Sean Bean reaches for some toast and begins to spread the butter, his hand curled bear-like round the knife handle as he does so. As spreading techniques go it's probably not one shared by most other members of this country club in leafy north London. But then it's clear from the outset that Sean is your bloke's bloke, not given to putting on airs and graces; the type of man happiest hanging out with the same best mates he's had since school. So what do his friends do, I enquire? "I suppose jobs like most other people do," he replies. You also gather pretty quickly that he is not the most voluble of chaps. Such as? "Oh, bricklayers, welders, carpenters." It's this crowd he meets up with whenever he goes to watch his beloved Sheffield United play - as he has the previous evening. "It were great," he says in a voice that has lost none of its Yorkshire roots.
Despite Hollywood success that has bought him heart throb status and a house nudging pounds 1.5m, he maintains that those friendships haven't altered. "It's no big deal to them, which is right. I might buy an extra round at the end of the night but I've never gone around saying: 'I'm in this on Wednesday night at eight o'clock.' I try not to make too much of a thing of it."
Where other actors disingenuously pretend to dislike talking about themselves, or their work, sitting opposite Bean I know this is the real thing - the embodiment of the "see all, hear all, say nought philosophy". Given half a chance I suspect he'd make a bolt for the door. The motherly owner of this Totteridge club has already conspiratorially confided that "he's very shy, you know". Does he agree? "I suppose I am. I'm quite reserved. I get plenty of chances to be flamboyant in what I do."
None the less, he smiles a lot and is a nervous heavy smoker and in manner bears little relation to the testosterone-fuelled figures he normally plays onscreen. Roles that frequently involve him getting his kit off, as in Ken Russell's TV version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, where he played Mellors, ditto the philanderer in Clarissa and the television series of Sharpe, in which, if he's not single-handedly defeating the French, he's breaking down doors into women's bedrooms. Has he any idea why Sharpe's exploits seem to have struck such a chord with female viewers? More silence and an embarrassed fiddling of fingers. A blush swims across his face. "Don't ask me, I don't know, do I? Maybe you know more about that than I do," he struggles. Possibly, but what does he think? His ears have become quite pink. "I suppose it's the character. He's a very forthright, masculine, passionate man and everybody can understand passion. It's what makes life exciting."
Now, to add to this list of passion-charged roles, he is swapping uniforms to play Count Vronsky in the new screen adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The first Western film to be shot in post-Soviet Russia, it's a lavish production of the timeless love story between the Count (Bean) and the married, Anna Karenina (Sophie Marceau) and was filmed entirely in St Petersburg. "It's a great book and it's great to be able to play a part in a classic like that. You don't get them coming along very often. It's on a par with playing a Shakespeare character."
He says he most relished the scenes where the couple, largely ostracised by Russian society, begin to destroy each other. "What was interesting for me was that initial flame of passion before they both get disillusioned. They want that fire to remain constant all the time but he tires of her need for attention and to be loved.
"Some people have said it's too heavy for them but I've said, 'You go and watch it and I bet you can identify with some of these situations.' Some of the dialogue I had with Sophie was so bang on, so true to life."
If it's true for him in a personal capacity he won't say. In the throes of divorce proceedings with his second wife, actress Melanie Hill (Aveline in Bread), he now lives with Abigail Cruttenden, his screen wife in Sharpe. "Divorce isn't a very pleasant experience but there's a lot of things to look forward to. Abigail and me have been together six or seven months and we're very happy together."
We return to the prevailing theme of passion. Naturally I'm asking purely in the public interest but would he describe himself as passionate? "I don't think that passion ever leaves you, no matter how old you are. It shouldn't do, should it? You can't form a relationship on things you've got in common like, 'I like Coronation Street' although you've got to have those things as well."
In fact he is rather partial to Coronation Street, preferably accompanied by a Chinese take-away. "I don't have any urges to go round the West End and visit fashionable places because I'm not really all that bothered about that sort of thing."
In many ways, he says, he is surprised by the success he has had. By his own admission he wasn't much cop at school. "There were always other things I wanted to be doing - running round playing football, things like that. I suppose I was a bit of a nuisance. Or so I've been told by some of the teachers who used to teach me."
He worked as a welder for his dad's company until he decided he wanted to go to Rada - that being the only drama school he'd ever heard of. "I think he would have liked me to carry on in the business but he realised that I did feel very strongly about taking up a career in acting and going down to London."
Arriving at Rada at the same time as Janet McTeer and James Wilby was, he says now, something of a shock. "I just wanted to go back home. It took me about three months to adjust to living in London."
Now he is one of the few British actors - with leading appearances in Patriot Games and GoldenEye - to have managed the transition from British star to sought-after property in LA. "It's very difficult to break into that Hollywood thing unless you're prepared to adapt to their way of thinking. There's not that many parts written for English actors in America, so you tend to find the parts you're usually offered are the baddies or the sadists because we do that well and we fit into that slot."
After a recent three-week stint in Hollywood pressing the flesh, he's currently looking over several scripts. Not that these seem to be uppermost in his mind - that's a position currently occupied by Sheffield United's chances of making it into the Premier League. I ask him if I could see the tattoo that signals his devotion to the club and, obligingly, he pulls down the sleeve of his jacket to reveal his left bicep and "100% Blade" before he politely but characteristically makes his excuses. "I've go to get 'ome for me dinner now"
'Anna Karenina' opens nationwide tomorrow; Ryan Gilbey reviews the film on page 7
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