|By CHRIS SULLIVAN
Last updated at 10:17 PM on 26th May 2011
Sean Bean is barely recognisable. His slicked-back hair is cut short, and he wears a World War II British Army officer’s field uniform. I feel as if I’ve been whisked back in a time machine to 1943.
We are on the set of Bean’s latest action film, Age Of Heroes, a true story of 30 Assault Unit, a commando team formed by Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and their mission to blow up a Nazi radar tower in occupied Norway.
Bean plays Jack ‘Davey’ Jones, the hard-nosed officer who takes his boys out on their near-suicidal mission.
‘It’s a proper Boy’s Own yarn,’ he says with uncharacteristic emotion. Like Jones, he is the strong and silent type.
‘These guys went out and risked death and torture for our country. They were real heroes.’
He makes the filming on location in Norway sound like a dangerous campaign. ‘It’s like a mini-battle with real action sequences’ he says. ‘This was the real thing.’
So real, that in the snowy wastes Bean came down with an unsoldierly cold virus which really knocked him out. ‘It was tough and cold up there and being ill made it harder still,’ he says. ‘But these men’s stories needed to be told.’
Bean has built much of his career playing such rock-hard military men. He was the sabre-wielding Sharpe in the Napoleonic wars TV series; the valiant Boromir in The Lord of The Rings, and in Troy, he was Odysseus to Brad Pitt’s Achilles.
He is also currently starring in the latest Sky Atlantic TV series from HBO, Game Of Thrones. Set in an almost medieval fantasy world, it allows the actor to strap on armour and get back on his horse. ‘It’s like Lord Of The Rings, but with sex,’ Bean says.
‘We all love these roles. When you’re a kid you’ve got your horse, your sword, your helmet and your armour. So obviously we’re still kids in a way. The fantasy of the show was there at the beginning and then goes quite dark. I’m not a massive fan of science fiction and fantasy, but when it’s got that edge it’s a different story.’
He wears his 52 years well, at 5ft 10in he has muscles that still ripple. He speaks slowly and softly, seems to find the floor fascinating and only makes eye contact when he looks up and flashes a big, bashful smile. He is the least luvvie actor I have ever met.
‘I like a good drink like the next man,’ Bean says, lighting another cigarette. ‘But on my own terms. I feel a bit queasy at the thought of attending premieres and stuff. I’m not that social type. But if you court publicity you can’t complain if you get pestered. And I don’t want to be pestered. To be famous and seen in clubs and bars is that it?’
He spent eight years in Hollywood but the mention of it provokes a sigh. ‘I feel more comfortable here, it’s where I’m from and people are like-minded,’ he says. ‘It’s good working in America up to a point, but to overstay your welcome is not a good idea.
‘You can never enjoy a meal without hassle and everyone’s promising everything and a lot of it is bull. It’s overpowering and cloying. Whereas here everyone’s laid back, pragmatic and realistic.’
He grew up in a two-bedroom council house in Sheffield (‘Me mam and dad still live in it,’ he says proudly), and attended the local comprehensive but showed little academic ability. He was a trainee welder for his father who, having made brass with his foundry business, drove young Sean to work in his Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.
‘Acting wasn’t an option in Sheffield,’ Bean explains. ‘It was steelworks, learning a trade. I did that for a few years and I enjoyed it, but I hankered to do something creative. I went to art college but dropped out as the whole atmosphere wasn’t really right for me.
‘I was wondering what I was going to do with my life and didn’t ever think it would be acting, but once I’d done a course and got inspired, I made that decision ‘I’m going to be an actor.’ In the early Eighties Bean studied at RADA, graduating with an Honours Diploma and three prizes.
He made his first TV forays in the likes of The Bill while honing his stage skills. Joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was a leather-clad biker Romeo in their 1983 production of Romeo and Juliet, played Robin Starveling in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Spencer in Fair Maid Of The West. Meanwhile, film director Derek Jarman gave him his biggest break as Ranuccio in his acclaimed movie, Caravaggio.
But his favourite film is The Field, directed by Jim Sheridan, where he played the simpleton son of the domineering landowner Bull McCabe, portrayed by the late Richard Harris.
Bean says he identified with the gritty Northern films of the Sixties, such as This Sporting Life, starring Harris. They inspired him to move into that type of drama.
So working with the Irish actor was for him a big deal. He says: ‘He was off the booze and it was quite funny, because John Hurt was in it too and also on the wagon, and they were both having cups of tea while I was on Guinness.’
Bean has also played an IRA bomber out to kill Harrison Ford (‘wonderful, mad sense of humour,’) in Patriot Games. He was Bond’s nemesis 006 in Goldeneye (‘a right laugh’); and Mellors opposite Joely Richardson in Lady
Chatterley. But he’s coy about this last experience, claiming: ‘I’m not keen on sex scenes.’
Three years ago Bean reprised the role of Sharpe for a TV movie. ‘The first one was filmed in 1992 in the Crimea and the food was like dog meat,’ he winces. ‘The last one was shot in India so, as well as Imodium, I took a box of 70 steak pies with me and Henderson’s Relish.’
This is typical. Bean would rather talk about the catering than roles he’s played. He barely recalls acting opposite Jodie Foster in Flightplan and when I ask about the film North Country, with the beautiful Charlize Theron, he says mildly: ‘It was good to play a decent bloke and she seemed nice enough.’
But the seemingly bashful actor has form as a ladies man. He’s been married four times. He lives in a lavish house in Belsize Park, North London, with his three daughters Lorna, 24, and Molly, 20, from his second marriage to actress Melanie Hill; and Evie, 13, from his third marriage to former Sharpe co-star Abigail Cruttenden,
And In Age Of Heroes, Bean acts opposite his fourth spouse Georgina Sutcliffe, whom he met when she was working behind the bar in one of his favourite haunts, Gerry’s Club in London’s Soho.
The couple have divorced, saying they found living together intolerable. It was a stormy marriage. He looks lost when I ask what it was like working with his wife. ‘We act. It was good. We were both kind of bemused and pleasantly surprised by that.
‘A lot of my single friends have had more relationships with girlfriends than me,’ he chuckles. ‘I’m a bit old fashioned because I marry mine. But sometimes relationships work and sometimes they don’t.’
Bean may have made a mess of his marriages, but his daughters are clearly what matters most and his eyes light up when he speaks of them.
‘My girls are everything to me,’ he says proudly. ‘But I wouldn’t encourage them or put them off acting. Molly seems quite interested, but it’s up to them.
‘But if you do it you’ve really got to want to be successful. A lot of people think it’s easy but it’s not.
‘I might have been a singer or an artist,’ he says, almost wistful, ‘but I didn’t hold that same belief as I did with acting and I think it’s a matter of finding it. It takes a while to find out what you really want out of life.’
Age of Heroes is in cinemas now and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 13. Game of Thrones is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Mondays.