London — It is the dream of most British actors to work in Hollywood. It is the revenge of those who aren't invited to disdain those who do. Ewan McGregor has been quoted as saying, "In Britain I'll get shagged off for doing 'The Island.' " McGregor, though, is still boyish enough to be the Prince William of British stars. The London tabloids, specialists at tearing down success, may leave him alone, particularly since McGregor is currently doing that very English penance of appearing for almost no money on the London stage.
The more mysterious case in "The Island" is Sean Bean. He is one of the biggest stars in Britain. From the time he tore off Lady Chatterley's knickers 12 years ago (to say nothing of the saucy sex that followed, and this on the BBC), he has been a national sex symbol -- every middle-class woman's fantasy "bit of rough," as the upmarket press likes to put it. "Britain's greatest sex bomb," goes the opening to his unauthorized biography. He is also one of Britain's richest actors because year after year he has delivered for Hollywood a dynasty of vicious killers -- from the fanatical Irish terrorist hunting Harrison Ford in "Patriot Games," to the coldhearted betrayer of Pierce Brosnan's Bond in "GoldenEye" and Nicolas Cage's carelessly psychopathic adversary in "National Treasure," where his craggy, louche good looks and cocky, lean-framed walk surely made its American mark.
The mystery is that he is one of the few Brits to work constantly in the U.S. without stirring up resentment at home. Perhaps it's because he's not too proud to play what is sniffily called here "character" parts. They do like to see the prosperous humbled. Even the venerated Laurence Olivier, for example, wasn't too grand to play Neil Diamond's rabbi father in "The Jazz Singer." It's also because Bean is one of those shrewd Brits who managed to break into Hollywood without leaving home. Another is Jim Broadbent, who can be seen unloading his wife's paintings from his beaten-up and dusty old station wagon. No shiny foreign car and posse of assistants for him: "still one of us," is the message.
English actors are caught in a trap: If they move to Los Angeles, there will be no reentry to the clannish arts world back home should they fail. Michael Caine, clinging to his cockney accent, didn't go home until it was in glory to live as an English lord, sticking it to them, it could be said. In London, it is the received wisdom that L.A. is bad for English actors. All that money, sunlight and valet parking corrupts, they say; look at Dudley Moore. Brits are neither good at nor approving of "pleasure."
Enter Sean Bean, the working-class outsider from a colorless housing development in Sheffield, the town that gave England a failed manufacturing sector, unemployment and "The Full Monty."
Bean chose to meet in a London pub, his local, where he's known and safe. In the early evening, it was full of blue-collar toughs, the smoke from roll-your-own cigarettes hanging over empty chip bags and beer bellies. A roomful of men in dead-end jobs, any of whom Bean could have been. He came in with their same untidy walk: careless, unfussed, a walk that marks space as its own and that women no longer expect to move aside for. Of course they recognized him. DVDs are still moving by the boxful of his five-year TV series "Sharpe," in which he played an intense and magnetic superhero of the Napoleonic Wars. And, of course, no heads turned in the pub. In the new world of "laddish" Brits, real men don't flinch for stars.
Son of a welder and a stay-at-home mum, Bean left his local school at 16 with a record of truancy and academic failure. If he didn't learn much else, he learned "how to take a knock, how to have a laugh, the codes of honor, doing things we shouldn't be doing." It's the world he goes back into when he comes home from the U.S.: soccer, beer, the lads, running to Sheffield to see family, old friends, Sheffield United games. His dark Yorkshire accent reaches deep into this one true part of his life. "It's a bit more real, innit? It's your history, it's memories -- it's a thickness around you." Perhaps roots are all that ground him.
Three times divorced, an absent father to three children by two wives, at 46 he's dating a woman half his age. And yet the tabloids leave him alone. Two tiny stories in as many years in the salacious News of the World, the Sunday paper that thrives on stars' cocaine binges, drunken evenings and broken marriages. It's not as if he isn't copy. He downs lager like his fans drink tea. By the end of the evening, his six-pint riff on the wilder shores of his imagination has an edge to it -- menace, perhaps, mockery certainly. He has the mind of a magpie's nest: brilliant, glittering, inventive and disorderly all at once. "My imagination when it's unleashed," he says at one point, "is like a wild animal." There's restlessness but also challenge. "Hunt for me and you'll fail," he seems to be saying.