Interview - Sean Bean: Sean explores the dark ages in historical thriller

Yorkshire roughneck Sean Bean is at the heart of a new medieval thriller. He spoke to film critic Tony Earnshaw about his fascination with the dark ages.

Ask Sean Bean about his status as a sex symbol and this Sheffield-born hard nut of the screen squirms and looks at his shoes in embarrassment.

He's now 51 and still in demand to play tough guys in films as diverse as Troy, Outlaw and the Lord of the Rings series.

He has carved a nice niche for himself as an in-demand character actor in Hollywood thrillers and still makes women of a certain age swoon.

Bean himself won't be drawn on such matters, though there are still females who redden at the memory of the TV version of Lady Chatterley in which his earthy gamekeeper utters the immortal line "I want thee. Gerrin't shed". No-one does it like Sean Bean.

"One of the reasons I took this job," explains co-star Eddie Redmayne, "was because I am fulfilling my mother's fantasy – she's fancied Sean for years! It's something we've heard her talk about endlessly in our family household. She's been more excited about

this than any job I have ever done.

"Sean is just amazing to watch. The man is not only a legend, he's kind and brilliant and intuitive as an actor. It's been a real pleasure working with him.

"Our characters are like chalk and cheese; I'm this soppy monk and he's this incredibly strong knight."

Bean's reputation in the biz is solid. Co-stars from Harrison Ford and Nicolas Cage to Charlize Theron and Jodie Foster and the multitudinous cast of The Lord of the Rings have only good things to say.

Eddie Redmayne can now be added to that list along with Christopher (Severance) Smith, the director of Black Death.

Yet Bean is more than just a standardised rent-a-villain for international action flicks. He was on board Black Death before anyone else and, in playing a fundamentalist Christian knight hunting down transgressors, saw parallels between the 14th and 21st centuries.

"The Black Death is rampant. The last thing the church wants are people turning their back on Christianity," says Bean, embarking on a theme.

"My character, Ulric, is an envoy to the Bishop. He wants to seek out these people – not to massacre the population but to seek out the leaders and destroy them.He believes in punishment from God. As far as he is concerned, if you don't believe then you're going

to hell.

"People associate plagues or famines or natural disaster with punishment for the sinful way we've been living. The film has moral dilemmas that we're still dealing with today and it's depicted in such a way that you can believe that this could happen again," he says in his quiet way.

Bean admits to a fascination with medieval history. His training at RADA, plus his natural skills as a horse rider and swordsman – he won an award for his proficiency with a blade as a student actor – means he looks the part when sheathed in armour.

"As a kid, you wouldn't be very interested in the Corn Laws, but the Black Death was always something that one zoned in on. The symptoms were quite horrendous. The graphic pictures you'd see were almost like a small horror film within a history book.

"I'm also very interested in how people were governed by religion. When this terrible catastrophe came along, it affected the power and influence of religion for many years to come.

"I was attracted to the script because it wasn't just a horror story about people being burned. It's about the dilemma of religion."

In a career packed with heroes and villains faced with the challenges of courage and compromise, Black Death offers Bean one of his most complex and intriguing roles.

"More than a soldier and not quite a zealot, Ulric is, nonetheless, a hard-liner with a close eye on what happens after death.

"Today, most people live in a liberal society. People do have choice – we're not punished for not having the belief that everyone else has. That's a healthy situation for society to be in.

"But, as we know, there are extremists. Once that starts to simmer over into fanaticism, then it's dangerous.

"I'm sure there are some who will think that Ulric has a point. Others will believe he's a kind of monster.

"Ulric has a history that's always simmering below the surface. There's an unhappiness and a sadness to him. He's not a cruel man, but he's seen many things in his life. Maybe that's why he's been driven to take such a hard line on religion."

Black Death (15) is on nationwide release.

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