He could be aiming for Hollywood, but he's allowed himself to be anchored down by television and small-budget movies so he can remain living in Britain. It's a constant tightrope walk, from which he's toppled more than once as the years have taken him from twentysomething sex symbol to a thrice-married 41-year-old father of three daughters. But nothing quite sums up his bumpy career path more than his latest role as Boromir in the $300m epic trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings.
From being out of work for more than a year, Bean is now locked into filming the three instalments concurrently in New Zealand. Shooting started last October and will span 18 non-stop months. The opening film is not released until Christmas 2001. It's the biggest, longest, most expensive piece of Hollywood risk-taking and one kept highly secret by its backers, New Line. It has also sent fans, and the rumour mill, into overdrive.
The whispers have portrayed the film as a Titanic in the making, full of tensions on the set. Like James Cameron, the director Peter Jackson is a perfectionist who has been consumed by the project for the past 10 years. Having launched Kate Winslet's film career in Heavenly Creatures, he co-wrote the LOTR screenplay and has stubbornly hung on as a succession of film companies took an interest and then became unnerved by the scale of the enterprise. "It is," says Bean, "totally unbelievable. I am dipping from one script to another, all printed in different colours, because all the films are being done at the same time. The whole thing was cast very late, and I think it was touch and go right up to starting. It is a bigger investment than Titanic and a lot of careers are sitting on this right to the end."
That includes Bean's. He admits he never got around to reading The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien, the former Oxford university professor who delivered the bestseller in the mid-1950s. The novels are set in the Third Age of Middle-Earth, an invented prehistoric era populated with hobbits, elves, trolls, orcs and humans. "To me, it is a grown-up fairy tale that is dark and sinister," says Bean. "But it is an incredible fantasy that is quite wonderful and leaves you full of hope."
His 39-year-old director will be sharing that hope. At a point a few years ago when it looked as if the trilogy would finally be made with European film fund cash, Sean Connery was pencilled in as wise wizard Gandalf; Nicol Williamson as Saruman, chief of all wizards; Isabelle Adjani as Arwen, the young elf warrior, and Greta Scacchi as the elf Galadriel, wise and visionary queen of Lorien. The new line-up features Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Liv Tyler (Arwen) and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel). Elijah Wood plays the young hobbit Frodo, who inherits a seemingly innocent ring from an elderly cousin, Bilbo, played by Ian Holm. Viggo Mortensen comes in as Aragorn, a human raised by elves and the rightful king of Gondor. Mortensen was a replacement for the Irish-born actor Stuart Townsend, currently on stage at London's Donmar Warehouse in Orpheus Descending. With Townsend's departure, rumours began of uneasy working relationships on-set. The actor, whose credits now make no mention of The Lord of the Rings, said through his agent that he would sooner not comment.
There is no doubt Jackson is demanding much from his cast, who are working at an exacting pace in far-flung locations in the South Island's snow-capped Southern Alps and the North Island's volcanic plateaus. Toes have been trodden on, egos hurt. But Bean, who worked for months in fairly basic conditions in the Crimea while making five series of Sharpe, is dismissive. "Peter Jackson has been waiting to go on this for years, so what do you expect?" he asks. "He is demanding and incredibly talented. He has had the models, the graphics, the costumes in his head for years and can finally see the reality of it. He is creating something that has never been seen before.
"I put work in a compartment of life and just get on with it," he says. "Whenever I feel like complaining, I think of how hard some of my mates work, and the days when I was a welder. If they could see the ancient forests and old ivy twisting around trees on the locations for this, a lot of people would pay to have a chance of doing it."
We meet during a fleeting visit to London to publicise his latest film, Essex Boys (see review), in which he plays a vicious criminal, Jason Locke. If Boromir is set to save his people in the kingdom of Gondor from dark forces, then Jason would be first on the list to be put down. "He's a nasty character," he agrees. "He has been locked away for five years, because he took the rap for his mates. They have got rich and done well. He feels bitter and vengeful." Bean has to do a disturbing scene in which he attacks his wife, played by Alex Kingston. "We had talked about it and she was up for a real physical attack," he says. "We did the scene at 1am in just one take. She's a very gutsy lady."
Kingston, of course, has done with the slender international success of Moll Flanders something Bean has so far failed to do with his strong portfolio: use it as a springboard for solid Hollywood recognition. She has been enjoying rich pickings as Dr Elizabeth Corday in ER. Bean, on the other hand, has nearly made it several times. He swept Melanie Griffith into bed and out-acted Tommy Lee Jones in his 1988 debut, Stormy Monday; saw Richard Harris get an Oscar nomination when co-starring in The Field in 1990; played an Irish terrorist in pursuit of Harrison Ford in 1992's Patriot Games; delivered a creditable villain as double agent 006 in GoldenEye, in 1995; more than held his own two years ago with Robert De Niro in Ronin.
It does not seem to bother him. "The Hollywood life has never really appealed," he says. "I do not go to too many dos or premieres. It seems such a palaver, you know. I could be doing other things. I went to the premiere for Ronin at the Venice Film Festival. It was an extraordinary experience, but then it's back to the hotel room and you think, 'What was all that about?' "Whichever accent Bean uses on screen - Irish, Geordie, clipped English, Essex - away from it, he delivers in broad, no-nonsense Sheffield steel. It's straight, call-a-spade-a-shovel stuff. "I can do accents, no problem," he says. "I don't know what anyone makes of them, though, particularly in America. It is difficult for some people to accept you unless you're playing a decent guy with a decent accent. I'm doing Boromir in RP [received pronunciation], and he's a bit of a hero, so that might make a difference."
For a man who wears his heart on his shoulder - a tattoo, declaring "100 per cent Blade", the nickname for his beloved Sheffield United - he could just be in the best place. He's proud of what he is: a one-time welder who at 20 made it to Rada and progressed, through theatre - he played Romeo for Michael Bogdanov at the RSC - to being a big-earning, well-known actor. "It has been a volatile life, some good times and bad times," he shrugs. "My twenties were full of excitement, my thirties were all about consolidating, and now I have to look at things in a new light. Before Essex Boys and The Lord of the Rings, the stuff I was offered was not good and I suddenly realised I had to be careful." It will be another 18 months before Bean finds out, along with everyone involved, whether the biggest gamble in film history has paid dividends. In the meantime, he insists: "It's definitely worth the risk."