Orlando Bloom on Shedding His Movie Star Image for Demanding Roles: "Now All Bets Are Off"

Orlando Bloom - Getty - H 2020
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Orlando Bloom woke up to a phone full of new text messages on a recent July morning. He'd just lost his dog Mighty, so he assumed the alerts had something to do with the beloved teacup poodle. Instead, all of the alerts were about reviews of his newest film, Retaliation, that had been released but since the film wasn't exactly new — it premiered July 1, 2017 at the Edinburgh International Film Festival before eventually securing U.S. distribution from Saban Films during the COVID-19 pandemic — it took the actor a minute to connect the dots and to process the adoring ink. 

"A shattering performance," writes The Hollywood Reporter's Frank Scheck, adding that Bloom "gives a career-best performance." The New York Times ' Ben Kenigsberg says the role of Malky, a demolition man dealing with decades of trauma from sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, offers Bloom the chance to "deliver some impressive, anguished monologues." Chicago Sun Times critic Richard Roeper called it "a brilliant, brooding, captivating performance" while Variety's Peter Debruge provides an exclamation point with "you can't help but respect" with he did in the film.

Retaliation, a gritty indie directed by Ludwig and Paul Shammasian from a script by Geoff Thompson, asks a lot of the 43-year-old actor who is best known as a movie star with one of the most meteoric rises in recent memory. Two decades ago, he graduated straight from drama school into Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy and followed it up with another one of the most successful franchises of all time opposite Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean. He's worked with a who's who of top Hollywood directors like Ridley Scott, Cameron Crowe and Wolfgang Petersen, and he'll be the first to admit the fame that accompanied those early projects is still a bit of a blur and didn't always arrive with similar compliments from critics.

That's why being singled out now is so special to Bloom because Retaliation offered a chance to shed his leading man persona and dig into a demanding role that required brutal physicality, intimate vulnerability and a shock of a scene that sees a nude Malky penetrate himself with something that looks less like a pleasurable accessory and more like a back alley weapon. The tour-de-force performance arrives on the heels of his equally well-received work in Rod Lurie's Afghanistan-set war thriller The Outpost and just as the actor is preparing for a baby girl with pop superstar fiancé Katy Perry.

Bloom, who will soon resume filming Season 2 of his Amazon series Carnival Row, agreed to speak with The Hollywood Reporter about what the reviews mean to him right now at this stage of his career, what he's looking for next and what advice he would give to his younger self. 

It's a unique time to have two movies out without being able to support them the usual way with premieres or events. What has this experience been like for you?

It’s very surprising. To be honest, The Outpost, not so much, because I knew Rod was making a great film. I saw quite an early cut of the film, and I knew it was a very solid and a very honest portrayal of the challenges that those young men had to experience. Rod was in a really remarkable place to make a film like that. He was just really ready, and there was a great support team around him, and all of the young actors who just put their heart and soul into it. I was obviously just in the first act, and I remember they had me shot out within the first couple of weeks, and I just remember leaving and going to set and checking out the boys and saying my farewells, and knowing that they were going to do something really special.

As far as Retaliation, I woke up the morning after it had been released to all of these text messages. I'd just come out of a slightly dark place. I lost my dog, which was really painful. I've never experienced a pain like that. I'd spent seven days looking for him, because he'd gone missing, and I thought maybe somebody had grabbed him or something ... well, I was hoping. Anyway, it was really unusual, because I got these texts and emails from people, asking, "Oh, have you seen these reviews?" And I was like, "What are you talking about?" I hadn't pieced it together, and people just started sending me these reviews and, to be honest, that was a film that was ... I remember reading the script, and I opened the first page. I saw the title was originally Romans, and I loved that title. I think they changed it to Retaliation for this American release, which is their choice, but I read the first three pages, and I knew I wanted to play the role.

I could tell that the writer, Geoff Thompson, who's written quite extensively about his own tragic and painful experience of child abuse, sexual abuse, as a young man, as a boy, was very ... he's a really remarkable man. I could almost feel his journey through the character, and I knew that, if nothing else, I hoped that in making the film, it would find the right audiences. 

The role of Malky asks so much of you as an actor. What was your most challenging scene?

I've got a pit in my stomach when I think about all of it, to be honest. One of the most challenging moments, is when Malky abuses himself. I spoke to Geoff about this, because I was very conflicted on what needed to happen, on what that moment meant. I didn't understand it. This is a very painful, brutal experience for him, and he's angry and hurt. He said, "You know, Orlando, this is the tragedy of that moment and the pain. It's an odd thing, because there is pleasure there, because it was the first sexual encounter, and as awful as it was, it's like reclaiming something that was taken unnaturally." It's a minefield of moments.

When it happens, you’re staring at yourself in the mirror and it's very intense. What was going through your mind?

You know, it was my decision, the way that we set the shot. The directors had some other idea, and I felt that Malky was, in that moment, taking back something that had been taken from him. [He is] imagining and reclaiming, fighting the pain and the pleasure. So, to be honest, there was a plethora of different thoughts and feelings going through my mind. All along, the only thing that I ever wanted to do was play the truth of what the character would be feeling and experiencing.

It's not an easy thing to approach, because men don't talk about their feelings, their emotions, and certainly not if there's been sexual abuse. There's so much shame. What that leads to is what we see in Malky. I just wanted to do justice to the character, in that respect. I hope that other men who may have experienced this will see the film, and hopefully find healing in it. There are many unhealed people who go through the world without the opportunity to address what has happened to them and it affects them for the rest of their lives.

You’re nude in the film, too. How do you approach that at this stage in your career because, while this may be an obvious question, much of the world has seen you naked now. Has that changed your approach at all?

It was really just what was required. I didn't think about the nudity aspect. I just thought about what was required in the moment to get the job done. We talked about the shots and the nudity aspect and how it served the character and the truth of the moment. I was focused more on that and obviously, I put a lot of trust in the directors, who were new and young, and had the greatest sincerity. They knew the writer very well, and their approach to the material was with real sensitivity and care. So, I felt I was serving the moment more than I was thinking about the fact that there was nudity.

With the sex, you see very clear how damaged Malky is, and how his damage plays out in the relationships in his life, particularly with women. His fear of intimacy, his fear of closeness, the animalistic way with which he approaches sex, and the shame around that, it's all very palpable in the script. It's very clear to me what was required, and then a lot of what I had gleaned from different organizations that I spoke to about male sexual abuse, it was reading up around it and researching around it. You can understand how and why people do things the way they do.

Your scenes with Anne Reid, who plays your mother, are especially captivating. So much of your performance is internalized. How did you find your rhythm with her?

She's so wonderful. Such a wonderful actress, my goodness. She had come fully equipped and the breathlessness, I don't know if you noticed the breathlessness that she had brought to the character? It was really beautiful. You know Harold Pinter the playwright? I had read those scenes and really thought how Pinteresque in a way they are. It's everything that's not being said, you know?

Yeah.

At drama school, I played some Pinter, and I loved that. I felt that was a very Pinteresque relationship, so that was my way in through a vulnerable, innocent, childlike love for a mother who is so damaged and damaging in so many ways — so unevolved. Annie had the ability to make me feel so small and to make Malky feel painfully small around her. A great actor will lift another actor, and she really was just so wonderful to work with in that respect, because she brought so much to the table.

I remember when I walked into the house [that’s used as my mother’s house in the film], it had been staged in a certain way with photos of Malky all around. I said to the director, "This is all wrong." This was a very small movie and we were running and gunning with hardly any time to shoot everything. They had rightly thought, "We should have all these photos of Malky," and I said, "No. No." That would suggest that she idolized him in some way, and she doesn't. Annie looked around and was in complete agreement. If anything, it's barren, there's nothing, and would only be there in a book. So, it was really a very wonderful experience to work with her.

Are you somebody that can watch your own performance? I know some actors, it informs their work, while others pick themselves apart. Where do you fall?

If I'm working, I can sometimes see a playback to see if what's happening in my mind is not being represented on the screen. But in terms of watching movies after they've been made, I'll maybe watch it at one point when I've got to do press or if I'm going to a premiere, but I'm not in the habit of studying my performances after the fact. In this instance, honestly, I'm just so grateful that the movie got picked up and found a release because, as I said, that was the biggest surprise. I just didn't think it was going to see the light of day. I didn't think I'd ever be speaking about it, certainly, and having known how much love and work and time had gone into it, I'm just grateful that it did find an audience, and hopefully it will continue to do so.

You mentioned drama school. You went straight from there immediately into one of the biggest franchises of all time and then into a second franchise, that also turned out to be one of the biggest of all time. That’s an insane introduction for a career and it doesn’t happen very often in an actor’s life. It led to global fame, magazine covers, celebrity status. Looking back now, what would you say to that kid?

It's so interesting because I remember only bits of that period, but most of it is a blur. I kept a journal, which is helpful, but I haven't looked back at it because I literally was on planes and doing photo shoots and things. I think I would say, "Keep going back to the basics." I trained at drama school and thought I was going to join the RSC and do a season or two of TV, and if I got lucky, do some movies. That was the charted path if you were fortunate enough to get an agent when you came out of drama school at the time when I did. That was the unspoken but hopeful kind of route.

I would also say, "Just enjoy it and don't take it seriously. Keep everything about the work." To be fair, it was an amazing experience, and I hit the juggernaut off of all those things, but I was very much under the public eye. Everything I was doing was incredibly visible, and it was hard to retrieve at times. It takes a while to find your footing again. I took some years off, actually, to just have a child. I was married and divorced and had a child, and it was good. It was taking time to recharge. You have to take the time to fill the creative coffers before you spend them all.

Did you take that break because of the relationship, or were you dissatisfied with the opportunities? What lead to that?

It wasn't a decision. It just unfolded. I had this insane run, like you said, I don't think there are many people who had a run like it, two trilogies and Ridley Scott, Cameron Crowe ... just a huge run. I was sick of seeing myself. I was sick of the sight of myself, almost, with all the publicity that had to go along with all these movies, and inevitably, I think, you just burn out to an extent to yourself and for an audience.

I didn't feel like there was any disillusion. It sort of all just manifested and unfolded that way. My now ex, Miranda [Kerr], who we're very close and we co-parent my son, when I found out she was pregnant, I was just like, "Wow, this is what has to happen. We're going to do this. Let's do this, and this is the next chapter." Because of my own story with my childhood and the relationship with my father, it was just really important to me that I was very present for [my son].

I did what I thought was right. I did a run of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway, I had an incredible run, which was fantastic. I went back and did some theater, and I think it would have been good just to ... it was an interesting period. It was kind of like watching my death, just a little bit. I feel like you need that, because it's what makes you grow. When you have a need, you have something to shoot for, and by taking some time, I created a need for me, and that was important.

Speaking of new chapters, you recently said that you're embracing your 40s and the lines on your face, seeing how you can explore this phase of your life as an actor. Has it informed what you want to do next?

The only thing I want to do now is ... I want to be scared, terrified and excited beyond belief in the same way I was when I read Malky. It was immediate. It was like, "Oh my God. I don't know if I can pull this off?" But that's the challenge. I feel like in some way, I was almost being groomed to be a movie star when I was younger, and now all bets are off. I want to burn the barn down with my performance. I'm not afraid of anything any more. If there's a role and it's going to terrify me, because I'll be challenged in some way, that's what I want to do.

Let me put it like this: I'm not driven by money. I'm not driven by fame. I'm driven by the creative process, and the promise that I made to myself as a young actor in drama school and the fear that's created when you walk out onto a stage. I've done that now, certainly with Killer Joe and on Romeo & Juliet. I'd love to do more theater, for example. Now that I'm almost about to have another baby, my time has become so precious that I only want to spend it on things that are going to challenge me and give me the opportunity to grow because that's really what it's about for me and that's why I love being an actor. 

I see that you're playing Prince Harry for Gary Janetti's animated series The Prince. What can you tell me about that?

I don't know if you've seen Gary’s Instagram but he's incredibly funny and has a very affectionate and witty way of commenting on the royal family. Initially, I was like, "Hmm, how do I feel about this," because I'm a British boy who's very proud of my roots. I understand how the royal family is loved by some and loathed by others, and I've always understood it as part of my heritage and background. I'm not someone who wants to poke fun at anyone normally, but this was so clever, witty and affectionately done. Actually Katy saw one bit of it and was like, "You've got to do this. This is genius." And the animation is done by some of the guys who did Family Guy, so it's going to be very amusing. And who doesn't love the royal family?

Have you ever met Prince Harry?

I have, actually.

Does that make you nervous, having known him and then playing him?

I hadn't met him when I signed up to do it, and I subsequently met him and he's such a nice guy. This guy is so nice, and I think he's got a great sense of humor. I hope he maintains that through this because they're sort of on a pedestal. We're showing real adoration to them in one form or another. I try to justify it, because quite frankly, if I'm honest, it's not like me to poke fun at anyone but it is done with affection. When I was in my mid-20s, there was so may different people poking fun at me and, in a way, it's a sign of appreciation.

Yeah.

It's a backhanded compliment.

Gary's voice is very satirical, too.

Exactly. It's not malicious or intended to be. He's really got his finger on the pulse, Gary. He's so smart and so zeitgeisty. I rolled the dice on it, but I'm going to have to mention it to Prince Harry when I next see him, because I'm not going to be able to not. Oddly, I'm sure I'm going to see him at some point, just because of the nature of the universe, it always throws people together.

It does. When you look back on people making fun at you, do you feel like maybe you didn’t get a fair shake?

I don't look back. I don't look back in anger. Nobody steps out of the door or onto a set — whoever you are, whether you're an actor, director or producer — nobody is trying to do bad work. I know when I put my head down at night, I've done my best with everything that I've ever done. I've always given it my all, and I think in a way, if anything, there was a lot of safe play in my career. I'm not really interested in that any more, so I can see how ... I mean for Will [in Pirates of the Caribbean], for example, I was playing the straight guy to Johnny [Depp’s] remarkable Jack Sparrow, but it's not easy to pull that straight guy off, do you know what I mean? And in a way, it was the emotional thread, that relationship between Elizabeth and Will, but I don't look back with anything. I just look forward with excitement, to be honest now.

This is where it feels like it's going to get spicy and interesting, and where the really meaty, juicy roles come. I feel that Malky shows people all the lengths and breadths that I am prepared to go to, so it's wonderful that it got reviewed that way. That obviously feels good, but I'm not really ... it's interesting that it's come out at a time like this, like you said, where we can't celebrate it, like we would normally. I'm doing some press now as the movie is out, but there wasn't a premiere and there's no splashy campaign or anything like that. It's just here's this thing we did that's been very honestly offered up for the world, which I think is very fitting for this film and the moment we're living in.

Before we end, I wanted to say again I'm sorry about your dog. How are you doing?

Thank you. I spent seven days [looking for him]. So, it's interesting, seven is a number of completion, and then we found his collar on the seventh day. If you spoke to anyone who knew me, they would say that dog was the physical manifestation of my heart. He would always be beside me, in front of me, he was everywhere. He was just joy. He was a gift from Katy. He was so small, he could travel anywhere with me, but he thought he was this giant dog. I could talk about that dog for hours. I loved him so much ... But I have this beautiful baby coming, and probably if anything, I'm quite a spiritual, mystical kind of thinker, and maybe the universe was making space for baby girl to come through, so that's probably what needed to happen.

Interview edited for length and clarity.