October 25 2007 12:00AM
Sean Bean says yes to streaking buck-naked across the Arctic tundra for his new film - and a defiant no to those so-hurtful Sienna Miller rumours
Sean Bean has played plenty of craggy survivors, but none as needy as Loki, a Russian mercenary lost on the Arctic tundra in Asif Kapadia's marvellous thriller, Far North. The native woman who scrapes him off the ice ends up sharing this blistered stranger with her daughter, setting in motion a shocking drama about sexual jealousy.
We meet amid tabloid stories about an intimacy with Sienna Miller - his co-star in A Woman of No Importance, due for release next year. These have really stung the actor. So much so that Bean pulls me aside from the ruck of journalists - ostensibly here to grill him about how wonderful it is to be him - to express his dismay. "None of the stories are true," he says. "They're all lies. Damaging and hurtful lies."
Bean, 48, has been Sheffield's most exotic piece of rough for 20-odd years. His smooth migration from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Lady Chatterley's potting shed made him a wanted man. A nation blushed as his Mellors had his wicked way with Joely Richardson's Constance Chatterley in the 1993 television drama, directed by Ken Russell. Bean's performances as the soldier Richard Sharpe in the Napoleonic Wars TV series won the hearts of Middle England. Hollywood pounced and Bean has played a glamorous cad in Goldeneye, Boromir in The Lord of the Rings and Odysseus in Troy.
The mercenary in Far North is an intriguing stretch. We know nothing about Loki when he is adopted by the Inuit (Michelle Yeoh) and her daughter (Michelle Krusiec), and neither woman is rude enough to pry. Precious few words are spoken, but the chemistry between the three is electric. There is an element of cruelty about the way Bean plays the two women off against each other. "It's a peculiar and disturbing triangle that has to be resolved one way or another," says Bean. "But my character is not irredeemably bad."
Bean is an effortless rogue on-screen, and charming company in the flesh. He is hugely proud of his roots. He was a steelworker in his father's foundry from the age of 16, before he went to RADA. He is a director of Sheffield United and once dreamt of becoming a professional footballer for his beloved Blades, but can now be heard on Saturday afternoons commentating on their matches for a local radio station.
I wonder what enticed him to spend six weeks on an ice-breaker in the frozen wastes of the Arctic.
"I've never been anywhere that cold, barren and desolate. You get up at 5.30am on the ship, put on 15 layers of clothes and climb into a dinghy which takes you to the location. Then they take you back to your little cabin at night. It was like being in prison, except you got paid for it. Some people couldn't handle it after a few days and had to leave. The rest of us became very close. We spent all that time working, eating and drinking together."
There is even a scene where he has to run naked and screaming across the ice - was it a romantic loyalty to the project, or pure Ran-ulph Fiennes-esque pluck? "The last thing you really want to do after a few late-night drinks is run stark naked across the f****** Arctic," Bean admits. "When I signed up for the film I wasn't thinking: 'Wow, I can't wait to get to minus 20 degrees.' I was thinking: 'Right, this could be a real adventure.'
"The Arctic is one of those places you see on television but you can only really appreciate when you get there. There are cloud formations and landscapes you will never forget. The novelty is OK for a week, but when it gets to week three and the isolation is still the same then that is when you have to really dig deep and find out what you're all about. There's a lot to be said for the isolation. It helps to focus your mind. There's really not much else to think about except the script and the character you're playing."
His greatest trial was not being able to use his mobile phone because the ship was so far North it was impossible to get a signal. "We could only get a signal when we sailed back to Troms? in Norway for four hours a week. Everyone would go out, have a few drinks, and then we sailed back to the glaciers."
Some of the most powerful images in Far North are haunting shots of abandoned mines on Svalbard, the glacial island where the film is mostly shot, and the remnants of shattered communities hanging on by their fingernails. There is nothing quaint about the grim tedium of daily survival.
"There are people up there scrabbling around for bits of comfort, bits of food," Bean says. "It is a culture decimated. You can see comparisons with what happened with our own steelworks and mining towns. The old communities in Svalbard are ghost towns."
He smiles suddenly. "It would be nice to do something a little more light-hearted. But I'm not breaking my back looking for parts. I think I'm quite good at differentiating between the psychopaths."
Far North shows as part of The Times BFI London Film Festival on Oct 30, 6pm, Odeon West End 2; then Oct 31, 6.15pm, at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Road, London E2 (020-7928 3232; www.timesonline.co.uk/lff )
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