Daily Mail Weekend
October 28, 1999
Dangerous Mr. Bean
The Sean Bean we see on our television screens seems as tough
and resilient as the steel city which forged him. As he struts about in his period uniform
as Sharpe or in his modern fatigues in Bravo Two Zero he seems well cast as the courageous
yet unemotional military man.
In his private life, too, he might be seen as cold and hard
as steel; for how else could he find himself, at the age of just 40, on his third wife?
Some who have followed the lurid tales of his love life might be tempted to think of him
as the sort of upwardly-mobile cad who trades in wives as his career progresses. But Sean
isn't so easily pigeonholed. If he really was ruthless in love, how could it be that his
first wife, his teenage sweetheart, Debra (with whom he lost his virginity), won't say a
word against him and still enjoys calling on his mother for a friendly chat in their home
town of Sheffield? And how come he is so obviously devoted to his third wife, Abigail
Cruttenden, and their baby Evie, now almost a year old? The wife in the middle, Bread
actress Melanie Hill, is a more painful subject, for they broke up amid much acrimony
about their manifold separations and talk of his supposedly laddish lifestyle.
He won't dwell on the subject, the wounds seemingly still
raw. "I think you have to get over it, otherwise you can be worrying about what
should have been for the rest of your life. You have to look back and remember the good
times, the good qualities, the happy times.
But Sean does have regrets, and one in particular which does
little to dispel the image of him as a soccer-obsessed bloke in the pub. "I would
like to be 20 years younger and play football professionally," he tells me earnestly.
"It's a great, lucrative time for players like Beckham and Ginola."
The fact that he has a £2 tattoo on his shoulder with the
words "100 per cent Blade" - the nickname of his team, Sheffield United - merely
adds to the feeling that here is a man who hasn't quite adapted to the sophisticated fast
lane of Hollywood superstardom in which he finds himself. "I'm as passionate as ever
about the game. But sometimes you get a bit disillusioned by the money that is being
bandied about in various directions by the clubs, I think it takes the edge off the game.
You get smaller clubs who don't have the money and go out of businesss and people can get
His accent gets stronger as he pronounces the word
"greed-day" with great contempt. "So I'm disappointed in the way it's
progressed. I'm very passionate about who I support and always will be, but I hope in
years to come that the big clubs are more gracious to the smaller clubs and help them out
It would seem ungracious to point out that for Sean the hard
truth is that he could never have made it as a professinal footballer. As his old PE
teacher has said, "He played for the school football team, but he wasn't
outstanding." Yet Mr Bean - the name is unfortunate, for there are very few laughs in
Sean - already has the world at his feet. He doesn't need to prove himself against the
likes of Beckham on some muddy football pitch when he has already proved himself among the
finest British actors of his generation at the Royal Shakespeare Company and made his mark
in big Hollywood movies, such as Stormy Monday, Patriot Games and Ronin.
Could it be that he's a tad embarrassed by what he does for a
living when he drives back to Sheffield to see his old mates, all of them plumbers,
welders and carpenters? Is there a part of his soul that cries out for the life of a
As he sits opposite, leaning forward to answer my questions
in a low voice, this seems the clue to Sean Bean. He is in costume for a new TV series,
wearing a Cable and Wireless technician's uniform, and his appearance is so entirely
convincing, the workman's overalls so suited to him, that I am reminded he became an actor
partly by accident, having never done any drama at school and leaving at 16 with a miserly
two O levels.
After school, he spent three years drifting, worked at a
supermarket counter selling cheese, but only lasted a day, and ended up becoming a welder
at his father Brian's steel-making shop, producing gear wheels and plant machinery. Had
fate not intervened, he might well have stayed there in Sheffield, working as a welder,
along with the pals whose company he still enjoys so much. But fate, assisted by a huge
dolop of talent, came along and changed everything. First he quit welding and went to art
college. There, he chanced to read Macbeth, was mesmerised by the play and decided to
become an actor, applying to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), merely
because he believed it was England's only drama college. Against all odds, he was accepted
- one of only 30 out of 11,000 applicants. Even now, Ian Footitt, his old teacher at
Brooke School, Sheffield, can hardly believe his meteoric rise to fame. "I am still
stunned as to how this lad in my class got to be a famous actor. He never did plays. He
was popular with the girls, he loved to chase a ball, but he didn't work."
Along the way, Sean met his first love, Debra, a hairdresser,
and they married when he was 20. "Debra and I had a very strong relationship,"
he says, "We were very young and drifted apart. But Debra still goes around to my
mum's for a cuppa."
His mum, Rita, has always been a powerful influence on Sean.
She was a secretary until he and his sister, Lorraine, came along, but gave up her job so
that she could devote her time to them. He, in turn, is fiercely loyal to her. "She
is a good woman who has a good heart, a sense of fairness, the ability to laugh at
herself, compassion and love."
It is when the subject turns to his father that one begins to
wonder whether Sean is certain he took the right route in life. "In some ways, I wish
I'd followed him," he says. "It would have been good to have carried on working
with him, but I always felt I wanted to do something else..."
That something else has brought him to his new starring
television role as Neil Byrne in ITV's four-part thriller Extremely Dangerous. He plays a
former MI5 man accused of murdering his wife and children. Despite the title, it is a
curiously emotional role for such a macho actor, and he is called upon to burst into
tears. "It was easier to do that scene because it was near the end of the shoot and I
had become involved with the role. He has been through a hell of a trauma and finally
But Sean Bean, the tough guy crying? "Everybody does,
don't they? It's just a natural emotion. People laugh, people cry. It is part of my
Off-screen, though, he initially redressed the balance with
an unfortunate display of machismo. I planned to meet him on the set of Extremely
Dangerous, but he flatly refused to see me because he "didn't know" me. He
declared that he would rather be interviewed by a male colleague of mine whom he had met
before. I suspected that his refusal to talk to me might stem from him having problems
communicating with women when they are vertical. Nonetheless, I entered into negotiations
which reached the absurd point where I offered him the opportunity to interview me to see
if I could interview him.
When we finally meet, his handshake is diffident and almost
apologetic. I wonder if, in an attempt to disarm me by confounding expectations, he is
acting a part, pretending to be a gentle, retiring soul. Later, one of his closest
colleages tells me, "Sean really is very shy. But he is also very difficult, and
His cleverness is immediately evident in the sardonic way in
which he handles our conversation. He wears a wedding ring and I ask, "Have you worn
one during all your marriages?"
"Yes," he says, "through all of them. All of
them." Then he laughs, a self-deprecating laugh. The subtext clearly implied is,
"Yes, I know you think I'm Bluebeard, that I trade-up wives from Sheffield
girl-next-door Debra to actress Melanie from Sunderland to Abigail, the posh Londoner, but
I'm not going to let you stick labels on me."
We enter a battleground as lethal as any of those he's
trodden on TV, of dodging questions and avoiding areas which he perceives as potential
traps. During his career, he has stripped for the cameras inordinately often (and there is
even a nude scene in the generally sombre Extremely Dangerous), but he won't be drawn into
revealing how his mates in Sheffield responded to seeing him on screen in the altogether.
"It's unprintable," he says. I suggest that he actually relishes it, that being
filmed nude turns him on. He says it doesn't, then relents and concedes, "It's
Sometime later, he telephones me and asks to amend his quote.
"I don't want to say that doing love scenes in the nude is fun. But you could write
that I think it is funny." He proceeds to underline the point by telling me an
anecdote relating to Lady Chatterley's Lover, in which he played the libidinous
gamekeeper, Mellors. "Joely Richardson and I had to run through a field starkers. The
director said 'Don't worry about it, there's a big wall surounding us, ten foot high, so
no one will see you.' We did it on the first take, but in the middle, a double-decker bus
came by and everyone on the top deck stared at us. We had to just carry on."
He and Abigail met when they starred in Sharpe and one
assumes that their love scenes together were, indeed, fun. After all, they coincided with
his break-up with Melanie Hill, after a relationship of 16 years. Now that Sean continues
to do love scenes with other actresses, he may wish to reassure Abigail that, these days,
they are hard work for him and certainly not in the least bit fun. The only other remotely
sex-related comment he makes relates to his co-star in Stormy Monday, Melanie Griffith, of
whom he says, with Mellors' distinctive earthiness, "She's got a good face and that,
but she's also big and buxom, which I like. I don't like skinny birds."
In general, he shies away off-scrEen from promoting the
sexual elements of his persona and says, "I do laugh at this image of myself as some
sort of sex machine." In contrast, he is touchingly eager to tell me that he reads
everything he can get his hands on. "I like Oscar Wilde - I'd like to act in his
plays - and Dickens and D.H. Lawrence." He studied Lawrence extensively after Ken
Russell chose him to play Mellors. His favourite film, tellingly, is Kes, the story of the
defiant boy with the broad Yorkshire accent whose escape from the bleakest of lives in a
Northern mining town comes with the joy of catching a kestrel and learning from a stolen
book how to tame it.
Sean Bean is probably perfectly capable of permanently
shedding his own broad Yorkshire accent (and, indeed, contemplated doing so while at
RADA), but says, "An accent is something really to be cherished. It defines who you
are and where you come from and you're proud of that."
Sometimes he exaggerates it, parodying himself. When asked
about the first major purchase he made once his career hit the heights, he lays it on
thick, calling it, "Very flaashaay," perhaps to mitigate his embarrassment at
what he bought - "A big American-style car, a Datsun 280Z in metallic gold. I lined
it all with fur and hung dice from the mirror ..."
He was 26 then and Stormy Monday (his first major film),
Sharpe, Lady Chatterley, Clarissa, his stint as a Bond villain and his romantic turn as
Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina were all ahead of him. So, of course, were his divorces and
remarriages. The parting from Debra appears to have gone relatively smoothly, but although
he and Melanie Hill have two daughters (Lorna, 12, and Molly, 8) together, Melanie did not
emerge from the divorce unscathed. She has put a brave face on it since, making plucky
public comments like, "Well, you just get on with it, don't you? You don't stop being
a parent when the marriage ends." but is clearly sad at having lost the man whom she
once described as "the love of my life."
Meanwhile Sean, in both geographic and romantic terms, has
strayed south and now lives with Abigail in an exclusive part of north London. She was
educated in private schools and has an accent to match. He realises that his
Southern-raised children's childhood is far different from his own, but isn't so consumed
by a loyalty to his Northern roots to feel he has to apologise for the differences.
"I didn't have a hard childhood, but of course theirs is different. But why shouldn't
it be?" he asks defiantly. "I want them to have a good education, to learn to
have it easier that I did."
Now at 40, he isn't about to indulge in any form of mid-life
crisis. "Hitting 40 wasn't a trauma for me - not that I was aware of." And he
still seems relatively dazzled by the trappings of Hollywood stardom. "For Patriot
Games they flew me backwards and forwards to Hollywood three times. First Class. First
His down-to-earth nature is epitomised by the story of the
small scar above his left eye. Far from it being a wound won on some Sheffield football
pitch, he explains, "We were filming the last scenes of Patriot Games, on a boat in
stormy weather. The deck was very slippery and Harrison Ford accidentally hit me with a
boat hook. There was a bit of blood. I had a few stitches, but it never occurred to me to
sue. It was an accident. Afterwards, the producer said (and he puts on a credible American
accent, completely erasing the Sheffield one in the process), 'Hey, Sean, why doncha keep
the suit? And anything else ya want from wardrobe....' So we called it quits." He
laughs, relishing the memory, and the entire experience of Hollywood and all it offers to
those blessed to be stars. At the same time, he is living proof of the axiom, "You
can take the boy out of Sheffield but you can't take Sheffield out of the boy,"
And he knows it.
His greatest dream, he says, is to play Macbeth. "I love
the play," he says. "Love, death, ambition, betrayal. And Lady Macbeth." So
you like strong women? I ask. "Yes." he says. "Yes, I do."
Sensitive, shy, clearly somewhat embarrassed to find himself
so succesful in a profession from which real men's men from the welding world would steer
clear, Sean Bean is not as big a macho cliche as has been projected. He is clearly
capable, too, of communicating with women when they are vertical.
Extremely Dangerous will be shown on ITV next month.