God Save the Bean
God Save the Bean
Los Angeles Times
12 July 2005
Rugged actor rises above the stigma of the British thespian gone Hollywood.
By Linda Blandford
Special to The Times
Photo by Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times
London -- It is the dream of most British actors to work in Hollywood. It is the
revenge of those who aren't invited to disdain those who do. Ewan McGregor
has been quoted as saying, "In Britain I'll get shagged off for doing
'The Island.' " McGregor, though, is still boyish enough to be the Prince
William of British stars. The London tabloids, specialists at tearing down
success, may leave him alone, particularly since McGregor is currently
doing that very English penance of appearing for almost no money on the London
The more mysterious case in "The Island" is Sean Bean. He is one of the
biggest stars in Britain. From the time he tore off Lady Chatterley's knickers
12 years ago (to say nothing of the saucy sex that followed, and this on
the BBC), he has been a national sex symbol every middle-class woman's
fantasy "bit of rough," as the upmarket press likes to put it. "Britain's
greatest sex bomb," goes the opening to his unauthorized biography. He is
also one of Britain's richest actors because year after year he has delivered for
Hollywood a dynasty of vicious killers from the fanatical Irish terrorist
hunting Harrison Ford in "Patriot Games," to the coldhearted betrayer of Pierce
Brosnan's Bond in "GoldenEye" and Nicolas Cage's carelessly psychopathic
adversary in "National Treasure," where his craggy, louche good looks and
cocky, lean-framed walk surely made its American mark.
The mystery is that he is one of the few Brits to work constantly in the U.S.
without stirring up resentment at home. Perhaps it's because he's not too
proud to play what is sniffily called here "character" parts. They do like to
see the prosperous humbled. Even the venerated Laurence Olivier, for
example, wasn't too grand to play Neil Diamond's rabbi father in "The Jazz
Singer." It's also because Bean is one of those shrewd Brits who managed
to break into Hollywood without leaving home. Another is Jim Broadbent,
who can be seen unloading his wife's paintings from his beaten-up and dusty
old station wagon. No shiny foreign car and posse of assistants for him:
"still one of us," is the message.
English actors are caught in a trap: If they move to Los Angeles, there
will be no reentry to the clannish arts world back home should they fail.
Michael Caine, clinging to his cockney accent, didn't go home until it was
in glory to live as an English lord, sticking it to them, it could be said. In
London, it is the received wisdom that L.A. is bad for English actors. All
that money, sunlight and valet parking corrupts, they say; look at Dudley
Moore. Brits are neither good at nor approving of "pleasure."
Enter Sean Bean, the working-class outsider from a colorless housing
development in Sheffield, the town that gave England a failed manufacturing
sector, unemployment and "The Full Monty."
Bean chose to meet in a London pub, his local, where he's known and safe.
In the early evening, it was full of blue-collar toughs, the smoke from
roll-your-own cigarettes hanging over empty chip bags and beer bellies.
A roomful of men in dead-end jobs, any of whom Bean could have been.
He came in with their same untidy walk: careless, unfussed, a walk that
marks space as its own and that women no longer expect to move aside
for. Of course they recognized him. DVDs are still moving by the boxful
of his five-year TV series "Sharpe," in which he played an intense and
magnetic superhero of the Napoleonic Wars. And, of course, no heads
urned in the pub. In the new world of "laddish" Brits, real men don't
flinch for stars.
Son of a welder and a stay-at-home mum, Bean left his local school at 16
with a record of truancy and academic failure. If he didn't learn much else,
he learned "how to take a knock, how to have a laugh, the codes of honor,
doing things we shouldn't be doing." It's the world he goes back into when
he comes home from the U.S.: soccer, beer, the lads, running to Sheffield
to see family, old friends, Sheffield United games. His dark Yorkshire accent
reaches deep into this one true part of his life. "It's a bit more real, innit?
It's your history, it's memories it's a thickness around you." Perhaps
roots are all that ground him.
Three times divorced, an absent father to three children by two wives, at
46 he's dating a woman half his age. And yet the tabloids leave him alone.
Two tiny stories in as many years in the salacious News of the World, the
Sunday paper that thrives on stars' cocaine binges, drunken evenings and
broken marriages. It's not as if he isn't copy. He downs lager like his fans
drink tea. By the end of the evening, his six-pint riff on the wilder shores
of his imagination has an edge to it menace, perhaps, mockery certainly.
He has the mind of a magpie's nest: brilliant, glittering, inventive and
disorderly all at once. "My imagination when it's unleashed," he says at
one point, "is like a wild animal." There's restlessness but also challenge.
"Hunt for me and you'll fail," he seems to be saying.
The layers are complicated. He slathers over the memory of Sophie Marceau,
his costar in his first shot at international leading-man status in "Anna
Karenina." "Well, I couldn't, could I? She'd had a baby. She was married."
A seam of the puritanical North Country runs through him. He worries
about evil and the presence of a benevolent God. "Cold," "hollow," "hard":
These are the words he doesn't like. It's possible to see how he got out of
Sheffield and, unlikely applicant that he was, into the Royal Academy of
Dramatic Art, the Juilliard of Britain. Three years after graduation, he was
playing Romeo at the Royal Shakespeare Company but a street-wise
Romeo in biker's leather. This was a young actor who'd had a life before
The contradictions and complexity were there from the start. In his first film,
"Winter Flight," for David Puttnam's Enigma, Bean played Hooker, the military
bully. Look carefully and see realized in that small but key role all the visceral
class rage of Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Bean's Hooker was pitiless but, as
the film's director Roy Battersby puts it, the work of an actor "with a big
hinterland." His villains always have something more going on than being
Over the course of a long evening, he is open about much, not the least his
disappointment at the failure of Bernard Rose's "Anna Karenina," a pastiche
of Tolstoy's great love story. He's right, of course; it's terrible. But there
was something about Bean too, playing the passionate Vronsky not with the
cadence of his usual English but with what's known as RP, received pronunciation,
the posh stuff for Shakespeare. The most ordinary RADA graduate leaves with
flawless RP. Bean's is slightly off. Its constriction pulls him back inside himself
so he comes across as stiff and empty. It isn't that he can't do accents. In
the mean tale of drug dealers, "Essex Boys," he imbued with merciless
violence that most idiosyncratic of British accents; he knew those villains'
language in his bones. It is as if, for all the money, the sumptuous house
up the road in Hampstead, celebrity and recognition in Britain, he is still the
outsider to an establishment that RP personifies.
His house is the clue to the weird splits in his bi-continental life. The English
look of money is always personal: It's about comfort, photos and mounted
trophies above the fireplace. Bean's house is about perfection: It's cold,
hard, hollow, the very words he hates. Beautiful, yes, but the quirky,
unassuming bloke in the pub, the one who holds fast to friends and roots,
is a ghost in it. Outsider once, outsider still.
Up the motorway to the north is the small safety of his childhood. Across the
ocean is the safety of work and American hotels, never driving, working hard,
being reliable and, above all, never drinking on the job: playing the demons
rather than drinking them away. In the next few months, he has three films
that will be released, three more in production. Dangerous, passionate and
remote, he has all the characteristics of a classic leading man. This is a
star waiting for his L.A. Confidential.
Return to the Main Features Page
Return to The Compleat Sean Bean