|The former Bond villain has starred in a host of feature films and perhaps most famous for his role in the ITV drama series Sharpe, but now the keen Sheffield United fan is switching his allegiance, if only for his next movie, gangster flick Essex Boys.
Interview: John Millar
When it comes to his passion for football, Sheffield United in particular, Sean has always worn his heart on his sleeve. Having ‘Blades’ - the team’s nickname - tattooed on his arm proved his commitment to his favourite team. But when freetime dropped in on the star’s latest film, Essex Boys, that tattoo had been the subject of a cover-up operation.
It seemed, from the evidence on view, that the actor had switched allegiances to West Ham United. But Sean was quick to point out the new tattoo was fake and only covered up the genuine article for the purpose of the big-screen drama.
In the movie, which also stars Alex Kingston - who was able to fit filming into her busy ER schedule, Sean is cast as an Essex gangster who gets involved in violent crime after his release from prison. Which also explains why his Sheffield accent has been replaced by Essex tones.
Softly spoken to the extent of being downright shy, Sean Bean has shot to stardom since his heroic Napoleonic war capers in the hit ITV series Sharpe. He has also achieved recognition on the small screen as Mellors, the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley and Andy McNab in the Gulf War thriller Bravo Two Zero.
On the big screen, Sean has also made his mark as a double-crossing Bond villain in GoldenEye, a dodgy weapons expert in Ronin, Harrison Ford’s nemesis in Patriot Games and an old fashioned romantic in the arms of Sophie Marceau in Anna Karenina.
Now the handsome star, who worked at his dad’s welding company before going to drama college, is out in New Zealand cast as the warrior Boromir in the first chunk of the mega-million-pound Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
But Jason Locke, the gangster in Essex Boys, is probably the scariest and nastiest character he has ever played. ‘He really is a nasty piece of work, a bit of a terror,’ agrees Sean. ‘Why would I contemplate playing such a violent character? Because this was a role I thought I could make something of.’
‘It has been a fascinating and very exciting job to work on because of the various aspects of the character and conflicting emotions that he goes through. He is insecure and vulnerable and full of doubts, but he has a massive front the uses to try and hide that.’
‘He’s a guy trying to get to grips with coming out of prison after five years and then getting back into the circuit. But things have changed, people got rich because he took the rap for the others and now he has nothing. He’s quite resentful of that and now he wants to be back among the big boys.’
Sean says he had plenty of time to prepare for Essex Boys, watching documentaries and working on the subtleties of the accent, because in the run-up to filming he hadn’t been committed to any other project.
‘There wasn’t anything towards the end of the year that I was interested in doing, so I wanted to wait until something special came along. Then this came up.’
During filming, the actor was also made to feel extra special. Sean celebrated his 42nd birthday and to mark the occasion, director Terry Winsor and producer Jeff Pope organized a birthday cake.
It has been suggested that Essex Boys is a bit like setting Goodfellas in Canvey Island, but Sean is not fond of that sort of glib comparison.
‘I don’t really like drawing parallels with other films, but I am sure there are aspects to this that are similar to things that have gone before. What is important is that the film has a great edge.'
With the football drama When Saturday Comes, Sean fulfilled a deep desire to play in the Sheffield United colors. So freetime wonders whether there might be some other acting ambitions?
I don’t know, ‘ he says, after a slight pause for thought. ‘I’m thinking about doing some stage work - I haven’t done that for a long time. It is something that interests me and I would like to try it again. It sharpens up your instincts and skills.’
Right now for Sean the stage will obviously have to wait because he is in great demand for screen work. He says that the international box office success of his outing as a 007 baddie helped to boost his profile.
‘After GoldenEye, I got lots of offers to play villains. It was a big hit so people see you in that sort of role,’ Sean says, as a team of riggers start the preparation for the next scene to be shot of Essex Boys.
"It is a good thing sometimes because villains tend to be the interesting parts to play, but it can be a drawback when you want to play different types of characters.’
Fortunately, as his screen credits show, Sean has been able to portray heroes and villains, winners and losers.
‘You have to be careful,’ he says with a nod, ‘I’ve tried to mix the roles I do. Anna Karenina, for instance, was completely different.
‘It is easy to play something that you know you’re good at and do it over and over again. That’s a very safe and easy option, but not an exciting one. It’s better to go out on the limb, take a challenge, even if you flop, and I’ve done that a few times.
‘Taking on new challenges means feeling excited, exhilarated, nervous and having a bit of fear. All those emotions mixed into one is a very powerful concoction and is very addictive.’
Sean who lives in London with his actress wife Abigail Cruttenden and their daughter Evie Natasha, recognises the important part Sharpe played in his career.
‘It was great,’ he says. ‘But I don’t think it would be possible to go back and do another series for television.
‘We did all the books that Bernard Cornwell wrote and did them well. Bernard has written more books since then, but they tended to be retrospective, which would be quite difficult for me to go back 20 years.
‘Also the final episode with Waterloo at the centre of the story was a good one to finish on a natural end to the series. There has been talk of a feature film of Sharpe’s Tiger, but whether they get that together remains to be seen. That might be interesting - it would certainly be a massive scale drama. But who knows? We’ll see what happens.’
Essex Boys is at cinemas nationwide now
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