It's been a tumultuous week for Sean Bean, both on and off the screen. On Sunday, HBO aired the penultimate episode of the first season of "Game of Thrones," the 10-part series based on the novels by George R.R. Martin; the episode ended with a shocking event involving Bean's character of Eddard "Ned" Stark, a lord who'd been imprisoned for daring to (rightly) question the legitimacy of a newly-ascended teenage king.
And the same night the episode aired in the United States, Bean himself was attacked outside a bar in London, suffering a bruised face and a cut on his arm. (Bean was treated inside the bar did not go to the hospital.)
For the British-born actor until now best known as Boromir in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," the one-two punch came on the heels of a Critics Choice Television Award Best Drama Series nomination for "Game of Thrones," a violent and engrossing tale of brutality and duplicity in a mythical landscape. And it made him the object of numerous conversations just as Emmy voters were perusing their ballots, which can't hurt — though to be fair, he's a real longshot in a crowded field.
This conversation took place before the bar altercation and before last Sunday's show. As a viewer rather than a reader of "Game of Thrones," I asked a couple of questions (which I've omitted here) that immediately betrayed my ignorance of the impending twist to Bean — who gently gave non-answers that avoided any spoilers.
(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Ned Stark had the look of a hero when the series started, but over the course of the season he was betrayed, imprisoned …
He's a strong and loyal man, but he's not used to an environment where he's surrounded by backstabbers. And he can't operate like the snakes around him, it's not within his character.
That’s partly his downfall, isn't it? He won't make alliances, because it's very much against his nature. It's ground down his loyalty, his principles, his morality.
The last honest man in that particular environment?
Yeah, yeah, certainly. He's not perfect, but he's a guy who sticks by his principles and is loyal to his king and to the realm, even when the king has kind of lost it and is always drunk and whoring and hunting.
Were you familiar with the books when the project came to you?
No, I wasn't. And I didn’t realize they had such a huge following. I got a script and read that first, and then I read the book. It's a great read, but that didn’t have any influence in taking the role on. I'd worked with David Benioff before on "Troy," and [co-creator DB] Weiss is a very nice guy. It had lots of good people, good writers, and it was on HBO so it's got a pedigree and a fantastic reputation for class television. You put that all together, it was a very enticing proposition.
Producers have been drawn to you in the past for roles like this, with swords and battles set in the past, or in fantasy realms. Are you drawn to these projects yourself?
I kind of like them. I'm doing something at the moment that's contemporary, and it's great. But there's something quite magical and quite attractive about playing the past, or this timeless world. Especially when it's a book, because you're kind of stamping your mark on it, and creating a character that will be remembered.
Whenever I read the book now, I think about Mark Addy, I think about Lena Headey. Like "Lord of the Rings," you read about Gandalf and you think of Ian McKellen. It's quite exciting, I think. And I like riding about on a horse and swinging a sword, that's still fun. I think every actor does — it's like playing cowboys and Indians, just a bit older.
I'm probably over-generalizing, but it seems that you usually get cast as a heavy in modern-day films. You have to go back in time, or into a fantasy world, to be cast as a hero.
That is true. I did Boromir. I did a series called "Sharp," where he was a hero in the Napoleonic Wars. And then the same with Ned Stark. (laughs) I wonder why that is, yeah. But now I've played some good guys in modern-day, contemporary pieces.
When you're playing a heroic character like this in a fantasy, does it require adjustments in your style of acting? After all, things on the show are all pretty big — there's not a lot of underplaying going on.
There is a lot of scope to it. But it’s good that the characters are credible, that there are credible reasons why people do these things. So in a sense I did want to underplay Ned Stark.
He's a family man, he's a good man, he's a quiet man, he's pragmatic and very realistic. I thought it was just interesting to just play each day as it came. There's a lot of fantastic things going on around him, so I thought it was good to play against that, in a sense, so you've got some kind of a contrast.
Was the role physically grueling?
Yeah. You take a couple weeks to rehearsals to get the choreography right, and it can be tough. We did the big, long fight in Malta, and it was boiling hot. That's pretty demanding. You're in 98-degree heat, you're covered in leather and capes and wool, with ice packs under your clothes, and you're swinging a sword around. It's thrilling, but at the same time it's hard.
A lot of people who work in TV, including for HBO, say that they’re always wishing they had a little more time and a little more money.
Yeah, I think that's common. This is so dense and so multilayered that you want to try to squeeze everything you can out of the story and out of the character. But you’ve only got a certain amount of time to do it. And I think that's how it is in general these days. But to achieve what we did within that space of time was just quite incredible.
As an actor, did you turn to the book for things that weren't in the script?
Sure. Because there was a lot of background information that was brilliant. It's not so much about what the character does, it's what other people say about him – that's how you figure out what kind of character you are. So it was great to have that as a reference, rather than studying from scratch.
You had that in "Lord of the Rings," but you didn't have a lot of character description. It's a great book, but when it came to Boromir I think it said that he had brown hair and wore a cape. Not much to go on. (laughs) But with this, you had a lot.
"Game of Thrones" got a Critics Choice TV Awards nomination for Best Drama Series. Do you think about the Emmys?
Well, it's nice to think that it's been watched, and I certainly hope it receives some kind of recognition. When you first start work you're not thinking about that, but when you see the finished product you start thinking, wow, this is pretty special. And we hope it gets recognized as such.
What are you working on now?
An ABC series called "Missing," with Ashley Judd. I play her husband, and we're searching for our son. We've been in working in Prague and Croatia and places like that. It's got a "Bourne Identity" sort of feel about it.
So is Peter Jackson gong to find a way to get you into "The Hobbit?"
I doubt it. It's a very different cast, but Ian McKellen is still playing Gandalf, isn't he? It'll be very interesting to see what this is like. Was Boromir alive at that time?
Well, it's set 60 years before the events of "Lord of the Rings." Jackson has apparently gotten Cate Blanchett and Orlando Bloom into "The Hobbit," even though their characters aren’t in the book. But they're playing elves, who live longer than humans.
Oh, yeah, I see. Damnit. I'm a human, so I'd have been a toddler when it happened. Orlando lives forever.