Sean Bean has unwittingly carved out a broad place for himself in Hollywood. He's wanted dead and alive.
Bean's intense glare currently can been seen on billboards and building wraps promoting "Legends," in which he plays undercover FBI agent Martin Odum, who is thrown into a baffling mystery about his true identity. Is he really who he thinks he is? Odum can transform into a "legend," the FBI term for a completely different character created for each job. But combining his professional duties with his real-life roles — including as a divorced dad with a loving son — pose true confusion and problems.
The TNT drama, premiering Wednesday, provides the 55-year-old British actor with a high-octane playground to show off his gritty toughness and stately authority, which have been a touchstone in projects including Shakespearean dramas, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and James Bond films. During his career, he's proved to be equally adept at playing good guys and villains.
Tackling a character who is actually playing another character posed a thrilling challenge.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out," Bean said while relaxing in a West Hollywood hotel suite during a recent promotional tour. "It offered an opportunity to play as many as three characters in one day."
But Bean is acutely aware that he's bringing more than a little baggage to "Legends." The series arrives about three years after his beloved character Lord Eddard Stark was ceremoniously beheaded in the first season of HBO's "Game of Thrones," a demise that is still being mourned by legions of fans. Although readers of the George R.R. Martin novels that form the basis of the series knew that the stoic and dignified Stark was doomed, scores of viewers were still shocked because Bean had the lead role and, along with costar Peter Dinklage, was the most well-known performer in the ensemble.
Insightful fans realized that with the death of Stark, Bean had died more than 20 times on-screen, often horribly. His Alec Trevelyan, the nemesis of James Bond in "Goldeneye," was pushed off a huge antenna, which then fell and crushed him. In "Black Death," he was tied to horses that galloped in different directions, ripping him apart. Treacherous Orcs shot Bean's warrior character, Boromir, full of lethal arrows in "The Lord of the Rings" films. His bad guy Miller got impaled on an anchor aboard a speeding boat, which then exploded, in "Patriot Games." He was shot in the head in "The Hitcher."
One particularly intrepid fan even put together a "death reel" of Bean's grand finales.
Seizing on the good-natured concerns of fans wondering about Bean's longevity in "Legends," TNT has launched a tongue-in-cheek Web campaign, #don'tkillseanbean, that it hopes will help reassure viewers that the star is not going to be dispatched — at least not for now.
Bean, who has even been spotted wearing a "don'tkillseanbean" T-shirt, has approached the campaign with a smile. He even participated in a Funny or Die video making fun of his dying skills. Until the reel, he had not really thought about how many times he'd been killed on-screen.
"I don't really know what to say about it," he said. "I suppose I should be flattered by all the people who don't want me to die anymore. It's nothing that ever occurred to me before. I was just doing the work." Of the death reel, he said: "It was very tastefully done."
He's very much alive in "Legends," though far from well. His character, Martin Odum, is truly in a mental and emotional whirlwind.
"Martin is really happier when he's playing someone else. You can see it in his eyes. But when he's just himself, he's not sure where he's going. He lacks direction. However, the 'legend' knows exactly where he's going. So Martin has a strange addiction. He wants to jump back into the 'legend' as soon as he can."
Bean talked with undercover agents and watched documentaries about undercover work for research: "It's really fascinating: The people who do this kind of work can find their loyalties split, and they have to decide what side they're on.
"Playing someone who is going through that was hard and difficult. Sometimes I felt, 'Where am I going here?' Then I would just throw caution to the wind. It was quite scary, but I'm glad I did, because I went out on a limb."
Executive producer David Wilcox said the breakneck production schedule was a bit daunting for Bean.
"Sean is used to having a fair amount of time to sit and work with the material," Wilcox said. "Our schedule was intense, so it took him a bit out of his comfort zone. But he adapted quite well. We built the character together."
"Legends" also marks a milestone for Bean: his first lead in an American-made TV series.
"I feel good about my body of work," he said. "I never imagined that I would have these kinds of opportunities. I've just always tried to be diverse and consistent with challenging roles. It's been great so far."
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)