Mr Bean

Mr. Bean
British GQ
November 1993


Photos by Kim Knott

He can be brooding, volatile and intense, but Jessica Berens discovers that despite Sean Bean's bodice-ripping screen act, this Nineties Heathcliffe prefers Sheffield United and suburbia

Will Sean Bean leave his wife?

This is the question that will be raised when A Woman's Guide to Adultery airs this winter on Carlton. Producer Beryl Vertue has known the answer for ages because she bought the rights to the book. And Sean Bean knows the answer as he paces the sunny lawns around Thornbury Castle; a man alone, his hands in the pockets of a green suit, his hair a lank Rod Stewart. No trace of the Irish maniac, Miller, from Patriot Games, nothing of Oliver "We came off together that time, M'Lady" Mellors. Today he is Paul. A war photographer.

"There's an etiquette involved on a set," says Vertue, glancing at him. "If an actor is on his own. people tend to leave him alone because there's a reason for ità" Vertue is a "living example of where shorthand typing can get you". She produced Tommy with Robert Stigwood. Now her company, Hartswood, is turning Carol Clewlow's novel into a three-part drama. She has invited 60 extras from Bristol to put on their best clothes and appear in a scene. They are enjoying themselves, dressed up and showing off, while girls with walkie-talkies shout, "first position", "quiet please", and "rolling!"

It's a long day for Vertue. Grey-haired, charming, and chatty, her voice is inflected with the twang of her Surrey birthplace. She had attempted to get Clewlow's book made into a feature film but somebody went bankrupt. The novel, Clewlow's second, is an appraisal of the tension that adultery initiates, particularly between morality and desire. It studies the loyalties that exist among women. Rose (Theresa Russell) is a lady of principle who believes in one commandment - thou shalt not make another woman unhappy. In Paul, her lover, Vertue had to find a man for whom Rose would break this rule. She believes that Sean Bean is that man. "Women go quite silly when you mention his name," she says. "It's something to do with his eyes, the way they seem to look straight at you. It's as if he's speaking to you personally. He's able to get under the skin of a character and bring a truthfulness to it."

It's a long day for director David Hayman. Enigmatic in wrap-around shades, his shaved head still speaks of Jimmy Boyle, whom he played in A Sense of Freedom. His interpretation of the rehabilitation of the Glaswegian nihilist was so intense that it inspired Bean to take up acting. Hayman has come to learn that Bean cannot be judged by his performance on set - the camera brings this actor to life. The proof is in the rushes.

It's a long day for Theresa Russell, who is not sure where she's supposed to be or what she's supposed to be doing. She took the part of Rose, she says, because it seemed "kinda convenient". Her two sons (by director Nicholas Roeg) are at school in England. She welcomed a role which did not require her to be evil. She does not have to carry this project: it is, after all, an ensemble piece. Sean? She had seen him in Patriot Games. He seems to be one of the lads - enjoys football and a pint. They went to Paris and it was "kinda funny" that he had never been before. She had to tell him that it was pointless getting angry with the French waiters who took their time to serve, because they would undoubtedly take longer just to be annoying. He is one of those actors, she thinks, who brings something extra to the set, and it makes you wonder, "now where did that come from?" They are another species. She shrugs her shoulders, leans back in her director's chair: "It used to be called star quality."

It can become a little tedious, jumping up and down for the sound people and cheering in exactly the same way eight times in a row, and still the man with the eye glass is squinting up at the sun and saying: "We're going to lose it..." Then the sun disappears behind a cloud right in the middle of a sequence and everybody has to be silent, united in an unnatural suspension of time where the only noise is that of a woman whispering to her friend that Russell's fez is hideous. There is another wait as the child actress, in Bavarian kit, is stung by a bee, precipitating time out for injury and Anthisan. The chaperone, strict in purple T-shirt, announces: "We have empty mouths, please, Jamie, on set"

But it's fun, on the whole, pretending to act, watching the stars: Amanda Donohoe, a relaxed presence in black; Adrian Dunbar from Hear My Song; Russell, in curlers, with Camel cigarettes and Diet Coke competing for her mouth. "Sean Bean?" says a clipboard and glasses. "He's nice, quiet, polite - a family man. You might even think a little bit..." - she mouths the next word so that no sound comes out, like Les Dawson used to when he played those women in the launderette - "boring."

At lunch, clusters of fifteen-year-old girls eat chicken pie. French plaits are tied with elastic bands, arms are crossed defensively over half-formed breasts, shoulders hunched.

"Where's Sean?" asks one of the more confident gawpers, Instamatic in hand.

"Baked Bean?" answered a tuxedo and tie. "'E's over there with the chips."

The girl snaps, the friends giggle, the girl crosses her eyes in imitation of the face she claims Sean has pulled. Shrieking hysteria greets this joke.

"'E's only an actor," grumbles a youth who is inhabiting that grim domain known as not getting any attention.

"He's famous!" cries the girl, knowing that this is the only explanation required.

"Adultery?" says Bean, when asked for his opinion of it. "It's not good news really. It splits people up and causes a lot of problems that you don't need."

And what of Clewlow's suggestion that "this world is an unhappy place for women and the bulk of that unhappiness can still be laid directly at the feet of men?"

"I'd say it was the other way around." His Yorkshire vowels fade as he laughs. "That's all ah'm sayin'."

Sean's wife Melanie is a Geordie who plays Aveline in Bread and is the mother of his two daughters, Lorna, six, and Molly, two. Their house is in Muswell Hill, outside of which a 1986 Jaguar is parked. This, a car he has always wanted, takes two hours to transport him to Bramall Lane so he can watch Sheffield United. Wife Melanie once told the News of the World that, before Lorna's birth, she was "uncontrollably jealous" and that once, when he was away for five months, she nearly went mad.

They met at RADA; he a green Bean from Handsworth, a council estate outside Sheffield. His father runs a welding shop; his mother was always there when they got home from school. There were fights at Brooke Comprehensive and he was involved in some of them, but defending yourself, he believes, is essential, part of growing up. It wasn't that he didn't like the council estate; he just knew that he had to go to London if he wanted to act.

He will keep sane, he says, even if he was too embarrassed to buy the paper at Bristol station because he was on the front of TV Quick and the Radio Times. He will keep sane because his priorities are right-- the family comes first and he will not forget where he comes from, even if they do sometimes laugh at him in his local pub because he earns his living by wearing wigs. Melanie and the kids, though, they're the main thing. "Everything else is around that, otherwise you can go off on a tangent, begin to think you are wonderful, and your life could fall apart"

He has been married before but he doesn't view this as a mistake, more a part of a process. He was twenty. He has changed a lot since then. Well, children change you, don't they? He takes Lorna to football and they sing the "Greasy Chip Butty" song together. The lyrics, he has the very good grace to reveal, accompany the tune of John Denver's "Annie's Song" and go like this: "You fill up my senses, like a gallon of Magnet/Like a packet of Woodbine, a good pinch of snuff/Like a night out in Sheffield, like a greasy chip butty/Like Sheffield United, come thrill me again."

He is emotionally involved with Sheffield United. He has a season ticket and he refers to the club as "we". When it is suggested that those who support Sheffield United are those who are able to laugh at themselves, he says: "I don't know. I don't think we've done too bad. We've been in the Premier League for the last three seasons and we've stayed up there. We're a big club but we haven't got the financial backing or clout that other clubs have got, so we can't afford the players."

His father supported Sheffield United and so did his grandfather. It's a family thing and he has never tired of it.

"You never really know what's going to happen. There's always something to look forward to. If you have a bad season you think you can improve; there's always a cup run; there's always that optimism about football which is quite refreshing."

Melanie is lucky that her husband can divest himself of the characters he plays, for they are the kind of people who, if they climbed up the drainpipe, would have to be poked away with a fork. Robert Lovelace, for example, unpleasant rapist of Clarissa. "Do ah go 'ome as Lovelace?" Bean laughs. "Knor." A pause. "Ah daren't."

Melanie looks after him. So far their careers have not clashed, but he wouldn't like her to be away from the children for too long. She buys his clothes and knows his tastes. Sean is fussy with his food - he won't touch an unfamiliar sandwich for example - and considered the lack of sensible sustenance in Russia to be one of the main disadvantages of the Sharpe's Rifles shoot. They spent three months in the Crimea for the Central Television series, in which he played Richard Sharpe, courageous rifleman of action who led the "Chosen Men" on daredevil sorties against Napoleon's troops.

Melanie had to pack Spam and Cup-a-Soup for the rifleman of action. He didn't see bacon for weeks.

Sean Bean is 34. He knows that fame travels in waves and those waves are connected with the project upon which one is working. It just so happened that at the time of writing everyone was talking about Lady Chatterley's Lover. They were saying, in fact, that it made them relieved they didn't pay for their television licences. Ken Russell's series was so embarrassing that the viewer tended to agree with Sir Clifford when he asked: "Why didn't someone shoot me?"

"It's bin in every paper that you pick up. I've got used to it. I just go, 'Oo er, ah'm in agen... It all seems to be up there at the moment, but ah'm not stupid. I know it can all fall to pieces."

He is unwounded by the flak; he has learned not to take bad reviews personally. Anyway, he thinks he is quite good.

He was 26 and playing a prisoner in Deathwatch when Derek Jarman cast him in Caravaggio. Jarman, who videoed the auditions, noted that Bean wisely kept his distance. In his book about the making of the film the director says that he was looking for actors "who seemed to have a life of their own outside the profession and who were aware of the inadequacies of the medium in which they worked". Bean played Ranuccio which entailed wearing few clothes, cleaning a motorbike, and getting his throat slit. For Mike Figgis' Stormy Monday, he was Brendan who worked for Sting, had an affair with Melanie Griffith, and was nearly blown up by Tommy Lee Jones. In Andrew Grieve's Lorna Doone he was Carver Doone, anti-hero of the moors, and in The Field he was Tadgh a volatile Irish peasant. This performance provided a preview to Miller in Patriot Games. One of Bean's talents is to project smouldering hatred and, as an IRA terrorist, he was given full rein.

Nasty. Violent. Leering. Callous. Deceitful. Amoral. Bean is good at being these. He has a face that can express vulnerability, but is more designed to say: "Ah shoulda killed you when ah killed your father." He likes to play a psycho and he understands them.

"These people exist and worse," he says. "It's not difficult to convince yourself the you're playing a real character. But I don' think there's such a thing as a good guy or a bad guy. I think they have different sides to their personalities which merge into one."

Bean does not flex his sexual ego. He claims that women do not throw themselves at him, but admits that neither does he hang out in bars or place his person in situations where he could find himself knee deep in aspiring females. The threatening energy of anger which fuels his on-screen magnetism is responsible for the brute force of his characters' sexuality, and is entirely absent from his real-life persona. His real-life persona (or the one he presents to the press) is polite, reserved, and neutralises interesting subjects with commonplace observation. Firing an Uzi? "It's just pullin' the trigger really."

He has punched people in the past. Lost it. Like Miller. Now though, he slams doors.

"Anger is there within everyone. It's necessary to bring it out if the piece requires it. It's just a matter of plumbing the depths. You can't put things on, you've got to feel them. You can't sit around playing angry or happy, you've got to remember when you were."

He has assassinated Tilda Swinton. He has plundered and burned, and he has torn women's clothes off. He has done all the things we like, respect and expect in an outlaw. It's not his fault that he wears Hugo Boss shirts, smokes Embassy and fails to rob the stagecoach. Matinee Land has bristled with macho myth since Hollywood manufactured it in the Thirties. Clark Gable, the progenitor of the hard man as we know him, had false teeth from the age of 32 and was reputed to be extremely bad in bed.

Bean's power springs from an appreciation of the nature of God's Big Mistake - that celestial balls-up which means beneficence must stand on its own at parties and malevolence is always asked for its autograph.

"I wouldn't want to play the really good guy," he says. "People don't remember him because he's so borin'."

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