|Last Updated: 12:01am BST 14/03/2006
After eight years in Hollywood, Sean Bean is back in his favourite role - un-Botoxed, his views on women unchanged and with his blokeishness intact. Cassandra Jardine meets him
Sean Bean has spent much of the past eight years in Hollywood, but you wouldn't know it. If I had to give marks out of 10 for glossiness to the man sitting opposite me in a North London cafe, slurping a cup of tea while his lank, mousy fringe dangles over the cup, he might just scrape a one.
His accent remains firmly planted in his native Sheffield. His clothes - jeans and a grey sweatshirt bought in a pub for £30 - add nothing to his sex-symbol status. Nor does the way he sits with his face towards the floor - looking up to answer questions and gnawing at his nails - contribute to his glamour. He smokes red Gauloise, but that's as far as he goes in the international chic stakes. Frankly, if you were looking for a leading man, you might walk straight past Bean and hit on one of the waiters.
The disappointment wears off when you talk to him. Whatever makes him impervious to all attempts to Botox his furrowed brow into starry perfection, disdainful of the Hollywood "obsession" with the gym and oblivious to politically correct opinions about women, also makes him refreshing company. He is able to chat about his career, love life, children, food, football, fear of flying - just about anything, in fact - without giving the impression that he has cooked up the Right Answer with his agent and publicist.
We meet at a happy juncture in his life. After eight years' absence, he is about to return to television screens in the part for which he is best known: Major Richard Sharpe. As any viewer over the age of 20 will know, this is good news for TV's testosterone content. A revival of breeches and green frogged jackets, sword fights and charging about on horses is welcome after several years in which men on television seem to be not so much beefcake as fishcake.
It's good news for Bean, too. Sharpe is the role he is most proud of and this is a home-coming after a long absence to escape being typecast. "When I first finished Sharpe, it was hard to get work, because people only saw me as him," he says. "It was the same with Catherine Zeta Jones after The Darling Buds of May. In Britain, people can be so snobbish; they have favourites. I had to go to Hollywood to recharge my career. There they give you a chance."
Since then, the list of film credits has stretched to 74, but when talking about the films he's been in, he exudes none of the usual luvvie slime about the privilege of working with this actor or that director. Nor does he make any attempt to talk up recent projects. He can hardly remember Flightplan, for example, which he made with Jodie Foster: "It was an in-and-out job," he says of his role as a pilot. As for North Country with Charlize Theron, he mentions only the welcome opportunity to play a "decent man".
It could be that he is so wrapped up in his own career that nothing much else impinges on him. Certainly, he gives that impression when we discuss his history of failed relationships. Aged 46, he has been divorced three times. His first marriage was to a hairdresser from his native Sheffield, the second to an actress he met at Rada, the third to Abigail Cruttenden, who played his wife in Sharpe. (Before this new series, her character conveniently ran off with another man.)
From these marriages Bean has acquired not only three daughters but a reputation for being an unreconstructed chauvinist, who expects his women to stay at home looking after children while he bread-wins around the world. The woman who presently shares the plasma screens in his Hampstead home is Georgina Sutcliffe, an actress 19 years his junior. I wonder if he is applying any lessons he has learnt. He shrugs: "I just do my work, and if things work out, they work out."
Like most actors he lives to work because, as he says: "I can't just go out into my back garden and act. I need a job." And despite the long list of credits, he explains, it hasn't always been easy. "When I first went to Hollywood, I found people would promise you things and a lot of it was bull----."
His break came with Lord of the Rings. Playing Boromir, the warrior, was a gamble when he signed up: the trilogy could have turned out to be a flop. But he found - as have Orlando Bloom and Sir Ian McKellen - that "it unlocked doors".
But he is happy to return to Sharpe, especially now that, after dramas such as ER, television is no longer considered a poor relation. Lower budgets have their advantages, he explains. "We did each shot in one take. In films they often do 30 or 40, and that gets boring."
Filming took place in India, where extras and wild animals come cheap - important, since armies in previous Sharpes have looked a bit thin on the ground. Curry twice a day was a possible hazard, but he circumvented that.
"As well as Imodium, I took a box of 70 steak pies to microwave in my caravan. The other thing I always take with me is Henderson's Relish, made to an old Yorkshire recipe."
A few years ago, filming in India would have been difficult for him. When he was a child, the family used to take summer holidays on the Costa Brava, but Bean's ex-Army father was so frightened of flying that they used to go all the way by coach. That fear rubbed off on his son. Bean used to drive to film locations in Europe. As for interviews in Hollywood: "I would get my agent to make excuses."
advertisementAgain, it was Lord of the Rings that made the difference. In order not to be stuck in New Zealand for a year, he had to fly home. "It was like a crash course," he says, oblivious to the pun. After that, even finding himself in New York on 9/11 didn't wreck his nerve.
"I was doing promotion with Orlando Bloom and Elijah Wood," he says. "We were with Jamiroquai, who were playing there and the morning after the concert I looked out of my hotel window and there were no cabs in the street, no cars. I thought I must be dreaming. Then the phone started to ring; people wanted to know if I was all right.
"There were no flights out of New York, so I came back on the QE2 from Boston. As soon as I got off the boat in Southampton, I went to watch Sheffield United play away to Millwall." He's now a director of the club whose logo he has tatooed on his shoulder, and the previous week he had taken his youngest daughter, Evie, seven, to watch a match. Perhaps he should encourage her to play the game. "Nah, that would be like watching paint dry. Sorry."
Maybe his apparently impervious blokeishness hides a quivering sensitivity. If so, he hides it so well that sometimes it is hard to imagine what he finds to draw upon as an actor - a profession that, in his school days, he thought "only for fairies". Yet somehow, on camera, he can suggest not just ruggedness but sensitivity through his green eyes - think Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover, or Vronsky in Anna Karenina. How does he do it? "It's 90 per cent instinctive," he says.
"You've got to look at a character's aims, what upsets him, makes him happy. We all know how people behave. I see them imitating others in pubs and bars all the time. What I do is no different. I had a bad temper when I was young: you've got to have something to express."
He seems to enjoy talking about his childhood, about the days after O-levels and before college, when he used to go to work in his father's foundry. "It was strange getting into his Rolls-Royce wearing my working boots and overalls," he says wistfully.
Hang on. The image he has always projected is that of the working-class lad from a council house. "That's true," he explains, "but my dad set up a foundry with a colleague. At its height it was employing 50 people and he drove a Silver Shadow, but my mum and dad never moved house. Family and friends were more important to them."
Sticking to your roots - at last, a clue as to why Sean Bean remains so unchanged by California.
Sharpe's Challenge is on ITV1 in April
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