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FLIGHTPLAN - Q&A with Sean Bean

The irony is not lost on Sean Bean of course. In the new thriller FLIGHTPLAN he plays a pilot captaining a huge transatlantic airliner and yet for years Sean himself was terrified of flying. "I know," he smiles. "It's strange but I'm a lot better about flying now. And I think the research I did for FLIGHTPLAN actually helped me, too."

In preparation for playing Captain Rich, Bean spent time at 'flying school' - working on a flight simulator - and picking up tips from real pilots. "I never mastered the flight simulator," he admits. "But at least it gave me some kind of feeling for the cockpit and the controls. So it was very useful."

Like most who share the same phobia, his fear of flying wasn't rational. But it was a problem - especially for an actor with an international reputation who was required on film locations all over the world.

And finally, working on Peter Jackson's award winning Lord of the Rings - Bean, 45, played Boromir - helped convince him that he had to overcome his fear, mostly by sheer will power.

"I got used to it," he says. "I had to really. Because you can't make a film in New Zealand, where we made Lord of the Rings, and get there any other way."

Since Lord of the Rings, Bean's already considerable reputation has grown. Born in Sheffield in the north of England, he made his name in the UK working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and then on acclaimed television dramas like Sharpe's Rifles, playing the hero of Bernard Cornwall's Napoleonic War sagas, Richard Sharpe.

His impressive list of film credits include starring with Harrison Ford in Patriot Games, working with the late, great Richard Harris in The Field, playing a gangster in Essex Boys. He has also starred in many other movies including Goldeneye, The Big Empty and Wolfgang Petersen's epic Troy.

He has just completed four films back to back - Flightplan, North County, with Charlize Theron, the Michael Bay blockbuster The Island and the thriller Silent Hill.

Directed by Robert Schwentke (who helmed the highly acclaimed Tattoo), Flightplan is a psychological thriller set inside the claustrophobic confines of an airliner travelling from Europe to America.

Kyle Pratt is a grieving widow travelling home to the States with the coffin containing the body of her husband and at her side is their six-year-old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), who, like her mother, is still in shock after his sudden death.

After Kyle drifts off into brief, fit full sleep, she wakes to find that her daughter is missing - assuming, at first, that Julia, is playing elsewhere on the plane. When she begins to get anxious and tries to find her, the flight crew and passengers claim that they never saw the youngster and Kyle begins to doubt her own sanity.

How did you prepare yourself for the movie?

I went to this flying school where they had a flight simulator and did a sort of crash course if you'll pardon the pun, in flying. (Laughs) But it was particularly difficult to actually land and to get things right, I must admit. I never mastered it because I didn't have enough time, but I at least it gave me some kind of feeling for the cockpit and the controls and stuff like that, so it was very useful. And then meeting some of the pilots and talking to them, just getting some information about how they would react in the situation and how they carry themselves and their sense of self confidence and responsibility. That's about all I did really. I didn't really know much about pilots, I don't' think many people do. So I just tried to get as much information as I could and it was very interesting.

And what do you like about the part itself?

I quite like the fact that he was quite a straight, authoritative figure and yet he's also sympathetic and sensitive to serve his passengers and especially to Kyle's (Jodie Foster) recent tragedy. And he's calm with her and tries to calm her down and doesn't make snap decisions. I think he does lose a little patience as it goes on, and he's had the plane searched for the little girl. It seems such an implausible situation when there's not a trace of this child on the plane. It's a nightmare situation really.

Is it true you're not a very good flyer?

I'm okay now, I wasn't before. For the last couple of years since I've been flying around, I've done THE LORD OF THE RINGS and been to New Zealand and I got used to it. I had to do that really.

You work so much, you must be flying all the time?

I do now yeah, I'm flying round a lot. I don't really get that panicky feeling anymore. You know I used to have a few drinks before I got on the flight and during it and then after! (Laughter)

Did working on FLIGHTPLAN change the way you felt about flying?

Actually, it was reassuring. They told me a few things about what a plane can withstand and what a battering it can take before anything goes wrong. If you get in the eye of a storm you are in big trouble but apart from that the wings are very flexible. It's incredible really.

Do you think it was the fact that you are flying so much that it has made you more at ease?

A: I think so yeah, I think it is. I just thought to myself 'I've got to do this all of the time..' I used to be terrified of the landings and take offs and the turbulence. I'm still not fond of it now, I don't think anybody is, but it was something I had to face otherwise I wouldn't be able to do any work. I mean, it's going to take a long time to get a train and a ship to New Zealand..(laughs)

The plane your character pilots in FLIGHTPLAN is huge.

Yeah, and I've been told the bigger the better in terms of safety. I still don't find flying particularly pleasant but it's not a fear for me anymore, it's just something that I've got to do.

Does Jodie have a distinctive acting style?

I think with Jodie it's very clear where her emotions lie and they are very much on the surface and you can see that on screen. She has a wonderful way of portraying that for an audience. She is very emotional and she runs a gamut of emotions in this movie. And she was very focused. I've always wanted to work with her because I've always thought she was a great actress. In fact, I've never seen anything of hers where I didn't think she was good. Peter Sarsgaard was more contained - because of the nature of the part, but equally very talented.

You're a father. Did the film strike more of a chord with you, do you think, because you are a parent?

Yeah, I think it did. When Jodie's character wakes up and realises that her daughter isn't there, well, that's every parent's nightmare, isn't it. She handles it quite well at the beginning because she's a strong woman but then the panic sets in. As parents we've all had that feeling. You know, the child who wanders off in the supermarket or the hotel foyer or the cinema. And the kids don't understand how terrifying it is for the parents. You break out into a cold sweat and you get that gut wrenching feeling, it's just absolutely terrifying. Fortunately, for most people, things usually turn out all right. But in FLIGHTPLAN Jodie is in the middle of every parent's absolute worst nightmare.

Erika Christensen was saying she admired how hard you work. Do you think that work ethic comes from your background in theatre?

Yeah, possibly, I mean I take it seriously, I think in some sense it's good to do theatre. I enjoyed doing theatre, I did it for about five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Glasgow Theatre Company. It was a good grounding for me personally. I felt I could make my mistakes there, find my limitations and that's quite hard work. And I suppose I take that through into the films I do now. I'm very serious in how I approach it and try to keep it as realistic as I can without being heavy and methody. I feel I'm very focused.

You dabbled with art at one point. Why did you give that up?
Because I didn't think I would make it as an artist. I thought it was a bit romantic. I used to do a lot of chalk and pastel drawings and some of them were quite weird. I was influenced by the surrealists and Dadaists, that movement. Some of them were ghoulish and scary and I didn't know where they were coming from (laughs). Some of them were quite good, though and I sold a few pictures - not that I would have made a living out of it. But that was initially what I wanted to do. I wanted to do a lot of things: I wanted to write, I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to perform. I learnt how to play the piano when I was about 19, 20. I wanted to do lots of things but I just didn't know which one it was and when I discovered acting it seemed to embody all of those interests and I felt very secure with that. And I felt I'd achieved my ambition, that's what I wanted to pursue from then on.

What was that like, for a working class boy from Sheffield in the north of England, to express that artistic side?

It was quite difficult at the time, you know, because I was a welder and I was working with a lot of guys in the factory, welding fabrication. But you know I was still dabbling with art at the same time and I think that my father sort of knew that my heart wasn't in it. I worked at the same steel works as my father and I'd have been an average sort of welder but I just felt there was something else, something different. And I knew it even when I was a kid. But the reaction was quite strange when I said I wanted to be an actor, I mean my dad was quite confused by that.

Your father?

Yeah, and everybody else. It's regarded as a bit of a fairy-ish, sort of a poncy thing to do, you know, because this is like thirty years ago. But I was sure, I didn't really care, you know, I felt so secure with it. And it was good humoured as well. I can still go back home and they take the piss, you know. But it's good. I'd rather have it like that than people be too reverential and you, I can go home and I can just be with my friends and mates and I can relax with them. It's like I've kind of gone full circle really.

Has there been a change in the offers you get since THE LORD OF THE RINGS?

Yeah, I think there has, in a positive way, yeah. And I think it's probably the case with all of us, it was such a great show case for us all. It's been wonderful we had great exposure in a wonderful piece of work and I think we've all gone on to do other things and stuff and have a certain amount of choice with what we do.

Anything you can say is as a direct result of the success of THE LORD OF THE RINGS?

I suppose TROY. I think Wolfgang Petersen saw me in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. And I did a film called NORTH COUNTRY with a director called Niki Caro who is from New Zealand and is friends with Peter Jackson, so maybe that too. I think THE LORD OF THE RINGS was a catalyst; it spurred everyone to do bigger and better things.

Do you think that FLIGHTPLAN is affected by September 11th?

Well, I suppose it's there in the background. But I see it more as a psychological drama with a woman and a child and a captain and these people on the plane. And yes, it's easy to be suspicious of people post 9/11 and these guys are from the Middle East and they are the first ones to get suspected. And it's a shame that we live in a world where that's become the case. I guess the truth is any unusual situation that happens on a plane these days and 9/11 is in the back of people's minds. Personally I feel much safer flying these days. Whether that's some kind of weird reaction to what happened, I don't know.

How do you like it when people talk about you as a sex symbol?

It's alright (laughs). I don't get up in the mornings and look in the mirror and go 'wow you're that sex symbol!' (Laughs).

Because you were voted like second sexiest man in Britain after Orlando Bloom.

Yeah, in Empire Magazine, after him! (Laughs) I was pleasantly surprised. It's just weird that sort of thing.

You seem to have been making a lot of films lately.
Yeah, some back to back. I did FLIGHTPLAN, then THE ISLAND, then NORTH COUNTRY and a film called SILENT HILL. So I did four in the space of a year or so and I never really went back home. And if I did go back it was for two or three days. It was very tiring so I'm looking forward to a bit of time off now.

Are you good at being away from home like that?

Yeah, I think I am, yeah I like travelling around. It's a great job because you get to see the world. I might be going to India soon and that's a part of the world I've always wanted to see.

What about being away from your family?

My children come across occasionally, if they are not in school. I'll bring them across for a couple of weeks and take them to Disneyland and go shopping, stuff like that. There are some places I've worked where I'd prefer them not to go because it can be a bit dodgy. I remember we did some filming for SHARPE (UK TV series) in the Crimea and that was a bit dodgy. But when I do get home I tend to spend a lot of time with them and so I make it up and we have a lot of time together. But I miss my kids, I think everybody who travels does.

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