Sharpe still cuts it
On a sweltering set in India, Sean Bean tell Karen Hockney why he decided to revive the role that made his name
It is 80 degrees in the Samode Valley, in Northern Rajasthan, and Sean Bean is leading a tired column of soldiers across the desert towards an isolated fort. Inside, dozens of extras dressed as villagers and soldiers mill about beside small fires, while horses, camels and goats stand tethered at open stalls.
The camp is taken by surprise when a renegade regiment arrives and opens fire without warning. As the shots ring out and bloodied bodies fall in the sand, Bean springs into action, rifle-butting and shooting enemy soldiers before being shot and wounded himself. So begins Sharpe's Challenge, the 15th television adventure based on Bernard Cornwell's bestselling historical novels, the cornerstone of which is his portrayal of Richard Sharpe.
Filming in India means 4.30am starts for the 46-year-old Bean who, despite the early call, is looking his rough-and-ready best in a scarlet military jacket, dusty white breeches and black boots. His take on Sharpe's appeal is simple: "All the guys on this love the action stuff because you can't do it in real life."
His screen roles have tended to be rough diamonds and anti-heroes. His Mellors in the BBC adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover caused Middle-England outrage at the graphic sex scenes with Joely Richardson, and he held his own as the avenging terrorist hunting Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and as 006, the rogue agent who battled Pierce Brosnan's Bond, in Goldeneye.
Sharpe is no exception: a soldier who is loyal and unwavering in his duty but also prepared to bend the rules to cut a better deal for himself and his troops. In short, an officer who inspires respect from men, and the desire to tame him from women.
An intensely shy man, Bean, too, has a reputation as a loner, something the actor feels he doesn't really deserve: "I like my own company and I like time on my own, but I'm not a hermit. I do like other people's company, too."
His bluff northern exterior, fanatical devotion to Sheffield United Football Club (he sports a Blades tattoo and confides: "I'm still passionate about them. I've been listening to their games on the internet,") and broad Yorkshire accent shore up his public image as one of Britain's most famous working-class outsiders.
Yet the truth is more complex. Bean is the son of a Sheffield steelworker, but his father also owned the local factory where Sean was an apprentice welder for a while. "I suppose we were working class, but we drove to work in a Silver Shadow," he recalls. "We'd get in the Rolls-Royce. I'd put me steel-capped boots on, stop at the top of the road, get the Daily Mirror and jump back in the Rolls. It was quite bizarre."
On leaving RADA in the early 1980s, he built a solid career with roles in the big-screen thrillers Ronin, Don't Say a Word and Bravo Two Zero, in which he played the SAS hero Andy McNab. But it was the troubled warrior Boromir in The Lord of the Rings that propelled him into Hollywood's inner sanctum. Now he gets first look at films such as North Country opposite Charlize Theron, Troy with the likes of Brad Pitt, Flightplan alongside Jodie Foster and the thriller Silent Hill, released on Friday.
"I've been really busy in the past two years and I've managed to diversify," he says as he sips at a pint of beer that he's somehow acquired as protection against the Indian heat. "Before that, there was a point when I wasn't really doing anything, I was just playing bad guys every now and then. The trouble is, I play them well so you keep getting asked to play them again! Then things started changing with The Lord of the Rings."
That he should return to the small screen for ITV1's Sharpe's Challenge after an eight-year break is perhaps surprising, but it's indicative of his down-to-earth attitude that he holds the television series that made his name in such high regard.
In another echo of Sharpe, Bean's loner status extends to his romantic life, too. He has been married three times, to childhood sweetheart Debra James, the actress Melanie Hill and his Sharpe co-star Abigail Cruttenden, but is currently living a nomadic life between his home in Hampstead, North London, and Los Angeles. It clearly suits him, although he tries to spend as much time as he can with his three daughters, Lorna, 18, Molly, 14, and Evie, 7.
"I have been on the road for 18 months of the past two and a half years," he says. "It is hard on family life. It would be nice to take a break because I've been working non-stop and I feel a bit weary."
He has been dating Georgina Sutcliffe, a 27-year-old bar worker, since last summer and, from the way he talks, guardedly yet faintly embarrassed at the idea of sounding offish, there's no indication that he is planning to settle down again.
"I see Georgina from time to time but we don't live together," he mumbles self-consciously. "It's hard when I'm away, but I think she and my kids understand that. It's part of my job."
His pursuits away from work also point to a more sensitive side. He is at his happiest pottering about in his Hampstead garden, or reading Oscar Wilde. "I might go to my local for a pint, but I'm not the kind of guy who is out every night partying," he says. "It's too knackering. I love losing myself in books and an early night."
Sharpe's Challenge, Sunday & Monday, ITV1, 9pm.
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.