The Epic Life of Orlando Bloom

Don’t be fooled by his bohemian dress and freethinking ways (or by the fact that he’s very, very good in a very unperiod new movie): Orlando Bloom is the Errol Flynn of our time

Orlando Bloom sits (eating unripe blueberries), having his morning tea on what could be the patio of a modest little house anywhere in the world. But little things everywhere hint that this is a partly fictional realm. Bloom is swathed in one of the long scarves he favors, covered in trinkets, and wearing combat-weight black boots, but because he has become so extraordinarily well-known for playing epic roles, the overall effect is of a man who is not quite modern but in modern dress. And this is no man’s house but a lavish bungalow at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. It’s not even one of the A-list bungalows down on the main level. This one is far more grand — seemingly floating above the hotel, insulated from the world by heavy gray wooden doors. It even has a private exit so that Bloom can come and go without fear of paparazzi.

The moment he speaks it’s clear that the only thing that isn’t tinged with unreality is Bloom himself, who comes across as impossibly levelheaded. He is finishing his first role as a contemporary American man, in Cameron Crowe’s new romantic comedy, Elizabethtown. “Being a Brit, I’ve spent most of my time here either in New York or L.A.,” Bloom says. “But during the Elizabethtown shoot, we were staying in the Brown Hotel, a classic, old-school place in Louisville. Going to Kentucky was a whole different side of America I never knew about. It was America. The hats, the suits—they’re not letting go of their traditions. Which is great. I love traditions. I mean, cultural ones.”

In contrast to his sensible demeanor, Bloom is abnormally good-looking. And it’s often hard to bear in mind how young he is—how much work and fame he has gathered up in a scant four years. But some fairly grim experience has made him play against type in real life.

There’s nothing otherworldly about the inside of the house, either. It’s a mess, scattered with health food, research, and mementos, much of which is still in boxes, since Bloom has been living here a month during one of his downtimes with Kate Bosworth. In the bedroom is residue from old work: There’s a DVD about the Crusades. Bloom grins and admits that while it’s ideal to read entire books, DVDs have the appeal of being condensed and visual. “Knowledge is power,” he says—”but having too much can actually get in the way. You simply want to know what world you’re in, and immerse yourself.” He’s taken time to hang a Cool Hand Luke poster, since he reveres Paul Newman. The kitchen is an aftermath of some kind of organic-food explosion. Everywhere you turn, there are protein shakes, containers of carrot and mango juice, oranges, tomatoes, and Lord-knows-what made out of tofu.

“I haven’t gone back to being vegetarian,” Bloom says, surveying the chaos. “I’ve gone back to the process of seeing what foods give me energy. When you’re working and you’re required to switch it on, you need to know what fuels you.”

Walking out the door, one sees the least artful object in the house: a sign, in fierce block lettering, that reads DO NOT LET THE DOG INSIDE! Sidi is explicitly banished from the house, given his taste for apocalypse. “When I’m not here, he really tears up the place,” Bloom says, as the lone crease in his forehead deepens slightly. “He can be pretty devastating.”

It was the same during the Elizabethtown shoots. Kirsten Dunst marveled at what a tearaway that dog could be, and says Orlando’s trailer had to be “Sidi-proofed.”

“They had to put a sheet of plastic on the floor!” she says, laughing. “That dog just doesn’t care. And Orlando’s way of unstressing between takes is to jump around like a 5-year-old or ride on a pint-size scooter. He was always playing with Sidi between takes, and Sidi is still in many ways a street dog.” Then again, in many ways, so is Orlando.

Elizabethtown is vintage Cameron Crowe: dead center in the crosshatch between comedy and drama.

Crowe doesn’t deal in cinematic formulas. The film is strangely both intimate and sprawling, hitting a lot of giant themes—fathers and sons, life and death, hope and regret—through small, subtle encounters.

It’s striking how easily Bloom fits into regular clothing and the twenty-first century after having spent most of his career in chain mail (or) on horseback. No film actor in memory has been so furiously attached to the epic and fantasy genres as Orlando Bloom.

Liam Neeson, who starred as Bloom’s father in the somewhat controversial Kingdom, is well attuned to the notion that an epic quality is not a card that every film actor has in his deck. “Some actors suit period costumes,” Neeson says, “and others don’t. I always think of Errol Flynn. He looked uncomfortable in a suit—but put him in a ridiculous pair of tights, and he looked to the manor born! John Wayne playing Genghis Khan was quite the other thing. Clint Eastwood in a kilt would look ludicrous. I don’t know what it is. Orlando simply looks the part.”

From their experience in Kingdom, Neeson and Bloom know that this particular talent can double as a curse, for Ridley Scott is an especially meticulous director. “Even our underwear was period,” Neeson recalls, laughing. “It was the full bollocks, you know?”

And the epic quality is sufficiently rare that, once you’ve proved yourself in the genre, you are sought out again and again—another impulse well understood (and, for that matter, experienced) by Liam Neeson. “If I were Jack Warner, I’d get a team of writers, get ’em writing period pieces, and sign him,” Neeson says. “Orlando is like a classic ’40s movie star.”

None of this is to say that Neeson confines himself to speaking of Bloom’s costumes; he seems a little amazed by how sharply focused the man is, especially for a young actor. “When I was that age it was the Dark Ages of my emotional growth,” Neeson says. “I knew f**-all about anythin’! Orlando is with it, but not in a hip way. He knows what it takes to make a film, so he treats every department equally: the key grip, the gaffer, everyone. He’s right to. Without them, we’re nothing.”

The fact that Orlando Bloom is unusually grounded for a man of 28, sadly, has a lot to do with the actual ground. His career (and inextricably linked with that, his ability to take the long view) was entirely transformed by a potentially fatal fall he took in 1998. “Until then, I didn’t have a healthy appreciation for life and death—that we’re not invincible,” he says. “And for four days, I faced the idea of living in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I went to some dark places in my mind. I realized, I’m either going to walk again or I’m not.

“The doctor said he wasn’t sure how severe the spinal-cord damage was,” he says, as an oddly unattractive look of distaste, even horror, crosses his features. “I remember him telling me that, and staring at the ceiling, thinking, I never stared at ceilings before! And I wonder if I’m going to be looking at ceilings for the rest of my life.

“But there’s something interesting,” he adds very quickly. “I knew I wouldn’t. I knew I wouldn’t, I knew…” He repeats the sentence five times.

The upshot of the accident was nothing short of miraculous. He was in the hospital only a few weeks and walked out on his own power. And the minute he escaped, still constrained by a back brace, he reverted to testing the limits of body and soul. When the time came to remove the titanium pins from his spine, to the doctors’ alarm, they were all fractured. They came out in shards. One of the pins had been driven too deep to remove, by dint of Orlando’s physical overexertion. “I’d been doing stuff right away,” he recalls, shaking his head. “I went straight back into it, man.”

The calming of Orlando Bloom, in the paradoxical underage dotage he now conveys, wasn’t instantaneous. “When I came out of the hospital, I started partying straight away—with the back brace on. It took me a couple of months to realize this was my life, and I didn’t want to mess it up.

“But that accident has informed everything in my life,” he says. “Until you’re close to losing it, you don’t realize. I used to ride motorbikes and drive cars like everything was a racetrack; it was ridiculous. It wasn’t because I thought it was cool; it was just because I loved living on the edge. But I’ve chilled.”

Cameron Crowe, too, sees all of this as key to Bloom’s swift maturation as an actor. “That broken back—that’s his Rosebud,” Crowe says. “It’s the key to him. He’s got pain going on in there. That’s why his silent mode is so interesting. Where other actors feel they have to constantly do something, Orlando doesn’t. Which is great. He’s a real guy with real stuff. Under that puppy-dog energy, there’s darkness.”

Perhaps it was Bloom’s upbringing that made him capable of eventually slowing off of the racetrack. Growing up in Canterbury exposes you to one of the world’s cradles of sanity—a meadowed realm of constancy—even though some of its denizens look wild when viewed from afar.

“My generation in England was exposed to a huge antidrug campaign,” Bloom recalls. “I was one of the kids in school saying, ‘That sh*’s not good.’ I’ve still gotten kicks; don’t get me wrong.”

At this point in the conversation, without a single word of transition, Bloom moves from the romance of drugs to the intoxication of women. “I remember asking my biology teacher, ‘How is HIV and AIDS gonna come to an end?’ ” he says, still popping the sour blueberries. “And the guy said, ‘When people stop having sex.’ I replied, ‘Dude, that’s harsh. That ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.’ I had plenty of vices growing up. But when you’re 21, you wake up and realize that your body is not something you want to f** with.”

To this end, Bloom has even surrendered caffeine. “I was doing night shoots for Elizabethtown,” he says, “and drinking green tea, which has caffeine. Not an awful lot. Just enough to get me through the shoot. By the end of the night, my back was killing me. It dehydrates your spine. And my back—that’s still my alarm. That’s my canary in the mine shaft.”

Bloom talks endlessly about how lucky he is; after seven years, the worst of his many reckless accidents hasn’t faded from memory. “When you experience the sort of physical pain I went through, you realize you’re not a god,” he says—”that there are limits to what you can do. It keeps you real. I mean, I can walk. I can enjoy a swim in the ocean and a beautiful day. And I was very close to not having that.

“I’m trying now to maintain a sense of balance. I was very extreme in my youth—everything in extremes, man! I’m at a very interesting time right now: a lot of change, growth…a lot of pennies dropping. I’ve a lot to be grateful for.”

This is all odd talk from an actor who, since that accident and many others, has buckled so much swash in the movies. Yet when it comes to doing stunts, he doesn’t hesitate. “I have one of those doctors who tell me, ‘Go for it, man!’ ” he says. “Does he encourage me? No. But I’ve tried to put myself in a physical condition where I’m able to do that stuff.”

“And, of course, for sex,” I toss out, just to lighten things up.

“Yeah, all those mercy lays I got,” he says, mock-wistfully. “Because I was the kid with the broken back!”

“Oh—you need mercy f**s,” I repeat, nearly spitting up my tea. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in my life. You probably had to beg for it.”

Bloom won’t let go of the joke: “I was the kid with the broken back!”

By all evidence, Orlando Bloom has chilled. But the adrenaline chip in his brain is still switched on. He seems to have transferred its capacity from bone-breaking feats to potentially soul-crushing risks on a more emotional plane. “I like to feel alive, man,” he says. “Part of it is danger, part of it is love. Although I’m trying not to have those two realms cross too much. I’ve had a few dangerous women. My cousin once told me, ‘You’re tall, you’re handsome—and you’re gonna have to apologize for it the rest of your life.’ He imparted that information to me.”

“So…you’re still looking for mercy f**s.”

“That’s right!” he says, clinging to modesty with both hands. “I still am. Exactly!”

If, as he claims, Bloom is a bit accident-prone, he is among the most graceful clods ever born. He moves slowly but always seems to be out ahead of you; he gestures rarely, but when he does, every joint of every finger seems to be underscoring a different, subtle part of his idea.

Despite all the old injuries, his athletic prowess is not lost on those with whom he’s worked. Liam Neeson marveled at Bloom’s fight scenes in Kingdom of Heaven. “Some actors are utterly lost if you put a sword in their hands,” he says. “Orlando is all physical grace—and there’s Errol Flynn again!”

Cameron Crowe, for his part, actually directed Bloom in the only television ad Crowe has ever shot, a quasi parody of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, shot in black and white, for Gap clothing. All we saw was Orlando Bloom and Kate Beckinsale running through shadowy streets. “He has this Hard Day’s Night physicality,” Crowe says. “Watching what we’d shot in the Gap commercial, there was Kate Beckinsale—who’s hot!—and we couldn’t stop looking at him. He’s exploding with life.”

The whole blend of modesty and the movie-star looks can only have contributed to Orlando Bloom’s celebrity. In an average week, even with no film release in sight, he’s in a hundred articles worldwide—the more so when anything kindles (or is stanched) with the dazzling Kate Bosworth.

That said, he’s not entirely allergic to Hollywood tricks. For instance, when celebrities stay at hotels, as most people know, they check in under false names, like Fred Flintstone or Jay Gatsby. For her part, Kirsten Dunst uses a musical reference.

“I’m not exactly sure what name Orlando goes by,” Dunst says, “but I bet it’s something sexual. He’s very flirty. And that’s easy to understand. You should have seen them in Kentucky: Girls lined up holding signs with his name on them. He was very gracious.”

Typically, Bloom regards most attention as a fleeting thing. And he’s not interested in spending precious time on fleeting things. Especially tabloid attention.

“That stuff is not a part of my daily life,” he says. “Most of it is bullsh*. It even becomes hard to have a casual friendship, because suddenly you’re ‘linked to’ that person. I guess there’s got to be a cost. You can’t live the spoils without having the flip side of that coin. So you learn to live with it.”

Curiously, Bloom is so famous in costume that until recently he was able to blend in when he moved around in public. Cameron Crowe recalls that when the cast of Elizabethtown was shooting and living in Kentucky, girls were lining the streets just to catch a glimpse of Orly Bloom. (Though no one except the tabloids actually calls him Orly.)

“He was incredibly famous, but no one really knew what he looked like,” Crowe says, still amazed. “In Lexington, there was a girls’ national soccer championship team in the hotel. These girls were actually walking the halls—they were roaming in packs—looking for him. I heard them saying things like, ‘He’s on the seventh floor!’ And he was standing right there. Right there. He just disappeared into the culture.”

That air of mystery is attractive to film directors. Crowe recalls reading something Warren Beatty once said — that 75 percent of what people bring to a movie is their perception of the actor. “In that sense, it’s great to have a fresh guy to put in the center of a movie,” Crowe says. “We don’t really know who he is. Orlando is a clean slate. Since Tom Cruise in Risky Business, very few guys that age have been able to do a comedy or drama and be that interesting to look at—and to really hold the center of a movie.”

These days, Bloom’s mother more than compensates for his aversion to his tabloid press. She clips it all, keeps track of his status as “the most downloaded human on earth,” and shuffles through the bags of fan letters he receives. Bloom recoils. “I keep saying, ‘Mom, I don’t want to know,’ ” he says. “I don’t want to see whether I’m on some chart. There will be a time when I won’t be. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful. But I keep telling her, ‘They keep building me up, so they’re going to tear me down!’

“I keep getting asked what it’s like to be a heartthrob,” he adds, much amused by the unspoken joke: Tempus fugit. “There’s that next kid, believe me, who’s right there on my tail — and if he’s not right now, he’s gonna be!”

Bloom is convincing when he says things like this: offhand remarks a modest person would say so as not to seem like a preening, self-absorbed ass in a magazine article. And when he says he has too much self-doubt to believe the hype, there’s not a trace of posturing. A casting agent once told him that a little self-doubt will get you a long way: It makes you work harder, keeps you sharp. “If you think you can do it all,” Bloom says, suddenly showing some heat, “you’re just gonna sit back. Whereas I’m constantly working at it: doing more sword training for Pirates, getting coached on dialect to make sure it’s as good as it can be for Elizabethtown. I’m always working, because the one time I don’t, I guarantee, is when I’ll end up saying ‘D’oh!’ “

He looks at his enormous wristwatch somewhat worriedly, for he actually has a dialect session in an hour or so, and more than once he has registered that it’s a real concern for him. (It was also the sole doubt Cameron Crowe had in casting him, though that one doubt was quickly put to rest, Crowe says.)

“Look, I just want to stay normal,” Bloom says, very normally. “That’s the biggest challenge: being able to sit in a café and watch the world go by.”

Granted, wide is the road to temptation and—at least until that next kid catches Orlando J. B. C. Bloom—his world is a sea of temptations. But he prides himself on learning lessons, even other people’s life lessons. “My dad once told me that one of his dreams was coming to Los Angeles, getting a Mustang, and driving it down Sunset Boulevard,” he says, beaming at the memory. “One day, it came true. And he got pulled over by the police. Know why they stopped him? Know why? He was driving too slowly! That’s a great story for me. He was soaking up the environment and he got done! ‘Sir, you got done!’ “

In more than one sense, Bloom isn’t finished. Even at the outset of his career. He chokes at the fact that he’s in an industry where it’s a virtue to label its products (including actors). Yet he has no idea what his label should read. “I’m still trying to formulate the idea of who I am—and part of the problem of having these ideas and images projected on you is that it’s hard enough really figuring that sh* out!”

Even in the Shangri-la confines of Bloom’s temporary home, time does not stop, and the hour is running late. At a dialogue coach’s office across town, there’s a new identity to burnish: some “R” sounds to harden, a few “A” sounds to flatten out. Orlando Bloom shakes his head and eats one last bad blueberry. “There’s only a story in success so far,” he says, refusing to descend from the philosophical level before he flees the hotel out his private exit. “That’s why Cameron made a movie about failure—about fiasco. Because we all meet in the dirt. That’s where we meet.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in GQ Nov.2005.

November 24, 2005 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links