The sun was down but the hotel bar was bright when Sean Bean arrived and took a table in the only shadowy corner of the patio — or maybe the corner was no different than the rest and it was the actor who brought bit of hushed winter along with him just like the Irish beer in his hand. The 51-year-old Brit has sad eyes but an easy smile and after making small talk the topic turned to his latest project, the ambitious HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” He is clearly enthused about the show, which premieres next Sunday, but at one point he sounded like a world-weary knight summoned for yet another quest.
“I like playing guys with swords and the horses and stuff like that,” Bean said. “It’s good. But it’d be nice to do something else, maybe a bit of comedy, something more light-hearted? I don’t know. I just take things as they come — I don’t have an agenda — and life keeps putting a sword in my hand or so it seems.”
For fans of clanging-metal epics, there are few things more interesting than the reluctant warrior with a storied past and for “Thrones” it seems Bean fits the bill both on- and off-screen. The actor thrives in movies where hard-hearted men make difficult choices and he’s shown he can hold the screen opposite of any big-name star, be it Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games,” Robert DeNiro in “Ronin” or Nicolas Cage in “National Treasure.” But for movie fans around the globe he will forever be the noble Boromir from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy.
“It was very special and I think we all look back on it and realize what it meant to people,” Bean said. “Things like that are usually once in a lifetime. It’s been a dozen years now since we were there making it and it doesn’t seem that long.”
There have been other roles of antiquity or myth — Bean played Odysseus in the 2004 film “Troy” and Zeus in the 2010 movie “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” — but, no surprise, Middle-earth stays with Bean in special ways. One of them is the shoulder tattoo of the number nine (written in the tengwar script created by J.R.R. Tolkien) that he shares with Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen and other actors who portrayed the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring.
In “Thrones,” Bean portrays Eddard “Ned” Stark, the earnest but flawed Lord of Winterfell, a man who finds dark forces gathering against him after the death of his king and mentor. The series is taken from the fantasy novels of author George R.R. Martin and weaves a television tapestry of royal courts, betrayal, magical menace, incest and clanging medieval metal.
Though many people will turn to Tolkien for comparisons, Bean sees the show as close kin to “The Sopranos” even if the landscape is a bit different.
“It’s like gangster movie and there’s a lot of subtle and scary language, a lot of men of power who are watching each other and plotting in this nest of vipers,” Bean said. “At one point, Ned, to save his children, he has to lie, he has to strike a deal and it’s a horrible situation. But I can say no more. The story is vicious and backstabbing and I have to say I enjoyed it, as an actor and as an audience. There’s something in that which captures our attention and our anger.”
Bean added that “Thrones” should not be mistaken for “The Hobbit“: “‘Lord of the Rings’ was more magical and ephemeral and this fantasy conflict between clear good and clear evil. This is much more disturbing. This is not something that children should be watching. George Martin looks like Santa Claus but he’s got a wonderfully disturbed mind.”
The show, created by David Benioff and Dan Weiss, is an expensive and intriguing gamble for HBO. Much has been made of the sex and violence of the show but the real test of audience taste will be the show’s conversation-heavy stretches, the complicated latticework of the plot and the fact that several key characters will need to be killed off to stay loyal to Martin’s source material.
“If you’re HBO you can afford to take that risk but then again it’s admirable to make a go of it with something that is so bizarre,” Bean said. “You could make another detective show or another cowboy story but this, you have something so strange and characters that are like ‘The Godfather,’ you just want to know how it all ends.”
Bean lives a vagabond life — with a wry chuckle he brags that he once “survived” a nine-month stay at the Four Seasons Hotel while working here in Los Angeles — and he jokingly concedes that he ever wrote a memoir it could be called “The Black Suitcase.” “I can’t let Martin help me write it, though, who knows what he’d put in the suitcase. ‘The head of my enemy…’”
Bean’s mailing address is in London but more and more, he says, he finds his greatest comfort in the old stone cottage he’s restored in his native Sheffield. He loves to paint and work in the garden and spend time with his three daughters, who grew up with their mother in England. The youngest of the three, Eva, 12, was traveling with Bean on this trip to the States and he sighed when he explained that she was more interested in room service trays and on-demand movies than visiting museums or the beach.
Bean shrugged and smiled. He has been married and divorced four times and acknowledges that he has mixed feelings about a life where he has been very good at moving but not so great at standing still. Bean said his daughters may not hold grudges at this point. “They’re actresses,” he explained. “The older they get the more they realize what you were doing when they were growing up and while you were away for awhile. It’s a good thing.”
The suitcase years began back in Sheffield, where his father was a success with a fabrication shop and the money was good. His son was expected to join in welding trade but a different path presented itself.
“My mother and father raised their eyebrows at first when I said I wanted to be an actor because I was in this industrial city,” Bean said. “My dad had done a bit of boxing on the side but he was a welder first and foremost. I was 17 and I said ‘I want to be an actor.’ They worried it was a waste of time. I went [on scholarship] to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London which felt like 10,000 miles away from home and I came out of there really feeling good. But it was hard to explain at home for a long time.”
Bean’s formal training is the foundation but he said that any success he’s found comes from something less calculated. He stays within himself quite a lot as an actor and finds that less is more, especially in roles where peril and heartbreak do the heavy lifting for him.
“You’re always learning stuff and learning about yourself and the big thing is you really can’t manufacture it and copy other people,” Bean said. “You can’t follow another actor’s performance. You can’t be Robert DeNiro because you’re not Robert DeNiro and, you know, he is.”
No one is happier to have Bean in the series than Martin, the author who began the source material — a series of novels called “A Song of Ice and Fire” — in 1991.
“These characters have been part of me for ages and to have someone like Sean in it, it’s very satisfying,” Martin said. “He was always the fan favorite for the role of Ned. When the books become popular, the fans always start casting the movies and they put up ‘dream casts’ on the Internet with major stars for every role. Tom Cruise brings someone a drink and has two lines. But Sean was the one they wanted as Ned from the start and with good reason.”
Bean said he is “getting pretty excited” as the premiere date gets closer. Asked why, he explained: On the set of any large-ensemble project, if everyone is both fortunate and prepared, there comes a moment when all of it really clicks for the first time — it’s like a band finding its groove. In Bean’s view, that happened for “Thrones” during the third week of filming (which was done in Northern Ireland, Malta and Scotland).
“There was a conference in this great chamber and the sets were stunning with great craftsmanship, so it was an impressive setting,” Bean said. “The scene was with King Robert and all his associates and my character is there trying to protect Daenerys Targaryen, this young girl that is viewed as a threat. It’s a massive conflict and it was a difficult scene with everyone talking at once and so much going on politically and socially and, beneath it all, there’s the life of this young girl on the line. That was the defining point for me. That’s when we got the feeling of how this was going to turn out to be. And it was pretty epic.”
— Geoff Boucher
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