Sean Bean turned his back on life as a tough guy
Sean Bean turned his back on life as a tough guy
August 08 2005
Sean Bean is having a day off. Or at least he thought he was until he ended
up doing this interview. But that's the way it's been for the last 18 months
for the former welder who has turned into one of Britain's biggest exports to
Hollywood. In the past five years he's become one of America's most
in-demand actors, starring in one big film after another: Don't Say a Word,
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Troy and National Treasure.
And this summer alone he's got two more coming up: The Island, with Ewan
McGregor, and Flightplan, with Jodie Foster. No wonder he looks knackered.
The 46-year-old is gaunt, and a lot thinner than you might expect. Perhaps
the strain of having worked constantly for almost 18 months is starting to
show or perhaps he is just one of those stars who looks much better
on-screen than off. Today he is wearing an old, faded T-shirt, a pair of jeans
that are not so much distressed as crying out to be put out of their misery,
and a pair of trainers. This was supposed to have been a break of a few days
at home in London before heading back to work (Toronto, this time, to finish
a leading role in Silent Hill, a big-screen adaptation of the hit computer
As he ushers me in to a hotel suite that has been rented for the afternoon,
he is amiable but a little ill at ease. It can't be the surroundings making him
uncomfortable after all, he should be used to London hotels, having lived in
one for three months last year when a burst pipe flooded his Belsize Park
home. It's probably more to do with the fact that he's here at all: Sean Bean
gives the impression that if offered the choice of being interviewed or
smeared with honey and staked over an ant hill, he'd have to have a good
long think about the options.
Still, he's nothing if not professional. He settles back on the sofa, orders
some coffee and starts to chat amiably about how busy he's been. "It's why
you become an actor to do all the parts," he explains. "When you're working
you want a break and then when you have a break you want to work. It's a
bit like school, really," he says, and laughs.
The other problem for any actor, of course, is that if you take too long a
break then audiences have a nasty habit of forgetting who you are. The
maxim that the show must go on has a lot less to do with professional duty
than the possibility that your replacement might be a better actor. Bean's
agent frequently frets about this, the actor admits, and often half-jokes that
he might disappear if he stays away too long. Living in London, Bean is
already half-invisible as far as the Hollywood social whirl is concerned but
he thinks he might have to call his agent's bluff.
"You need to have a break now and then," he says running his hands through
his shock of sandy hair. "When I finish this next one [Silent Hill] I'm going to
have a couple of months off and just be at home. I've been away from home
for such a long time. Six months for Troy that was a long one and straight
from that to National Treasure, and that took me until Christmas so I was
almost a year away. I was home for two weeks at Christmas and then back
again. It's great that you're doing things you're interested in it's exciting,
you're travelling but it's nice to recharge the batteries and not think about
It's a stiflingly warm day, and there is a hint of fatigue in his voice as he
struggles to make himself heard above the roar of the traffic from the main
road outside. As he thinks more about his workload, Bean confesses that
lately he has been finding it hard to relax. Whenever he finds himself doing
nothing he convinces himself he ought to be doing something, and it takes
him a while to wind down. Also, an actor's work is not finished when the
cameras stop rolling for the day. Given the frantic nature of most productions,
not to mention the constant script changes, there are always new lines to be
memorised for the next day as well as costume fittings, make-up tests and
dozens of other things that can eat into your time.
"It's difficult," he says, his accent becoming more and more broadly Sheffield
with every word. "You have a big week and you're filming every day and in
every scene it takes quite a while to wind down. It's easier when you have a
week where they only want you for two days of opening a car door and
saying, 'Hi'. I think my dialogue's gone up a bit too." He laughs ruefully at the
side effect of higher billing. "I can't have it both ways, can I? There's only so
long you can play the silent type standing in the background. GoldenEye was
good for that," he smiles. "I was the villain: James Bond was doing all the
heavy lifting. I liked that."
Although Bean has an appetite for work, it came to him only in later life. At
school in Sheffield in the sixties and seventies, he says, he was an indifferent
student: afterwards he drifted into art college, but his stint there was
There wasn't much available in career terms in the Sheffield of the late
seventies, but Bean was lucky: his dad was a welder and had his own firm,
so he was taken on as an apprentice. Yet as he stood there learning a trade
amid the showers of sparks and acrid smoke, his heart still wasn't really in it.
"At the time I was interested in music, and I was into punk and new wave
and David Bowie and also literature," he recalls. "At art college I started to
do music, and then painting and drawing and that would have been my
ideal life, to be an artist and be paid for it, to be able to create stuff. I
realised it was difficult, but I don't know if I had the application for it. I
mean, I went to college but I didn't really apply myself in terms of the form,
the lighting, and all that. I went and drew what I wanted. That put me in a
situation where I knew I wanted to do something different, and I think the
combination of music and literature and art that I found in performing
encapsulated all that. It combined all those themes in one and I felt very
There was, he insists, no Billy Elliot moment. He wasn't a welder one minute
and an actor the next. It was a slow process, the gradual stirring of a
long-hidden desire but the time came when he knew he would have to put
down the welding mask and head for the bright lights. "I did about three
years of a four-year apprentice course as a welder, and I had a good time,"
he says. "There were some good guys working there I learned to grow up
around people and get on with people, and I enjoyed working. I was a
fabricator, an apprentice plater. I did quite a bit of it and I had some good
teachers, but I just wasn't quite suited to that." He chuckles. "I can still
weld, though. It might come in handy some day."
Although he makes light of it now, turning his back on the job could not have
been an easy decision and not just because he faced an uncertain future.
After all, Bean appears to be as bluff a Yorkshireman as they come. He likes
his pint, his women, and his football (perhaps the world's most famous
Sheffield United fan, he sports a club tattoo on his shoulder). His was not a
world in which it was particularly easy to come out as an actor especially
not a would-be actor.
Bean shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "There was resentment to some extent
that thing about being a bit of a pansy, you know?" He laughs nervously
and drops his eyes. "It's just not what happened at that time. Sheffield and
the outlying areas were industrial, and you went into one trade or another
like mining or the steelworks or manufacturing. Not everybody, of course
there were others who wanted to explore different things but that was the
generality. You left school at 16 and went to get a job. You wanted money in
your pocket to try to be independent. I had a lot of friends who were builders
and plasterers and tradesmen and I still have." He laughs. "We've become
friends again." In some ways, you suspect, the esteem of former workmates
matters more to him than how high his name might appear on a movie poster.
"So it [acting] just wasn't what you did," he continues. "I didn't explain it to
anyone because I knew what I wanted to do but it did raise a few
eyebrows, including me mam and dad, especially because it was my dad's
firm I was working for. There was a certain time when he was dubious and
sceptical, but at the same time he and my mum wanted me to achieve what
I wanted to do, so there were definitely mixed feelings."
As the father of three daughters 17-year-old Lorna and 13-year-old Molly,
whose mother is the actress Melanie Hill (they divorced in 1997), and
six-year-old Evie, whose mother is the actress Abigail Cruttenden (they
divorced in 2000) Bean can now better understand how his own parents felt
at the time. He can also relate to their feelings of relief that his career has
turned out as it has. They have seen his work and are naturally proud after
all, what father wouldn't be thrilled to have his son knock seven bells out of
"I go to see my kids in school plays," says Bean, trying to articulate his own
parents' emotions. "I watched Lorna in a concert at the Westminster College
of Music the other day and it was amazing. I felt very proud and surprised.
I don't know why I was surprised, because I've known her for 17 years, but
I've never seen her do anything like that in front of an audience. It's brave,
Despite his parents' misgivings, Bean was determined to follow his heart.
Once he got to London and spent two and a half years at Rada, the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Art, he knew he had made the right decision. But he is
offhand about his time there "I had a great time and I learned a lot"
making it sound as though you can simply walk in off the street. In fact, Rada
takes only about two dozen hopefuls every year out of some 3,000 applicants.
For someone like Bean, with no formal training to speak of, gaining a place
there is a remarkable achievement, and a tribute to his raw talent,
commitment and enthusiasm for his craft. And in a way that's what's easy to
forget about him. Whether he's a baddie in Bond, a bit of rough in Lady
Chatterley's Lover or a dashing soldier in the TV series Sharpe, he is an
exceptionally good actor.
He's a big star now but he looks back on his early days with a wistful
fondness that suggests he wouldn't mind exchanging the responsibilities of
his current status for the carefree days of his youth. Days such as those he
spent at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow where he was billed as Shaun Bean
(his given name the visually alliterative spelling came later). There is
genuine warmth in his voice as he recalls his earliest days as a professional
"I enjoyed my time there. I worked with a lot of good actors Ciaran Hinds,
Gary Oldman, Lorcan Cranitch. It was about 1983 or 1984, and it was a hot
summer in the Gorbals. They had a great green room with a pool table, a bar
and a little telly. You'd go in even if you weren't working it was like a youth
club with beer on tap.
"I haven't been up there for a while, but I have great memories of working
with Giles Havergal [the former artistic director of the Citizens']. It was very
off the wall and exciting. In theatre, once you've got the character and you've
got things together, you can relax into it. Film has a different feel you don't
get that through line of not stopping. Theatre is like a snowball gathering
momentum and getting bigger, whereas in film it's a bit stop and start but
you do tend to adjust to that quite easily. In a big show, like Bond or Lord of
the Rings where they take two or three hours to set up a shot, you sit around
and read or something, and then switch on again when required. But of
course if anyone cocks up, that's it." He shakes his head. "I was watching
Goodfellas the other night and there's that tracking shot that goes on and on
and you can imagine the fear of some small character cocking it up."
It was this grounding, first in the Gorbals and then, in the 1990s, on Sharpe
a five-year series of ITV dramas about a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars
that led Bean to his current status as Hollywood's villain of choice. Whether
he's terrorising Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye, pursuing Brittany Murphy and
Michael Douglas in Don't Say a Word, or trapping Nicolas Cage in a ship full
of high explosives in National Treasure, Bean is the man the studios go to
when they want major villainy. Actors will tell you that any good-looking fool
can be the hero, but it takes real skill to play a villain.
"That's the thing about Brits they have the grounding in the classics and
theatre," says Bean. "That's why we're good. We go to America and people
respect that because we've been through the theatre, we've made discoveries
and also made our mistakes there, and that's a wonderful environment to be
in. By the time you start to make television and films you've got some
experience behind you, an anchor. All those things, when you put them
together, give you a certain amount of confidence and a certain belief in
yourself, and the ability to adapt and change to some of the different roles
you play. You need to be a good actor to play a villain, and we're always
getting cast as villains because we play them well."
Bean says he took the roles in Lord of the Rings (as the warrior Boromir) and
Troy (as the hero Odysseus) to prevent him being seen as nothing other than
a killer, but he also accepts that playing the villain has got him where he is
today. He may grumble about having more dialogue, but the roles are getting
more interesting particularly the part he is playing in The Island.
Directed by Michael "Pearl Harbor" Bay, The Island is a science-fiction thriller
about a futuristic closed community where the inhabitants believe they are
the only survivors of some unnamed catastrophe that has destroyed society.
What they don't know is that they are actually clones of people in the real
world, and their purpose is to be harvested for organs. When two characters,
played by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, discover what is going on,
they decide to break out from the island and confront the authorities. Bean
plays Merrick, the scientist who runs the institution where the clones are
grown. Naturally, he's the bad guy although Bean is at pains to point out
that things aren't quite that simple.
"I suppose you could call him the villain," he concedes, "but he's a very
intelligent guy and wants to further science and help humanity by creating a
different world. He's quite sinister in some aspects, but it depends how you
feel about that subject, cloning how you feel about it morally. He believes
completely in what he's doing and he believes he's advancing the cause of
science. He has this massive complex and it's a big business with the
government involved and he has clients who are paying large amounts of
money for these 'agnates', as they call them.
"But I think he also believes he's doing good. He gives lectures where he
talks about setting up children's wards and curing cancer, and if you look at
it from his point of view then he's trying to eradicate these fatal diseases
and rid us of these horrors once and for all."
As the father of three daughters, Bean admits that The Island did force him
to take a view. The issue of cloning, he admits, is something that gives him
pause for thought as does so much other modern technology. When he was
a child, he recalls, the biggest scientific advance was the introduction of
BBC2 "Wow, suddenly we have three channels" which was hardly going
to have a serious impact on the future of mankind. Now he has a six-year-old
and he has to wonder what the world has in store for her.
"Where does it end?" he asks. "It makes you wonder what you would do if
you had a child and she was fatally ill or there was an emergency and she
needed a new heart or liver or lungs. What would you do in that situation?
Would you take the life of someone else for the life of your child?" He thinks
for a long moment. "It's difficult, isn't it? What would I do? What would they
want? When you ask yourself if you have the chance to live for much longer
because of the spare parts, would you do it? I don't think I would, but it's up
to the individual. I just get the feeling that you never know how it was going
to end if people lived forever, how would that effect the population?"
To be frank, cloning might suit Sean Bean. If he had his own clone then he
could do all those films and still get the chance to enjoy that holiday he
keeps trying to have. The problem is he keeps on getting offered all these
interesting films. How, for instance, could you turn down the chance to work
with Jodie Foster? They star together later this year in Flightplan, which
sounds like it might well be an intriguing thriller.
"I'm the captain of one of these giant new planes, and 90 per cent of it
takes place on board," explains Bean. "We were just filming in one place
every day the whole crew inside a plane every day and it's quite laborious
having to change round for every shot and working in such a tight space. But
when you see it it looks great.
"The idea is that Jodie Foster is with her child and she's going back to New
York from Germany with her husband's body. She loses her child on a plane,
and you think, 'How can that happen?' There's no record of her having
brought a child onto the plane, and the captain is left wondering about
whether she's telling the truth. You never really know if she's telling the
truth or not."
I confess that when I saw the trailer for Flightplan I immediately had Sean
Bean pegged as the kidnapper. "Yes, most people think that," he says with