Northern Exposure

The Times
10 May 1997

Rachael Campbell-Johnston.

You can take the actor out of Yorkshire, but you can't take the Yorkshire out of Sean Bean, whether he's playing the lustful gamekeeper or the dashing Russian count, Rachael Campbell-Johnston discovers.

THE NEW PRODUCTION of Anna Karenina is the first Western film to be shot entirely in post-Soviet Russia. It flaunts its privilege, romancing the Romanov past as assiduously as a courtier currying favour with Catherine the Great. Imperial St Petersburg laps up the flattery. Scene after sumptuous scene, the story unfurls: ice, snow and steam, tapestries and troikas, icons and incense, samovars and serfs.

"What was it like?" I ask Sean Bean. "What was it like to live in St Petersburg?" (He was there for six months during the filming.) Bean chooses his answer slowly. " were nice," he eventually ventures. "It were quite flat." Evidently he is not a man for superlatives.

But it is the superlative which has been lavished on Bean. The "sexiest man in cinema", he has been called, "Britain's hottest heart-throb". His looks cross Casanova with a cougar. Casting directors have seized on this. In Ken Russell's TV version of Lady Chatterley's Lover he played the lusty gamekeeper, Mellors - "Eh, we came off together that time m'lady." He was Lovelace, the philanderer in Clarissa, and continues to attract audiences as Major Sharpe in the on-going television series. In the latest Bond movie, Goldeneye, he played the acid Alex Trevelyan, rogue agent 006, to Pierce Brosnan's anaemic James Bond. Now, in Bernard Rose's Anna Karenina, he takes the part of the lovelorn Count Vronsky - a cavalry charge of passion reined in with gold braid.

Yet when Sean Bean wanders out on to the sunny patio of a mock-Tudor country club where I am waiting to meet him, he looks about as intimidating as a tortoise on a lettuce hunt. He is less tall, less rough-hewn, less gritty-jawed and craggy-cheekboned than he looks on film. His fair hair is soft and he has a sweetly cautious smile.

Bean enjoys incongruity in his understated way. The country club was his choice of venue. "I were made an honorary member of this place, the same day as I were made an honorary member of a Sheffield men's working club," he tells me. "I thought that were quite good."

Bean's accent is very broad. "It gets much stronger when I go home," he assures me. "I like that." But is it a hindrance to his acting career? Although he can chink his consonants against cut-glass vowels as well as any actor when he needs to, producer Barbara Broccoli apparently declared with some reluctance that he would never be able to play 007. After all, it wouldn't do for Ian Fleming's slick-tongued hero to arrive at a premiere and inform the world's press that he "were reet chuffed" to get the part. Bean has no regrets. "An accent is something really to be cherished," he says. "It defines who you are and where you come from, and you're proud of that."

Where he comes from could scarcely be more different from the prim suburb of Totteridge where he now lives. Sitting on the patio of the country club, just round the corner from his house, he slouches slightly in his plastic chair. A bright umbrella casts jolly tints across his jaw. Primulas bloom in ornamental wheelbarrows and a plaster rabbit peeps from behind the pots. I can't help thinking that he would be more at home in the working men's club than here. He heaps spoons of sugar into his coffee and as he sips he has a distinctive way of lifting his lower jaw to meet his upper one, as though he were smacking his lips over a pint of Theakston's.

Bean is indelibly stamped with the Sheffield hallmark. On his left bicep a tattoo pledges his devotion to Sheffield United FC. It reads "100% Blades", the nickname of the club. It played a cameo role in Patriot Games, but in Lady Chatterley had to be coyly concealed by fronds of fern - although almost every other body part was bared.

Bean is known for his love of football. "Ever since I were a child I would go to the matches with me box, me rattle, me scarves tied round me wrist." He is rumoured to have postponed his honeymoon to watch his team play, and he once famously declared that to score a goal for United would be far better than sex. Playing a brewery worker turned professional footie player in When Saturday Comes was one of the highlights of his career. He was filmed taking a penalty at Bramhall Lane.

But now Bean suggests too much has been made of his fervour for football. "All this business about Sheffield and things..." he says. "I mean, it would be a great thing to score for United. But I don't go around every day talking about football. It's mostly a way of breaking the ice. Anyway, I'm too old to play... except goalie, perhaps. But I suppose I'll always be a supporter," he adds, sounding for a moment like some ageing philanderer resigned to the fact that his bird has taken off with a younger man.

Bean was brought up in a semi-detached house on a council estate in Handsworth, where his parents still live. "Me dad were a welder," he says. "He built up his own business in fabrication. I were proud of 'im for that." He clings to the values of the working-class lad made good. "One of the things that really annoys me," he says, "is what the press say about the value of me 'ouse. It keeps being quoted as being Pounds 500,000. But it's worth more like Pounds 1.5 million. I'd like to put that straight."

At school he was not academic: "I just wanted to have a good time and a laugh." By all accounts he was something of a tearaway, the sort of schoolroom rebel who scrapped with his mates over girls, then made up with them afterwards over a quick fag behind the bike sheds. He still smokes a steady succession of Silk Cuts.

He left school at 16 with two O levels, one in English, one in art, and drifted from job to job. He shovelled snow for the council for a while and worked for a couple of years with his father as a welder. "Me dad wanted me to take over the business," Bean says, "but I didn't think I were cut out for it... know what I mean? I always wanted to do something special. I were a bit different, though I don't want to sound pompous..." There is little chance of that.

Because he had been "quite good" at painting, he decided to go to art school. He tried three different colleges. One of them he left after lunchtime, the next he left after a week, but at the third, Rotherham, he discovered the drama department and stayed. "I suppose me friends thought I were a bit of a weirdo at the time. They thought actors were people who wore tights and that. It's much more acceptable now; things are geared towards entertainment. I don't want to sound like an old man or anything, but things have changed a lot."

Bean passed his audition to Rada in 1981 - "I didn't even know there were other acting schools. I thought Rada were the only one" - and went to live in London. By then he had married his teenage sweetheart, Deborah. They had hoped marriage would keep the relationship together, but with Bean living in London and his wife working in Sheffield, they gradually drifted apart, without acrimony.

Bean later married again, to Melanie Hill - who used to play the character Aveline in Bread - and they had two children. But Bean is affronted when I mention his separation from his wife last year. "I try to make it a policy not to talk about my private life any more," he says quietly. "I'm entitled to a bit of privacy. A bit of respect - know what I mean?" Bean's first important role was Romeo in an RSC production of Romeo and Juliet. Gaggles of schoolgirls screamed at the stage-door. "I suppose that were when I realised I were quite attractive," he reluctantly concedes. "I mean it's difficult for me to comment on my looks. I've been like I am for 37 years. I don't look in the mirror and think there's a handsome bloke. I just want to check that I'm presentable, like."

Since then, Bean has been typecast as a sex symbol. What does he think about that? "Oh, it's OK... I mean, er, it's a bit difficult, know what I mean? Labels are attached to you. At least it's not derogatory. At least they don't say I'm an ugly twat."

But what about the sex scenes, which he has a reputation for taking with some relish? Anyone who saw him play the part of the priapic Mellors is probably more familiar with the contours of his buttocks than they are with their own. Indeed, he was voted "Rear of the Year" - retitled, apparently, "Asshole of the Year" by his mates. "Nude scenes... errrm, they're not easy, but they are necessary, I s'pose. It serves a purpose."

I say he is nothing if not pragmatic. "What does that mean?" he asks. "I used to know." He came to learning late, he says, although he now reads voraciously - "mostly film scripts, but I like novels best. I'm interested in history too, but I'm not a buff or anything. I probably don't know a great deal."

"By pragmatic," I explain, "I mean down to earth, practical." "Oh, yeah," he says. "Well, I am that. The most important thing about this game is to hold on to the actual process of working, of acting itself. I think if you hold on to that, it's a great leveller and that keeps your feet on the ground. You go off on all sorts of circles and tangents if you start messing around."

His greatest fear, he says, is of introspection - or, as he puts it, "getting bogged down looking inside meself too much". Not for Bean the classical actor's dream to play the introverted Dane. "If I could play any part, it would be Macbeth - in a film. He's passionate and upfront."

And what are Bean's passions? "Passions?" he asks, looking surprised. "I get passionate about lots of things. I can get passionate about painting the bedroom in me 'ouse." Perhaps I look a little unconvinced. "I used to blow and lose me temper a lot," he goes on, "but I don't do that now. I've become more reasonable. I still quite like doing the fights and that in films. On stage you can play a character, thumping everybody. But in life it's not acceptable, and quite rightly so." Bean may have been cast in the role of the svelte villain, the moody malingerer, but right now his only vice seems to be biting his nails. "I were pleased when I were asked to Vronksy," he says. "It were good to play a decent man, for once."

Decency. This is exactly the sort of sound, understated, working-class value that Bean seems to aim for. Not for him the cut-throat confusion, glitz and glamour of the showbiz world. "In me spare time I like doing the garden," he says. "I go to the pub a couple of times a week for a few pints, I like watching TV and having a take-away perhaps." Bean may think that he doesn't know a lot, but he knows who he is, and, like a true Yorkshireman, he knows what he likes. "I'm still Sean that me mates went to school with and have known over the years... not Sean the film star. And that's the way I prefer to be. I like that."

Anna Karenina opens nationwide on May 23

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