sean Bean used to be known as an action hero – a hard-nosed Hollywood man who usually died before the credits rolled. Yet over the past decade he has become one of our most trusted and outstanding stage actors: a tender, wonderful performer who has won multiple awards.
Now 63, he trained as a welder in his hometown of Sheffield before discovering acting, winning a scholarship to Rada in London and joining the RSC in 1986. He rose to fame in the 1990s as the swashbuckling hero of ITV’s landmark action romp sharp. His movie roles have included a terrorist Patriot gamesa James Bond villain in Golden Eye and Boromir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. On TV, he starred as Mellors in the 1993 BBC adaptation Lady Chatterley’s loverMr Wilford in the current dystopian drama snow piercer and Ned Stark in Game of thrones.
Bean won an international Emmy in 2013 for his performance as a transvestite teacher in Jimmy McGovern’s Accusedfollowed by a Bafta in 2018 for his role as a troubled Catholic priest in McGovern’s Broken. His next collaboration with the writer was in the 2021 prison drama Timewhich won Bean his second Bafta for Best Leading Actor.
He is now co-starring with Nicola Walker in writer-director Stefan Golaszewski .’s new BBC drama Wedding, about a middle-aged couple who have been together for 27 years. It’s all a long way from Napoleonic derring-do and Bond villainy, and also somewhat ironic given that Bean has been married five times. He moved to Somerset in 2017 with his fifth wife, Ashley Moore, and recently said, “I’m a romantic, otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed married. I don’t regret anything. I’d live it all over again.”
Were you a fan of Stefan Golaszewski’s previous series, mom?
i watched everything mom and it was extraordinary. Bold, uncompromising, provocative in its own way. I just thought, “Here’s a guy who writes exactly how he feels and translates that on the screen.” There is no dilution of his original idea. Stefan’s work has pathos. He picks up on the petty weaknesses of all people. Those vulnerabilities and insecurities that we all feel, but rarely express. I was listening to the Velvet Underground yesterday and the lyrics somehow reminded me of his scripts. It is this dark reality, which at times seems rather cruel and sad, but with sly humor. Stefan should call himself “the Lou Reed of screenwriting”(laughs).
Was the chance to play against Nicola Walker a factor?
I was impressed by her performance in [ITV crime drama] Unforgettable. She has a very natural approach to performance and we complemented each other. Sometimes you just have chemistry with someone. I had that with Nicola.
You play a married couple in the suburbs Ian and Emma. Can you tell us about their relationship?
On the surface, often not much seems to be happening, but under the skin a lot is happening. Stefan’s economy with words makes you realize that they often say the opposite of what they really feel. There is a wealth of emotions to be drawn from everyday interactions.
It feels like theater, or a Mike Leigh movie…
It’s very much in that direction. Stefan recently said it’s hard to be human. Come down every morning and people need to speak. Cats and dogs don’t have to. They just sit therelaughs).
The opening scene is set in an airplane, which seems cruel. Don’t you have a fear of flying?
It was okay because I knew it wasn’t a real plane. I have been afraid to fly for a long time. I would almost grab the armrest in tears. I used to have to drink a lot before even getting on a plane, then a lot to drink on it. By the time I got out it was shocking. But suddenly, around 9/11, there was all this talk about possible attacks on terrorists’ planes and long-range missiles. I thought, “Why do I worry about engine failure when all this is happening?” And somehow I got over it. I still can’t stand turbulence, but I’m much better now, thank goodness.
There’s a devastating crying scene in episode one of Wedding. How did you channel that emotion?
To express it truthfully, you cannot fly it. You need to think about something shocking in your life that fixes the feeling in your head. That means going back to unpleasant memories, but there’s no other way. You often don’t have to sob or whine because when people cry, they usually try to hide it. Facial expressions are incredibly eloquent when you’re trying to hide powerful emotions. We’ve all seen that on the news or in documentaries, when people relive a tragedy. The only way to imitate that is to think it and live it.
Were you happy with the response to? Time last year?
Very happy. Jimmy McGovern’s first idea was four years in the making, so a lot of work went into it. The subject interested me. Many of us, especially men, are thinking about being sent to prison and wondering how we would handle it.
Do you think it was an accurate representation of prison life?
Inmates and prison guards have said how realistic it is. It even started conversations about the prison system – the staff shortage, how people continue to stagnate, how we should do more to rehabilitate them. Some people reject prisoners, but they need our support, both inside and out. It was good to stir controversy and raise those points.
You first worked with Stephen Graham ten years ago Tracie’s Storyan award-winning episode of Jimmy McGovern’s series Accused. How was reunited with him? Time?
We have formed a great working relationship, the two of us and Jimmy. I had always admired Stephen. He’s great in every role, especially This is England: chameleon-like. So I seized the opportunity to work with him, but I never thought it would be like lovers (laughs). But we got stuck and had a great time. In the last scene I saw him being taken to jail, while I went free. And then at the end of TimeStephen’s character was sent down while I got out. I said to him, “Damn it, Stevie, this feels familiar, doesn’t it?”
What role are you most recognized for today?
It used to be Sharpe, then it was Game of thrones and Mr from the Rings. But now I understand Time at. It was so widely seen and people tend to remember it.
Is it true you don’t like being killed? There’s a compilation of your death scenes on YouTube…
I’ve seen that. Is it called a Death Reel? I don’t worry too much about it. If it’s a good portion, it’s worth dying for. With scripts, I always read from the end to see if I was still in it. I’d go, “Oh no, I can only hold it until page 34.” When you start, you are much more redundant. Now they might keep me alive and get their money’s worth (laughs).
Game of thrones was a shock, wasn’t it?
When I first met the Game of Thrones writers, they told me, “You die, but you’re in it almost all season.” But he was a great character and it was a good death, so I didn’t mind. Boromir’s [in The Lord of the Rings] was probably the best death I’ve ever done. It was so heroic and tragic. I got a reputation for dying on screen, but I’d rather stay alive now, if you don’t mind.
There’s also a YouTube compilation where you say “bastard” in sharp…
That’s pretty funny, I didn’t realize how many times I said that. Perhaps showing drama students would be a good thing: Here’s how to say the word “bastard,” as demonstrated by a specialist.
You started in the theater, but it’s been a while. Do you want to do more stage work?
Maybe, if it’s a project I was passionate about – and if it doesn’t take too long. You sometimes get these six-month runs and it’s a great experience, but it does get repetitive. I don’t like to be formal. I like to mix it up with different media, different genres, unique avant-garde directors. I would certainly describe Stefan as such, and Wedding as an unusual piece.
Is it strange to be 63 and still a sex symbol?
Am I? That’s news to me, but I’ll take it as a compliment and say it feels great (laughs).
You now live in Somerset. What brought you there?
It was just coincidence. I moved to London for drama school and ended up staying there for 35 years. But my friends slowly drifted away and I began to realize that London was not the heart of everything. And then my wife and I saw this beautiful, curious house, which we decided upon. It is set in two acres of beautiful land with wild gardens. It’s not a big house, but it’s quirky and interesting.
And you have become an avid gardener?
I was actually gone this morning. I find it very relaxing and comforting. There is much to take care of. I made it nature friendly because I like to attract birds and butterflies, insects and animals. We have a pond that swallows fly over. There are stoats, weasels and bats. We have planted trees, shrubs and meadows. It keeps me busy, although I do get a little help. Jeremy, my gardener, does all the spade work. I just put things in their place. He digs the holes.
You are a big music lover. What are you listening to lately?
Mainly old stuff. I love the Velvet Underground, as you’ve probably guessed. The Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Iggy. I put on Brian Eno’s [1978 ambient album] Music for airports much in the background.
If you had the time again, would you still be an actor?
I would. But it’s not over yet (laughs). I’ve had great experiences and traveled the world. It never really occurs to me to do anything else, but I would have loved to be an artist. I try to draw or paint. I get all the pens and pastels together, then just end up scribbling on a scrap piece of scrap. I love to use my hands and my imagination, to be productive and to make things. I suppose acting combines all those elements. That’s what makes it so worth it.
An opera of a religious nature called The Witch Seed. My friend Jonathan Moore wrote the libretto and I’m voicing a character. Gabriel Byrne, Chrissie Hynde and Stewart Copeland are involved, so it should be interesting. For the rest, I’m just enjoying being at home. Take a breather, recharge my batteries and pursue my other interests. There’s more to life than acting, isn’t there?