Sean Bean, the Sheffield welder turned actor, is careful not to sever his roots. Interview by Grace Bradberry
"I think I've been misunderstood," says Bean. "I might have misled people. A lot of what I say is tongue-in-cheek but some people actually believe it, which is worrying"
'I'm not desperate to be a superstar'
He is arguably one of Britain's sexiest actors, makes a fine villain and has the nation's best-known bottom. His face is unusual but attractive: slitty-eyed, roughened, but with a fine bone structure supporting cheeks that look somehow well worn - as if they've been punched and kissed in equal measure.
Waiting to meet Sean Bean, you can't help but have expectations, many of them prompted by his performance as Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover. When I saw him, even at 20 yards, he was something different: sitting hunched in a leather jacket on designer furniture at the swanky One Aldwych, a bit awkward, as though minding his manners. Then there was that unruly, spiky smile, the sort that American dental surgeons would "fix".
Bean is famous for being unreconstructed. He has long worn his upbringing on a Sheffield council estate like a bulletproof vest; a working-class chauvinist whose second marriage fell apart because, according to his former wife Melanie Hill (Aveline in Bread), he watched too much football, spent too long in the pub and let his clothes lie where they fell; a man given to disparaging comparisons between his mother's and his wife's Yorkshire puddings.
"Yeah?" he says at the mention of the Yorkshire puddings, and narrows his eyes. I wonder if he's about to lose it - he is also known for his temper - but he softens. "I think I've been misunderstood," he says. "I might have misled people. A lot of what I say is tongue-in-cheek. Some people actually believe it, which is quite worrying."
It is easy to patronise Bean, and plenty have done. He has chosen to keep the regional accent, which makes him different given that so many actors prefer to bury theirs. "I could lose it," he says, "but I think, why lose something as good as that?" He'll come out with cliches and homilies: "You've just got to keep your feet on the ground." But to get stuck at that is to miss the broader Bean.
He is surprisingly sensitive, introspective, and there's an interior dialogue that is articulated through intonation, furrowing of the brow and half-snarls rather than words. The deal that has been struck in advance is that there will be no questions about his private life, but it becomes clear that this won't work because he doesn't seem to have developed a public life.
He talks about filming Bravo Two Zero, his latest television drama, in which he plays the SAS soldier Andy McNab, captured and tortured by the Iraqis during the Gulf War. Spending months in the desert with "a bunch of lads" helped with the portrayal of a tightly knit SAS team, he says, "except that we were going home to the hotel every night having beers. Ha ha ha."
So who are "the lads" back in London? He conjures up one friend, a writer, with whom he occasionally drinks in the West End, "but we don't make a thing of it". Fashionable London life is not his thing either. Finally he says: "My wife Abby, she's got a baby of four weeks. So I mean we're not really going to that many parties at the moment." Abby is Abigail Cruttenden, his third wife, the privately educated daughter of an advertising executive, whom he met filming Sharpe. They married just over a year ago and live in Belsize Park, North London. Evie Natasha is his third daughter. His two older daughters, Lorna and Molly, live with their mother, Melanie Hill, whom he met at RADA and stayed with for 16 years, although they were married only for the last six. She threw him out. It has been a stormy two years. In his own words: "I've got divorced, married, had a baby and moved house. That's enough for me."
Overall, his marriage record isn't as bad as it sounds. He was only 20 when he married his first wife, a hairdresser, just before going to drama school. She speaks warmly about him and still pops round to his mother's for cups of tea.
The drubbing he got when he and Hill separated is not something we talk about but sometimes he seems to be addressing it indirectly, as when he talks resentfully of being portrayed as "this mad, sort of fanatical, sort of laddish football fan, and even if you wanted to be like that, you couldn't be".
He says he doesn't get to see Sheffield United play so much any more: "There's other things in my life as well." Living a middle-class existence in London, spending months on film sets, shooting Hollywood movies with the likes of Melanie Griffith (Stormy Monday), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games) and Robert De Niro (Ronin), he can't help but change.
Bean worries about that, even as he wants it to be acknowledged. "I don't like being cliched, one of the lads, northern. It diminishes what you are to some extent ." But he has been careful not to sever his roots, and at 39 still drives to Sheffield to see old friends. "Of course I'm an actor; they're plumbers, welders and carpenters. There is a distinction. But we're friends."
Bean left his Sheffield comprehensive with two O levels, an awareness that he was attractive to girls and a bit of skill at playground brawls - "a kickaround and a thump, you know what I mean?" He worked briefly for his father as a welder before going to art school. He tried three different colleges, and at the third discovered the drama department.
"My family were bemused. I said, 'I'm going to be an actor.' I think they thought, 'Well, he wanted to be in a band last week, he wanted to be an artist the week before'. When I got into RADA they were supportive."
He describes the acceptance letter as "like a ticket to another life", which is odd when he hangs on to the old life so carefully. He nods. "That's right. I think occasionally, maybe, that the downside of a close community is that you can't sometimes function as an individual. You have to break away into a situation where you don't feel inhibited. "The strange thing is that it's come full cycle because then you go through all that, but you have to come back. It wasn't a matter of saying goodbye, I don't want anything to do with you. It was just bye for now. You learn a lot, you come back and you learn a lot more."
Bean's attachment to his roots isn't a stubborn, moral stance; it's about nurturing his acting talent, which is considerable. "I think I'm pretty good," he acknowledges. "But I've tried not to let it go to my head. You can cut off what you set out to do in the first place, which was to play ordinary people. I hope I haven't done that anyway."
It is hard getting Sean Bean to lighten up. He devotes most of his energy to keeping the barrier in place. You get the impression he both likes women and derives quite a lot of humour from them but that he is scared of expressing this.
"I'd hate to think of myself as entrenched in my male beliefs," he says. "I'd like to think that I'd change to the people that are around, the people that I'm with. Not be a yes man, but adapt." Above all, he doesn't want to seem grand. He won't go to premieres except his own, and although he has made several movies he isn't a movie star. Wouldn't moving to Hollywood fuel his career? "It's difficult with America because I've got my family here," he says. "I've never really capitalised on the success I've had there - which I should have done - but I have no regrets. I don't want to be massive. It's nice to do great work, but I'm not desperate to be some superstar."
We talk about privacy. Isn't it tough when people know so much more about him than he does about them? "Well, if people recognise me I don't go 'What are you looking at me for?' Nine times out of ten they have seen me before."
All of him. And there are plenty of nice bits, besides the bottom.
The Real Mr Bean
Big-screen hard man Sean Bean confesses that when he's not swashbuckling, he's partial to a spot of gardening...Interview: Sarah Kennedy
Sean Bean is around a lot these days. You can catch him in Don't Say A Word with Michael Douglas, in Lord of the Rings (still showing) and later this year in thriller Equilibrium. At 43, he's the UK's most versatile star, cracking Hollywood open like a nutshell to feature in everything from action flicks to high drama. Twice married, he is devoted to his three children.
Hi, Sean, where are you calling from?
I'm at my house in London.
Is that where you call home?
Yes, although at the moment home is more often than not a hotel room. I've just got back from Japan, but before that I was in the US and I was living in New Zealand for Lord of the Rings. But I feel most settled here. London is great.
But you're not from London?
I was born in Sheffield. Most of my family is still there.
Do you prefer the showbiz life in London, then?
Not at all. My best friend here is actually an old friend from Sheffield. My working environment is always intense - I go in, do a job, focus on it totally - so I'm ready for a break at the end of it. Acting is my job, but I don't want to do it when I'm not, well, doing it. I hardly go out or do the publicity thing; my time off is too valuable.
When you're not working, what do you like doing? Are you a very outdoorsy person - always up a mountain with a rucksack and a compass?
What, like a rambler?
Yes, that's right...
How disappointing. You seem like an outdoor person, but I'm going purely on the characters you play. There's no reason why you should be like Sharpe in real life...
Well, I enjoy my garden; I like planting trees. Does that count?
Yes, I definitely like getting out in my garden and don't get as much time as I'd like for that.
How does all the travelling you do impact on your life and relationships?
It's hard. Being away for long stretches of time isn't good for any kind of relationship. I miss my children, miss home comforts; it's difficult. But it has its compensations. I feel fortunate to be able to do what I do.
This is your "moment", isn't it? You're in everything...
It seems like that. I want to continue with it as long as I can.
Do you always choose those swashbuckling action roles?
No. There isn't a game plan. I look at scripts and choose the ones that most appeal. I've just finished a low-budget film, The Big Empty, with Jon Favreau, which was a real change for me. I play this cowboy...
It's just that I can picture you in a cowboy outfit...
Can you? Well, anyway, it was a good experience, which I really enjoyed, and very different to the kind of big-budget productions I have been working on.
Do you usually have your own trailer on set with assistants, masseurs and so on?
I never have "special requests" if that's what you mean. But, you know, I'm normally quite well looked after; it does become a bit indulgent after a while.
How do you like to indulge yourself? Have you got any Ferraris in the garage?
No. I drive a Range Rover - they're bringing out a new one, which looks brilliant - but that's it, really. I like to go off on little trips as a treat, and when I travel I'll fly, you know, in comfort...it's a great life.
How else do you like to relax - are you all fit and sporty?
Spending time with my kids, really simple things, actually. Reading, going to the cinema. If I go to the gym, it's very reluctantly. I prefer watching sport on TV. I'm a big soccer fan, as you probably know...
Will you be watching the World Cup?
Probably, but I have no idea where in the world I'll be by then. No doubt wherever it is, I'll be able to wangle a TV.
Do you ever fly your kids out to your film locations?
I have done. They came out to LA when I made Patriot Games with Harrison Ford, but they're busy in school. I try to get back to visit. On Lord of the Rings, because it was a year's filming, I'd get back on four-week trips.
Look, I've got to ask - are you in a relationship?
That's fantastic! For your female fans, I mean. I'm not sure how you feel about it...
Finally, what are you still trying to achieve in life?
I don't know. I just want to try to carry on being as true to myself as I can, working hard for my family. That's it really.
April 17, 1994
I'D RATHER MAKE WAR NOT LOVE
Bean's Mean Scenes
Sean shows off his brawn on the battlefield
Sean Bean, the hottest male on television, is back on our screens next month in three new adventures. Sharpe's Enemy, Sharpe's Honour and Sharpe's Company are set to repeat last year's success of the daring exploits of 19th-century army officer (Richard Sharpe - the British hero who self-determinedly rose up from
the ranks to be a leader of men.
The series, based on the Bernard Cornwell best-sellers about the Napoleonic wars, was filmed over 18 weeks in location in the Ukraine. "In one way, it's like every boy's dream," says Sean. "You get up in the
morning, go off and sword fence, kill a few Frenchies and then come back and get drunk at the bar with the rest of the lads."
But conditions were harsh, with physically demanding scenes in the bitter cold of the Russian mid-winter.
"The reality is that it's bloody hard work, filming all through the night and doing battle scenes with hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers at temperatures below freezing. And it was extremely tiring."
One scene called for the 34-year old actor to ride his beast of a horse across a remote, valley stream. It was - 5C, and as he crossed the icy cold water for about the 10th take, Sean lost his grip. He slid slowly down the horse's back and into the freezing stream. The Sheffield-born former welder dragged his bruised and battered body out of the water - only to give the concerned production team a huge grin.
For despite the rigours of shooting the series, the man who has often been described as "the middle-class woman's bit of rough" was born to the role of the Napoleonic war daredevil. "I love Sharpe, he's very much like me and I can identify with him," says Sean about the TV soldier there may be plans to make a full-length film about.
"He's an ordinary guy who's had to drag himself up through the system so he can make himself a success.
"I love all the action scenes, the sword fighting and, believe it or not, I can ride a horse. And, like Sharpe, I won't run from a fight. I will stand my ground for something I believe in. But I won't go looking for a fight - it's a lot less painful that way." He may love the role but it's when the cameras stop rolling that the grimness of the conditions hits Sean. He feels more than a little homesick for his 31-year-old wife Melanie Hill, who shot to fame as Aveline in Bread, and his two daughters, six-year-old Lorna and Molly, two.
"I don't think it's the right place to bring the family to, nothing here works. So I have to keep in touch with them as best as I can by phone. But when I did manage to get home for a while, I was right choked when Molly walked to me. I'd missed her taking her first steps. It hit me hard." He also longs for good old
English cooking and British beer. So much so that wife Melanie arranged a special food lift for her husband from their home in Muswell Hill, North London. His sparse hotel room was stacked high with culinary reminders of home - cans of beans, microwave curries and pre-packed meals for one.