This interview includes spoilers for the end of season 2 of Snowpiercer
As Ned Stark, the initial if short-lived protagonist of Game of Thrones, Sean Bean was the first actor to utter that show's signature phrase: "Winter is coming." In his latest series, Snowpiercer, winter has arrived – the Big Freeze, a cataclysmic temperature collapse that has disabled Earth and forced a few thousand survivors to seek shelter aboard a train that hurtles perpetually around the icy planet. (The premise is taken from a series of graphic novels by Jacque Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand, as well as from Bong Joon Ho's film adaptation.) Now, though, the story's ice age might be ending; Earth might be warming enough to support life again. Once more, though, the biggest obstacle to this healing is humanity itself.
I used to enjoy watching Donald Trump. I found him highly entertaining and rather funny. I didn't trust him. But he talked like a regular guy, and that kind of brought you in
Bean’s character, Wilford, was little more than an idea in season 1, a Wizard of Oz-like figure who had been installed in the minds of the passengers as the world’s saviour. This lie was kept alive for years by the train’s designer and engineer, Melanie (Jennifer Connelly), who created Wilford out of old voice recordings that she edited into new speeches. But in season 2, Wilford himself showed up, determined to take charge. This Wilford was more of a cruel Joffrey than an honourable Ned Stark, ready to kill and humiliate his subjects and engineer problems that only he could fix, and thus receive godlike worship in return.
Wilford’s gaslighting manipulations and abuses were an unsettling study of cultlike leaders, indoctrination, propaganda and authoritarianism. After a year of lockdown, the real-life parallels were sometimes too claustrophobic – and too relevant – to be seen as pure escapism.
In Monday’s season 2 finale, Wilford once again attempted to sabotage humanity’s best hope, this time in the form of Melanie, who had ventured outside the train to gather data about Earth’s possible warming. (“See ya!” he shouted as the train rumbled by.) In the end, though, it was Wilford himself who was left stranded, the engine cut loose by a few passengers. Come season 3, which is being filmed now in Vancouver, in Canada, these two factions will have to reach a truce in order for Snowpiercer – the train and the show – to move forward.
During a phone call from Vancouver, Bean discusses diving into his fiendish role, why Wilford enjoys a good bloodbath and whether the actor would be willing to do a Game of Thrones prequel. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When Alex (Rowan Blanchard) slashed your throat in the finale, I thought you might die. But then I remembered reading that you had stopped taking roles in which your character would be killed off . Is that still the case?
It was a bit worrying, actually! I forgive you for thinking it might be the end. I think everyone expects me to die at some point in this series. That's what I do. I worked on a film recently called Possessor, and I was supposed to die in that. I asked them, "Why don't you just badly injure me instead? You can put me in a wheelchair." They said okay. So by the end of the film I've got brain damage, but at least I'm alive. I'm not really that bothered by dying if there is a justifiable reason for it, but I don't want to keep dying all the time. And it kind of gives the game away if you see me and you think, How long is this guy going to last? So when I do survive, it's a bit of a surprise!
Wilford does a lot of surprising things. He would rather sabotage humanity's best chances of survival than deal with his own petty jealousy. Wouldn't it be more advantageous just to steal the credit for Melanie's discoveries?
Yeah, I wonder about that. What does he actually want to achieve? There's got to be an ultimate goal. But he doesn't want anybody else to make decisions. I'm sure he'd like someplace safe to live, someplace more temperate. But if he can't discover it himself, he would very happily sweep aside whoever did. He wants to be the one to say: "I found this myself. I'm colonising it. It's going to be named after me." He'll use any means to achieve that.
His willingness to sacrifice everyone else for his short-term gains reminded me of how some politicians responded in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Leaders in America got the nod that the pandemic was going to happen and sold their shares. People with prior knowledge preferred to make a profit first. It is a despicable reaction. I wonder if that was a political move, right at the beginning, to put all the blame on China. I guess the origins of it don't matter any more, but I do wonder about this slandering of different countries for political reasons. In the midst of all this, they're still being political, which is astounding.
Was there any aspect of Donald Trump that affected your portrayal of Wilford?
He's an easy target. If I'm honest, I used to enjoy watching Donald Trump. I found him highly entertaining and rather funny. I didn't trust him. I didn't like much of his policies, or what he believed in. But he talked like a regular guy, and that kind of brought you in. He also could just dismiss someone very quickly and start laughing about it. I couldn't help but notice that and apply a little of that attitude in Wilford.
Trump liked to use the rhetoric and the platitudes that a lot of American presidents use, including Joe Biden: “We’re all in this fight together” or “Loyalty is rewarded.” It sounds a little more sinister coming from Wilford, but it’s the same kind of message – it sounds grand, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. Wilford’s a good orator. He likes the sound of his own voice, and he likes dressing up to address an audience. That’s why he’s successful – he’s attractive, charming and witty. But that just masks the savagery, barbarism and cruelty.
But there are other monsters out there, present-day and past, who are more fitting comparisons for Wilford. I don't think Bill Gates is a particularly attractive character – he's certainly a man who relishes control, and I'm a bit wary of that kind of guy. Jeff Bezos, various others, they've got so many billions, but they're still trying to get more. It's not even the money. They really want to be influential in the world and put forward their ideas. They want to continue trying to get to the top, whatever the top may be. That's Wilford. He just wants to be top dog and have ultimate power over life and death.
Wilford is not exactly anti-science, but he seems only interested in certain kinds of science.
He's like Dr Frankenstein, with the capability of creating monsters. He spent a lot of time researching how to suffer extreme cold conditions, and that's been demonstrated with Icy Bob (Andre Tricoteux) and now Josie (Katie McGuinness). He's just experimenting. That's another aspect of Wilford, meddling with people's lives, treating them like animals. That's where he spends a lot of his time, pursuing things that wouldn't be allowed in normal society.
Like his bath ritual, joining people in the tub and convincing them to slit their own wrists?
It's like a game. Kevin (Tom Lipinski) is lulled into a trancelike state, because he thinks so much of Wilford. He loves him. And Wilford convinces Kevin: "Get in the bath, sit in the bath. And I'll talk about what you did and how it was wrong. Here's a razor blade!" It's kind of his mantra: "Here's a way to make it go away. You don't have to worry. Everything's fine."
He did that with Miss Audrey (Lena Hall), too. He doesn’t care about people. He does care about Miss Audrey, in that he has a fanciful, romantic vision of her, kind of twisted and lustful. But apart from that, humans are just like ants to him.
Were there any scenes you found hard to wrap your mind around?
The mango sex scene was a difficult scene for me and Lena Hall. That took it to a new level of weirdness. We were making it up as we went along. I was putting the mango between her legs, she was putting it between mine, and it became a sensual encounter, in a warped and tasty way.
The way this season ends, the uncoupled train and engine will have to be reconnected. What does that mean for Wilford's reign?
Maybe we'll get to see him in a more reasonable light. There are moments where he has to bargain with people, comply with some of their demands and try to be diplomatic. He's in such a dire situation, so he does have to work with Layton (Daveed Diggs). This might give the audience the impression that Wilford's folding, but there's always an ulterior motive – it's never simple. That's how cunning he is, how good he is at scheming.
HBO is developing several Game of Thrones prequels, one of which would be about Robert's Rebellion.
Is that King Robert Baratheon? I keep hearing about so many different remakes. I mean, there's a Lord of the Rings series coming, too. I might be too old to play Ned Stark again. That's the trouble, isn't it? It depends on how far you go back, doesn't it? I'd love to reprise the role. Maybe they could do that thing they did with Robert De Niro in The Irishman, do a few alterations! I don't see why not. – New York Times
Snowpiercer is available to stream on Netflix