He’s a man’s man, often cast as a bad boy, but actor Sean Bean has always been a hit with the ladies, despite three failed marriages and an old-fashioned view of a woman’s role. Sophie Wilson scratches the surface of a true rough diamond.
I’m starting to think that Sean Bean is going to be hard work. We are at a suite in The Dorchester hotel, where Bean is posing for photos; later we are due to have a chat over drinks. His beloved Sheffield United have just beaten West Bromwich Albion, so, in theory, our man should be in good spirits, but he is jet-lagged and recovering from a bout of food poisoning. He still manages to light up each photo with that dangerous yet vulnerable Bean charm, but, when the shoot finishes, our interview is suddenly postponed.
To be fair, my expectation is based as much on his screen persona as the man himself. Famous for his role as ITV’s Napoleonic rifleman, Sharpe, his hawkish looks and deadpan delivery have seen him cast as a succession of Hollywood baddies: an IRA terrorist in Patriot Games, Bond’s nemesis, 006, in GoldenEye and a hitman in Ronin (although I have to confess it is his early kit-off roles in TV drama Lady Chatterley and footie flick When Saturday Comes that stick in my mind). Off-screen, this Sheffield-born welder-turned-actor has the image of being a man’s man, an unreconstructed football fanatic who once said that a woman’s place is in the home. Waiting to meet him, it’s hard to know what to expect. Will he be a swaggering sex god, a menacing baddie, a chauvinistic pig?
After such a shaky start, I’m slightly nervous about our second encounter. But, 24 hours later in the hotel bar, it’s a different story. Gentlemanly and polite, he greets me with a firm handshake, as no-nonsense as his slate grey Ted Baker T-shirt and Hugo Boss suit. There is none of the insincere airkissing that normally accompanies a celebrity interview. With Sean Bean, what you see is what you get.
Playing heroic warrior Boromir in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy has thrust him into the limelight. When we meet to talk about his next film, Don’t Say A Word, with Michael Douglas, he is still in the middle of a round-the-world tour promoting the trilogy. He’s been to Los Angeles, New York, London – it’s hard to keep tracks: ‘I can’t even remember what day it is – it’s Sunday, int’it?’ he says, reaching for the Silk Cut. ‘I think we did about 75 interviews last Friday.’
Life wasn’t always this hectic. There was a period after Sharpe when Sean struggled to get decent work: ‘Doing nothing when everyone thought I was doing everything.’ His career picked up again when he was cast against the Northern grain as a cockney ex-con in the gangland Britflick Essex Boys. Then came The Lord Of The Rings. Now, thanks to merchandising, we can all buy a Sean Bean action figure, something women have coveted for years.
So, is he sexy? Yes, but in a slow-burn way. The too-straight teeth and fluffy mouse-coloured hair don’t exactly stop you in your tracks. But his gentle manner and habit of fixing his pale green eyes on you are disarming. Then there is the signature Bean chuckle. A slow, throaty laugh that surfaces whenever you ask him a personal question, it signals, ‘Nice try, but I don’t think so.’
Divorced three times, Bean is understandably guarded about his private life. At twenty, he married his childhood sweetheart, Debra, but the two drifted apart when he moved down to London to attend RADA. There, he met his second wife, actress Melanie Hill (still most famous as Aveline in Bread), with whom he has two daughters, Lorna, fourteen, and Molly, ten. His third marriage, to Abigail Cruttenden, his screen wife in Sharpe, ended shortly after she gave birth to their daughter Evie, in 1999. He has refused to comment publicly on the break-up.
Bracing myself for a knock-back, I try to take the temperature of Sean’s love life now. He ducks and dives around each question like a pro. I ask if he is seeing anyone. [Laughs] ‘No, I’m single.’[Laughs again.] Single and happy or single and on the look-out? ‘I’m very comfortable, very happy with the way things are going, to be honest. It’s quite an exciting time in my life. I’m concentrating on my work and just enjoying life.’ Will you ever marry again? ‘Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll do. I think it’s up to the individual how they feel about things. [Laughs.] Anything can happen in life, you never know what’s round the corner, so I’m just quite content with my life at the moment and I hope it continues the way it’s going.’ Who would be your ideal woman? ‘Oh, I don’t know. Who knows?’ Are you romantic? ‘I suppose I can be, yeah…’
It’s exasperating, but who can blame him for holding back? His split from Melanie Hill was messy, with their domestic minutiae splashed over the tabloids. She accused him of caring more about Sheffield United, of spending too much time in the pub and leaving his clothes lying around. He maintained a dignified silence and the two now have a ‘friendly relationship’.
We move on to the safer ground of his new movie, Don’t Say A Word. An enjoyable slice of psychological hokum, it stars Michael Douglas as a psychiatrist who must retrieve a six-digit code from a patient’s mind in order to rescue his kidnapped daughter. Naturally, Bean plays the child abductor. I wonder if he ever tires of such nasty roles. He points out that he filmed the movie back to back with children’s film Tom & Thomas, in which he plays a doting father. And he’s cast as a police officer in forthcoming thriller Equilibrium.
Bean found he clicked with Michael Douglas. ‘He’s a very nice fellow, actually, very approachable. He has a very dry sense of humour, which I could identify with.’ Perhaps having a Welsh wife helped hone his British-style wit? ‘Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. Also I think he’s New York-based and New Yorkers have a much more caustic, abrasive feel to their humour.’
Don’t Say A Word’s mind-bending twists and turns could fill a psychiatry thesis, but what does Bean make of the whole therapy game? ‘I think people sometimes become very subjective, very insular and I think an outsider, an objective point of view, whether that’s a friend or a therapist [can help]. It’s always important not to get too self-obsessed, and be able to relate to people around you.’ But he sees dangers in relying too much on others, instead of sorting out your own problems: ‘I think the aim in seeking help is to find the strength within yourself to go on.’ So, has he ever, erm, sought help? ‘I don’t like to say. I don’t like getting too personal.’ He says, deflecting any tension with another burst of laughter.
There is something very self-contained about Sean Bean. You can see it in his acting, the measured precision of his baddies. And you can see it in his love of baroque music, of all things. ‘I like Handel, Bach, Telemann. Baroque music has an exactness that I like, a symmetry, an organised quality,’ he tells me, suddenly sounding like one of his psychotic hitmen.
It turns out he once had a hankering to be a musician. He reminisces fondly about his old piano teacher, Mr White, who lived across the road from the semi in Sheffield where Sean and younger sister Lorraine grew up. ‘I used to go to him every Friday. He charged 50p a lesson. He was incredible – white hair, long elegant fingers.’
Bean left school at sixteen and briefly joined his father’s welding business before taking drama lessons. He credits his mother with giving him the acting instinct: ‘The women in my family are very demonstrative. I think it’s probably something I took from my mother. She’s very open.’
I ask him to paint a picture of an average Sunday, chez Bean. He describes being at home in Belsize Park, North London, with his daughters (whom he sees at weekends), dinner with friends, a leaf through Moby Dick, a bit of light gardening – it sounds a cosy, Nigella Lawsonish existence. At 42, does he feel his age? ‘I do just now!’ he laughs. Does he think he’s mellowed over the years? ‘Perhaps, yeah, sometimes I do. I don’t think I’m rushing around as much. I feel as though I can appreciate things a little more now, be a little more outward-looking, a bit more relaxed about everything. To be an actor, you have to create instant emotion, but it’s not always necessary in life. Sometimes it takes a bit of getting used to the fact that you can actually relax, that you’re not acting all the time, you can take things easy.’
The simmering tension, the edge that fuels Sean’s acting, has at times landed him in trouble off-screen. A skirmish while at RADA even led to a charge of actual bodily harm. Looking back, he wonders what drove him. ‘I was always thinking, “Something should be happening.” Now I think, “Well, things might not be happening, but I’m OK with that. I can relax. I can make it happen when I want it to happen. I can sit back, have a pint.”’ He starts to chuckle, amused by the image of Old Man Bean, supping his ale.
The ‘it’, the ‘things’, the ‘happenings’, he doesn’t elaborate upon, but he has clearly shifted down a gear and is having more fun in the process. For a man who doesn’t go in for self-analysis, who shuns method acting, he seems to have found inner peace.
The welder who left school with two O levels is on a journey of self-discovery: ‘I’m very fortunate to have been in a position to be able to travel and explore life. I know my roles are sort of fictitious lives, but they’ve given me an opportunity to study and educate myself. A glimpse of what life can offer. That’s a lot to be given.’ It sounds like a year with Tolkien’s elves has brought out his mystical side, but no doubt Sean Bean has always been a deeper animal than the football-mad heartthrob we read about in the papers. █
Don’t Say A Word is out on 22 February.
‘TO BE AN ACTOR, YOU HAVE TO CREATE INSTANT EMOTION AND IN LIFE IT CAN TAKE TIME TO REALISE YOU’RE NOT ALWAYS ACTING, YOU CAN RELAX’