He's a bit of rough, a brooding pin-up, and so in demand as an actor, he never
stops working. Christa D'Souza meets Sean Bean, the Yorkshire blade who's
cutting a swathe through Hollywood.
Photographed by Norman Jean Ray.
Smokers are always saying they are going to give up. Sean Bean is no exception.
Today is the day he's vowed never to put another cigarette in his mouth ever
again. But not until after he's finished this interview - heh heh - which is why,
on the unseasonably brisk, grey afternoon in LA, we are huddled outside,
at a table overlooking the not-very-picturesque driveway of the Four Seasons
Hotel. Bean has been in LA for the past five weeks making National Treasure
(an action thriller with Nicolas Cage and Harvey Keitel) and promoting
sword-and-sandal epic Troy (in which Brad Pitt stars as Achilles and Bean as
Odysseus, the wily warrior who thought up the wooden horse idea.)
The 44-year-old often likes to sit out here with a beer and a bite to eat,
indulging in a spot of people watching. Over there, being cantilevered out of
his shiny Roller, is Larry Flynt, the notorious publisher of Hustler magazine
who was paralysed from the waist down after being shot in the stomach.
"I've seen him here a few times," says Bean, green eyes peering flintily
over his coffee cup, fingers crooked securely round a Marlboro Light.
"Can you see? He's got a gold-plated wheelchair." Then, over there,
getting out of a chauffeured limo, is Bean's co-star from The Lord of the Rings,
Sir Ian McKellen, a friend and personal hero ever since Bean saw him play
Macbeth opposite Judi Dench. "Yeah, that's him, I can hear his voice," he says
in his famously pronounced Sheffield accent. "Has he got a cigarette in his
hand? Can you see? I caught him out with one last night, I did!"
Everyone has a favourite Sean Bean character. For some people, it is the
ill-fated Boromir. For others it's the dastardly Alec Trevelyan in the 1995
Bond film Goldeneye. At least a third of London theatre critics think his
debut on the West End stage, as Macbeth, will be what he's remembered
for. Grannies, meanwhile, swooned over the dashing figure of Major Richard
Sharpe in the mid-nineties TV series, Sharpe. Then there are all of us out
there who will forever think of him as Oliver Mellors, the pumping-buttocked
gamekeeper in Ken Russell's Lady Chatterley - a role he played with such
dazzling authenticity, it's hard not to feel somewhat giggly and schoolgirlish
in his presence.
A little shy and awkward in the flesh, and wearing a rather new-looking
leather biker jacket (picked out himself, it transpires, on a recent shopping
expedition to the nearby Beverley Center Mall), Bean is not quite the sex
god one expects him to be. But with those vulpine cheekbones, that classic
"period" jaw that looks like it's hewn from granite, and that "wiry bugger" build,
as his Goldeneye co-star Pierce Brosnan once described it, he is still undeniably
attractive. As Liz Hurley, who starred alongside him in a long-gone episode of
Sharpe, commented, "I thought Sean was incredibly sexy but slightly odd.
We were filming in Russia and he'd call his mum in Sheffield and listen to an
entire football match over the phone. He did look gorgeous in his Sharpe
One can see too, where that dangerous edginess he so exudes on screen
comes from - that unpredictability that makes one feel, as the Gosford Park
screenwriter and Bean's fellow actor on Sharpe, Julian Fellowes, puts it, "that
he's going to jump right off the screen, Purple Rose of Cairo-style." I bet,
for example, that he has a temper. I bet too, he's got his feminine side - a
theory confirmed by his Lady Chatterley co-star, Joely Richardson. "Oh,
there's a whole hinterland of stuff going on there that most people don't
know about," enthuses Richardson later on, over the telephone. "Did you
know, for example, what a great present-giver he was? After filming, most
people give you chocolates of a bottle of wine, but he gave me this really
exquisite white embroidered Chinese print, something I'd be impressed with
if given it by a really good girlfriend. It was one of those leftfield Sean Bean
moments which really blew me away. I'm a terrific, terrific fan." Or as Troy
director Wolfgang Petersen, offers, "I guess it's true what they say in German:
Stille Wasser sind tief [still waters run deep]."
Bean has been living in hotels for over a year now - because of a burst pipe
in the kitchen of his Belsize Park mews house back home, he spent the three
months before coming out here holed up in The Covent Garden Hotel - and
frankly, he's loving it. There is probably many a celeb who loathes the
anonymity of hotels, loathes not being able to fry up and egg on his or her
own stove, but not Bean. Although he misses his three daughters - Lorna and
Molly by the actress Melanie Hill (Aveline in the TV series Bread) and Evie
Natasha by the actress Abigail Cruttenden (with whom he fell in love on the
set of Sharpe, and divorced four years ago), although he misses
watching his beloved Sheffield United play and going down the Belsize
tavern with his mates, he adores the idea of being so assiduously looked
after: having his bed turned down every night, having the papers slipped
under the door, having everyone say, "How are you, this morning, Mr Bean?"
He also, he admits, rather enjoys the freedom of being single after nearly 23
years of marriage, albeit to three different women. (He married his first wife,
Debra, a hairdresser, at 21.) It's nice too, being away from the British tabloids,
who gave him such a hard time after he once let slip that he thought scoring
a goal might be better than sex and that women with babies should stay
at home rather than go out to work; those same tabloids who so went to
town when he and Melanie went through their acrimonious split after 16
years together (according to the News of the World, she couldn't stand his
laddish behaviour any more) and then, extremely soon afterwards,
he married Cruttenden, the privately educated daughter of a solicitor.
But more of this later. First, since it's lunchtime, what about some food?
It's a suggestion Bean welcomes, but not for himself. Having bumped
into his great pal Billy Boyd (one of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings)
in the hotel bar last night, he pulled a bit of late one and has only just
had his breakfast. But seeing as he doesn't have to be anywhere for
another four hours, he might switch from coffee to beer. "It's all right,
you sit there," he says, leaping decorously to his feet. "I'll go find us a
waiter." Then off he momentarily disappears, leaving a faint scent
trail of leather and, unexpectedly, Givenchy Pour Homme in his wake.
Born in Sheffield and brought up in a two-up, two-down council house by his
steel-business-owning father and secretary mother, Shaun Bean (as his
name used to be spelt) never had the slightest aspiration to be an actor (a
profession "that fairies went into" where he came from). If anything, he had
dreams of becoming a boxer of a footballer for Sheffield United (he has 100%
Blade" tattooed on to a sinewy shoulder in their honour, and he now
proudly sits on the team's board of directors). He was also passionate
about drawing, playing the piano (which he used to practice at a neighbour's
house) and David Bowie, spending hours locked away in the bedroom he
shared with his sister Lorraine, miming the words of his favourite album,
Diamond Dogs, into a pretend microphone. Indeed, such a fan was he that
at one stage he streaked his hair red and shaved off his eyebrows. He also
insisted on wearing platforms. "We used to get them from Barnsley market -
three pair for a pound, and then you'd have to sew your own stars on
when you got home."
Although mesmerised as a teen by the films of Richard Harris and Albert
Finney, it wasn't until he was a student at Rotherham College of Arts and
Technology, half-heartedly learning how to become a welder in order to join
his father's business, that he decided he wanted to be an actor. The epiphany
came when he peeped through the window of a drama class going on in the
next room and suddenly realised that he could get just as much of a rush
acting as playing football or boxing or "cat creeping" (jumping over the
hedges of people's gardens), as he used to do with his mates - perhaps
even more. Six months later, he found himself accepted at RADA in a class of
students that included Kenneth Branagh, Janet McTeer and Joely Richardson.
Bean's first big break, arguably, was when the late Derek Jarman cast him
in his cult 1986 film Caravaggio as Ranuccio, the artist's bi-sexual lover. But
it was Stormy Monday, a 1988 thriller set in Newcastle, in which he played
Melanie Griffith's lover, that brought him to the attention of Hollywood.
The film's director, Mike Figgis, remembers him walking in for the casting
and being bowled over by "this total geezer who could also do Shakespeare".
"Of his peer group - Colin Firth, Richard E Grant, James Wilby and so on - he
stood out because he was so obviously non-public school. As well as being
beautiful he also had this immense coolness. I remember sending Melanie
Griffith's agent a photo of him because they had no idea who he was and
soon after getting this slightly hysterical call from Melanie saying, 'I wanna
make a movie with this guy!'"
Since then, apparently, so has everyone else - from Sir Ian McKellen, who
tells me via email how he wishes Boromir hadn't been killed "so that I could
have enjoyed his company right through the year's shoot in New Zealand", to
the theatrical impresario Sonia Friedman (who produced Macbeth) "He's the
most generous-spirited, popular actor I've ever come across," she tells me
over the telephone, "and I don't think I've ever seen a company rally round
an actor like that before." And Wolfgang Petersen, who directed Das Boot
and The Perfect Storm as well as Troy: "Odysseus is as interesting role
because he is forced to straddle enemy lines within his own camp. Sean
pulls it off so effortlessly - it's great to watch him find the edges of his
character and nail him down To work with a professional like this is
just a beautiful thing for a director." See? People just love making movies
with this man.
"He's a bit like Harrison Ford," offers Figgis. "He can convey a whole raft of
emotions with the flicker of an eyelid or the sight flaring of the nostrils,
but it's all totally instinctive as opposed to being intellectually - or as is so
often the case - pseudo-intellectually based. I don't think I've ever heard
him once talk about Stanislavski or method, or whatever," But then Bean
has always been slightly allergic to that whole what's-my-motive shtick.
Slightly defensive, too, about the assumption of some people in the
business that because he is not a man of words, he might not quite
get it if it's not spelt out. "I can take things in quickly," he shrugs, a
small but perceptible flicker of annoyance about his slanty eyes, "I
understand what a director is saying from the word go, and when they
labour the point I just say, like, I do know what you mean, can we get on
to the next thing, please?"
Now on his third beer, Bean is considerably more relaxed than when we first
met. Over the course of the afternoon he has revealed certain details about
himself that suggest he is not at all that unreconstructed ay-oopish
character he likes to present himself as. That, for example, the last
time he was in London he popped down to the South Bank to listen to a
performance of the Brandenburg Concertos; that he always thinks of Oscar
Wilde when he sees all those LA ladies walking around with face-lifts ("Didn't
he say you can never recapture your youth, like with Dorian Gray and all that?")
There are flashes, too, of humour, when he tells of the "blue woolly socks" he
had to talk to while filming The Fellowship of the Ring, or of the trainer he was
given on the set of Troy, and ex-Gladiators champion called Eunice, who would
chirp, "Y'all right, Sean?" (perfect Liverpudlian accent here) every time she
entered his trailer for a session; or of the way he is flown everywhere first
class now ("Yeah, what's it like back there now? Do they play movies and all?").
There's a very visceral anger simmering in there too, especially when he
dwells on the idea of strangers (i.e. tabloid journalists) making judgements
on his private life.
"I just think, leave it. It's a very sensitive subject. I know I'm all right. I k
now the kids are all right, and that's all I'm worried about. I don't hold
myself up as a shining example; I'm just am who I am, like lots of fathers
Like there's this Eminem song with this bit in the background where he's
talking about not being at home when the kids come home from school and
you just think, oh, fucking hell. I mean, I've spent time away from my kids,
I miss them, but they come and visit. We talk, we chat, it's no big deal "
His voice trails away into the ether, an effective but rather maddening way
of closing a subject he's not comfortable discussing any further. But one
senses with Bean that he is not being particularly evasive or pig-headed
here, it's more that he genuinely isn't particularly adept at expressing
exactly what he wants to say. If he's got a script in his hand, no problem,
but in a situation like this, as he himself rather helplessly admits during
one point in the conversation, "I'm not a very good person to talk to, I
suppose, am I?"
Predictably, Bean won't be drawn on his current love life, except to say that
he is not actually in love. "No. no, I would tell you if there were someone
special," he protests weakly, "but there's not. I mean, I'm taking people out,
but, erm, no, I'm just enjoying meself at the moment." What he will say is
that he is "no scally" when it comes to women or anything else and believes
very strongly that what goes around comes around. "It's like this little
quotation alongside what the weather's going to be like on a card the hotel
always put on your bed before they turn it down for the night - I don't know
who said it, I think it's Samuel Johnson - but it goes something like: 'The
true measure of a man is how he treats somebody who can do him absolutely
no good.' That were great, I thought."
Vogue June 2004
(Thanks to Kathryn for typing this and for the scan)
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