Sean Bean, the Sheffield welder turned actor, is careful not to sever his roots
Interview by Grace Bradberry
Jan 2, 1999
Sean Bean, the Sheffield welder turned actor, is careful not to sever his roots. Interview by Grace Bradberry
"I think I've been misunderstood," says Bean. "I might have misled people. A lot of what I say is tongue-in-cheek but some people actually believe it, which is worrying"
Photograph: PETER NICHOLS
'I'm not desperate to be a superstar'
He is arguably one of Britain's sexiest actors, makes a fine villain and has the nation's best-known bottom. His face is unusual but attractive: slitty-eyed, roughened, but with a fine bone structure supporting cheeks that look somehow well worn - as if they've been punched and kissed in equal measure.
Waiting to meet Sean Bean, you can't help but have expectations, many of them prompted by his performance as Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover. When I saw him, even at 20 yards, he was something different: sitting hunched in a leather jacket on designer furniture at the swanky One Aldwych, a bit awkward, as though minding his manners. Then there was that unruly, spiky smile, the sort that American dental surgeons would "fix".
Bean is famous for being unreconstructed. He has long worn his upbringing on a Sheffield council estate like a bulletproof vest; a working-class chauvinist whose second marriage fell apart because, according to his former wife Melanie Hill (Aveline in Bread), he watched too much football, spent too long in the pub and let his clothes lie where they fell; a man given to disparaging comparisons between his mother's and his wife's Yorkshire puddings.
"Yeah?" he says at the mention of the Yorkshire puddings, and narrows his eyes. I wonder if he's about to lose it - he is also known for his temper - but he softens. "I think I've been misunderstood," he says. "I might have misled people. A lot of what I say is tongue-in-cheek. Some people actually believe it, which is quite worrying."
It is easy to patronise Bean, and plenty have done. He has chosen to keep the regional accent, which makes him different given that so many actors prefer to bury theirs. "I could lose it," he says, "but I think, why lose something as good as that?" He'll come out with clichés and homilies: "You've just got to keep your feet on the ground." But to get stuck at that is to miss the broader Bean.
He is surprisingly sensitive, introspective, and there's an interior dialogue that is articulated through intonation, furrowing of the brow and half-snarls rather than words. The deal that has been struck in advance is that there will be no questions about his private life, but it becomes clear that this won't work because he doesn't seem to have developed a public life.
He talks about filming Bravo Two Zero, his latest television drama, in which he plays the SAS soldier Andy McNab, captured and tortured by the Iraqis during the Gulf War. Spending months in the desert with "a bunch of lads" helped with the portrayal of a tightly knit SAS team, he says, "except that we were going home to the hotel every night having beers. Ha ha ha."
So who are "the lads" back in London? He conjures up one friend, a writer, with whom he occasionally drinks in the West End, "but we don't make a thing of it". Fashionable London life is not his thing either. Finally he says: "My wife Abby, she's got a baby of four weeks. So I mean we're not really going to that many parties at the moment." Abby is Abigail Cruttenden, his third wife, the privately educated daughter of an advertising executive, whom he met filming Sharpe. They married just over a year ago and live in Belsize Park, North London. Evie Natasha is his third daughter. His two older daughters, Lorna and Molly, live with their mother, Melanie Hill, whom he met at RADA and stayed with for 16 years, although they were married only for the last six. She threw him out. It has been a stormy two years. In his own words: "I've got divorced, married, had a baby and moved house. That's enough for me."
Overall, his marriage record isn't as bad as it sounds. He was only 20 when he married his first wife, a hairdresser, just before going to drama school. She speaks warmly about him and still pops round to his mother's for cups of tea.
The drubbing he got when he and Hill separated is not something we talk about but sometimes he seems to be addressing it indirectly, as when he talks resentfully of being portrayed as "this mad, sort of fanatical, sort of laddish football fan, and even if you wanted to be like that, you couldn't be".
He says he doesn't get to see Sheffield United play so much any more: "There's other things in my life as well." Living a middle-class existence in London, spending months on film sets, shooting Hollywood movies with the likes of Melanie Griffith (Stormy Monday), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games) and Robert De Niro (Ronin), he can't help but change.
Bean worries about that, even as he wants it to be acknowledged. "I don't like being clichéd, one of the lads, northern. It diminishes what you are to some extent ." But he has been careful not to sever his roots, and at 39 still drives to Sheffield to see old friends. "Of course I'm an actor; they're plumbers, welders and carpenters. There is a distinction. But we're friends."
Bean left his Sheffield comprehensive with two O levels, an awareness that he was attractive to girls and a bit of skill at playground brawls - "a kickaround and a thump, you know what I mean?" He worked briefly for his father as a welder before going to art school. He tried three different colleges, and at the third discovered the drama department.
"My family were bemused. I said, 'I'm going to be an actor.' I think they thought, 'Well, he wanted to be in a band last week, he wanted to be an artist the week before'. When I got into RADA they were supportive."
He describes the acceptance letter as "like a ticket to another life", which is odd when he hangs on to the old life so carefully. He nods. "That's right. I think occasionally, maybe, that the downside of a close community is that you can't sometimes function as an individual. You have to break away into a situation where you don't feel inhibited. "The strange thing is that it's come full cycle because then you go through all that, but you have to come back. It wasn't a matter of saying goodbye, I don't want anything to do with you. It was just bye for now. You learn a lot, you come back and you learn a lot more."
Bean's attachment to his roots isn't a stubborn, moral stance; it's about nurturing his acting talent, which is considerable. "I think I'm pretty good," he acknowledges. "But I've tried not to let it go to my head. You can cut off what you set out to do in the first place, which was to play ordinary people. I hope I haven't done that anyway."
It is hard getting Sean Bean to lighten up. He devotes most of his energy to keeping the barrier in place. You get the impression he both likes women and derives quite a lot of humour from them but that he is scared of expressing this.
"I'd hate to think of myself as entrenched in my male beliefs," he says. "I'd like to think that I'd change to the people that are around, the people that I'm with. Not be a yes man, but adapt." Above all, he doesn't want to seem grand. He won't go to premieres except his own, and although he has made several movies he isn't a movie star. Wouldn't moving to Hollywood fuel his career? "It's difficult with America because I've got my family here," he says. "I've never really capitalised on the success I've had there - which I should have done - but I have no regrets. I don't want to be massive. It's nice to do great work, but I'm not desperate to be some superstar."
We talk about privacy. Isn't it tough when people know so much more about him than he does about them? "Well, if people recognise me I don't go 'What are you looking at me for?' Nine times out of ten they have seen me before."
All of him. And there are plenty of nice bits, besides the bottom.
Bravo Two Zero is screened in two parts
on BBC1 on Sunday, January 3, and Monday, January 4. The video
was released on BBC Worldwide on December 28.