'I'VE ALWAYS FELT LIKE AN OUTSIDER.'
With three marriages behind him and an enviable spot on Hollywood's hot list, it's hard to believe Sean Bean still hasn't found what he's looking for. But maybe that's the way he wants it. By Harvey Marcus. Photographs by Jillian Edelstein.
Surely, there's rarely been an occasion when Sean Bean's acting talent has been more appreciated. It's close to midnight on a Friday and we're both sat slouched, a little worse for wear, in the now empty Welcome Chinese restaurant in Hampstead, north London. We don't know whether we want to go home or go on, but we both know it's time to leave. A bottle of sake stands upside down in a silver bucket. The restaurant's owner, the one remaining waitress and a tank full of oversized goldfish watch on as Bean starts talking into his mobile and delivers one of his finest performances to date. For me, it was the point in a long evening when I finally got to know what the 46-year-old actor was all about.
Four hours earlier, and I'm sat in his local pub, calling the mobile number I'd been given by his publicist in case of an emergency, thinking about that advert he does ('O2. See what you can do') and all I'm getting is voicemail - not even those slightly menacing, south Yorkshire vowels that seduce and threaten at the same time, but a pre-recorded message. On a different network. He's already an hour late.
We'd met a few weeks earlier, at the European premiere for 'The Island'. Bean had stood onstage at the Odeon in Leicester Square, seeming awkward and uncomfortable beside his co-stars, Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. Later that evening, at the aftershow party, he was with his daughter, Molly. (He has three daughters: Lorna, 18, and Molly, 14, by actress Melanie Hill of 'Bread' fame; and Evie, seven, by Abigail Cruttenden, who played Bean's wife in 'Sharpe'. His first marriage, to his Sheffield sweetheart, ended soon after he moved to London.)
Bean had refused to smoke in front of Molly, and didn't seem to relax until she'd gone to bed - then he talked about football and how he liked the song 'West End Girls' by the Pet Shop Boys, and was amused when the skin-hugging, black-rubber fetish dress worn by his new girlfriend, 27-year-old actress Georgina Sutcliffe, began to rip and ride towards her thigh as a result of her exertions on the dancefloor. [Editorial comment: Hmm, classy.]
The next time I see him is at the 'Marie Claire' photo shoot. He's professional and accomodating, if a little uneasy at the photographer's suggestion that he jump, fully clothed, into the pool. In some ways, Bean's sense of self-awareness and diffidence seems more appropriate to a younger man. But then he'll tell you that, afterwards, he has a lunch date with his hero, Peter O'Toole, who he met on the set of 'Troy', and you're reminded that this is an actor whose TV and film career has spanned more than two decades - from the rumpy-pumpy of 'Lady Chatterly' and 'Sharpe', through 'GoldenEye', Boromir in 'The Lord of the Rings', and now a string of upcoming movies, including lead roles beside Jodie Foster in 'Flightplan' and Charlize Theron in 'North Country'.
He is, in case you hadn't noticed, in case he didn't want you to notice, a Rada-trained actor, who's both in demand in Hollywood and one of this country's highest-paid movie earners. He's wary of the press prying into his private life, which is why, as I'm sat in his local listening to his voicemail, I fear he's decided to give our interview a miss.
But when he eventually arrives wearing a baseball cap (which patently hinders his intention of remaining anonymous), he's full of apologies. He'd been out the previous night, watching Georgina gain plaudits in her new play, he'd had a few and, this afternoon/evening, while I was leaving messages, Bean was sound asleep around the corner, on his settee.
With a Guinness and a blackcurrant in his hand and a Gauloise cigarette in his mouth, he says, "Yeah. Georgina, yeah. She were good. First nights are always on a Thursday, aren't they? I went for a few drinks and that, and I . . ." He's speaking exactly how you imagine him to speak - a voice dragged across cobbled streets in Sheffield which probably don't exist anymore - and he's always polite, but he's also always in control. "Keep thinking it's Saturday," he laughs.
Is it easier going out with actresses, I wonder. Do they understand you better?
"I wouldn't say that," Bean responds. "You don't have to be an actress to understand the man's psyche. In the short term, I think it can be comforting - you've got things in common. If you're a journalist, you might go out with other journalists . . ."
I wouldn't think about going out with another journalist, I admit.
"I've always said that about actresses, but I've never learned!" he laughs.
All this time, it's been easy to define Sean Bean: the working-class boy made good, apprentice steelworker, appeared on the Rada register alongside Kenneth Branagh, supports Sheffield United, a kind of Billy Elliot of the early Eighties. But that's not true. His father owned the steelworks and the 16-year-old Sean Bean wanted something else but to follow in his father's footsteps. Did he consider himself working-class?
"I suppose we were," Bean says, "but we drove to work in a Silver Shadow. Dad would shout: 'Sean - get thee sen up!' Then, we'd get in the Rolls-Royce, me an dmy dad, like!" (Laughs.) "I'd put me steel-capped boots on, stop at the top of the road, get the 'Daily Mirror', jump back in the Rolls . . . It was quite bizarre.
It's strange working for your dad, because you feel like a fucking spy or something," Bean continues. "And I weren't, by any means. I was on the shop floor, and I suppose my loyalty were to them. I think it was, er, not expected, but I think my dad would have liked me to have followed in the family business."
Sean Bean has always wanted to be one of the lads but, somehow, he's always been inclined to break ranks. By his own admission, he was never adacemically inclined. Between the ages of 16 and 19, he was at Rotherham Tech, learning how to weld; not much later, he studied arts and drama at the college across the road. Then came Rada - and his mates thought he was "a fucking ponce".
Bean recalls how, while still an apprentice welder, he would wander round the second-hand bookshops in Sheffield's Chapel Walk, read plays, visit the library and the art galleries. "I used to like the works of Oscar Wilde," he says. Then there was David Bowie. The Thin White Duke. "Through his music, I became curious about different writers."
Did you see yourself as an outsider, I ask.
"I've always felt like an outsider, yeah," he replies. "It's quite hard to formulate when you're young, so I used to lock myself away in the outhouse till 4am. I just used to draw and paint and liste to music. I'd have a few gin and tonics, then wake up the next morning and think, 'What the fuck's that I've just drawn?'"
Did your mum and dad know what you were up to?
"Yeah. I suppose I became a bit of an outcast. No, maybe that's a strong term - I think everyone thought I was a bit strange but artistic, you know? Which I was - and still am!" he laughs. "You don't know why you've got a hankering for something: a longing, a yearning - you can't quite put your finger on what it is. For me, it was acting."
Bean has spent 18 months out of the last two years working in Los Angeles. His latest film, the psychological thriller 'Flightplan', is set aboard an aeroplane and stars Jodie Foster as a mother whose daughter inexplicably vanishes mid-flight. Bean plays the irascible Captain Rich. He describes the acting process, with its endless nights in hotels, as quite a lonely business, but adds: "I enjoy my time alone. To be able to do what I want to do, to read, to fucking flop down on the settee like I did tonight and conk out - in general, it's good for people to have that space. I don't think we should feel that we have to be bonded together or that we've got a commitment or that we have something to live up to."
This kind of statement is exactly why Sean Bean is so hard to pin down. You're left wondering if he always felt this way or if his views have been shaped as a result of being divorced three times. He is loath to go into details, but when he does talk about marriage, about how he was still only 21 when he wed his first wife, you begin to get an insight into his seemingly constant battle between the wide-eyed romanticism of his teenage years and the blunt realities of living. It's this internal struggle that, I suppose, makes him so darn attractive to women.
"In the end," he says, "you're living with the person you love. It's wonderful. But sometimes it don't work out, an that's the way it goes."
But just in case Bean thinks he's coming across as too soft, he adds: "I'm not searching for anything at the moment, except a nice pedigree Alsatian. The nature of [acting], because you're always away, is perhaps not conducive to a good relationship. But, then again, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder, so that's the way I look at it. Get away for a bit - fuck it - you know what I mean?
But it's hard being away from my kids and stuff," he continues. "That is hard. I've got three girls who've been with me all week. One of them's nearly 18 now, so she just pops in with her boyfriend."
Are you a . . .
". . . jealous father?" he asks. "No, I'm not. But if he starts fucking about, then he gets a hand. Do you know what I mean?" (Laughs.) "Can I rephrase that? He's a lovely lad, and if he makes Lorna happy, then that's great. If not, then I won't be happy with him, you know?"
Do you get on with all your ex-wives?
Bean pauses for dramatic effect, stares at his pint, then bursts out laughing. "Excuse me, I'm just going to the toilet!"
On his return, we skim through his times in Hollywood. He's obviously proud of his achievements, but slightly embarrassed at being seen to enjoy the glitz of it all. He'll tell you how he and Brad Pitt shared a few pints while working on 'Troy', and that Ray Winstone is "an excellent actor" who "knows where he comes from". And when I ask Bean if he has a big trailer these days, he says, "Not as big as hers [Foster's], but 'course I get a fucking big trailer! What do you think I live in? A caravan?" But that's as far as he's prepared to go. "It's like name-dropping, you know what I mean?" he says.
He's much more comfortable talking about football, which is exactly what we do over more drinks until closing time, until we're the last customers in the restaurant and having problems booking a cab. Bean takes over from the owner and has a go at calling the cab office himself, only to meet with the same 'one hour wait' response. "Watch this," he says, redialling. When he gets through, he's no longer Sean Bean the ex-steel-worker from Handsworth, Sheffield, but Sean Bean the Rada-trained actor. "Yes, we'd like a car as soon as possible," he declares in his best received pronunciation.
While he's waiting, I'm reminded of something he'd said earlier. "Soon as they hear your accent, they think, 'He's got a whippet, cloth cap, dad works down the pit.' That's what you want to rebel against," he explains. "But you end up coming full circle agian, thinking, 'That's what I was. That's what made me.' That's the spirit of the North." And that's what Sean Bean is about: proving himself and others wrong, always wanting to escape his roots, but forever being pulled back.
"Ten minutes?" he repeats into the phone, keeping up the posh accent and winking at me. I've not seen him this happy all night. "Thank you, that's marvellous."