BEAN THERE, DONE THAT
by Neil Norman
Sean Bean doesn't come out to play with the press much. Despite his being a card-carrying Brit movie star who commands extraordinary fidelity among his legions of female fans, he doesn't give a lot of interviews. He's been hyped as the strong, silent type, an unreconstructed male with roots of Sheffield steel and a no-nonsense attitude to work, women and football.
This is the guy who has '100% Blade' tattooed on his shoulder in honour of his football team, Sheffield United; the man who has been quoted as saying that a woman's place is at home in the kitchen (barefoot and pregnant) while the man goes out to work. He's a 21st-century Hunter/Gatherer, a Bloke of Blokes, a Northern Lad as opposed to a Southern Geezer. A thrice-married rogue and a scallywag with the ladies. He's certainly everybody's favourite bit of rough on screen - Mellors in Lady Chatterley, the archetypal James Bond villain, Sharpe, the hero of the Napoleonic Wars.
Some have suggested that he may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but this is a cheap shot. The trouble is - due largely to his own reticence - very few people have actually talked to him at any great length.
One thing is 100 per cent certain: he doesn't play the showbiz game. One gets the impression he would rather sit in a fridge and stick lollysticks in his eyes than sit down and talk to a journalist. This is something he is trying to change. 'I haven't courted publicity in the past,' he says. 'I suppose you could put it down to a natural reticence. The more you put yourself in the spotlight, the more you get examined. Not that I've got anything to be ashamed of. I'm not really putting myself on chat shows just to raise my profile. I find it a little strange talking about myself all the time. I'm getting better at it because now it's so much a part of the job.'
Acting is a job for Bean, but it's not just any job. It's The Job, and he treats it with respect. He's done a number of other, lesser jobs in the past - he's been an apprentice welder, a snow shoveller and a cheese porter in Marks & Spencer - a job that famously lasted one entire morning.
But this job has sent him to some far-flung worlds, from the Ukraine for Sharpe, to Paris for Ronin and most recently, into Middle-earth for Lord of the Rings. Bean plays Boromir, one of the few human characters in Tolkien's fantastical saga of hobbits and orcs, elves and a miscellany of mythical creatures. Was Bean a Tolkien fan before he was cast in the role? 'I read it about 15 or 16 years ago,' he says. 'I've always been interested in mythology, but it is quite a dense read. It's one of those books that you have to keep referring back to in order to find out who's who and who is related to who. But you don't get a great deal from Boromir in the book; [director Peter] Jackson's imagination is quite off-kilter, he brings something quite fresh to the story.'
Lord of the Rings marks a departure for Bean in more ways than one; it is the first time in a career typified by realistic characters (from an IRA terrorist in Patriot Games to SAS man in Bravo Two Zero) that he has played in a full-blown fantasy. The fact that Boromir is not himself a fantastical character clearly helped him with the characterisation. 'He is a valiant warrior,' Bean explains. 'A very practical man whose family has been deteriorating as a result of the war, but he also has a vulnerable quality. It was quite good fun for me playing Boromir because he is a practical man, and you'd see these elves and weird people walking around and you'd think, "F***ing hell, where does he fit in?" That reaction definitely helped with my character.'
Working on a movie involving special effects on a grand scale brought additional problems. Quite apart from the daily chore of having to run from the main set to the second unit and then trot over to an empty space for blue-screen work, Bean's sense of unreality was heightened in other ways. 'There were some funny times,' he recalls with a crooked smile. 'These little guys standing in for Frodo and the hobbits had to wear a blue sock with yellow balls on their faces. The actor's face would then be superimposed on it afterwards. But you'd be talking to a blue sock.'
This is not the sort of thing they warn you about at drama school, I'd imagine. Especially at RADA, where Bean spent three years learning his craft.
Sitting in a photographic studio in jeans, boots and a fairly horrible tan fleece jacket, Bean still looks like a working-class drama student. Now 42, he exhibits few of the pretensions or egocentricities typical of many of his contemporaries. He is a reluctant interviewee, a cautious talker whose reticence appears 100 per cent genuine. He thinks long and hard before answering each question, leading some interrogators to assume that he is inarticulate, even dumb. While it's true that he sometimes shows signs of an unusually unreliable memory (on a recent television appearance he forgot the name of the character he was playing in Lord of the Rings), I suspect this is due more to a vague sense of panic that grips him on such occasions, than to a lack of brain cells. He is simply not used to playing the publicity game and therefore does not have the ready ammunition of soundbites to deliver with glib precision.
Bean grew up in Handsworth, a working-class suburb of Sheffield. His mother was a secretary and his father a steelworker. He left school at 16 with two O levels (Art and English) and a vague idea that he wanted to be an artist, before he drifted into work as an apprentice to his father. In between work and football, playing the piano and guitar, he kept painting, and exhibited his work in a Sheffield art-shop window.
'Drawing or painting was what I really wanted to do. I thought I'd become a commercial artist and then move on. I went to a few art schools but couldn't really hack it. I worked for my dad for about three or four years and then went to technical college in Rotherham where I learned about steel and composites. Right next to it was an art and drama college, and I enrolled on the art course.'
In between lessons, he used to peer through the door of the drama classes, and found himself drawn towards the discipline. After a while, he switched courses from art to drama, and knew he had finally discovered his vocation. 'I felt really secure and comfortable in it. It seemed to combine everything I was interested in from music to art.'
After a year on the drama course he applied to RADA and was accepted. 'I felt like an outsider for about six months, but that was more to do with London than RADA,' he says. 'It was quite a shock to the system. Until then I'd used to come down with me mates for Bowie concerts, then go straight back up.'
Bean was at RADA at exactly the right time for his particular style of acting. Standard English was being taught for classic texts but not at the expense of regional accents. He was encouraged to maintain his Sheffield accent and can now shift gamely between the regions of the United Kingdom, or deliver an acceptable received pronunciation if the occasion demands.
His cites Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Tom Courtenay as role models. 'They were my sort of heroes. And it's come back to that, thank God. Look at Russell Crowe in Gladiator. And I loved Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. These guys are real men and probably politically incorrect, but they were totally the truth. I watched Richard Harris in This Sporting Life and when I worked with him [in The Field] he didn't disappoint me. I used to remember watching these films growing up in Sheffield. They were real to me. Finney shooting that fat woman up the arse with an air rifle in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It was like life. When I went to drama school, these were the images I carried with me.'
Given his rough-hewn machismo and the robustness of his role models, it is supremely ironic that his first movie should have been Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, in which he played the painter's male lover. Bean can laugh at the irony of his situation in retrospect, though he admits to shutting his eyes at the time.
'Yeah, it was quite weird,' he laughs. 'You couldn't make a film with Derek and not feel weird. He was so extraordinary. I was very new to the business and my first film was with Derek Jarman - a real artist making a film about a real artist. He just let you do what you want. I went to meet him in his flat in Charing Cross Road and he asked me about my home life and football and stuff like that. He was interested in the reality of my background in Sheffield. I was playing Caravaggio's loverÉ but I didn't really think about that too much. I just wanted to work with great people and he was a great person.'
Bean's defining moment came in 1992 when he was cast as the Peninsular War hero Richard Sharpe, after first choice Paul McGann suffered a leg injury and had to drop out. Flukes don't get much luckier and Bean took the opportunity and the role and bent it to his will. The result was a hugely popular historical swashbuckling telly drama that lasted for five seasons.
'There's still talk about a feature film,' he says with caution. 'I love the Napoleonic Wars. I remember having a big board and spraying it green and putting little trees and Airfix men on to make massive armies to play with. The Battle of Waterloo capped the series but we could go back a bit. There is plenty of material to explore.'
There are stories about Bean's past - including a punch-up for which he was fined £50 for actual bodily harm, and a somewhat unreconstructed way with women - but no real scandals. He has been married three times and has three daughters, two by his second wife Melanie Hill and one by his third, Abigail Cruttenden, from whom he is now divorced.
At the time of his break-up with Hill, in particular, Bean came under some heavy flak for his attitude to women. Does he have any regrets about that? 'It was crazy, really,' he says, fidgeting slightly. 'It was blown out of all proportion. Then again you should be able to say what you feel. You have to be yourself and say what you are and I'd rather take that risk than pander to people.'
He maintains a complicated but solid relationship with his daughters, in spite of the fact that he is away from home a lot. 'It's a matter of time. When you do have the time at home, you have to make it as good as possible. My family and my kids understand that. I think it's important to keep a strong link. You might spend three months away but then you follow it with three months at home, so it balances out.'
Given the fact that he has maintained his status as a British heart-throb and yet is clearly a bloke who likes family life with all that it entails, I wonder whether he might marry again. He pauses, lights a cigarette, fidgets some more.
'At the present moment in time, no,' he eventually says. 'But I wouldn't say I'd never get married again. I could, yeah. I don't look back on those experiences with any bitterness. I think of the good times.'
A positive attitude to life. A solid career. And the admiration of thousands of women. A working-class hero is something to be.