The Bond Star Takes Up Football
After bedding down with Tinsel Town's finest, and battering 007, what's left for Sean Bean? Footie, of course... by Roger Morton
A pair of muddy black trainers pad across a spotless carpet, pushing back against the all-wool astroturf and accelerating smoothly. Sean Bean looks up for the goal, rounds a sofa, feints to the left leaving a glass-topped coffee table standing, sticks an elbow into the TV cabinet and stops dead in front of a tray of seemingly paralysed and, frankly, butter-fingered salmon sandwiches. Silence. Adrenaline. Fear. Then with a taunting nonchalance he shoots, he scores. Well, he pours out a cup of coffee, actually.
One nil, one nil. The crowd goes wild. To the objective observer, what's happening in suite 216 of the Langham Hilton, London W1, is that one of the hottest British actors of the decade is doing a magazine interview. To the interviewee and the journalist, however, the fancy furnishings and the rituals of star interrogation have been ordered off the pitch and replaced by pure footballing fantasy.
Big name actors have, after all, got away with their failings for too long. Brad Pitt is useless with his nut. De Niro would never last the full 90 minutes. And then there's Ken Branagh, always looking for that Oscar as soon as he's in the penalty box. Tinsel Town FC hasn't produced a decent player in years, and so today, with this promising right-winger Bean emerging from the ranks, there are more important things to talk about than Hollywood tittle-tattle. Like Sean's problems explaining the offside trap to his daughters.
"You know what kids are like," he says. "It takes ages to explain it. It's lateral thinking. If a goal's disallowed you say, 'It was offside' and they say, 'Why? It's not fair.' And it isn't fair, though it is sometimes, when you see a brilliant move and a fantastic goal and it's six inches offside. I think they should have that line - they were on about having it from the half-way line to the goal line and you can only be offside when you're in that..." Bean's excited fingers suddenly stop drawing soccer pitch diagrams on the table top. An embarrassed grin takes charge of his Little Red Riding Hood frightener features. "Oh fucking hell. I'd better shut up here. You know what I mean, though, don't you? Cos if you're offside from the half-way line, fuckin' 'ell, it's not on, is it?"
There are twin pressures on Sean to get carried away with the match analysis today. Firstly, his beloved Sheffield United are facing a tough FA Cup round tomorrow. Secondly, he's officially here to whirl the turnstiles on When Saturday Comes, the British-made soccer drama set in Sheffield and starring Bean and Emily Lloyd.
It doesn't take much, however, to get Sean's ball rolling. The terrace talk flows as naturally as Saturday lunchtime home-game beers. In fact, it seems so effortless to banter with Bean about the new regime at Bramall Lane, and Howard Kendall's preference for keeping the ball on the ground, that it's easy to forget that this is the man who recently strolled so stylishly off with the villainish 006 role in GoldenEye, who's shared film and TV credits with a list of heavyweight names that runs from Derek Jarman and Ken Russell to Richard Harris and Harrison Ford, who's consorted saucily with some of the sexiest actresses of the day, and who has seduced the Hollywood power players seemingly without even trying.
Sean Bean is not, however, one to carry his kit bag of achievements around with him. The co-star of the biggest British film this week should probably swagger a little. Especially considering that he's the guy who wish-fulfilled a nation's dreams by slugging the twinkle out of Pierce Brosnan's eyes. Drinks all round, eh? But Bean is neither an hour late nor a millimetre triumphal. He strolls in unaccompanied, dressed in everyman denim, looking the normal amount smaller than his rangy screen presence and displacing no great space around him.
Together we inspect the suite's glitzy bathroom. Blimey. Momentarily, we're a plumber and a welder come to fix the gold taps. Then Sean remembers something. "Oh, I've just got to get a packet of fags," he says, heading back out of the door. Half-way into the corridor two things occur to him. He is no longer a welder. He is in a swanky hotel, with room service and room servers. "Oh, I suppose I can dial down for them," he says, as if he's never really done it before and would have preferred to have gone to the newsagents anyway.
While he's on the phone, I picture Bean being frogmarched to the front of a queue outside Planet Hollywood. "Don't you know who I'm not," he'd be saying as he tried to slink off to the nearest pub. It would be an old-fashioned, backstreet pub, too. Unpretentious, like. Bean's biggest flirtation with celebrity self-promotion has so far been an appearance on Fantasy Football. The lack of easy 'star' angles has led to a lot of swift judging.
What his appearance in When Saturday Comes has done, however, is to fill in some of the missing turf between the intense film presence and the nice, undemanding bloke who likes his Yorkshire pudding on Sunday. Cos in When Saturday Comes, Sean is sort of playing himself.
"When I went up there and started filming it, I found parallels with the life that I used to lead in Sheffield - growing up and that - and sometimes fantasy gets wrapped up with reality, because it's very close to home, very close to me. And maybe it could have been another road I took.
"To be honest I weren't really that brilliant at football. I could knock it about a bit, but it's not anything I could have pursued professionally. But going up there and playing the part of a footballer is the next best thing. I think I chose the right thing anyway because by now I'd be finished as a footballer. I'd have had to have opened a boozer!"
Where last years's ID went for the hooligan fans option, When Saturday Comes focuses on the boozey personal struggles of one player. Bean plays Jimmy Muir, the mid-twenties star of his pub team. In the process of sinking into a resigned existence of one- of-the-lads quaffing, discordant homelife and factory-worker grind, Muir gets cherry-picked for semi-pros Hallam Town FC. He starts going out with ambitious wages clerk and factory babe Annie (an Irish-accented Emily Lloyd), gets a trial with Sheffield United and, for a while, it looks like he's going to pull away from the working-class traps that have made his father a bitter man.
The path to Roy of the Rovers-style schoolboy soccer dreams is strewn with enough temptations and family tragedy to allow Bean to exercise his persuasive Northern lad verite screen potential, moving through much self-doubt and gritty resolve before jogging out in front of The Kop at Sheffield. Sean's footwork might have been filmed in a mock-up half-time game when Sheffield drew Man U at home last season, but for a man with 100% BLADE tattooed on his arm, this was a good deal more than just another acting role.
"Running out onto the pitch at Bramall Lane is one of the most exhilarating experiences I've ever known. I mean, I were shitting meself before I went out. We were playing Man United and it were coming up to half time, and I was thinking, 'Fuckin' hell! What am I doing here?' We ran on and started taking penalties and The Kop seems so close to you. It's an amazing experience. But they really got behind me and sang along and cheered me on, every time I scored a penalty. Which weren't very often!
"That 10 minutes were an incredible moment in me life. It took me a long time to come down after, just from the high I got from being on there, taking penalties, in front of your home crowd in the kit of the club that you've supported all your life. I had to have about 10 pints of lager to bring me back down to normality."
Although the action on the pitch is secondary to the story of Muir's personal battle, When Saturday Comes is one of the few movies to have got the atmosphere of the game right. The climactic cup tie neatly intercuts staged semi-pro action with the real Sheffield U v Man U cup tie so that Muir appears to be up against Cantona and Giggsy.
"A lot of films you think of as sports films have hardly any in it," says Sean. "When you think about This Sporting Life with Richard Harris, you think it's a rugby film, but there's hardly any rugby in it. There were just that bit where Richard Harris got kicked in the teeth, when he's in a scrum, and there's a big boot just goes crash, and the next thing he wakes up under an operating table with the lights. That's a brilliant image, but we tried to get in a bit tighter and get the atmosphere rather than making the action too intricate."
The realism is given a boost by the presence of Tony Currie on the sidelines and Mel Stirland on the pitch, both playing themselves, while cinematographer Gerry Fisher was brought in to add his knowledge of how not to shoot football, gained from working on Escape to Victory with Pele, Bobby Moore, Stallone and Michael Caine.
It's the film's overall grasp of the details of life in a Northern town which gives it its clout, allowing it to pluck dour humour out of a pitch invasion by sheep or a trip to the bookies, and giving it a slightly less bitter Ken Loach feel. Think Kes with a football and a Hovis ad glow and you're there.
When Saturday Comes producer and co-scriptwriter James Daly agrees. "Kes is a great film, but all films can't be like Ken Loach because it'd just be too depressing," he says. Daly based most of the story on his own experiences as a Sheffield lad failing to make it as a footballer. Having moved to LA where he co-produced Highlander III, he set up a partnership with his mate and Highlander star Christopher Lambert to help get When Saturday Comes made.
But after being turned down by all his UK contacts, it was the all- women-run Capitol Films which came up with a feasible budget. Since it's also directed and written by Daly's American wife, Maria Giese, When Saturday Comes must be the first soccer film to be financed by ladies and Frenchmen and filmed with a strong female perspective.
Though it might have enough human interest to make it palatable to the non-soccer fan, there is, of course, a small question mark over whether any Sheffield Wednesday fans are going to go for it. Daly thinks so. "It's a film about people, not Sheffield United," he says. "With any luck some Wednesday-ites will have girlfriends who'll just want to go and see it because of Sean, and they'll force them into the cinema and sit 'em down."
The Northern charmer himself is today sitting down, recalling a particularly risky bit of soccer fanaticism. While playing Romeo at Stratford-Upon-Avon in the mid-'80's, he drove up for a Sheffield-Leeds match, hung around for some extra time and arrived back in Stratford with two minutes till curtain up.
"I had to whip me replica kit top off, get me Romeo costume on and get out on stage," recalls Sean. Montagues 1: Capulets 0. That would also be around the time that he got banned from the town's famous pub, The Dirty Duck, for trying to drink a wall-mounted, ornamental yard of ale.
Bean may be too demure to be a fully-fledged hellraiser, but clearly he has his sly moments. His honeymoon with his second wife Melanie Hill (Aveline from Bread) was organised so as to coincide with Sheffield United fixtures. "It were a bit of a compromise," explains Sean, "a bit of a football honeymoon, really. But it were a crucial stage, 1990, when we got promotion and it were all the games towards the end. You can't miss one cos it's too important. You've got to get your priorities right!"
There are, however, limits to the man's Blades list. Given the choice between a life without footie and a life without nookie he knows where his loyalties lie. "Err... well errr..." laughs Sean. "You know, I've never thought about that. I think you'd have to keep sex. I mean, come on. Bloody hell! Put it this way, I'd rather have a shag than watch a nil-nil draw in February in front of about 9,000 people."
Just checking there. According to the young Bean's football coach from his Sheffield adolescence at Brook School, Sean's life path was never really heading for pro, anyway. "He loved scoring goals, but I don't think he was really bothered about putting in the hard work on the field," says the trainer. Sean figures that's a fair assessment. "Acting is the only thing that I've really put the hard work into and achieved things at the end. I suppose you can draw a parallel, though. When a scene goes right, I get a big kick out of acting, a rush of adrenaline. It's a similar feeling from what I got running on the pitch and scoring a goal."
The teen Bean actually went a circuitous route to RADA. Born in 1959, he grew up on a Sheffield council estate with one younger sister. His mum worked as a secretary, his dad a welder and, after coming out of college with two O-levels, he went to work in his father's steel fabrication shop.
Unlike most of the factory lads, though, Bean was serious about his daydreams. He wanted to be a poet or a painter. He wanted to sing in a band. Eventually, he started acting locally, doing Cabaret at Rotherham Civic Theatre, and enjoyed it enough to apply for a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
"I realized I was quite good at acting," he says, "and from then on I thought no matter what anybody says I'm going to go for it. I were very confident about it. I mean, the lads called me a fairy and all that, but that's understandable. I'd have probably done the same meself if the tables were turned."
Moving to London, Sean met Melanie Hill and gradually settled in with a mixed-bag year of wannabe thespians that included Joely Richardson (who he later teamed up with in Ken Russell's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Kenneth Branagh. A combination of his terraced background, growing up "in a place where you stuck up for yourself" and his latent temper gave him an edge. As a kid, he kicked in a plate-glass window in a fit of rage, nearly cutting his leg off ("You can still see the scar now. It's a big 'un, but I tell everybody it's a shark bite".) While at RADA, he spent a night in the cells and was done for actual bodily harm after he whacked someone who'd offended him.
"I don't think the temper's gone but I think I've got ways to channel it now," says Sean, sucking on an ever-present fag. "It might sound a bit cliched and luvvy, but it's true because maybe if I weren't doing this my temper might be going in the wrong direction. The parts I play are often quite aggressive and I don't want to sound arrogant, but aggression is a powerful side for an actor to have."
Bean's ability to shift into fifth gear and his predatory looks ("the face of a young wildcat") quickly started to mark him out for obsessive, volatile, brooding roles. From a contract at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he stepped up into film with a part in Jarman's painterly Caravaggio and a breakthrough casting in the Newcastle gangland-set Stormy Monday alongside Sting and Tommy Lee Jones. On TV, he was the manic dog lover in Julie Birchill's Prince, the crazed lover in Clarissa, a madman in The Field, a Brinks Mat robber in Fool's Gold and the dashing hero of Sharpe.
But it was 1992's Patriot Games that took him to Los Angeles. As the movie's vengeful IRA terrorist, Bean was as implacable as the film was implausible. But he came out of it looking villainishly good, ready for Bond and beyond, and with a two-inch scar over his eye from leading man Harrison Ford, who'd mistimed a fight and hit him with a boathook. It was an awkward moment, but Sean's temper did not step up.
"Well I weren't very happy about it, put it that way," he says with a pained expression.
Forbearance is a bit of a Bean speciality these days. Or at least today. He carries himself like a man who has better things to do than worry about what the press make of him. He bristles only once when I ask the reputedly vehemently anti-Tory Bean how he's going to vote at the next election. "I'm not telling you," he says. "It's none of your business."
And what of his well-documented appeal to the opposite sex? Many a female interpreter of Bean-in-the-flesh has been inclined to visualise him as swinging from the metaphorical sex chandelier with his sword unsheathed. Those used-model good looks and the lack of a counter-active, real-life wanker ego have given rise to a sizeable reputation as a heart-throb. The fact that he got to shag Melanie Griffiths in his first big screen part, and then moved with alacrity through steamy encounters with Joely Richardson, Theresa Russell, Amanda Donohoe and Liz Hurley has no doubt contributed to this.
"It's not the most natural thing in the world to do, to get up, go on set, take off all your clothes and then lie on top of a beautiful woman," suggests Sean. "But I could think of worse ways of earning a living."
According to Bean, the sex symbol bit is just part of the territory.
"I don't wake up every morning and go, 'Who's that smart-looking kid in the mirror? Sean Bean!"
Beyond a slight raising of the eyebrow at the mention of Liz Hurley ("She's a very nice girl"), Bean is reluctant to say much about his movie trysts. He is, of course, a happily-married man, and despite a tendency to cite top bad boys Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris as his favourite actors, outrageous misbehaviour and malicious gossip just aren't him these days.
"I do like a pint of Newcastle Brown every now and again," he whispers. "I can drink that for a bit, but then I find it gets quite filling and stodgy. Lager's quite crisp and sharp. Me dad says he's ashamed of me. It's not very good is it, really. Sorry. What can I say?"
Moreover, his ability to tell a crap pub joke is not what it ought to be. "Ask any of me mates whether I can tell a joke. I'm fuckin' useless," he says. "It's funny, being an actor. Unless I've learned it. I'm not very good. I'm not very good at improvising, really. I get a bit...embarrassed." The only joke Sean can tell today goes like this: "What's the phrase you get if you cross George Formby and Arnold Schwarzenegger? [shouts very loudly] CAN YOU 'EAR ME, MOTHERFUCKERRRRRRRR?" This is the one tiny glimmer of fierce thespian ability that Sean gives away, apart from the ability to sit there for over an hour with a steady gaze, a burning cigarette and a heavily-centered presence.
"Well, you see I get the chance to be brash when I'm acting," says Sean. "I don't need to do it when I'm talking to you. In my private life, I like to keep it pretty quiet and get on with ordinary things. I get a chance to be extrovert when I'm acting."
James Daly says that when Bean was doing Bond immediately after When Saturday Comes he phoned him up on the set. After weeks of shooting wintry soccer scenes on a tight budget, there was Sean in his mega-movie trailer, surrounded by cossetting assistants and their assistants. Apparently, all he could say was, "This is fucking weird."
So it's not surprising that there's a hint of equivocation when Bean says that in a few weeks he's due to "meet a few people" in Hollywood.
"I just like to take things as they come really," he says. "I don't really push meself all that much. Maybe I should a bit more, that's what people tell me. But I'm happy the way I am. I don't like to get into a situation that's not of my making. If I get into a situation then I know it's my fault or I've done it my way. I like being me own boss, really.
"It was a very enjoyable experience being in Hollywood, especially when you're driving through Paramount studios and you see the globe and the big sets and you can't help but be impressed. I enjoyed the lifestyle of working in a big Hollywood studio in a way, but I'm not one to hanker after the atmosphere of that big showbiz- style business. I'm not the sort of person who thinks, 'Well, I'll have to stay here and live here and live this sort of life.' Because I love it here too much."
"England's my home and this is where me friends are and where me family is. And where the football is. All these little things. The seasons change. Grey days. In Los Angeles, it's sunny all the time and everybody seems to be your friend. I don't know. I just couldn't live that sort of life. I wouldn't like to bring my kids up in that atmosphere."
Outside the Hilton, the sky is leaden and overcoat collars are up. The fixtures list could be a bit thin this weekend. Sean has been away in Turkey filming a new series of Sharpe and he hasn't seen United for months. Tomorrow, though, is Saturday, and Bean'll be in the crowd. If life imitates art, there'll be a good few pints sunk in the pub afterwards. Maybe a few ideas'll come up for the next project.
When Saturday Comes is planned as the first in a series of films from the team of Bean, James Daly and co-star Peter Postlethwaite. With some help from Capitol, they've set up a company called Steel City Productions. In May, they plan to start shooting the next one, with Sean playing the part of a con artist. "You can make one film like When Saturday Comes, about your life, you know, the working class lad up North, but after that you have to broaden it out," says Sean, slipping out of his muddy trainers and lad gear into an appropriately film star-ish suit. The photographer is ready, and now Bean can just fix on the sexy Mr. Wolf face, stare into the lens, and look forward to Saturday.
"I was talking to somebody about being a football fan the other day," he says. "And I was saying it was like a love affair but it never loses its passion. You know, you fall in love and then after about 10 years you've still got the love there, but there's not the initial passion. But with football you can be watching it for 50 years and you still wake up when it's a Saturday morning really excited. It's about passion."
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