Almost Famous -
by By Glenn Waldron
With his first big-screen role out of acting school - playing an elf in Peter Jackson's interpretation of the fantasy classic, The Lord of the Rings - Orlando Bloom has hit the big time.
A journalist's lot is certainly an interesting one. At the moment, for instance, I'm on the phone to LA listening intently to a 25-year-old British actor - one who is poised on the very threshold of international stardom - speaking to me, without a trace of self-consciousness, in Elvish. Yep, the language of elves. "It's very hard to grasp hold of. It's like, I dunno, it has this Celtic-ie, Welsh kind of feel to it," explains the young man earnestly, abandoning the strange-sounding dialect in which he's rcently been so expertly tutored and lapsing into his usual, slightly scuffed middle-class English accent. His name, by the way - magically, gloriously and somewhat improbably - is Orlando Bloom. And Elvish aside, there are quite a few things that he admits to having difficulty "grasping hold of" right now.
By far the most pressing is the way that his life, rather like an unassuming river after a deluge, has burst its banks and is currently redefining the surrounding terrain. As a direct result of director Peter Jackson's decision to cast him as warrior elf Legolas Greenleaf in his US$360 million cinematic homage to JRR Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR to fans), Bloom is being propelled through a vortex of celebrity at warp speed. A little more than two years ago, he was two days away from graduating from London's prestigious Guildhall School Of Music And Drama when he discovered he'd got the part. "It was totally... can you imagine? It was just like..." he attempts, grappling once more for words that will convey his excitement. "I was 22, I had two more days left of drama school and it was, like, 'Here, have a career.' Boom. There you go." Now, with the LOTR mechandising machinery in full swing, he's confronted daily with images of Legolas action figures, cast, of course, in his own physical likeness.
Certainly, no actor before him has managed to make a pair of prosthetic Spock-like ear extensions, leather strides and a certain facility with bow and arrow seem quite so sexy. But not in a crude, swaggering, bicep-popping, testosterone-bulging Conan The Barbarian kind of way. No, Bloom's Legolas is an infinitely more refined creature: a princely elf who is blessed, like all his people (the oldest inhabitants of the mythical kingdom, Middle-earth), with an ethereal beauty, preternatural sensory awareness - and immortality. Legolas Greenleaf may be 2931 years old, but he doesn't look a day over 22.
In The Fellowship Of The Ring, the first part of the LOTR trilogy that is screening in cinemas worldwide now, Legolas is one of the eight travellers chosen to accompany and protect the young hobbit, Frodo Baggins (played by Elijah Wood), on whose small shoulders rests the heavy burden of freeing Middle-earth from the clutches of the Dark Lord Sauron (Christopher Lee in top dastardly form). As a skilled archer, Legolas pledges his bow to the cause. "I'm the eyes and ears of the fellowship," adds Bloom with what sounds like genuine pride.
Perhaps it's overstating the case slightly to say that Jackson's trilogy might end up being to Orlando Bloom's career what Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather was to Al Pacino's but the comparison, at this stage, seems valid. The young Pacino was cast to star in two movies that went on to reach cult status. It's still early days, of course, but LOTR had a global fan base before the 18-month shoot in Wellington, New Zealand, had even wrapped. And although Bloom doesn't carry the film - it's more of an ensemble piece - he's got the "It" factor, that indefinable star power that swallows the camera lens like a Black Hole, well and truly sewn up. At just under six feet tall, he has an elegant ranginess, his lithe, athletic frame capped by the kind of Byronic, dark good looks that wreak havoc on a girl's imagination. Images of him striding, Heathcliff-like, across a gale-abraded Yorkshire moor in hot pursuit of some problematic doxy spring unbidden to mind. For there is a touch of the Mister Lover Lover about Bloom. He's quite fond of telling reporters that the reason he didn't finish reading LOTR at the tender age of 14 was because he got distracted by "girls and sport and stuff" and unconfirmed Internet lore has it that he was briefly engaged to English aristo-packer Jemma Kidd.
HB: You're on record as saying that you got into acting for the women. Is the industry living up to expectation?
OB: [Laughs] Well, at least it's not for some other reason, although I don't know what would be worse than that. Actually, that was slightly misquoted. The reason I got into acting was because when I was younger, I had an incredible imagination, like most kids, and I was always drawn to these larger-than-life characters that I would see either at the theatre, on TV or at the cinema. Once I was old enough to realise that those characters weren't real, they were actors - once I realised that I could be Superman or I could be The Hustler or I could be Daniel Day Lewis's character in The Last Of The Mohicans - I was like, "Man, I can become an actor and be all of those things." One of the first movies that stuck in my mind was The Hustler with Paul Newman. I just loved it, man. From then on, it was a done deal.
HB: With everything that's going on, there must be a sense of unreality about life at the moment for you.
OB: I'm just taking it a day at the time at the moment. It certainly feels kind of surreal to be travelling all over the world doing publicity and being involved in such a great project as The Lord Of The Rings that's lead to such a lot of interest in me personally and what I do. It's exciting and, um, slightly intimidating in some ways, but I'm just trying to take it a day at a time, you know, and enjoy it all for what it is. I mean, I know you can be up one minute and drop the next, so I'm trying to maintain a steady course so that I have some longevity.
HB:Absolutely. But still, at this stage, the potential for losing it and actually starting to believe your own hype must be enormous.
OB: I have a sister [Samantha Bloom, 26, new recruit at London's Guildhall School Of Music And Drama] who would never let that happen. I have a cousin who would never let that happen and I've surrounded myself with friends who would beat me, physically beat me, if for a moment I tried to get above myself. And also I think I'm incredibly lucky to be doing what I do. I mean, I have a great job. I get to dress up and become somebody else, especially when it's someone like Legolas, who's this super-cool kind of otherworldly elf. It's, like, I'm lucky, man, so why would I not appreciate that?
HB: As an actor, how does it feel to be playing a character that a generation of readers has already taken to their hearts and made their own? Is there an added sense of responsibility, do you think?
OB: Ah, man, totally. When I first got to New Zealand in October '99, I was intimidated by trying to bring this character to the screen. I was like "I've got to do everything I can to make the character as real as possible and to keep him as close to the book as I can because he's a character that people have created in their imaginations over years." But at one point, I said to myself - because I was so aware of it that it was actually blocking me - I said, "You know what? I've gotta let go. I've been cast to play Legolas because I have some quality I can use to try to bring this character to life." So I just did my best to do that. I ended up doing a lot of movement training trying to find the physicality of the character.
HB: Movement training?
OB: I'd been watching [Akira] Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and I wanted to find the same way of walking, the same posture that would give Legolas this aura of centredness and focus.
HB: How did Peter Jackson find you?
OB: There was a huge casting process that went on with this project and I went on tape for it, probably like a hundred thousand other actors across the world. I tried out initially for a character called Faramir, but my agent got a call to say that Faramir wouldn't be available to me and would I read for Legolas? So I went on tape again for Legolas and, after they'd checked out how tall I was and everything, I got the call to say I was in. A couple of months later, I met Pete and his partner, Fran.
For Bloom, the result of this momentous casting call was 18 months spent on the other side of the planet - far, far away from home in London's Notting Hill and his beloved dog, Maude - rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Ian Holm, Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett. Bloom refers to the mind-bending task of having to shoot the three LOTR movies concurrently as nothing short of an intensely beautiful nightmare. Every member of the cast and crew had no other alternative but to become a Tolkien geek if they were going to keep up with the frenetic pace. The books became their bible. "If, at any time, you feel slightly lost as an actor, there was always somebody around you that you could ask, 'Hey, just remind me, what did we shoot just before this?' because we could have shot the immediately preceding scene, like, a week ago," he says. "And they'd say, 'Well, this is what you were doing and feeling then' and you'd say, 'Great, great' and then you'd go into it."
Given that the shoot demanded so much of everyone who was connected with it, it's perhaps a little surprising that Bloom isn't giving a moment's thought to the admittedly unlikely scenario of audiences failing to buy into the concept and, more worryingly still, of their refusing to commit to it long-term. (The third adaptation of the trilogy, The Return Of The King, won't be released until Christmas 2003.) "I can quite honestly say that none of that has ever crossed my mind," he admits. "I wouldnt' change [what we've done] for the world. There was a lot of high energy and love put into the project and I think that it will be perceived in the right way and the world will appreciate it for what it iis. It was a labour of love, a very special project."
Bloom's next appearance on the big screen - as American soldier Private Todd Blackburn in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down - couldn't be more different. Based on the book by the journalist, Mark Bowden, the film recounts the battle that took palce in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 when elite US troops tried to abduct two lieutenants of local warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Instead, two American helicopters were shot down - hence the film's title - and an encounter that had been expected to take one hour took 15 very bloody ones, resulting in the deaths of 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalians. Bloom will star alongside Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor. The movie is expected to cement his position as Hollywood's newest heart-throb.
"The thing with Ridley is he's been doing this forever, he knows what it is he wants and how to get it," says Bloom. "There's absolutely no messing around on set. Having said that, he's very accessible to actors, very open to what you want to do and willing to talk about it. He casts people who he feels are going to bring something to the role and he allows them to take care of the situation, to do what it is that they do. I feel privileged to be part of another great movie like that."
Like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down is expected to be a major Oscar contender - which is even more good news, were any needed, for Bloom.
HB: Is there anybody whose Hollywood CV you'd particularly like to model your career path on?
OB: Probably Johnny Depp's. He's made some interesting choices and he's preserved his integrity. I admire that in an actor. I also think Edward Norton's had a very interesting career and although Daniel Day Lewis hasn't had such a huge career, I love what he has done. He's a very talented actor.
HB: What has been the most valuable thing you've learnt over the past two years, do you think?
OB: The reality of getting a film made, I guess. The reality of the procedure makes it less intimidating in lots of ways, which is good. I'm just in a huge growth period at the moment.
HB: You're amazingly composed as an interviewee, given your brief exposure to this level of media interest in you. Is this a talent that you've had to hone?
OB: Possibly, but I do think honesty is the best policy. Obviously I've done a lot of interviews recently talking about The Lord Of The Rings. I worked on it for 18 months and know that there's a lot to talk about. I know how I feel about that. I think there's also an element of having grown up feeling reasonably self-assured. I think that I've had an interesting life and I feel very grateful. If I died tomorrow, I'd feel like I've lived a very full life. I've loved every moment and, through that, I've learned a lot about people and relationships. I try to apply a set of rules to life to make it easier and that normally means just being open and honest so you can enjoy it.
HB: Is there anybody special in your life at the moment?
OB: My career is about the most special thing in my life at the moment - and my friedns and family. But there's no romance.
HB: So what do you do for kicks? OB: I'm quite heady, a bit of an adrenalin junkie. I love really mad sports. That's part of the reason why the whole New Zealand experience was so amazing for me. I went bungee-jumping - I went off at the highest bungee-jump in New Zealand, 134m, like, six times. To throw yourself into the air with only something attached to your feet is a different head space altogether. And we went snowboarding and I learned how to surf with the hobbies.
HB: With the hobbits? Should I be calling for the men in white?
OB: I mean I learned how to surf with Billy [Boyd, aka Pippin] and then all the others joined in: Dominic [Monaghan, who's Merry], Sean [Astin who plays Sam] and Elijah. We were all a bunch of young guys so we became really close friends. I have friends for life because of this movie.
HB: I heard that you broke your back a few years back. How did you do that?
OB: I just fell out of a window. I had a bit of a miracle recovery. For four days, I faced the prospect of never being able to walk again but, after 12 days, I walked out of the hospital. They did an operation and put me back together again. But, yeah, I'm very accident-prone. I've broken my back, my ribs, my nose, both my legs, my arm, my wrist, a finger and a toe and cracked my skull three times.
HB: Maybe you should spend some time indoors. What do you do to just chill out?
OB: Well, a huge part of my life is spent watching movies, of course.
HB: What was the last film that you saw that you really loved?
OB: Oh, God. I just saw this French film called Amelie [by Jean-Pierre Jeunet] which I totally adored. An amazing, amazing film. I loved it.
It's time to go. Bloom is flying back to London tomorrow and a couple of his friends have been waiting patiently for him - for "Orli" as they call him - to wind up this interview so that they can take him out for a meal. Even they must be aware that with the monster, Fame, waiting just around the corner for him, their time spent alone with their friend is going to become an increasingly measured commodity. In fact the reason Bloom's in LA at the moment is to go over what he calls "groundwork" with studio executives and directors for projects that will start to get going in a couple of months' time. His audience, it seems, won't wait. Speaking of which, what of the theatre, the acting medium in which Bloom received classical training for four years before leaving for New Zealand? Has he left that behind for good now? "Theatre is something that I feel very important for an actor to keep doing," he replies. "I think it keeps you sharp. But at the moment I'm intrigued with movies and filmmaking. It hasn't lured me away from theatre, but I'm just going to try to ride this wave and then jump onto another and see how far it takes me."
Article Harper's Bazaar (Singapore), Jan 2002