Spoiler alert about Sean Bean’s acting career: He dies. All the time. And he does so spectacularly well.
The actor is most famous for a pair of spectacular onscreen deaths: going down swinging while being skewered by arrows as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and especially his shocking Game of Thrones demise as Ned Stark, who seemed to be the show’s star until his head was stunningly chopped off late in Season 1.
But Bean’s death toll didn’t stop there. For decades, he has made his living by dying in films like GoldenEye, Patriot Games, and The Island. He’s been shot, blown up, hanged, buried alive, impaled, crushed, drawn and quartered, and even, somehow, run off a cliff by a herd of cattle (in 1990’s The Field). His 20-plus deaths—so many that even Bean himself has trouble remembering them (see below)—have been chronicled in the Sean Bean Death Reel, which has been viewed more than 2 million times. (Yes, he’s also made it through several films intact, including National Treasure, Ronin, and Troy, but what’s the fun in that?) Bean is to dying onscreen what Kevin Bacon is to being connected with every other actor.
But TNT is giving Bean a new lease on life. The actor stars in Legends, the network’s new drama (debuting Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT) as Martin Odum, an undercover agent in the FBI’s Deep Cover Operations division. Martin can expertly morph into his different “legends” (FBI-speak for a fabricated identity)—everything from a weapons broker to a corrupt cop—but his work has left him so psychologically scarred that he’s no longer sure whether even Martin Odum is real or just another legend. The show’s clever marketing hook: #DontKillSeanBean.
Certainly, starring in a TNT series would indicate that Bean will finally enjoy some onscreen longevity—after all, Rizzoli and Isles certainly aren’t meeting their maker anytime soon. “The only thing I will say is, he doesn’t die at the end of the season,” promises Legends showrunner and executive producer David Wilcox. “He does not die. He really anchors the show, and he’s amazing.”
Spending time with Bean is somewhat disconcerting after seeing him play so many somber, doomed roles. His infectious smile is permanently plastered on his face, and he punctuates most sentences with laughter, emotions that are foreign to almost all of his characters over the years. The actor talked, and laughed, about life after onscreen death, his toughest death scene to film, the time he almost died for real—and why we may not have seen the last of him on Game of Thrones.
It seems like you have the best of both worlds: the stability of a regular TV gig, but multiple characters to jump around to and play.
Absolutely, yeah. When I first talked to [executive producer] Howard Gordon, his enthusiasm is infectious and when he outlined the premise, I was totally blown away by it. As opposed to a regular cop show, it’s got these wonderful, psychological dreamlike qualities, which excited me very much. It’s such a joy to have this opportunity as an actor, not just to be playing the part, but as you said, playing multiple parts. It’s like me playing a part, playing a part. I’ve never done anything like that before.
Martin’s legends are bleeding into his real life. Is that something you’ve struggled with as an actor, burrowing too deeply into a role that you can’t shake it?
I don’t, but there’s a certain residue that kind of filters through, which you do carry on to some extent. But I’ve known people who have been Method actors, and that can take its toll. It can be very difficult to get out of. I tried to apply that to this, but without having to be a Method actor.
David Wilcox says he tapped into your wry sense of humor, which we haven’t seen much from you onscreen. Has it been fun to finally show that side of yourself?
Yes, it is. You don’t necessarily equate me with humor! [laughs] We’ve had some very good directors on this who have brought out the humor in general with all the characters. Which it needs, because it’s quite brutal and quite intense, and you need that humorous intermission. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek on occasion, which I think is good. We’re not treating it that reverentially and seriously. It’s not all [groans] doom and gloom.
Given your past roles, many people will hear you’re starring in a show called Legends and tune in expecting to see a medieval drama, where you have armor…
And a horse. It’s quite the opposite!
Legends is based on Robert Littell’s 2005 novel, and the term is used heavily throughout the show, but I can’t recall ever hearing it on TV or movies before in this context.
No, I hadn’t either before I began this. So when I’m explaining things to people — “my legends…”—they think I’m showing off. “I’m legend-ary!” [laughs]
Last month, TNT gave reporters a shirt that said #DontKillSeanBean, which was funny, but I didn’t realize they would turn into a whole marketing campaign.
Neither did I! [laughs] Somebody just said, “Stick this on and we’ll take a picture of you.” “What?”
What was your reaction?
I thought it was funny. I mean, I’m still quite bemused by it. I don’t exactly know what to say about it. I guess I’m flattered that people want me to stick around for a little longer. So that’s good. But it seems to have taken off.
TNT has never killed off the star of one of its shows, but I guess they could skirt around that by killing one of your legends off.
Well, that’s true! I guess I put [one of his legends; spoiler redacted] to rest. And that’s quite a poignant moment, because I’ve invested so much time and fondness in this character, it’s almost like putting somebody to rest. So I guess you could say that I died! [laughs] I died!
You’ve had so many memorable deaths that have resonated with audiences. What is it like being known for dying?
That’s good. I think my deaths have gotten better recently, in the last few years. First it was just usually like “bang,” but since I’ve become a little more of a name, they seem to take longer! They stretch it out a little. Like Lord of the Rings, that’s one of my favorites because there’s a pathos to it, a heroic demise. But I’ve not died for awhile, actually.
Probably because it’s hard to top how you went out on Game of Thrones.
Yeah, that was wonderful, the shock and like, “Wait a minute, we made a deal!” That was pretty shocking and that was very well put together. But I guess part of the reason is that I’ve played quite a lot of villains. As you know, the villains usually all die.
Can you remember what your very first death was, either onstage or onscreen?
Let’s see…I did a lot of Shakespeare. Romeo, that was a good death. I did that at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Which death was the toughest to film?
I did a film called Patriot Games with Harrison Ford and we actually shot three different versions of my death. And they settled on the third. But they were flying me back from London to L.A. because they put it together and they would go, [shakes head] “Uh...” They drowned me first, and me and Harrison were underwater. They sent me back to England, then they said, “Sean, we need you back next weekend. It didn’t work, that death.” That happened three times. In the end, they finally settled on me getting an ice pick in the back of my head or something. [Editor’s Note: He was actually impaled on a boat anchor, and then blown up.] That was a very long, labored death scene, which worked very well in the end. And there was the one in Henry VII, with Ray Winstone, where I was drawn and quartered. That was cold, and I was covered in sticky blood in winter in England, on a castle wall. I quite enjoyed it, actually, looking back! [Editor’s note: His Henry VII death actually involved him being hung from the castle in chains; he was drawn and quartered in 2010’s Black Death.]
Have you had any real-life near-death experiences?
I once fell through a glass door when I was only 4 years old. That was like a guillotine. I always would lose my temper when I was at home, and banged on this glass door, and one day I banged straight through it and nearly took my leg off. I still remember the pattern of the blood on the carpet. My mom used to have to take me around in a pram for about six months, and I couldn’t walk. And it just missed a main artery, apparently. I was very lucky. I can still remember it now, and that was 51 years ago.
That was your left leg?
Yeah, I have a big scar down here. [points to above the knee] The scar looks like a shark bite. That’s what I tell people! “I was in Australia…” [laughs]
“I once fell through a glass door when I was only 4 years old. That was like a guillotine.”
Your recent comments in interviews about Jon Snow not actually being Ned Stark’s bastard son have people buzzing that you have confirmed the "R+L=J" fan theory, which suggests that Jon is in fact the son of Ned’s sister Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen. Do you have inside information?
I didn’t, no. I think Ned knows, but I don’t! I always treated him, and especially my wife Catelyn, by her reactions, whenever Jon Snow is around, she’s kind of frosty, kind of cold towards him, but she thinks it’s because I had a son with someone else, that I was unfaithful. And I guess that’s what everybody believed. But now there’s this other theory, and I think it’s probably a very good one, that he’s really not Ned’s son. I don’t know. Have they said?
The books haven’t said anything definitive yet, but there are still two more to go.
It’s very clever. I mean, [George R.R. Martin] keeps coming up with these things that keep people in the dark, and then it’s subsequently revealed. And I think that’s part of his success.
Do you still watch Thrones?
I do. I haven’t watched every episode but I do like to dip in and keep in touch. It’s one of those things where you’re traveling, and—one day I want to get the box set and catch up and see what’s going on. It’s funny because you see them now and they’re all growing up, like Bran and Arya. Because it’s been four or five years now, and they’re growing into woman and men! And seeing how they’ve adapted to their parts, and how the directors have adapted to them growing up. It’s fascinating.
Any word yet on whether they’ll want you for Season 5, if they delve into the flashback sequences that are coming up in the book?
Still nothing! I’d like to! You could weave it in, and it’s very believable. Because he was a good presence, he was a moral compass. He was a man with a straight, moral principle. He was the only one who was keeping them together. I think that’s why people miss him.
How hard was it to keep Ned’s death under wraps? Of course it had happened in the book, but most shows find a way to keep their leads around.
I’m very good at keeping a secret. Personally, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t make any sneaky phone calls, not even to my family!
So what was their reaction?
They were shocked. “Sean, you should have told us!” and “Why did you do that?” Hey, I didn’t do it, it’s not my fault! But it was good that it was kept under wraps, because it made it so much more shocking.
Right until the end, viewers kept assuming you’d somehow get out of it, and then you didn’t.
I love things like that. And if you can kill Ned Stark, then you can kill anyone.
Same with Lord of the Rings. If one of the nine members of the Fellowship can go, then any of them can, except probably Frodo. That’s another reason those deaths are so memorable, because they’re so surprising.
Yeah, absolutely. Both of them were very good men as well. Boromir was a good man apart from his obsession with the ring. But he was a very good man, and you forgive him for his obsession by his death, and his redemption…And when you talk about things like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, it takes me back. And now I’m reminiscing. They were very fond memories.
Yet both of them are still ongoing. Game of Thrones will return next year, and Peter Jackson is still making films about Middle-Earth. So everywhere you turn, you’re still reminded of them.
Yeah. They’re good ones, aren’t they? They’ve made a big impact. And they’re long-lasting, quality productions that I’m really proud to have been involved in. I’m very lucky.