The Epic Life of Orlando Bloom, GQ (US), November 2005
By Marshall Sella, photographs by Mario Testino
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 chewing banana and peanut butter on toast, having
his morning tea on what could be the patio of a modest little house
anywhere in the world—watching his coal black mutt ramble around on
the grass, chew twigs, and relieve himself. 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, where John Belushi breathed his last. 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—despite outward appearances—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 fi;rst role
as a contemporary American man, a character in the fictional real
world, 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, unselfconsciously smacking peanut butter as he speaks.
"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. He is
routinely on all the lists: People's Most Beautiful, the Internet's
Most Downloaded, you name it. But some fairly grim experience has made
him play against type in real life. Laconically staring out over the
fronds and high hibiscus of the Chateau and eating unripe blueberries,
he doesn't hint at being aware of his Old Hollywood appeal—and he
certainly doesn't come off as ethereal.
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, ancient
homework for Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. 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."
Even Sidi, the wild black dog, has a prized possession or two in the
wilderness of boxes and CDs and photos. Cameron Crowe has awarded the
pup with a small framed Elizabethtown poster and signed it, "Try to
eat smaller portions."
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
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, whereas I'm more self-critical. 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. It opens with Bloom's character experiencing
a professional failure—more accurately, as his character narrates, a
fiasco—of staggering proportions. A shoe he has designed for an
Oregon-based company (clearly modeled after Nike) is such a disaster
that it's being recalled, losing the company $972 million, all of it
Bloom's fault. To magnify Bloom's self-loathing, the head of the
company (played to the hilt by Alec Baldwin) leads him on a daunting
walk through the corporate complex, explaining the sheer magnitude of
this disaster. At one point, the two gaze onto a vast, NASA-scale
ecological laboratory; Baldwin's character pauses and ruefully
observes, "We could have saved the planet." At another point, laughing
out his grief, Baldwin remarks that he has read that Bloom's shoe "may
actually cause an entire generation to return to bare feet."
Bloom's character responds by creating an elaborate suicide machine
and is on the brink of using it when he learns that his father has
died: He must travel to Kentucky to retrieve the body. So begins a
chain of events that, as is so often untrue in Hollywood movies, is
impossible to predict. 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, on horseback, or shouting things like "The Ring must be
destroyed!" No film actor in memory has been so furiously attached to
the epic and fantasy genres as Orlando Bloom. After making his debut
as a rent boy in a 1997 film about Oscar Wilde, he spent three years at
the Guildhall School of Music & Drama—then, right out of the gate,
landed the Legolas role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since then,
he has rarely been seen without a sword or an arrow in reach: in
Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven; in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy; in the
gritty Australian legend Ned Kelly; and, of course, in the still
blossoming Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. (If he were a few years
older, he'd have been in Braveheart. That's a guarantee.) The only
exception was a very small role in Black Hawk Down, in which his
character breaks his back—but Bloom was cast partly because in real
life he actually has broken his back.
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—Jesus!—it
was the Dark Ages of my emotional growth," Neeson says. "I knew
fuck-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. Late
one night, messing around, he leapt onto a drainpipe while trying to
get onto a roof terrace; the pipe gave way, and Bloom fell three
stories, shattering his vertebrae. "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—quick like a stammer, as though he's still trying to convince
himself against hope that this will not be his fate.
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
Perhaps it was Bloom's upbringing that made him capable of eventually
slowing off of the racetrack. Growing up in Canterbury, and beyond
that, the county Kent, 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 shit'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 fuck with."
To this end, Bloom has even surrendered caffeine—which, for many
Englishmen, would be as bitter a defeat as Gallipoli or Yorktown. "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. (To say nothing of
the fact that, for The Lord of the Rings, he spent vast amounts of
time in New Zealand, the adrenaline-sport capital of the world,
resisting most of those temptations.) 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
"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 fucks," 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 fucks."
"That's right!" he says, clinging to modesty with both hands. "I still
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
Despite all the old injuries (broken bones all over his body—here from
a motorbike spill, there from something strange that happened with a
rope), 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
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
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. Billy
Bob Thornton, for instance, sometimes uses the name of a certain
writer. 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
"That stuff is not a part of my daily life," he says. "Most of it is
bullshit. 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
"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
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. (And of course, when it comes to propriety and
accuracy, British tabloids make their American cousins look like
Huxley's Illustrated History of Gardening.) 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
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's ever flickering with a Buddhist tendency here or there. 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 shit 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."