Essex Boys - The Herald

Last Update: 24 June 2000

29 July 1999

Source: The Herald

The Gang's all Here
John Millar

Sean Bean and Alex Kingston play a modern-day Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in a new British crime movie. JOHN MILLAR spoke to them on the set

It's in the best traditions of movie-making that the stars have to suffer, just a little bit, for their art.

And so it has been for Sean Bean and Alex Kingston - actors best known for their television success - as they've been filming Essex Boys, the latest production in a tradition of gritty British gangster movies such as Get Carter and The Long Good Friday.

Inspired by a newspaper report about an apparent drugs deal that went wrong, when the bodies of three men were found in a car in the Essex countryside, the movie, which has been described as "GoodFellas set in Canvey Island", is an uncompromising story of rivalry, greed and betrayal.

One of the most bloody sequences in the film is a shoot-out between rival gangs, which was filmed late at night in Epping Forest on Saint Patrick's Day. This is a no-punches-pulled drama, in which Bean plays a crook who has just been released from prison. He took the rap and didn't inform on the rest of the gang, who have got rich while he was behind bars. Now he wants his share of the ill-gotten profits.

And Kingston is cast as Bean's forceful, ambitious wife, who eggs him on. She's the real brains in this relationship.

Both Bean, the star of the Sharpe TV series based on the Napoleonic War novels of Bernard Cornwell, and Kingston, who achieved acclaim in the recent small screen adaptation of Moll Flanders, have undergone significant cosmetic changes for their roles.

He's had to forget his passion for Sheffield United and pretend to be a devout Essex boy who naturally follows West Ham. That's meant having his famous tattoo which says "Blades" - Sheffield United's nickname - covered by a fake West Ham one.

"I might get a bit of stick for that," says Bean with the sort of half-hearted grin which suggests that other Blades fans will be inclined to poke fun at him when they discover his guilty secret.

Kingston's enforced alteration to her appearance is much more obvious. Her crowning glory, a cascade of pre-Raphaelite Titian-coloured curls, has been straightened, to make the actress appear even more striking.
The popular image of an Essex girl, of course, is blonde. But the actress was unable to go through that transformation because, as soon as filming was completed on Essex Boys, she was due back on the set of ER, the American television hospital drama in which she's a regular. Obviously her American employers want their star to return to the screen looking as the show's millions of viewers remembered her from the previous series.

She has enjoyed the temporary loss of those trademark curls, however. "It allows me to play somebody completely different because it such a totally distinctive look. The character I play is hard, she's not somebody who is soft and romantic. She is as strong as the men," she says.

"When Sean and I were rehearsing some of the earlier scenes there was a likeness to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth because she has the ambition and wants her husband to get what's due to him.

"But she has to use her power in a different way because the men don't like it to appear that they take, or even listen to, their wives' advice because that would, in a way, emasculate them."

We were talking during a break in filming at a mansion 40 minutes or so from Stansted Airport. The film unit had rented the impressive building to stage a gangland bash, as the coming-out of Bean's character was celebrated in style.

The two leads are supported in Essex Boys by a strong cast that includes Tom Wilkinson, fresh from his success in the Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love, and Charlie Creed Miles, who grabbed the spotlight in Gary Oldman's film festival hit, Nil By Mouth.

Both Bean and Kingston stress that they were drawn to the movie by a powerful script.

"It has been important for me to do something like this during my break from ER," says Kingston.

"If you stay within the context of one show you are more easily typecast. When this script was sent to me I thought it was so well written that I just wanted to be involved.

"It's refreshing to play a completely different part and to stay in touch with what's happening over here in Britain. I certainly don't want people to think that I've gone for good or that I have turned my back on this country and my career over here."

There's the added bonus that filming in Britain allows her to stock up on all the goodies that are just that bit harder to come by in Los Angeles. Like the favourite brand of tea which she now has in her fridge at her Californian home.

Bean, who is still based on these shores, was also attracted by the challenges that Essex Boys presented. The son of Sheffield has had to adopt a convincing Essex accent, done with the aid of a voice coach and the actor paying extra special attention to the sound of locals.

"Fortunately, I've had quite a lot of time to get it together. I knew I was involved in this production since last November. So I have had a few months to work on the accent. It's great when you get a bit of time to prepare because it doesn't happen very often," he says.

The actor also says he was keen to tackle a character who was more complex than just another gangland psychotic.

"It's been a fascinating, exciting job to work on because of the conflicting emotions that the character goes through. He is insecure and vulnerable, but he has a front that he uses to try and hide that," he says.

"I don't expect, though, the audiences will feel too sorry for him. He's not an angel, he's a bit of a terror and a menace, a violent character."

Recently Bean has been seen as a cowardly character alongside Robert De Niro in the John Frankenheimer thriller, Ronin. And, of course, he was the treacherous agent who betrayed James Bond in the box office hit, GoldenEye. Naturally, after the global success of GoldenEye he got lots of offers to play very similar villains.
"It was a big hit and so people see you in that role," he says with a note of resignation. "But I've tried to mix the roles that I do. Playing Vronsky in Anna Karenina, for instance, was completely different.

"It's easy to play something that you know that you are good at and play it over and over again. It's an easy option but not an exciting one. It's better to go out on a limb, take a challenge, even if you flop."

The huge fan-base which made Sharpe such a ratings success will be encouraged to hear that Bean might return as that laconic hero. The series is over. It ended, as he agrees, on a natural high, with a lavish edition set during the battle of Waterloo. But there is serious talk of a big screen Sharpe, and Bean admits that he'd be keen to line up for that.

"The idea is to do a film of Sharpe's Tiger and that might be interesting. It would be a massive scale drama. We'll see what happens," he says, refusing to get too carried away by the possibilities.

As lunch approaches, I wonder if Bean - who achieved one ambition when he made the football film, When Saturday Comes - has any other ambitions that he maybe close to fulfilling.

"I'm thinking about doing some stage work," he reveals. "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 skills."

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