It’s Sean Bean’s birthday today – in my humble opinion, one of the coolest actors alive. For a couple of reasons: one, that he brings gravitas, dignity and believability to anything he’s in, regardless of the silliness of some of the lines he has to utter; two, that he is such a badass that he was once stabbed in a bar fight and instead of going for medical attention, went back in and ordered another drink; and three, that he happens to be a very nice and genuine person in the flesh. I met him briefly during the Toronto International Film Festival a few years ago, and even though I was some nobody interrupting him on the way back from his smoke break, he was warm, friendly and seemed interested in what I had to say (even if most of it was star-struck fanboy gushing). One thing you do notice when you do talk with him is how thick his natural Sheffield accent is, and how much he tempers it for his roles. I’m pretty good with deciphering British dialects and I was having a hard time catching everything when we were chatting. (Or, it could have just been the rather heavy cigarette breath.)
I have always found the experience of meeting celebrities a bit weird. You have a kind of ersatz relationship with them going in, a sense of who they are based on the characters you’ve seen them play, or how they’ve been in interviews you’ve watched; you become acutely aware of their quirks and this creates a sort of false familiarity that part of you expects to be reciprocated, even though you know they have no idea who you are, nor should they for any reason. Call it a substantially less-psychotic version of stalker syndrome, I suppose. It can be tremendously disappointing if the celebrity happens to be in a bad mood that day, if they are sullen and withdrawn, in contrast to the larger-than-life wisecracking persona they display in their work. Christopher Guest, of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame (or the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride), says that people are often shocked when they meet him and find that he is a very serious, somewhat humorless man offstage. For Guest, being funny is his job, not his personality. That dichotomy between the public persona and the private life is hard to reconcile when you’re a fan. I suppose a way to articulate how it must feel for the celebrity is to imagine you’re out shopping at the mall and a random individual approaches you and starts gushing about how much they loved your last PowerPoint presentation and how your reports are worded and what it must be like to work with your immediate supervisor – who you think is an absolute douche. Now try feigning interest in that.
Of the celebrities I’ve met, some have been terrific – Bean, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Uther on Merlin), Chase Masterson (Leeta on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, was an incredibly nice bloke who seemed like he would have loved to have gone for a pint with us if there weren’t myriads more autographs to sign. I also have it on good authority that Hugh Jackman is a pretty amazing fellow. Others, for whatever reason – bad day, headache, any one of a thousand things that are none of our business - have been far less genial in my brief encounters with them: Terry Gilliam, William Shatner and most recently, Dean Stockwell. I met Mr. Stockwell this past weekend and immediately stuck my foot in my mouth when I asked him excitedly about Gentleman’s Agreement and what it was like to work with Gregory Peck (who played his father in the 1947 Best Picture winner). He became very quiet and muttered that Peck was cold, that he was one of those actors who did not enjoy working with children or animals. Stockwell then sort of looked away, conveying quite clearly that he was done with this conversation. I made my excuses and wandered off. I of course had no way of knowing that only a few days prior he had given this interview indicating how miserable an experience that movie and indeed much of his childhood was. Oops. Should have asked about Blue Velvet instead.
Celebrity worship is one of the strangest behavioural phenomena, and one suspects it derives largely from a sense of inadequacy and lack of fulfillment that many of us carry. Some are disappointed in how (relatively) little their lives have amounted to, and look up with awe at those who have achieved what they perceive as greatness. Yet greatness and renown are not necessarily the same thing. More often than not these days it seems that celebrity is achieved for all the wrong reasons – from national or worldwide embarrassment, or for utterly hollow pursuits. One wonders why we cannot simply appreciate the work being done without raising the person behind it to godlike heights. I’ve enjoyed Sean Bean’s performances, it was nice to have the opportunity to thank him for them, and that’s more than enough. To treat any of these people with the reverence accorded to kings is diminishing our own sense of self – they are, after all, simply human beings, and neither of us is fundamentally any different from the other. Just different ships sailing down the long and often stormy river of life, all equally vulnerable to the rocks and shoals.