|by Elaine Paterson
May 26-June 2, 1993
From rapists to terrorists, Sean Bean has made the deadly dangerous fatally
attractive. Now he’s using his rough charm in Ken Russell’s “Lady Chatterley”.
Elaine Paterson finds out more.
Crossing the road is a man who makes women go weak at the knees, but the way he
looks today he could be selling the Big Issue. No heads turn as Sean Bean
shambles into the modest Muswell Hill hotel where he held his wedding reception
four years ago. He flops on a settee. His hair’s greasy, his complexion pallid,
jeans grey, jumper two-tone Acrilan (beige and brown). He’s shy and studiously
polite: laughs often, sometimes to show he doesn’t take himself too seriously,
sometimes just to be nice. He’s as accommodating as his north of England reserve
will allow; but the words come out tentatively, muffled like an old cat’s purr.
This is not a sex symbol.
On-screen, Bean has an unnerving raw masculinity of the type Camille Paglia
tells us women really want. It was called ‘animal magentism’ in the days before
aftershave and it lurks dangerously around the most inappropriate characters –
rapists (Clarissa), wife-beaters (Wedded), obsessive boyfriends (Tell Me That
You Love Me), the visceral IRA terrorist he played in Patriot Games, the rugged
rifleman Sharpe in the Napoleonic two-parter on ITV. Bean has compassion for the
bastards he portrays.
‘They’re just ordinary people who find themselves in unusual situations, or with
problems, you know, or facing some kind of conflict,” he says in his lilting
Yorkshire accent. “I do question myself sometimes, but not too much because you
can get into a terrible mess by wondering why a character is doing something.
It’s got to come from somewhere else. There’s got to be something in the
character that you sympathise with and that you like.”
He never analyses what he does, works on instinct, and has a chameleon-like
ability to fuse with a character. Julie Burchill recalls watching him read for
the lead in her BBC drama Prince, based on her dad.
“He came in and he was so slightly built and northern that I thought, ‘He’s
never going to become my Dad’, because my Dad was a burly West Country man,”
says Burchill, “and then he started to read and it was my Dad. It was so eerie.”
This charming man is cast as a brute in boots again in Ken Russell’s forthcoming
Lady Chatterley as Mellors, the gamekeeper whose unbuttered tango with the lady
of the manor (played here by Joely Richardson) caused Lawrence’s novel to be
banned until 1960. Leslie Halliwell summarised the plot as: ‘wife of a crippled
and impotent mine owner has an affair with a coarse gamekeeper and enjoys it,’
and Russell’s cloth cap as loin cloth approach is in keeping with previous
dramatic efforts (on the basis of the first two episodes anyway), but Bean sees
Mellors as “basically an intelligent, sensitive man: he can be hurt.” His
intuitive performance rescues lines like: “We come off together that time,” from
the ignominy of Russell’s high camp.
He has the ability to contemporise period drama: no costume can erase that
vandal’s swagger and rock-star sneer. Bob Bierman, who directed him as the
ravishing rake in Richardson’s Clarissa, says, “There’s something of the gutter
about Sean.” Bean laughs uproariously.
“I think you’re stuck with your class,” he says. “I’m from a working-class
background and I suppose now I’m living a kind of middle-class existence. But I
try to bring that working-class attitude to the parts I do because it’s a harder
outlook and it’s more reflective of what society is today.”
Sean Bean grew up on a Sheffield housing estate and stumbled into acting more by
accident than design. An undistinguished academic career led to passing
dalliances with the cheese counter at Tesco’s and his dad’s welding firm before
one of three art schools he attended lured him into a drama club. There was no
previous drive to act. His family had no truck with theatre, weren’t big cinema-
goers. Loved Sheffield United.
“I suppose I always wanted to do something different,” Bean considers. “Not go
along with the flow, you know, with everybody else. I went to see things like
The Godfather when that first came out. I was only young, about 15 or 16, and
I’d go along with a pinstripe suit on and a black shirt and a white silk tie. I
didn’t want to be an actor then, but I suppose I was acting. I think it takes a
long time for it to click and you think, ‘Oh hold on, I’ve been doing that all
me life, why don’t I do it professionally and get some money for it.”
He doesn’t recognise a contradiction between his shyness and his desire to act.
“If I didn’t have it [acting] I don’t know what I’d be doing. I might be getting
into trouble. Know what I mean?” He confesses, sheepishly, to having a temper.
“I don’t jump off at every little thing, but if I go off, I go off. I really
can’t stop then. I used to be worse, but you get a bit milder as you get older.
I don’t like to lose my temper, but I have to get it out of me system.”
There’s an aura of rehabilitation about Bean, although he doesn’t own up to
anything worse than a few schoolboy scrapes. He spoke once, in an interview with
the Mail on Sunday, about an ABH (Actual Bodily Harm) charge, the result of a
skirmish while at RADA, but hunched over his cigarette, talking to his trainers
in a tight knot of contrition, you sense Bean feels he’s paid his dues. Now it
all goes into acting. “You’ve got to go for it 100 per cent. Otherwise you’re
going to look stupid.” He tends to trust directors, even when they’re known
eccentrics like Ken Russell and require him to chase Lady Chatterley around the
woods buff naked.
“It was the first time I’d run through a wood with nothing on with another
woman. We had these massive speakers in the wood blasting out classical music
and there were rain machines spraying quite hot, warm rain, and big green
lights, so it was quite exciting. Yeah, quite a nice feeling, actually.”
Nudity doesn’t worry him. Unlike some of his contemporaries – middle class Tim
Roth with his cultivated sarf London accent or Gary Oldman with his hobo fashion
sense – Bean feels no need to prove that his street cred or his manhood remain
untarnished by his esoteric profession.
“I usually keep fit,” he says, slightly put out by my expression of surprise.
“I’d like to get to a gym a bit more. I usually end up going about three times
and then I get fed up.” Three times a week? “No, just three times.” He laughs
and lets his fingers soak up a fresh coating of nicotine.
Since The Field (by My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan) and the blockbuster
Patriot Games, Bean has looked like the new Brit most likely to break Hollywood.
Accents aren’t a problem. There have been offers, but Bean has a strict
selection process. He turned down a new Disney film because it clashed with A
Woman’s Guide to Adultery and the chance to work with wiry Scottish
actor/director David Hayman. “He’s straight down the line, he doesn’t mess
about.” Like Bean. He’d work in Hollywood if the right project came up but
believes “we do the best work” and anyway, his diary is full. He’s off for a
medical after this interview to see how he shapes up for Shopping, a film about
ramraiding by a new British director.
Success for Sean Bean means a three-bedroomed house in Muswell Hill where he
lives with his wife Melanie (the second Aveline in Bread), two young daughters
and a Jaguar Sovereign for ease of driving up and down to Sheffield to see his
team play. He’s not flash with his money. It doesn’t go down well where he comes
from: “You might get a clout.” In case he should ever be in danger of forgetting
where he’s from, it’s tattooed on his arm.
“It was when Sheffield United had won promotion to the Premier League,” he
remembers with pride. “I went down with me mate, Farquhar he’s called, big lad,
and he had Sheffield United done and I had 100% BLADES. It took about two
minutes and it come to four quid. I said: “I’ll get yours in then,” to him. I’ve
never regretted it.”
With Thanks to The Compleat Sean Bean