By MARK KENNEDY
NEW YORK — When Condola Rashad snagged the coveted role of Juliet opposite Orlando Bloom’s Romeo on Broadway, she was overjoyed. Now she could get finally get some answers.
“I’m a huge `Lord of the Rings’ fan,” confesses the actress. “There were actually times in rehearsal when I was like, `OK, not to geek out really quick, but I need to know: What is the difference between an Uruk-hai and an Orc?’ I had to know.”
Bloom, who played the Elf Legolas in the films based on J.R.R. Tolkien novels, patiently played along. He explained the difference and then blew her mind: “I told her Orcs used to be Elves,” he says, laughing.
Chemistry is important if you’re playing the leads in “Romeo and Juliet,” and conversations with both lead actors at the Richard Rodgers Theatre suggest they’ve got that elusive spark.
“We talk things out, we sense each other. We both know when a scene is off because we’re both there together. It’s about listening to each other,” says Rashad, a rising star on Broadway with back-to-back Tony Award nominations for “Stick Fly” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”
For his part, Bloom gushes: “She’s wonderful. She’s luminous. She has a presence onstage that commands whatever is happening. And those eyes! They’re huge, and she’s beautiful.” His Juliet, he adds, is “perfect casting.”
While Rashad, who is the daughter of actress Phylicia Rashad of “The Cosby Show” and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, may be a stage veteran at 26, this marks her first full professional Shakespeare production. Ditto for Bloom, 36, who has never been on Broadway before.
“It’s a monster of a play,” says Bloom, sadly. “I tend to do this. I tend to set myself some pretty high bars to reach. It’s crazy exciting, daunting and all the rest. What is there to lose?”
This retelling of the classic love story is set in a timeless, unspecified place, a smashup of the past and present. It seems to be a hot, authoritarian world, where women wear shawls and earth-tones dominate the costumes.
There’s sand onstage and graffiti mars the frescos on the back wall. Rashad is often barefoot (“It feels great. I feel grounded,” she says), and Bloom makes his entrance on a souped-up Triumph Scrambler. (“It looks like something Steve McQueen would have ridden,” he says.)
Bloom, married to supermodel Miranda Kerr and father to 2-year-old Flynn, was cast first while Rashad endured a six-month audition process with up to five callbacks. She kept her process a secret from everyone but her mother, not wanting to deal with the high expectations.
“It’s about bravery, Shakespeare. It’s about courage,” she says. “You have to force yourself to be brave enough to understand that if you give your everything to the text, it will give it back to you. You have to surrender to the text.”
She finally landed the part when director David Leveaux, a five-time Tony Award nominee, put Bloom and Rashad in the same room and heard him laugh with warmth at one of her lines. Now it’s hers, which is a little terrifying.
“I have to focus on the work. Yes, it is `Romeo and Juliet.’ And it is epic and it is an iconic role,” she says. “But the truth of it is that an icon doesn’t think of themselves as an icon. They just are. I have to be the same way.”
Their casting added an intriguing element of racial contrast to the classic tale of two star-crossed lovers and Leveaux decided to take it to its logical conclusion: the Capulets will be played by black actors and the Montagues by white actors.
“While it is an interracial `Romeo and Juliet,’ that’s not actually something we’re hammering out,” Rashad says. “It’s not about making it invisible. It’s there. Use it! But that’s actually not the core of the fight.”
The play offers Bloom a chance to return to his roots on the stage. He had studied Shakespeare at London’s esteemed Guildhall School of Music and Drama and was to play Duke Orsino in a production of “Twelfth Night” but a fall from a rooftop landed him instead in a hospital.
By the time he had healed, he was about to join the Royal Shakespeare Company but director Peter Jackson whisked him to New Zealand for “The Lord of the Rings” and then he was off on a movie career – “Black Hawk Down,” the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, “Elizabethtown” and “Kingdom of Heaven.”
In a way, “Romeo and Juliet” offers Bloom a time machine back to the stage. If his co-star geeks out about Orcs, Bloom does the same about a theater and screen star who recently showed up to see him: Denzel Washington. Bloom would love to model his career on Washington and return to the stage.
“I feel like this is what I was supposed to be doing or at least part of what I was supposed to be doing. I found myself doing movies – which were wonderful and amazing and I love – I’ve got a collection of movies at home that my son is going to absolutely drool over when he’s the right age,” he says.
“But for Orlando and for the actor in me, this process is so rewarding and I just feel like I’m going to be a different actor after this. I already feel like a different actor.”