The rough with the smooth
March 3, 2007 Saturday
The rough with the smooth
SEAN BEAN's screen image as a hard man has carried over into his private life.
Perhaps, he tells DAVID THOMAS, that's because even after three marriages
he still just doesn't understand women
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A few years ago I interviewed the actress Samantha Bond when she was
appearing opposite Sean Bean in a stage production of Macbeth. She showed
me a swelling on her upper lip. 'Look, that's a blood-blister from overzealous
kissing,' she said, almost purring with pride and contentment.' It's absolutely
for real. This is a very passionate Macbeth.'
Perhaps not surprisingly, Samantha had not yet told her husband how she came
by her war wound. Nor had she informed the perpetrator, Sean Bean. 'I thought
he'd go, "Oh dear." You see, Sean's a very, very nice man and he'd just worry
about it. And I don't want not to be kissed passionately.'
Millions of women would understand. If they were getting paid to smooch an
actor who specialises in high-testosterone hunkdom - swashing and buckling
as the hero of Sharpe, fighting orcs as Boromir in The Lord Of The Rings,
playing an SAS hero in Bravo Two Zero and a grizzled paratrooper in his new
film Outlaw - the last thing they'd want is for him to hold back. So I tell Bean,
'You kissed Samantha Bond so hard you gave her blisters.' He frowns.
'Really?' he says, trying to work out if I'm sending him up. Then he laughs,
'It could have been the other way round, her kissing me. She's a fiery actress!'
Seconds later, just as Samantha had predicted, his second response kicks in.
The laughter is replaced by a note of concern. 'Was she pleased about that?
Was she okay?' Because that's the thing about Sean Bean.
What you first see is not quite what you get. Or at least, it's not all there is to him.
Of course, he's not a new man. He's certainly not metrosexual. He's a proper macho
Northern male, 47 years old, 'Beano' to his mates, with attitudes as defiant as his
Sheffield accent, as his three ex-wives could testify. He grew up in a two-bedroom
house on a council estate and went to a comprehensive. His dad Brian ended up
being a partner in a metalworks and driving a Rolls-Royce. 'He never dropped me
off at school in it,' Bean insists. 'I wasn't having that. I always made sure I got
But no matter how flash his motor, Brian Bean never moved out of his little house
and Sean (who was christened Shaun) has inherited that same stubborn determination
to remain true to his roots. He's much happier mixing with regular blokes than
showbiz luvvies. 'I was coming down on the train from Sheffield the other day,
after the match [he's an ardent Sheffield United supporter]. There were Manchester
United fans and Tottenham fans. Some Derby fans got on for half-an-hour, all
singing at the back of the train. That's how it should be, mixing together and
having fun. We had a good laugh, a good Saturday night.'
He's arrived for a rare interview with his sandy hair unbrushed and his chin dusted
in stubble. Like many actors he's a little smaller than his super-tough screen
image might suggest, not quite six feet tall and by no means heavily built. He's
wearing a pair of jeans that don't look remotely designer, a zip-up cotton
sweatshirt and a dark bomber jacket. When he's shown the selection of cashmere
scarves a stylist has chosen for his portrait session (they've arrived in a carrier
bag done up with a silk bow), pain crosses his features. It's not that he's being
a diva or insisting he's a serious actor who won't lower himself to such trifles.
He's just not a cashmere kind of guy.
Nor, with his steadfastly blokey image, does he come across as a closet romantic,
which he confirms by launching into the just-passed Valentine's Day as 'rubbish
and just a moneyspinner - a view no doubt shared by his girlfriend-actress Georgina
Okay then, I ask, what's the single most romantic thing he's ever done?
Bean thinks about it, then we both laugh as he fails to come up with an answer.
'I've done a few but nothing that stands out. You'll have to come back to me
later on that one.' This is the man who is said to have interrupted his honeymoon
with his second wife, Bread actress Melanie Hill, to watch Sheffield United play
York. When I ask if that story's true, he pleads guilty with a grin. 'We spent our
honeymoon on a tour of Yorkshire and it just happened United were playing
quite a lot of other Yorkshire clubs at the time.'
I feel it's only fair at this point to make my own confession. I insisted on
postponing my honeymoon for 48 hours so as to be certain of seeing the 1986
World Cup final on TV. Bean nods in manly appreciation. 'There's nothing wrong
with that. You've got to get things in perspective. You've just got to be careful
how you do it, haven't you?'
His latest film, Outlaw, tells the story of five men, all abused by violent thugs and
let down by the justice system, who decide to take the law into their own hands
and go looking for revenge. It is shockingly, sickeningly violent at times, as if to
leave the viewer in no doubt that this is the reality of life in a Britain that seems
to be sinking into criminality, violence and anarchy. Outlaw portrays a nation in
which the threat of random, unprovoked attack haunts our streets and in which
the justice system seems to have given up trying to stop, catch or punish the
thugs who wreck innocent people's lives.
The film is a low-budget production and Bean took a big pay cut to work on it
because he felt so strongly about its subject matter.
When he talks about his role as Danny Bryant, an ex-soldier who comes back
home from Iraq and feels like a stranger in his own country, the jocularity and
laddishness disappear, and are replaced by a quieter, more thoughtful tone.
'It's a very thought-provoking piece and when I came out after I first saw it on
screen, I didn't know what to say,' he begins. 'It takes a while for it all to sink
in. It's a film that I think the majority of people in this country will be able to
identify with. At some time or other they've felt powerless or isolated. They've
suffered injustice and there's been nobody there for them. And what do you do
when you can't win? When you do everything you've been told to do, when you
go to the police and you still don't get anywhere? What do you do then?
Sometimes it just tips you over the edge.' 'My character is pretty intense. He's
almost going through a nervous breakdown. That's why I like him. He's not one
of these guys who know exactly what they're doing. He has a rage in him and
sometimes he doesn't know where it's going. It comes out and then he regrets
it, like we all do, I suppose.' Bean knows it's easy for directors to typecast him
as a psycho. 'I can do anger. I don't know why and that's the way I prefer it. I
don't want to start asking too many questions.
I've got enough stuff going round my head without getting into all that.' But he's
no stranger to violent conflict in his real life, too. As a young man he was fined
Pounds 50 for causing actual bodily harm. 'It was at drama school,' he says.
'Someone had a swing at me so I had a swing at them and I got done for it.'
Bean insists, however, that he tries to stay away from trouble. 'I go out of my
way not to put myself in that sort of situation. I play tough parts but I don't
want to live them.' But he adds, 'At the same time, if someone comes up and
gives you a swipe on the back of the head you're going to do something.
We've all been in situations where we've thought, "Things can't go on like this."
Are you just going to stand there and get battered, or are you going to stand up
Nick Love, the director of Outlaw, found himself fascinated by the contrast
between the actor he saw in front of his camera and the man he met off set.
'Sean's a very reserved man,' says Love.
'You could pass him on the street without noticing him because he doesn't stand
out or swagger. But on screen he's transformed into someone much bigger. He's
mesmerising. That's a proper movie star. He likes a pint and likes his football.
But when he talks about work he's incredibly professional.
He's very thoughtful, very methodical. He's really read the script and considered it.
After shooting, when other people were off drinking, he'd spend time on his own,
thinking about the scenes he had to do the next day.' There is, in other words,
a lot more to Sean Bean than just a cinematic bit of rough.
That day I met Samantha Bond, I could hear the sound of a piano coming from
another room. It was Sean Bean, relaxing between rehearsals by playing a bit of
Beethoven and playing it well.
'I started learning the piano as a lad with this fellow across the road called Mr
Stone,' he says. 'He was about 85 and it was 50p a lesson.
I used to play Beethoven and Chopin, stuff like that. I'd like to get back into it.
You can really lose yourself in it. You have to be totally focused because if you're
not, your fingers just won't function.' Bean is typical of a certain kind of
working-class Northern man who is self-taught and whose gentler side always
comes out at one remove - like all those hard men who breed pigeons or grow
sweet peas. His formal education left him with just two O-levels in English
and art. 'It comes to some people later in life.
At school, I wasn't interested in history, geography and maths. I was more
interested in getting to know friends and getting on with my life. Lessons
seemed to get in the way of that.
'But after I left I had a craving to learn. I found myself in bookshops, museums
and libraries. I just had a desire to find out about things like literature, plays,
Homer and the Greeks and music especially.'
He was working at his father's firm and studying welding and metallurgy at
Rotherham College of Arts and Technology when he wandered into a drama
class by mistake and discovered that he had a natural gift for acting, a stage
presence that cannot be taught. In 1981 he won a scholarship to the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Art. By then, he had already married his first wife,
hairdresser Debra James. 'We were just two young kids who fell in love,
but it never worked out,' she later said. 'I'm very happy for him now.' As his
career flourished, Bean's private life became more complicated. He and
second wife Melanie Hill had two daughters, Lorna, now 19, and Molly, 15,
before splitting in 1997.
Within three months he had married again, to his Sharpe co-star (and onscreen
wife) Abigail Cruttenden. The marriage produced another daughter, Evie,
seven, but lasted less than three years before the couple divorced in 2000.
'I don't think you ever really understand women,' he says, when I ask why
he found it so hard to stay married. 'You never really know how things are
going to turn out, you have to live day by day. I just like the fact that I'm
fortunate to be in a situation where my life changes quite a lot. Sometimes
they might not be great changes, sometimes they are, but at least it's
never unexciting. There's always something happening.'
Today, Bean's strongest feelings seem to be towards his daughters. Painfully
aware that his career has taken him away from his family too often in the
past, he now seems determined to make up for his failings as a father.
'Kids are a great leveller,' he says. 'They put things into perspective. I'm
pretty easygoing as a dad. You have to give people a bit of leeway and
let them make their own way through life.'
When I ask how he spends his spare time at home in north London, he grins,
'I'm tidying up after my girls most of the time. I like a bit of gardening, and
doing things in the house. I'm in the process of redecorating at the moment,
and I love that. It keeps me fit and I find it very therapeutic: it takes my
mind off doing films.' Still, Bean needs to earn a living, so when a good part
comes along, he grabs it. In a few weeks he starts shooting a film version
of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance. 'It's a great part,' he says with
'I'm playing Lord Illingworth. He's a gentleman, very dapper and charismatic
but a bit of a rascal. I'm very fond of Oscar Wilde's work and, having played
a series of psychotic characters, it'll be quite refreshing to do something
different like this.'
Since he's about to play the seducer in a romantic melodrama, it seems only
right to end the conversation as we began, pondering the mystery of men
and women. 'Thank God we're so different,' says Bean. 'That's the excitement.
Yeah' he gives one last, unshaven grin, 'That's what makes them so irresistible.'
Outlaw is released in cinemas on Friday.
A face in the life of...
Husband, father, fighter in countless on-and off-screen roles, Sean Bean has
become an icon of rugged masculinity. Here are the highlights:
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