He could have been a footballer. He was once a welder. But, instead, Sean Bean became one of Britain's most in-demand actors. Rob Driscoll finds out why
He has played more villains than romantic heroes, yet still Sean Bean remains a fantasy figure for millions of adoring British women. Put that to the eternally bashful actor himself, and he will typically beat about the bush, yet also afford a little chuckle.
"I've never seen myself as the romantic lead, really," he eventually mumbles.
"I don't get up in the morning and think, `I wonder who's going to offer me the romantic lead this week.' I've played a lot of criminals too."
Neither does he seem to worry about hitting his forties (he was 41 last April): "It's just a different phase of my life," he says.
"In your 20s, you're striving to be what you want to be. In your 30s you are quite comfortable, but in your 40s you see things a bit more clearly. As for work, I would hope I'll still be in demand. When you look at Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery, age doesn't seem to be a problem for them."
Then again, acting was never really Sean Bean's first choice. As a teenager, he harboured fantasies about playing football, ideally for his beloved Sheffield United. He fell into acting relatively late, at around the age of 22, and he had never even tried to go to drama at school.
"I think we had a mime teacher come one day, but we didn't have drama classes," he says in that inimitable, unspoilt Yorkshire brogue - another ingredient of his non-formulaic sex appeal, one suspects.
"People used to do end-of-term shows and stuff like that, but I was never really involved. I didn't think it was very cool."
Today, British actors don't get much cooler than Sean Bean. He is undeniably a big star, having the luxury of picking and choosing between quality television drama (Sharpe, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Extremely Dangerous), big-screen blockbusters (GoldenEye, Patriot Games, Ronin) and gritty, more modestly-budgeted British cinema (Essex Boys, his latest movie in which he played his nastiest villain).
And yet Bean remains resolutely, the most down-to-earth, unspoilt bloke's bloke who feels perfectly at home driving back to Sheffield to see his old mates. When he left school he spent three years drifting from job to job until he ended up working with his father in a welding and fabrication shop.
"I was always good at painting and drawing, and that was really what I wanted to do," he says.
"I finally left my Dad's place and said `I want to be an artist' - which is even worse than saying you want to be an actor! I went to three art colleges and I couldn't stick it. I left one of them at dinnertime! I couldn't get on with them because none of them had my idea about what art should be. I stuck at one which had a drama course on the side and, in effect, I switched courses from art to drama ... I felt at home there." He applied to RADA, got a place, moved south and never looked back. Today he lives in North London with his third wife, Abigail Cruttenden, whom he met while filming Sharpe. (His first two wives were teenage sweetheart Debra, with whom he is still friendly, and actress Melanie Hill, from whom he remains estranged; both, however, are no-go areas for the press).
Abigail and he have a two-year-old daughter, Evie, and he misses them dreadfully whenever he is filming abroad - which he has been recently, for Lord of the Rings, in New Zealand.
"I've always been away for certain parts of the year - three months here, four months there - but I've got used to it and I tend to focus on what I'm doing, get down to it and come home," he says.
"Sometimes, if it's over three months, it becomes a long haul and I start to feel it and I really want to come back and get a break. We juggle our acting jobs to fit around looking after Evie, although Abigail has not been acting a lot recently - her last job was Anna Karenina for Channel 4. Usually, it tends to work out that I'm working or she's working. I'd not worked a huge amount last year and there were big gaps in between projects, which was quite nice, really."
Lord of the Rings is one of his biggest movies in a long time - the long-awaited adaptation of Tolkein's cult fantasy - in which he plays Boromir, "a Gondorian from the land of Gondor," as he helpfully puts it.
"It's a massive, hugely ambitious project. It's taken about two years to film it and they won't finish it until Christmas. It's basically three films back to back, from all three books and they won't be out until Christmas 2001. There are some great people in them - Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Liv Tyler and Christopher Lee."
Perhaps he is slowing down on the workfront whenever he can. His year off from acting was a happy combination of choice and the lack of right offers.
"I'd finished the final series of Sharpe and wanted to change tack," he concedes.
"I was getting similar offers for similar parts coming up and they weren't really suitable at the time, so I chose not to do anything really. It was good timing, because of Evie being born. But that all changed with Essex Boys and Lord of the Rings. I know I'm lucky to have such a variety of roles."
Not too many well-respected British actors might have agreed to take on the part of Jason Locke, the brutal, hard-as-nails, wife-beating drug dealer of Essex Boys. But more and more, Bean seems less worried about his screen image and far more interested in taking risks.
"With Essex Boys it was the script - I couldn't refuse to do something so strong," he says.
"I'd worked with the producers and writers before, on Fools Gold, and I liked their method of working. Jason Locke, I found a fascinating character. He's seething with jealousy, having been in prison for five years, and he sees all his old mates with their flash country houses and BMWs. He's bitter and vengeful and he wants to claim back what he assumes is his rightful place in the criminal fraternity."
Locke produces some horrifying violence. How did Bean find the anger to play him?
"I hadn't worked for a year - that made me quite angry!" he laughs.
"I suppose everybody gets angry at some point in their lives. You never forget what it's like, so it's a matter of conveying that. I don't ask myself questions about where my performance comes from - I just do it."
If Jason Locke is jealous of the success of his peers, surely there most be one or two of Bean's old pals in Sheffield who go just a bit green with envy at his fame and fortune.
"Who knows?" he says. "Maybe. I haven't come across them myself but there may be some who know me that feel that way. It'll never stop me going back to Sheffield - I go back a lot. There's always a certain element of jealousy in any profession."
As for the future, he says he would like to go on acting as long as possible.
"Maybe I'd like to do something a bit more light-hearted and humorous," he says.
Don't mention Mr Bean! But, as a Sheffield man, maybe The Full Monty could have been the perfect comic vehicle for him - and wouldn't millions of female fans have liked to see him in kit-off mode?
"It would have been nice to have been involved but I was working, and I think they were pretty clear on the casting - and it didn't involve me.
"I'm really keen to do Macbeth. I keep seeing everybody else doing it. I read it when I was a kid and I've kept looking at it since. It's the dark qualities and the warlike nature, the jealousy and the intrigue."
Clearly not the sort to just sit on his laurels, Mr Bean.
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