean Bean we see on our television screens seems as tough and resilient as the steel city which forged him. As he struts about in his period uniform as Sharpe or in his modern fatigues in Bravo Two Zero he seems well cast as the courageous yet unemotional military man.
In his private life, too, he might be seen as cold and hard as steel; for how else could he find himself, at the age of just 40, on his third wife? Some who have followed the lurid tales of his love life might be tempted to think of him as the sort of upwardly-mobile cad who trades in wives as his career progresses. But Sean isn't so easily pigeonholed. If he really was ruthless in love, how could it be that his first wife, his teenage sweetheart, Debra (with whom he lost his virginity), won't say a word against him and still enjoys calling on his mother for a friendly chat in their home town of Sheffield? And how come he is so obviously devoted to his third wife, Abigail Cruttenden, and their baby Evie, now almost a year old? The wife in the middle, Bread actress Melanie Hill, is a more painful subject, for they broke up amid much acrimony about their manifold separations and talk of his supposedly laddish lifestyle.
He won't dwell on the subject, the wounds seemingly still raw. "I think you have to get over it, otherwise you can be worrying about what should have been for the rest of your life. You have to look back and remember the good times, the good qualities, the happy times."
But Sean does have regrets, and one in particular which does little to dispel the image of him as a soccer-obsessed bloke in the pub. "I would like to be 20 years younger and play football professionally," he tells me earnestly. "It's a great, lucrative time for players like Beckham and Ginola."
The fact that he has a £2 tattoo on his shoulder with the words "100 per cent Blade" - the nickname of his team, Sheffield United - merely adds to the feeling that here is a man who hasn't quite adapted to the sophisticated fast lane of Hollywood superstardom in which he finds himself. "I'm as passionate as ever about the game. But sometimes you get a bit disillusioned by the money that is being bandied about in various directions by the clubs, I think it takes the edge off the game. You get smaller clubs who don't have the money and go out of businesss and people can get very greedy."
His accent gets stronger as he pronounces the word "greed-day" with great contempt. "So I'm disappointed in the way it's progressed. I'm very passionate about who I support and always will be, but I hope in years to come that the big clubs are more gracious to the smaller clubs and help them out more."
It would seem ungracious to point out that for Sean the hard truth is that he could never have made it as a professional footballer. As his old PE teacher has said, "He played for the school football team, but he wasn't outstanding."
Yet Mr Bean - the name is unfortunate, for there are very few laughs in Sean - already has the world at his feet. He doesn't need to prove himself against the likes of Beckham on some muddy football pitch when he has already proved himself among the finest British actors of his generation at the Royal Shakespeare Company and made his mark in big Hollywood movies, such as Stormy Monday, Patriot Games and Ronin.
Could it be that he's a tad embarrassed by what he does for a living when he drives back to Sheffield to see his old mates, all of them plumbers, welders and carpenters? Is there a part of his soul that cries out for the life of a working-class man?
As he sits opposite, leaning forward to answer my questions in a low voice, this seems the clue to Sean Bean. He is in costume for a new TV series, wearing a Cable and Wireless technician's uniform, and his appearance is so entirely convincing, the workman's overalls so suited to him, that I am reminded he became an actor partly by accident, having never done any drama at school and leaving at 16 with a miserly two O levels.
After school, he spent three years drifting, worked at a supermarket counter selling cheese, but only lasted a day, and ended up becoming a welder at his father Brian's steel-making shop, producing gear wheels and plant machinery. Had fate not intervened, he might well have stayed there in Sheffield, working as a welder, along with the pals whose company he still enjoys so much.
But fate, assisted by a huge dolop of talent, came along and changed everything. First he quit welding and went to art college. There, he chanced to read Macbeth, was mesmerised by the play and decided to become an actor, applying to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), merely because he believed it was England's only drama college. Against all odds, he was accepted - one of only 30 out of 11,000 applicants. Even now, Ian Footitt, his old teacher at Brooke School, Sheffield, can hardly believe his meteoric rise to fame. "I am still stunned as to how this lad in my class got to be a famous actor. He never did plays. He was popular with the girls, he loved to chase a ball, but he didn't work."
Along the way, Sean met his first love, Debra, a hairdresser, and they married when he was 20. "Debra and I had a very strong relationship," he says, "We were very young and drifted apart. But Debra still goes around to my mum's for a cuppa."
His mum, Rita, has always been a powerful influence on Sean. She was a secretary until he and his sister, Lorraine, came along, but gave up her job so that she could devote her time to them. He, in turn, is fiercely loyal to her. "She is a good woman who has a good heart, a sense of fairness, the ability to laugh at herself, compassion and love."
It is when the subject turns to his father that one begins to wonder whether Sean is certain he took the right route in life. "In some ways, I wish I'd followed him," he says. "It would have been good to have carried on working with him, but I always felt I wanted to do something else..."
That something else has brought him to his new starring television role as Neil Byrne in ITV's four-part thriller Extremely Dangerous. He plays a former MI5 man accused of murdering his wife and children. Despite the title, it is a curiously emotional role for such a macho actor, and he is called upon to burst into tears. "It was easier to do that scene because it was near the end of the shoot and I had become involved with the role. He has been through a hell of a trauma and finally breaks down."
But Sean Bean, the tough guy crying? "Everybody does, don't they? It's just a natural emotion. People laugh, people cry. It is part of my make-up."
Off-screen, though, he initially redressed the balance with an unfortunate display of machismo. I planned to meet him on the set of Extremely Dangerous, but he flatly refused to see me because he "didn't know" me. He declared that he would rather be interviewed by a male colleague of mine whom he had met before. I suspected that his refusal to talk to me might stem from him having problems communicating with women when they are vertical. Nonetheless, I entered into negotiations which reached the absurd point where I offered him the opportunity to interview me to see if I could interview him.
When we finally meet, his handshake is diffident and almost apologetic. I wonder if, in an attempt to disarm me by confounding expectations, he is acting a part, pretending to be a gentle, retiring soul. Later, one of his closest colleages tells me, "Sean really is very shy. But he is also very difficult, and extremely clever."
His cleverness is immediately evident in the sardonic way in which he handles our conversation. He wears a wedding ring and I ask, "Have you worn one during all your marriages?"
"Yes," he says, "through all of them. All of them." Then he laughs, a self-deprecating laugh. The subtext clearly implied is, "Yes, I know you think I'm Bluebeard, that I trade-up wives from Sheffield girl-next-door Debra to actress Melanie from Sunderland to Abigail, the posh Londoner, but I'm not going to let you stick labels on me."
We enter a battleground as lethal as any of those he's trodden on TV, of dodging questions and avoiding areas which he perceives as potential traps. During his career, he has stripped for the cameras inordinately often (and there is even a nude scene in the generally sombre Extremely Dangerous), but he won't be drawn into revealing how his mates in Sheffield responded to seeing him on screen in the altogether. "It's unprintable," he says. I suggest that he actually relishes it, that being filmed nude turns him on. He says it doesn't, then relents and concedes, "It's fun."
Sometime later, he telephones me and asks to amend his quote. "I don't want to say that doing love scenes in the nude is fun. But you could write that I think it is funny." He proceeds to underline the point by telling me an anecdote relating to Lady Chatterley's Lover, in which he played the libidinous gamekeeper, Mellors. "Joely Richardson and I had to run through a field starkers. The director said 'Don't worry about it, there's a big wall surounding us, ten foot high, so no one will see you.' We did it on the first take, but in the middle, a double-decker bus came by and everyone on the top deck stared at us. We had to just carry on."
He and Abigail met when they starred in Sharpe and one assumes that their love scenes together were, indeed, fun. After all, they coincided with his break-up with Melanie Hill, after a relationship of 16 years. Now that Sean continues to do love scenes with other actresses, he may wish to reassure Abigail that, these days, they are hard work for him and certainly not in the least bit fun.
The only other remotely sex-related comment he makes relates to his co-star in Stormy Monday, Melanie Griffith, of whom he says, with Mellors' distinctive earthiness, "She's got a good face and that, but she's also big and buxom, which I like. I don't like skinny birds."
In general, he shies away off-screen from promoting the sexual elements of his persona and says, "I do laugh at this image of myself as some sort of sex machine." In contrast, he is touchingly eager to tell me that he reads everything he can get his hands on. "I like Oscar Wilde - I'd like to act in his plays - and Dickens and D.H. Lawrence." He studied Lawrence extensively after Ken Russell chose him to play Mellors. His favourite film, tellingly, is Kes, the story of the defiant boy with the broad Yorkshire accent whose escape from the bleakest of lives in a Northern mining town comes with the joy of catching a kestrel and learning from a stolen book how to tame it.
Sean Bean is probably perfectly capable of permanently shedding his own broad Yorkshire accent (and, indeed, contemplated doing so while at RADA), but says, "An accent is something really to be cherished. It defines who you are and where you come from and you're proud of that."
Sometimes he exaggerates it, parodying himself. When asked about the first major purchase he made once his career hit the heights, he lays it on thick, calling it, "Very flaashaay," perhaps to mitigate his embarrassment at what he bought - "A big American-style car, a Datsun 280Z in metallic gold. I lined it all with fur and hung dice from the mirror ..."
He was 26 then and Stormy Monday (his first major film), Sharpe, Lady Chatterley, Clarissa, his stint as a Bond villain and his romantic turn as Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina were all ahead of him. So, of course, were his divorces and remarriages. The parting from Debra appears to have gone relatively smoothly, but although he and Melanie Hill have two daughters (Lorna, 12, and Molly, 8) together, Melanie did not emerge from the divorce unscathed. She has put a brave face on it since, making plucky public comments like, "Well, you just get on with it, don't you? You don't stop being a parent when the marriage ends." but is clearly sad at having lost the man whom she once described as "the love of my life."
Meanwhile Sean, in both geographic and romantic terms, has strayed south and now lives with Abigail in an exclusive part of north London. She was educated in private schools and has an accent to match. He realises that his Southern-raised children's childhood is far different from his own, but isn't so consumed by a loyalty to his Northern roots to feel he has to apologise for the differences. "I didn't have a hard childhood, but of course theirs is different. But why shouldn't it be?" he asks defiantly. "I want them to have a good education, to learn to have it easier than I did."
Now at 40, he isn't about to indulge in any form of mid-life crisis. "Hitting 40 wasn't a trauma for me - not that I was aware of." And he still seems relatively dazzled by the trappings of Hollywood stardom. "For Patriot Games they flew me backwards and forwards to Hollywood three times. First Class. First Class!"
His down-to-earth nature is epitomised by the story of the small scar above his left eye. Far from it being a wound won on some Sheffield football pitch, he explains, "We were filming the last scenes of Patriot Games, on a boat in stormy weather. The deck was very slippery and Harrison Ford accidentally hit me with a boat hook. There was a bit of blood. I had a few stitches, but it never occurred to me to sue. It was an accident. Afterwards, the producer said (and he puts on a credible American accent, completely erasing the Sheffield one in the process), 'Hey, Sean, why doncha keep the suit? And anything else ya want from wardrobe....' So we called it quits." He laughs, relishing the memory, and the entire experience of Hollywood and all it offers to those blessed to be stars. At the same time, he is living proof of the axiom, "You can take the boy out of Sheffield but you can't take Sheffield out of the boy," and he knows it. His greatest dream, he says, is to play Macbeth. "I love the play," he says. "Love, death, ambition, betrayal. And Lady Macbeth." So you like strong women? I ask. "Yes." he says. "Yes, I do."
Sensitive, shy, clearly somewhat embarrassed to find himself so succesful in a profession from which real men's men from the welding world would steer clear, Sean Bean is not as big a macho cliche as has been projected. He is clearly capable, too, of communicating with women when they are vertical.
Extremely Dangerous will be shown on ITV next month.
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