Sean Bean is in danger of losing his head again, although this time, it won’t end up on a pike. As the lead in the new TNT show Legends (premiering August 13), his character suffers from a unique kind of multiple personality disorder — he’s a deep-undercover operative who starts to have trouble distinguishing between himself and his various assumed identities, or legends. Where does one end and the other begin? The only thing that’s for sure is that he won’t be the one to die this season. (Although plenty of his co-stars are at risk.) “It’s great when they kill the characters!” laughed Bean over the phone during a break promoting the show at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. “They knock them off, and the audience is thinking, ‘What is going on?!’” Bean chatted with Vulture about going Method, cross-dressing, and his hope for Ned Stark’s return on Game of Thrones.
You’ve read the book it’s based on, Robert Littell’s Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation? And John le Carré’s work as well? Are you a fan of that genre?
Yeah, yeah. It’s that kind of deception, that kind of bluffing, that is particularly interesting. And I get a chance to play multiple personas, multiple characters, and that’s a challenge. I always like to do something different, something unusual, stray off the path a bit. That’s what I [find] kind of exciting. So this isn’t your usual cop drama. It’s based in the FBI, and it has that kind of environment, but there’s a lot of psychological stuff going on there, especially with Martin Odum and the characters that he takes on as his legends [Lincoln Dittman and Dante Orbach].
Because he’s not even sure if he is Martin Odum. He even slips into his other legends without realizing it sometimes, talking in Lincoln’s accent and stutter when he’s supposed to be Martin.
That’s kind of meaty for me. It’s so bizarre and weird, to flip your accent like that in a split second. He’s got this kind of double crisis in a way, or confusion, because it’s one thing to take on the characters as he does, but he’s also got people, strangers, telling him, with really good back-up stories, that he’s not actually Martin Odum. He’s not who he thinks he is. So as the story goes on, he gets more anguished by what he’s hearing from other people, and the things that people seem to be hiding from him. Even his own wife. So he’s in a really strange world because he’s not playing a legend, then he’s dealing with his own crisis of who he actually is. And then that’s all kind of revealed towards the end. So he’s going through the same thing as the audience, I guess, and I’m going through that, as an actor — waiting to see where he goes and who he is!
Going undercover is kind of like being a Method actor.
That’s it — he is a Method actor! [Laughs] I guess if you were a real undercover guy, you’d be thinking, “How do Method actors do this?” Actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman, they totally immerse themselves in their parts. And I think that’s what Martin Odum does with his characters, even down to what kind of food he eats, what he drives, where he lives — he’s got his own car and apartment for each of them. Everything’s different for each legend, and he doesn’t stray away from that. Because he can’t. He’s dealing with these guys, who are really dangerous guys, a bit of unsavory characters, so he’s got to totally believe that he’s someone else. And therefore, he gets these psychological repercussions, these conflicts in his head, trying to get out of that character. And most Method actors, they do find it difficult to get out of character. It can take weeks or months to get it out of your brain. So it would be a real dangerous thing to take on, if you were a real undercover guy.
What’s the closest you come to being Method? How long does it take you to shake off a character?
I wouldn’t say I’m a Method actor, but I do try to focus very deeply on what character I’m playing, and everything else goes out the window. I forget about everything. I try to get everything else out of my head. So I guess you could call that Method up to a point, but when I’ve finished a scene, I don’t walk around and pretend that I’m still in character! Everybody has their own methods, but I guess I’m kind of in between, because I do carry it around a little bit, when I finish work and come home at night, and your mind is racing a bit. And then when I get home from doing something like this, it takes a fair bit to readjust to normal life, to family life. [Laughs.] I’m not complaining! But it does have that kind of effect on you, to pretend for so long that you’re someone else.
What was the hardest one to get into or to shake off?
Oh, gosh! I did a film for the BBC called Tracie’s Story. It was part of a series called Accused, and I actually played a transvestite in that, and that was a big leap to get into. And it stayed with me for a long while, even until today, because it was an interesting character. It was a very endearing part to play. I played a schoolteacher in the daytime, teaching these kids at school, and by night, I was a woman — big blonde wig, stockings, stilettos, miniskirt — going out on the town. Very flamboyant, but a lovely character. She was called Tracie. And I suppose that was a big one to get into, to walk around before the first scene, to become a woman trying to chat my boyfriend up. That was a big leap for me [laughs]. But of all the characters I’ve played, that was probably one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done. I remember that one really fondly. And it went down really well! It got a lot of critical acclaim, but it was one of the most unlikely things I could have done. It just popped up, and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and it’s something that I’ll remember forever.
Probably because, among other things, you had to walk in heels. It’s tougher than it looks!
It’s really hard! And I was doing it on cobblestone streets! There was a lot to think about there, in terms of changing character and being this girl called Tracie. And everything — the heels, the physicality, the way she walks, the way I moved my bum! I just had a ball.
Since you’re almost done shooting Legends, that might mean you have a window in your schedule if Game of Thrones needs you back. There are flashbacks that they could be doing for season five …
[Excited] Are they? Really?
I could be wrong, but I think they might show flashbacks via Bran’s connection to the heart trees.
Oh, yeah, yeah! And I’m his father, so that would be great fun! Just to go back to that for a while, it would be such fun to do. It would be great! It would be bizarre, but it would be great! So I guess if they’re going to do flashbacks, then yeah!
Well, it’s just my theory …
But it’s a good theory! And that should happen, shouldn’t it? I’ve definitely got some unfinished business that needs to be resolved there. I’m obviously not Jon Snow’s dad. And you need that to be revealed at some point, don’t you? So Bran would kind of be the one having the flashback, and he would see Ned praying, right? And revealing those things? You never know what those guys are going to do with that. It’s got to be something special. But I’m into that. I certainly would be into that. Print that! Give them a nudge. [Laughs.] Hopefully I’ll get a call soon.