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For 'Kingdom,' he's asked to carry not just a sword but the entire film

LOS ANGELES -- The first time Orlando Bloom worked with director Ridley Scott, he got pushed out of a helicopter in ''Black Hawk Down." It was a small role, but Bloom left a big impression on Scott, who has now re-teamed with the 28-year-old English actor in ''Kingdom of Heaven." A historical epic about the Crusades based on a brutal 12th-century battle between Christians and Muslims, ''Kingdom" stars Bloom as Balian, defender of Jerusalem.

Over the course of five films, Bloom has played the sweet-faced heartthrob in support of alpha males Viggo Mortensen, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt. ''Kingdom," by contrast, features a scruffy, buffed-up Bloom in nearly every scene. Moviegoers who know him as the slender Legolas in ''The Lord of the Rings" movies, or gentle Will Turner in ''Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," or the weakling Paris in ''Troy," may be surprised to learn that Bloom carries this picture on his broader-than-they-used-to-be shoulders.

Can he bear the weight? Bloom hopes so.

''I really want to be a man in this movie as opposed to the boys that I've played before," he said. Dressed entirely in black, Bloom relaxed in a Pasadena bungalow where he nuzzled Sidi, a stray dog who's been his constant companion ever since the actor spotted him as a pup ''eating camel dung out of a box" in Morocco during the filming of ''Kingdom."

Fingering the red string of charms that hangs around his neck, Bloom continued. ''I'd just finished shooting 'Troy' when I read this script on the plane and I thought, 'This would be a great opportunity to show that I can play both Paris, the cowardly younger brother, and also be this sword-swinging reluctant hero.' Balian is kind of like Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. He said virtually nothing for the first act because he's in this nihilistic state of disillusion."

Balian is an embittered blacksmith who embarks on the Crusades, becomes a knight, and leads the fight against an army of Muslim warriors when they lay siege to the walled city of Jerusalem.

''I'm sort of passed from one character to the next," Bloom said. Balian's journey begins with a surprise visit from his Crusader father (Liam Neeson) and continues through a succession of mentors including a spiritual adviser (David Thewlis) and political strategist (Jeremy Irons) before he receives the blessings of Jerusalem's dying King Baldwin (Brendan Gleeson).

Bloom acknowledged that his veteran castmates, especially Neeson, challenged him to step up his game. ''They all really raised the bar for me. You just try to hold your own as much as you can when you're in the presence of such huge talents."

Director Scott didn't overthink the leading-man issue. ''I cast intuitively," he said. ''In 'Thelma & Louise' I put Brad Pitt in this nice cameo that presented him to the world. When I cast Orlando he was of course already known to the world, but never on his own. But I just remembered how, in 'Black Hawk Down,' he handled what was a relatively small part. I found Orlando had this very special kind of commitment, so he'd been in the back of my mind ever since. To me he seemed a natural choice."

To crank up his star's machismo quotient for ''Kingdom," Scott instructed Bloom to obscure his aquiline features behind a scruffy beard. The actor also lifted weights and put on about 18 pounds, mostly muscle. ''I trained with a sword, I worked with a blacksmith and ate a lot of goat," Bloom said. ''They tell you it's lamb, but I can tell you, I didn't see many lambs roaming the deserts of Morocco, and I saw a lot of goats."

Beyond the physical challenges posed by the movie's fight scenes, Bloom savored his character's spiritual journey.

''I keep seeing ads that say 'From the director of 'Gladiator'!' but this is not a Russell Crowe-type hero," Bloom said. ''The story's more profound in terms of the sensitivity. The battle is resolved with a surrender, not the obvious way to have a victory, and that's what's so courageous about this movie: It's not your conventional sense of having a good guy and a bad guy. Ultimately, the message is that we have been fighting for many thousands of years, whether its oil, religion, money, power, and yet we share this planet. We're all equal on this earth as human beings."

That universal fellowship theme also ran through the ''Rings" trilogy, which made Bloom a star. By the time he arrived on the New Zealand set, he had more than good looks going for him. As a child in Canterbury, England, he recited poems and Bible excerpts at arts festivals. At 16, he moved to London and attended the National Youth Theatre, then received a scholarship at the British American Drama Academy.

''I studied a lot of Shakespeare and historical texts in drama school -- Chekhov, Brecht -- so that training and, I suppose, partly the look that I have has lent itself to these kinds of movies." When Bloom was 22, Peter Jackson cast him as Legolas after seeing him perform in a London play.

With the ''Rings" films and 2003's ''Pirates of the Caribbean," Bloom attracted a worldwide following. Some of those fans showed up in northern Spain when Bloom shot ''Kingdom" scenes near an ancient castle in the Pyrenees mountains.

''It was funny because there were all these fans waiting outside for him screaming 'Orlando! Orlando!' recounts Eva Green, the French actress who plays Queen Sibylla, Bloom's love interest. ''I think people are going to be quite surprised because in this movie he goes from this almost harmless image for teenage girls to this rugged hero who's quite dark and tortured and somber. He's getting his hands dirty. He's grubby. And that's a big change for him."

Bloom tries not to get distracted by the adulation or the tabloid reports about his on-again off-again relationship with actress Kate Bosworth.

''I told a friend that it's a little bit weird with all the hysterical fan thing happening, and he said, 'Dude, there will always be a Beatles, a new boy band, a new young actor, because there will always be young girls who want to pin their hopes and dreams on somebody. It's a small window; enjoy it while it's there and don't take it seriously.' So I don't really let it be part of my consciousness."

With ''Kingdom of Heaven" completed, Bloom has two ''Pirates" sequels to finish, and then he's done with period pieces, at least for a while. Next fall, he stars opposite Kirsten Dunst as a suicidal athletic-shoe designer in Cameron Crowe's ''Elizabethtown," and there won't be a saber, spear, or musket in sight.

''Cameron is directing me in this offbeat romantic comedy. It's my first contemporary leading role with an American accent," Bloom said. ''In a way, I feel like I'm in the first chapter of my life as an actor, and I think there will be a new chapter for me that maybe won't involve so many swords."

Hugh Hart can be reached at hughhart6@hotmail.com.


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