February 17 2009:  He’s about to play the villain in the crime drama Red Riding, but is Sean Bean as dark as his roles – and the tabloids – suggest?

Sean Bean is in a faux library in a Central London hotel talking intently into his mobile phone. He’s in good shape but doesn’t look particularly special: inexpensive-looking jeans worn away at the back, Chelsea boots, a dark blue sweat shirt, strong reading glasses on a tight rubber strap resting on his chest. The phone call done, he offers a firm handshake and sits on the edge of a floral sofa, legs wide apart. He orders builders’ tea and drinks it from a china cup.

The last thing one expects this resolutely northern actor to be is shy, but for at least five minutes he barely makes eye contact. He mumbles. He asks for simple questions to be repeated. His “people” have warned not to get personal with him – which presumuably means no discussion of tabloid allegations last year that he assaulted wife number four. Yet he’s been around for years, mostly famously in the long-running TV series Sharpe, most infamously as a bare-bottomed Mellors in Ken Russell’s Lady Chatterley and most recently as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings, so it seems odd that he might feel unable to defend himself.

In his latest part he is cast as the destructive, Machiavellian businessman John Dawson in Red Riding, an excellent three-part Channel 4 drama that is as disturbing and compelling as the David Peace novels on which it is based. In The Red Riding Quartet, Peace recreates in great detail the Yorkshire of his childhood, turning it into a brutal, backstabbing place haunted by the Yorkshire Ripper and run by corrupt police.

Bean tells me about his own Yorkshire childhood, in Sheffield. He wasn’t particularly interested in learning, he bunked off school occasionally, got bored easily. He was “full of mischief and curiosity”, more interested in himself than girls. He had seen and fallen in love with Ken Loach’s Kes when he was 10 and, at 15, bought a kestrel. “I got a proper licence for it, trained it, let it fly free. Like Billy Casper in Kes, I wanted to be with the bird all the time. I used to pretend I was in the film…”

In his bedroom in the modest family home he had Airfix model planes dangling from the ceiling on strings; David Bowie, Lou Reid and Iggy Pop posters covered the walls. Asked about Bowie, almost immediately Bean’s guard drops. He sits back on the sofa, looks at me sideways, smiles. He seems to be enjoying the nostalgia. “I saw Bowie at Earl’s Court during his Thin White Duke period. It was fantastic. The show started with clips from Luis Buñuel’s surrealist films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. There was an image of a razor blade slashing through an eye, a cloud went over the moon, the stage went dark. Then Bowie came on. It was properly exciting.”

Did he glam up? He hides his face in the china tea cup and starts mumbling again. “Er, well.” So the answer is yes? He shrugs. “OK, I wore similar outfits to Bowie. The truth is, I was a clone. I dyed my hair red, wore jumpsuits and big stack heels decorated with stars.” So here he was, this working-class Sheffield United fan, glamming it up as a 17-year-old. How did that go down locally? “People in Sheffield thought I was a poof. A weirdo. Which encouraged me to do it even more. I risked getting my head kicked in for a while, but then glam rock became more mainstream and dyeing your hair, wearing make-up and dressing up became more acceptable.”

It wasn’t just his taste in music that set him apart; young Bean also liked Surrealist art (he lists Dalí, Miro, Man Ray and De Chirico). Despite being a bit different, he still left school at 16 and joined his ex-Army father’s foundry, putting on boots and overalls to work metal. His father was a successful businessman – he used to drive to work in a Rolls-Royce, though the family never moved to a bigger house – and a great socialist. “My grandfather was left-wing too. I have long discussions with my dad about politics, although we don’t always agree. I suppose I’m a socialist too, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I certainly admire politicians like Tony Benn who are unapologetic about what they believe in and whose honesty is never in doubt.”

After a few years at the foundry, Sean decided he wanted to act. He had flirted with the idea of being a footballer then, strangely, a mime artist before winning a scholarship to RADA. By the time he left RADA, he was on to marriage number two, having left his childhood sweetheart for a fellow student (he has since married and divorced Abigail Cruttenden, who played his wife in Sharpe; a year ago he married another actress, Georgina Sutcliffe, two decades his junior. He says he’s had only four long-term relationships with women and simply likes being married).

Anyway, back when he was with wife number two, Melanie Hill, he toured in rep and worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. He had been taught Received Pronunciation at RADA but felt that he lost something of himself if a role required the Queen’s English. He seems very keen – desperate even – to hold on to his identity: a few years ago, when he was filming a series of Sharpe in India, he took 70 steak pies so that he wouldn’t have to eat the local food.

Yet he can also let go too, particularly when taking on the physical roles he favours. He was a Bond baddie in GoldenEye and has a scar below his left eyebrow as a reminder of playing an IRA terrorist in Patriot Games – Harrison Ford accidentally hit him with a boat hook. He lived in Los Angeles for almost a decade but isn’t keen to return: “I don’t like hanging out over there unless I’m working. I miss my house in Belsize Park, where I can get on with gardening and making bird boxes. Our old neighbour in Sheffield taught me all about gardening and wildlife so I grew up with it.”

Which is not to say that Bean is an out-of-work actor stuck at home in London, desperately hanging on to his northern roots. His career may have ebbed and flowed, but he’s far from washed up.

For Red Riding, Bean didn’t read Peace’s Quartet but found Tony Grisoni’s adaptation hard going. “The scripts were dark and perverse. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s oppressive from the very start.” He frowns. “It’s one of the most horrible stories I’ve ever been involved with. But very rewarding. We didn’t get paid much because the money went on the screen, but nobody was bothered.”

The budget was so tight that none of the actors had trailers; instead they sat around in cars chatting between scenes. “It was a very sociable set. Normally I keep to myself the night before a big scene, but it was hard to stay off the booze on Red Riding because of all the northern actors.Peter Mullan, Warren Clarke and I – we all like to drink. And sometimes it’s good to have had a few because it takes the edge away if there’s a difficult scene the next day.”

As a father of three girls, Bean was naturally disturbed by the central storyline, in which young girls are abducted and murdered, but he didn’t mind playing the villain again. “I don’t think I’d be very good in a Richard Curtis film. I’ve always been drawn to characters that are a bit strange and weird.” And, more often than not, violent. How much of himself does he draw on? “A lot of it is imagined. We’ve all seen people who can change on a sixpence and launch into a tirade of abuse. I can do that myself in private…”

Does he turn fast? “Yeah, I suppose I can. I can certainly do it when it’s required for a part. I suppose I’m regarded as someone who has a bad temper.” So set the record straight: “Well, I consider myself quite easygoing but I can have a short temper on occasion. It’s the way I express it that makes it appear more dramatic.” So are the tabloid stories documenting his violent outbursts true? “They see me as a northern stereotype. If I respond, it looks as though I’ve got something to respond to. Most of the time it’s drivel. It does promote an image that is very often misleading.”

He sighs. “Sitting here talking to you now, I hope you don’t get the impression that I’m suddenly going to go off and have a tantrum and start smashing stuff.”

I can’t quite imagine him smashing up the faux library; he seems fairly relaxed. The press officer pokes her head round the door and motions that there’s time for one more question. He turns 50 in April; is he vain? “I don’t know any actors who aren’t. I’m not really thinking about my birthday as a big event. I’m OK about it. Does it make much of a difference? It’s what’s going on in your head that reflects on your outer appearance. And I look OK, don’t I? I’m still a natural blond, no sign of grey hair…” And he offers a well-practised, charming grin, as though butter wouldn’t melt.

Red Riding starts on Channel 4 on March 5