Orlando Bloom: Face values

He's made girls swoon and box-office billions roll in, clashed swords with pirates and kicked orc ass. But Orlando Bloom's new film requires even more from him - you know, real acting.
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The Independent Culture

He's also got dyslexia. And a semi-posh accent - part Canterbury, part mockney geezer. A bumfluff goatee, the sparseness of which makes him look younger than his 28 years. The most requested male name - worldwide - on Google searches in 2004. A seemingly on-off relationship with young American actress Kate Bosworth. A short but intense CV bristling with swords, sandals, bows, arrows, frantic action, epic adventure, and rootin'-tootin' physicality rather than actual much, you know, speaking.

Following his co-stars and director, his 5ft 11in, coolly-black-clad self sweeps into the room in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, all rangy good looks and easy amiability. His shoulder-length hair is loosely tied into a stumpy ponytail. His floppy locks seem to be the reason why his dazzling handsomeness (and in person he's astoundingly good looking) is often dubbed "Byronic". But right now the style seems more in keeping with the two swashbuckling Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (another franchise for Bloom) that are being filmed back-to-back. He's got a very fast and furious kind of fame.

"I found myself doing all these action-adventure movies, and it's been a fantastic experience and I've learnt a lot. And thankfully I haven't had too much to say because I probably would have made a mess of it!" he says with odd candour. "It's been, um ... It's been a really interesting learning curve."

"What was cool, though, was that he was fresh," chips in his director. "But people still knew him. It was that odd thing where you're interested in the guy, but you haven't really seen him like this."

Elizabethtown is a partly autobiographical film from Crowe. Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a young American executive at a shoe company. Formerly the firm's golden boy, his brainwave for a new kind of trainer, the Späsmotica, has backfired spectacularly. Its failure is set to cost the Oregon-based business $972m. Baylor goes from whizz kid to globally infamous corporate loser. So he attempts to kill himself. (Though, Elizabethtown being a romantic comedy, the scene in question is played for laughs.)

Then comes a phone call telling Drew his dad has died while visiting family in Kentucky - the home state of Crowe's own dad, and location for Crowe senior's funeral in 1989. At the behest of his maniacally distraught mother (Susan Sarandon) and weepy sister (Judy Greer) Drew must travel to Kentucky, half a continent away, and collect the body. Cue journey of self-discovery, reunion with the family's hick wing, and, on the way, a fortuitous encounter with a life-affirming air-hostess, Claire Colburn, played by Kirsten Dunst. And cue emotional jousting between the numb, grieving, luckless Drew and the sprightly, kooky Claire. Will Drew get over himself? Will he come to know, in death, the father he never knew while he was alive? Will he and Claire fall in love and live happily ever after? Will he - and this is the Big Message - come to understand the difference between greatness and success?

Much of the film's viability will rest on the chemistry between Bloom and Dunst, two of the most gorgeous young actors on the planet. You can't learn that kind of onscreen spark; how did they build it? "Well, we got along well," Dunst tells me, "and Orlando's a very good person. So it's not hard to find something to fall in love with when you're making the movie."

So, what's Orlando Bloom got? You can add to the list the love, enthusiasm and f rhapsodic approval of his co-workers. And of course there are a gazillion internet fansites, detailing how he lost his virginity aged 14, how he loves mint-choc-chip ice-cream (Bloom: "I did? I do?") and other information. All this is out there as - allegedly - the facts of Bloom's young life ("Allegedly! Wooh! Allegedly!"). Whether it's all true or not, has Orlando Bloom not got even a little privacy any more? "A little bit of privacy!" he squawks. "I was 14 when I lost my virginity! Come on! Do me a favour," he shouts, geezerishly, matily, nonsensically. "Have I ever met you?" he adds for comic effect. "Look, man, it's par for the course. What are you gonna do?"

WE MAY in part ascribe the speed with which he's pursued his career to the brush with mortality he experienced aged 21: he fell off a roof terrace and broke his back. For a few days he didn't know if he was going to walk again.

He had an artsy upbringing in Canterbury. One of his hometown friends is Coldplay's Guy Berryman, the band's bass-player, who went to school with Bloom's sister, Samantha. At 16, he moved to drama school in London. There were bit parts in TV (Casualty and Midsomer Murders). Then, two days before he left Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and having auditioned for the parts of Faramir and Legolas, he landed the role of the elvish prince in Lord of the Rings. Seventeen Oscars and $3bn at the box office later, Bloom was the pretty boy Hollywood pin-up of our times.

Bloom says he had "no idea" of the likely impact of Peter Jackson's lavish trilogy, and how it might change his life. Nor, really, of the work involved during the 18-month shoot in New Zealand. "It was a real coming-of-age time for me. I grew a lot, and I'm looking forward to, hopefully, one day, doing something with [Jackson] again, I'd love to go back to New Zealand and just ... live in Wellington for a bit and make another movie."

Bloom and Crowe first met in 2002, when the latter directed him and Kate Beckinsale in a Gap advert. What does he remember of that? "It was great. I wouldn't have done a commercial unless it meant working with Crowe. And he is the man, and I hoped that it would lead to Elizabethtown, which it did, so I felt like it was fated. We kept in touch over the years, sending each other CDs and postcards."

Would he do another advert? "Who knows, man. The world's an ever-changing place. You see movie stars advertising all sorts of things today, for whatever reason. And it may be that it affords them the luxury to do smaller movies, or to go and do a play. Because otherwise you have to keep doing movies where you get paid millions and millions of dollars to maintain a certain lifestyle."

I'm keen to discover what the "it" is that Bloom possesses because he has become, in four short years, one of - if not the - most in-demand, talked-about actors in the world. Already he's earning those millions and millions of dollars. Why? How? He hasn't had to do all that much acting. All that weaponry and special effects and blockbuster scenery has done a lot of the work for him. Is he "good" because he is handsome and beloved by hordes of cinema-going, DVD-buying girls? And if so, might that be OK and enough? We all need eye-candy. We all need to fantasise. As Dunst says, "He's kind of a manboy in a way ... he's still very boyish. He's kinda feminine. There's something not threatening, which is why a lot of young girls like him."

The frustrating thing is that Bloom himself seems unwilling, or unable, to supply any cogent or illuminating answers himself. For example: ask him if he was relieved to do a contemporary drama like Elizabethtown, and this is the word-for-word reply: "It was wonderful to do a film like this. There's a lot of subtlety, the nuances of a character where you don't have 300 horses charging down a hill or a huge siege sequence that can draw an audience into and they can get lost into. There's a whole element of human interaction and character interaction that I really enjoy doing. And I feel like I've got a lot to learn. I won't continue doing that and continue learning to ... so that I can make movies that I think are human stories. I love those human stories."

I had begun with a "deeper" question, about fathers, but that didn't get me much further. Bloom grew up with his mum Sonia and sister Samantha. The man he called dad was Harry Bloom, a South African political exile and novelist turned law professor at the University of Kent. He'd died of a stroke, aged 64, when Orlando was four. Then, when he was 13, his mum told him that his biological father was actually Colin Stone, the family friend who'd become his legal guardian after the death of Harry Bloom.

I'd asked Crowe if, given that Elizabethtown is about a young man who didn't really know his father, whether he and Orlando had discussed the actor's own back story. "We did talk about that. I played one director's trick, which I never really do, in the scene where [Drew's] looking into the [funeral] casket for that close-up. I had the guy [playing his dead dad] say, 'It's me, Colin. Where were you last Christmas?' And [Orlando] really responded! I felt bad doing it, but I figured, you're in it together, you've got to try some things sometimes. And it literally took him back a little bit - and that shot's in the movie. That's when he sort of [recoils]. As soon as it was over I said, 'Sorry, but I had to do it.' And he said, 'No, that's OK, all's fair, all's fair.' So that stuff is in him. It wasn't why I hired him, but I think it's one of the things that makes Orlando different from a lot of guys his age - he's been through a lot of pain, and you can see it in his face."

Maybe so, but he can't talk about it in any meaningful way. "Yeah, it was interesting," says Bloom of the, we might say, parallels between his life and Drew's story. "It's an ambiguous father-son relationship, and I actually have a great relationship with my dad. But it was ... I dunno, it was ..." He stops before veering off into the safety of an innocuous anecdote. "When my grandfather died, I went to see him in the funeral parlour, and I'd never been to a funeral parlour before. And I went into the room and my mum closed the door and it was just, boom! Energy! I put my head back against the wall. Then I went over and did that thing where I touched him and pulled my hand away because it was cold. And my mum bustled into the room and kissed him on the head and said, 'Come on, we've got to go.' And I was just like, wow, this is such a weird way that people relate to death. And my mum had experienced death with her husband ... So yeah, there was a lot f of history that I could tap for this role, in terms of that relationship. Yeah, it was good."

NOW, OF COURSE, why should a young man be expected to serve up his innermost emotional truths for the consumption of strangers? And plenty of actors chirp away meaninglessly - especially if they're still finding their feet. He's young, and perfectly nice, so how about we give him the benefit of the doubt? Maybe Bloom doesn't do many interviews because he's busy; doesn't open up about the possible emotional impact of having two dads because that stuff's private and too difficult for anyone to express; doesn't have much to say for himself because he's still growing up; did all those action movies because, having faced the possibility of not walking again, he has a surfeit of adrenaline and something to prove. Maybe he hasn't proved himself as an actor yet because he's not had the opportunity.

Elizabethtown is a fair start. It was reviewed badly at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals, partly for being too long. Crowe has since trimmed 18 minutes from it, making it a more coherent two hours. It's still a bit feelgood-cheesy, and jumps about too much, from the Jerry Maguire-like corporate company cobblers at the start, via rural vignettes, to Drew and Claire's stop-start courtship and so on. And Bloom's American accent may not be great but he makes a decent fist of playing the confused young man, trying to find some answers from life spinning madly around him. Maybe, in the final instance, that was something the actor could relate to.

Crowe - not a Hollywood arse-kisser, by any stretch of the imagination - has faith in Bloom. "There's a lot for him to do [in this film]," the director notes. "I'm a big Orlando fan - because in a film that's a lot about how a guy's reacting, and he's a stranger in a strange land, you really want to be interested in the guy and study his mannerisms and what he's going through. What's in his eyes. And he seemed to be that kind of guy."

What does Orlando Bloom need? To gain credibility, would he need to magic away his looks? Perhaps all he needs is a bit of time, that's all. And to stop waffling and start acting - no more arrows, swords or horses required.

'Elizabethtown' opens on 4 November