The Pirates of the Caribbean star is plotting a new course.

There is a layer of smog hanging like a translucent violet ribbon just above the horizon. Orlando Bloom and I are sitting on a balcony, looking south over West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, the city brown and gray and smudged by dirty light. The traffic on Sunset Boulevard is noxious and slow. Suspended over the road, on a walkway between the metal girders of a 10-story-tall construction crane, is a man eating a sandwich. He is a silhouette: We see the human shape, the lifting and lowering of the arm and the head bobbing as he chews.

Bloom leans against the stucco wall and watches the man perched above all the noise. “I want that,” he says.

What the actor means is that he’d like a few moments, months, really to survey the world from a great, quiet height. Since he first appeared in a white-blond wig and a green tunic and hoisted an arrow quiver in 2001 as Legolas in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bloom has been everyone’s idea of a Next Big Thing, raw human material ripe to be made up, styled, buffed, polished, coached, and coaxed through blockbuster franchises and big-budget studio bets.

“I’ve been white-knuckling it for so long,” he says, slipping off his sunglasses and rubbing his stubble. “Between the first Lord of the Rings and this [Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End], I’ve been going nonstop. I would come off one movie and straightaway start the next picture. I wasn’t even really thinking about it, I was letting the machinery sort of run me. “So now, on a personal level, I just want some time and space from everything, from all that,” he points toward the city, “From the environment and the phone and the communication.” He stops, as if aware he sounds like every other young actor who has achieved commercial success and suddenly realizes it’s more than he bargained for.

He walks across the concrete floor, sits down on a wrought-iron chair. Bloom is pale. He wears faded jeans, a gray Henley, and aviators. His stubble is well-calibrated, and there is product in his hair.

Bloom turned 30 in January, and right now is the first time in a decade that he has nothing to do, no project lined up, no epic action picture requiring him to put on 25 pounds, no sword training at 7 a.m. tomorrow.

“Look, it all felt important, too important, but now I’m in a position to – look, I’m trying not to take myself so seriously, and in not taking myself so seriously, I think I’ll be more serious.” Possible translation: He’d like to be taken seriously.

Before I got on a plane to come interview Bloom, I had never actually thought about him. At all. Which is weird, because I’ve seen at least nine movies he’s been in (Don’t underestimate Orlando’s ability to choose very successful material,” says Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who first cast Bloom in a small role in 2001’s Black Hawk Down). He was the creamy center of huge action-picture pastries: crucial, but sometimes overshadowed by a hammy Johnny Depp, or the special effects in the Lord of the Rings, or the special effects in Kingdom of Heaven. In person, Bloom is much less pretty than he looks onscreen and on magazine covers. He’s rugged, regular-guy handsome, a higher-cheekbone, raspier-voiced version of the kinds of English boys I used to meet. And even though he’s skinny, he seems tough enough to get my back in a punch-up, with or without a cutlass.

There are several moments in Bloom’s past that could account for that toughness. He was a good athlete as a boy, the captain of his soccer and field-hockey teams, an avid rugby player, a vocal teammate who would mercilessly rib his fellow players. He is dyslexic, when describing the condition he spreads his arms wide and says here are words, here are images and sounds and names, and then he makes a small circle with his hands inside that imaginary map and says he can see only that much at a time “so, school was a challenge, put it that way.” At the age of 13, he learned that his dad, anti-apartheid lawyer and activist Harry Bloom, was not his biological father. His actual father was a friend of the family named Colin Stone. “Think about that,” he says. “Think about finding out when you’re 13 that your dad is not your dad. It’s like, okay, take it on the chin and keep going. No choice, really.”

And then there’s the much-retold tale of Bloom’s three-story fall from a window when he was 21. He broke his back and was told by doctors that he might never walk again. “For four days I was thinking this was it, that I would be living my life in a wheelchair, and then I thought, no, and I knew I would walk. I just knew.” Twelve days later, he walked on his own, astonishing his physicians and therapists. He still has a scar, a long, uneven groove down his back.

It’s almost as if the adolescent Bloom was in training to become a big-screen hero. “Take it on the chin and keep moving,” he repeats. “Use it. Use it for fuel.”

His back, he says, is his internal speedometer; it tells him when he needs to slow down. Because of lingering pain from the fall, he has a half-dozen stretches, twists, bends, and swivels that he does to loosen up. There’s the one where he holds on to two chairs and lowers himself between them, bouncing on his toes. Another where he holds his arms over his head like a diver and then wiggles from side to side. A third where he extends his arms clasped behind his back and thrusts his chest out. He’s doing that last one on the balcony (then when he’s finished) sighs.

“I suppose now you’re going to ask me who I’m dating?”

He is saying this because we’ve gotten through a lot of the work questions. We’ve covered his childhood, and his energetic remodeling of his new London home. There’s an elephant in the room. It might be blonde. It might be raven-haired. We’re not really sure.

“There’s all this noise that happens,” he says, by way of sidestepping the pachyderm. “I was 22 when I got the Lord of the Rings. Nobody tells you what it is like to be famous – there’s no guidebook, you know what I mean?” He is not saying that to justify his own guardedness with the media; he has been a steady promoter of each of his films and is no more tight-lipped in interviews than any other film actor. He is saying it to be polite to explain his wariness. He’s more specific when he talks about the Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven: “When you’re [almost] 27 years old and Fox greenlights a movie with a budget of $150 million with you as the headliner, that’s a tribute. And then all the press afterward was like I hadn’t come through on something, sort of like I hadn’t delivered. But what did I not come through on?”

He regroups from this uncomfortable digression like a resilient real-life Legolas: “I have the patience to trust my own journey. Life is going to unfold as it should because life always does. If I’m true to myself, then all the rest is like, f** it, man.”

I tell him he sounds like a Buddhist.

“I am a Buddhist,” he says.

Bloom says he’s adhered to the Soka Gakkai school of Buddhism, a powerful Japanese movement based on the teachings of the 13th-century monk Nichiren, since he was 19. When the British tabloids first heard about Bloom’s practice, they said he was a member of a cult. Bloom was deeply offended.

“The philosophy that I’ve embraced isn’t about sitting under a tree and studying my navel, it’s about studying what is going on in my daily life and using that as fuel to go and live a bigger life. When your girlfriend dumps you, when the bill comes through the door, and your mom calls you and tell you she can’t handle the stuff in her life – that’s hell, but that’s just one world. If you are aware of what is going on, then you can grow and use that hunger, that fear.”

In January, just after his birthday, Bloom felt a fear creeping up all around him, a sense that he was beginning to lose himself a little. He caught that “whiff of invincibility” that comes with seeing yourself on billboards, 90 feet tall. So before the Pirates 3 media maelstrom, he flew to Patagonia and boarded a Norwegian icebreaker bound for Antarctica. He spent three weeks sleeping in a bunk above his cousin Sebastian Copeland, who is working on a book about the area. He slept most of the day in a bus-shelter-size cabin, reading koans, meditating, and climbing up on deck occasionally as the ship drifted south. He shared a toilet and a shower with about 15 other dudes. The Argentine crew, some with pirate names like Omega Negra, the Black Ant, and Captain Jorge, worked the frozen deck and shouted orders at the handsome actor in Spanish.

“I felt isolated and vulnerable and I just had all this time to think,” Bloom says. “I just had time to read and think and I figured out that this moment, now, is when I can use everything that I’ve done to my advantage, to choose a great project, to do something great and take a risk. I’m looking around and going, I cannot f***ing believe how lucky I’ve been – Pirates has afforded me the luxury of choice, and with those choices comes responsibility but also freedom. I can figure out exactly what I want to do.”

Is there a downside to being in Pirates?

He considers this. “Well, if storytelling is communication, then how much can you do with”- he slips into his Will Turner voice – ‘There’s a giant squid in the water!’? But the audience responds to that.

“So I guess the downside is just that, well, what is the downside, really?” He (thinks) for a moment and then laughs. “I don’t know. There really is no downside, I’ve got to tell you. It’s put me in a position where I can wait and see what happens and now figure out what I really want to do.”

Bloom stands up and does another backstretch; he begins to gather his sunglasses, and his cell phone as if to leave. Then he sighs, sets it all back down on the table, and sits again. Because for the first time in a long time, he really has nowhere he has to be.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Details May.2007.

May 1, 2007 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links