Chasing Orlando Bloom

The action star of 'Kingdom of Heaven' is dyslexic, accident-prone, in pain from a dozen broken bones, intimidated by heartthrob fame and a Buddhist ready to get in your face if you don't let him live life to the fullest

Orlando Bloom in New York City on May 4th, 2005. Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage/Getty

ORLANDO BLOOM DROPS ANCHOR ABOUT 200 YARDS OFF THE SHORE OF BEQUIA, an island just south of-where he and Johnny Depp are filming back-to-back sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean. Though his personal assistant and trainer decide to take a leisurely kayak ride to shore, Bloom chooses to swim. A race to the beach is suggested to make things more interesting. "Sure," Bloom says, ever agreeable. As he flips onto his stomach and starts paddling, it becomes clear why directors like working with him. He is game for anything — the perfect putty. Having shed the twenty pounds of muscle he put on for his role as a crusader in Kingdom of Heaven, Bloom is lean and toned, cutting through the water like a dolphin in green board shorts. I try to pull ahead, calling on four years of swim competitions, but find his feet flailing near my face. I attempt to veer around him, but he is too fast to pass. Fifty yards away from the shore, exhaustion sets in. When Bloom wins by two tired strokes, he doesn't gloat. "Wow, that was fun," he says, collapsing on the sand, breathless. Yes, life is good here. And what makes it even better is that just twelve hours ago, the interview had been shaping up to be a disaster. I had arrived in St. Vincent, the Caribbean Grenadines is land where Pirates is being shot, with only two days to spend with Bloom. And he began the interview by phoning to cancel the first day. "I thought we'd get a cocktail, but I have a 5 a.m. call time tomorrow." His voice crackles over the phone in a British accent so light and charming that it's hard to be too upset at him, especially since it's almost 9 p.m. "I understand," I tell him, trying to hide the disappointment in my voice. Disney has refused to allow journalists to pollute the set of Pirates, so meeting him the next day will be an impossibility as well.

"Did you manage to see any bits of Kingdom?" he asks. He is being polite. This is something he is known for. Politeness will ultimately win an actor more jobs than arrogance. This is one reason why Bloom is already, just four years after his first major film role (as the elf archer Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), starring in Kingdom of Heaven, the epic morality play set in the time of the Crusades. The film, from Ridley Scott, who also directed Gladiator, cost $140 million. That's a lot of money riding on a newbie who has yet to prove he can carry a movie on his name alone.

"I saw an early screening of the whole film," I tell him.

"No way!" The polite veneer in his accent disappears, replaced by boyish excitement. "I haven't even seen it yet. I'm dying to know what bits they put in and what they left out." He adds, sheepishly, "Maybe you should come by. I have to eat dinner anyway. And I was going to do it alone."

Fifteen minutes later, I'm walking along the beach of Young Island Resort, peering into several thatched outdoor huts that add up to a restaurant. They are empty. Suddenly, a voice calls out from the shadows. I turn and see Bloom, standing alone in the distance. He is beaming.

Perhaps this interview is going to work out after all.

"What did you think?" he asks in greeting. He is referring to the movie.

"I thought it was gorgeous. Epic." I choose my words carefully. 2005 is the year of Orlando Bloom, in which he steps away from his traditional role as the hero's side-kick — in The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Troy — and becomes a hero himself. Besides Kingdom, he also has the leading role in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown.

The problem is: Though Kingdom is great eye candy, Bloom's character, the reluctant knight and troubled soul Balian, hardly speaks or merits any empathy during the first half of the film. When he finally does take a stand, it leads to thousands of deaths.

"Did you think it was great?" he persists. His heart is on his sleeve, which, by the way, is checked. He is wearing faded jeans and a tight, button-down, tablecloth-patterned shirt. His dark curls stop just above his shoulders. Though renowned as a sex symbol, his charisma is not physical. He sucks you in with his deep, patient eyes; his earnest lack of self-consciousness; his graceful gestures and easy, relaxed body language; and his wholesome, empathic energy. It's easy to understand why Rings director Peter Jackson cast this unknown as the most fair and graceful of J.R.R. Tolkien's creations.

Bloom sits down at the table and leans forward. He rubs a thumb along his ragged mustache, and the interrogation continues.

BLOOM: Does it open with my character in jail?
ME: No, there's no scene like that. It opens with your wife's body on the road.
BLOOM: How about the sword fight at the end? What did you think of that?
ME: Um, I don't think that was in there either.
BLOOM: How was the Knights Templars scene?
ME: That was in there. It looked great. Like a Jet Li or a Clint Eastwood scene.
BLOOM: How does it compare to Gladiator?
ME: It's a completely different movie.

Bloom's curiosity and anxiety are understandable. The future of his career rests on Kingdom, on the untested hypothesis that, at age twenty-eight, he is not just a pretty face but a bona fide leading man.

Finally, I try to reassure him that no matter what, the movie is a shoo-in for number one at the box office.

"Hopefully," he replies. "I worked so hard for this film. I wanted that role so badly. When I signed up to play Paris in Troy, I knew I'd be playing a wreak person who was a coward. So to have the opportunity to play a hero like Balian, who has no fear, was great."

There is something disarmingly unintimidating about Bloom. Scott, -who also directed him in Black Hawk Down, says Bloom doesn't have a gram of diva in him. In fact, he goes out of his way to make those around him feel like they are not in the presence of a star. When a ten-year-old girl thanks Bloom for signing her shirt the night before, he apologizes for not signing it as well as he could have.

When I ask if he considers himself a people-pleaser, he replies, "If life isn't about humanity, then tell me what it's about, because I'd love to know. Money and power aren't -what life is about. It can't be."

Bloom isn't quick to offer specifics about himself. They have to be extracted slowly, like an impacted tooth. I ask if he's ever studied Buddhism, and he says that he has. I tell him that his statement is very Buddhist, and he agrees. I ask him if he considers himself a Buddhist. After a long pause, he admits, "Yeah, I probably would."

When the conversation turns to drugs, he's even cagier.

BLOOM: ...but my cousin loves to party.
ME: What about yourself?
BLOOM: Um. I never felt comfortable with anything that alters my mind.
ME: You never did acid or Ecstasy?
BLOOM: [Silence]
ME: You must have done Ecstasy — when you were going to clubs in London.
BLOOM: It just never really…  [pauses] When I broke my back when I was twenty-one, it became all about looking after myself and preserving my back.

Topic evaded, but somewhere between the lines an answer has been given.

Before we turn in for the night, Bloom talks about a phenomenon he experience while filming Kingdom of Heaven in Spain That phenomenon was himself. It was the first time he had to deal with mobs of screaming fans outside his hotel — so many that police barricades had to be erected He eventually had to hire Brad Pitt's security guard. "I think I'm mentioning this because I feel slightly bad that I didn't cope with it better," he says. "I really feel like if I were ever back in Spain, I'd make an effort to spend time with those people. Because they were all so sweet. I felt like I froze."

Either Bloom is truly a good guy or he's a great actor. Perhaps even both.

THE NEXT DAY, BLOOM CALLS AT 8 a.m. He has wrapped unexpectedly early and wants to meet for breakfast. I find him with a thin man with tousled blond hair named Chris. As a teenager, Bloom met him in a ceramics class in Canterbury, England. Ever loyal to his small circle of friends, Bloom helped Chris land a job in the art department of Pirates so they could hang out together.

Bloom — or Orly, as his friends call him is wearing a floppy white hat, a loose-fitting orange shirt that ties around his stomach and green board shorts. Dangling on his chest is a necklace full of charms. "It's like my life on a string," he explains. "It started in New Zealand when I was shooting Lord of the Rings and Billy Boyd [who played Pippin] gave me a little piece of green stone."

Bloom pushes aside the day's reading matter, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes -evidence that the aftereffects of filming Kingdom linger on. Then he gives me a tour of his necklace. "This is my dog Sidi's tooth," he says of the centerpiece item. "I rescued him when I was shooting Kingdom. I found him eating camel shit out of a box in Morocco. He was a scrawny little fellow. There's something about seeing an animal alone like that that just breaks my heart."

Bloom and I spend the rest of the meal talking about women, swapping stories that are off the record. He doesn't want to say anything that may be misconstrued by actress Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush), who is either his girlfriend or isn't, depending on when you ask. He even avoids answering general relationship questions in case Bos-worth thinks he's talking about her.

Bloom tends to get into relationships that last several years, beginning when he was a teenager and dating an older woman. But he won't discuss his romantic side, which is a shame because his sexuality is key to his career. In his first role, a cameo in the 1997 biopic Wilde, he played a male prostitute who gives Oscar Wilde the eye outside a train station. The camera lingers lovingly on the young Bloom as he slowly, tantalizingly puffs a cigarette. One senses that Bloom never needed fame to be a sexual magnet.

When Chris returns to work, Bloom and the rest of his entourage, all tan men in their late twenties with close-cropped dark hair — a tattooed personal assistant, an Israeli bodyguard and an Australian physical trainer — decide to rent a boat and explore the nearby island of Bequia.

As we approach the island, Bloom stands shirtless in the front of the boat, facing the water with his arms outstretched as the -waves break against the bow of the ship and spray his face. "There's something about the ocean," he says. "It just makes you feel so" — he pauses, trying to find a word to capture the emotion — "content." It is an average word to some, but to Bloom it is the prime directive. His mind is always going. Though his surface is placid, beneath is a raging storm. That may be why he is often cast in near-silent roles.

ME: Do people often ask you why you have so little dialogue in your movies?
BLOOM: Elizabethtown has more dialogue. I have a huge voice-over. But, I don't know. No one's really asked me before.
ME: But have you noticed it?
BLOOM: I have noticed it. Somebody told me Steve McQueen used to say, "Cut the line; give me the close-up." And I always thought that was kind of interesting. Look at Clint Eastwood. He's a master at that.
ME: But when Eastwood does speak, what he says has poignancy and weight.
BLOOM: Exactly. You know what? Maybe the precedent was set with Rings, because Legolas didn't say very much at all, but what he did say was really important. He'd say, like, "Orcs" or something. Actually, he didn't say anything really very important. I don't know [trails off and starts thinking].
ME: Are you talkative in a group?
BLOOM: No, not that much. I was more like that when I was a kid. At least, I think I was [pauses]. No. Maybe not.
ME: You seem like you think a lot -maybe too much.
BLOOM: Yeah, that is true. Definitely!

THERE IS A CLASSIC BLOOM CLOSE-Up, which can be found in nearly every one of his movies. He is silent, of course, and his head is turned slightly downward. His eyes seem to be gazing inward, reflecting on his troubles, and his lips tremble slightly, as if giving away a hint of self-consciousness.

"I don't know if it's conscious," Bloom says, joking, "It's my Blue Steel, like in Zoolander." Instantly the trembling, brooding look flashes across his face. "I guess I'm a little bit of a self-conscious brooder," he admits when he looks up. "I tend to have a routine of concentration exercises to get myself into a moment, because it can be really challenging when you're on a set and there are people shouting and guns going off. So perhaps it's part of that."

The boat drops anchor, and Bloom and I have our swim competition. Afterward, on the beach, Bloom picks a seashell fragment from the sole of his left foot. "I once stepped on a sea urchin in Mexico," he recalls. "Dude, man, it took two operations to get all the spikes out."

Bloom is no stranger to pain. He has broken bones in nearly a dozen places, most significantly his back. He rolls over to display the scar, a long, crooked groove that runs nearly the entire length of his spine. It is the result of climbing up to a friend's roof for some impromptu repair work. Bloom grabbed onto a gutter to pull himself up, but it ripped off the side of the building and sent him hurtling three stories to the ground.

"It's pretty clean," he says of the scar. "British National Health! I'm telling you, man. I have no problems paying my taxes."

He rolls back over and stares at the blue sky. "I was always up for anything when I was growing up," he says. "I just wanted to live life to the fullest — hence all the accidents. But — when I broke my back, everything changed. I was lying on this hospital bed in so much pain that I couldn't even have sheets on my legs, because they felt like razors coming up under the skin. All my nerves were flying around. If I wiggled a finger, it killed. It was that intense."

Bloom climbs to his knees and stretches his back out like a cat. In fact, any time he stays in one position for too long, he gets uncomfortable and starts stretching. It's one reason why he has his own trainer, who mixes Pilates and physical therapy in with the weight lifting to keep Bloom from further damaging his back. "I was told for four days that I wouldn't walk again," Bloom continues, "and I remember lying there, looking at a roof in the hospital and thinking, 'This is a really interesting roof.' I thought, 'Wow, I can get used to this.' But I knew I wouldn't. I just knew it, man. That is not my destiny. It's just not happening."

From an early age, Bloom knew his destiny. Ever since watching Paul Newman in The Hustler, he wanted to act. His goal, however, was to tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was partly due to the influence of his mother, Sonia, who ran a language school. She encouraged Bloom and his older sister, Samantha, to read poetry and recite Bible passages at the Kent Festival, where they won awards. His sister is currently finishing drama school.

At twelve, he learned that his real father was not the man he thought: Harry Bloom, who died when Orlando was four. Harry, an anti-apartheid lawyer, activist and writer living in exile in Canterbury, had spent time in jail in South Africa. Orlando's biological father turned out to be his guardian, a friend of the family named Colin Stone, who ran the language school with Orlando's mother.

Also at a young age, Bloom was diagnosed with dyslexia. "I had to work that much harder through school," he says. "I left some schools because they thought I wasn't present, I wasn't concentrating, or my grades weren't right. But eventually I got through school and did really well."

When he has auditions, Bloom compensates for his dyslexia by taking the script home and studying it thoroughly. Occasionally, when talking, Bloom will mix up words or stare at someone passing, especially if it's an attractive woman or a homely dog.

After sixteen years in Canterbury, where he studied theater, photography and sculpture, Bloom moved to London to join the National Youth Theatre. Later, he studied at the British American Drama Academy for one year and then the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for three. "My mom, she always wanted me to have some business idea," he says, sticking the label of a water bottle onto the back of his hand. "She's sort of a businesswoman. But I knew what I wanted to do. I was like, 'Mom, no way. This is my path.'"

Bloom rises and walks along the beach. After a few hundred yards, his path is blocked by an outcropping of rocks. There are two rocks flat enough to sit on: a large shelf and, beneath it, a small, jagged boul' der. He offers me the comfy rock.

"I never thought to myself, 'Oh, I'm going to be an action-movie hero,'" he says. "Actually, when I was coming out of drama school, I got offered a part in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was going to go on tour as an understudy. I was psyched, because that's the drama-school dream."

During his final year at Guildhall, Bloom had taken several meetings with directors: Baz Luhrmann for Moulin Rouge and Jackson, who had been casting for Rings at the school. Two days before his graduation, he discovered he'd landed the latter movie.

"I feel really lucky that I was cast in Lord of the Rings as Legolas, because had I been given any serious dialogue, I would have made a complete mess of it," Bloom says, craning his neck. "I was just out of drama school. I would have been too proper."

Bloom begins to squirm. His back is bothering him again. Being a gentleman has its price. We switch rocks.

"It was like an education in acting," he continues. "I had all these great actors around me. I could break down how every one of them would do a scene. Legolas didn't say a lot. He just observed. So I observed."

AFTER LUNCH, BLOOM TAKES one last swim. As everyone around him gathers colorful conch shells and sea-urchin skeletons from the ocean floor, Bloom keeps surfacing with strange pieces of plastic and metal in his hands.

"Check this one out," he says as he produces a fingernail-size scrap of bent metal. Moments later, he proudly displays a larger bit of twisted metal wire. "This would make a great charm."

When asked if he finds it weird that he's scavenging for plastic and metallic detritus, Bloom bristles. "There was no plastic there, brother. Just interesting-shaped metal. I mean, why would I take a shell from the ocean? Why is it mine to take? When I'm taking a piece of metal, I'm doing the ocean afavor." He examines the wire, driftingback to his days as a sculpture student. "This is cool. It has, like, a bird-wing kind of shape."

We take the boat back to Young Island Resort, separate for a nap and then meet for a farewell dinner. It's his last night in St. Vincent. Afterward, he will take ten days off to promote Kingdom and will then finish filming Pirates on the island of Dominica. He is wearing a long-sleeved blue crew-neck shirt, and his cheeks, nose and forehead glow red from the afternoon's sun.

"Are there any sieged towers?" he exclaims in a mock-pompous voice. "If there's not a sword, I'm not doing the movie!"

Bloom has been joking around about being labeled "Period Boy" after being cast in so many historical action flicks. But he's not complaining. People on the set of Kingdom called him "the accidental star." "I'm so fucking lucky, man," he says. "I know for a fact, from drama school, that my peer group is strong." In the background, a table of tipsy stuntmen are performing tricks for one another. "There are a ton of actors who have just as much ability. It's about the work and not getting lost along the way."

Lately, Bloom has been doing everything he can to keep from losing that path. "I used to love meeting people," he says. "But I've recently become a little more wary because I'm more aware of people's intentions and motives, especially in LA."

After dinner, Bloom walks me to the ferry. He's talking about Kingdom again. He won't give up. "It's just that the experience of making that movie was life-changing for me. I think I grew up. And it gave me a certain amount of confidence." He meditates for a moment. "But not too much. Because that's not who I am."

When the ferry pulls away, Bloom is still standing on the dock. "The movie is great, isn't it?" he yells across the water. He is answered by the sound of waves crashing against the shore and, somewhere in the distance, the shrieking of drunk stuntmen.