|There's something of Alan Shearer about Sean Bean. Like the England football captain, the actor's quietly-spoken manner disguises a fierce determination and self-belief. They are both robustly masculine yet demure, assertive but courteous. There is even a close physical resemblance in their square-jawed good looks. Should the England captain ever be immortalised on celluloid, then football-mad Bean would be perfect casting.
But it's another footballer who pops up in conversation. Vinnie Jones. In Bean's eyes, the former player has the ideal career, first as a top-rank footballer, including a stint as captain of Bean's favourite team, Sheffield United, then as a movie star playing the hard-man roles which should surely be the preserve of Bean. "He's been a professional footballer and now's he's a professional film star. What more could you ask for?" While Jones is riding high in the US with a scene-stealing role alongside Nicolas Cage and Robert Duvall in Gone In 60 Seconds, a big-budget gangster film which is set to travel the world, Bean - who came to Hollywood's attention playing the villains in Patriot Games and Goldeneye - will soon be seen in Essex Boys. It's another British gangster film that might be a hit over here. But beyond that, who knows?
Yet there is no trace of envy in Bean and he lavishes praise on Jones. "All credit to him. He's done extraordinarily well. He's got great presence and charisma and a fantastic face for film. When you come to the end of your career as a footballer it's great to go into film like he's done. He's really done it right."
To show such pleasure at Vinnie's success suggests that Bean is content with his own. The son of a Sheffield steelmaker, he grew up on a council estate, won a place at RADA and was catapulted to fame as TV's Sharpe. He is one of the few actors in Britain equally at home on television or in films, switching between TV dramas such as Bravo Two Zero and Lady Chatterley's Lover to movies like Ronin, in which he appeared with Robert De Niro. He's currently shooting a major part in one of the most sought-after film projects, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
More importantly, Bean has a strong sense of his priorities. The down-to-earth star is not prepared to make the sort of sacrifices necessary to pursue the highest reaches of stardom. He prefers to stay in England rather than embrace Hollywood and steers clear of the celebrity parties that would generate column inches.
"There's a case for going to LA and I've been advised to do that many times," he admits, "but I like living here and I couldn't face the thought of living in LA - unless it was just to work for a while and get back home."
He lives in a plush new house in North London with third wife, actress Abigail Cruttenden, whom he met filming Sharpe, and their now 8-month-old daughter, Evie Natasha.
Although he loves living in London, domestic pleasures are much higher up his list than carousing about the West End. "It's not a matter of snubbing anything, I just don't go out that much. I spend a lot of time reading or watching TV or working on the house and garden. I've got another life which I enjoy - my private life."
It wasn't so private three years ago when his second marriage, to actress Melanie Hill, fell apart. They had been together for 16 years, and married for six, when it ended amid accusations that Bean spent too much time in the pub and left his clothes lying around. While his private grievances were made very public, the actor firmly bit his tongue.
Asked whether he is tempted to respond when his character is attacked in this way, he says: "I think it's best to let things lie and let them die down. If it was a very vitriolic attack on my character, then lawyers obviously would be involved but most times I just think, 'Forget about it, get on with your life'. I don't read much stuff anyway. It's only because people might mention it to me that I know about things."
Anyway, Bean says that he and Melanie are now on good terms and he often spends time with their daughters, Lorna and Molly. Now with another daughter, it's going to be some time before Bean can raise his own football team. "You never know," he laughs. "There's ladies' soccer and Lorna plays a lot. She's really quite good."
Should Lorna aspire to make a living on the pitch, the star certainly won't stand in her way, As an aspiring actor in a working-class community, Bean was something of a pioneer himself, giving up a job as a welder to go to art school where he discovered drama.
"There was an attitude that you just don't go into stuff like that, which made me all the more determined to do it. It's only in the past five years that it's become totally acceptable. Nobody blinks an eye now. Friends of mine in Sheffield are doing parts as extras. It's all become very fashionable and it's become a possibility to many people, not just a select few."
Despite the different circles Bean aspired to mix with, his self-assurance means that he never felt compelled to lose his northern accent, even though it has cost him jobs. "I know I've lost out on parts because people don't spend enough time to realise what you might be able to do. They might just hear how you speak and say you're no good. I think a certain amount of snobbery still exists but I wouldn't say it's been a big problem for me."
There is a straightforwardness and lack of guile about Bean that is rare and refreshing but I wonder if it is to the detriment of the career. Judging by the film roles he has chosen of late, he could benefit from a bit more vanity and cunning.
His minor supporting role in Ronin was as a semi-delinquent hitman and in Essex Boys - inspired by the gangland killing of three drug dealers found dead in their Range Rover - he plays a repellent ex-con who beats up his wife (played by ER's Alex Kingston). Although he gives a strong performance, such parts will hardly endear him to audiences.
"I want people to like my work and what I portray rather than me myself," he says. "I'm not bothered about trying to make people like Sean Bean, the person, through films. I don't want to come out of it smelling of roses every time. I can't start making him into a good guy." It's a noble sentiment - and one Vinnie Jones would surely share.
Essex Boys goes on general release on July 14
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