An interview with the actor, perhaps best known for his role as Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean, was part of the 2010 Adam Katz Memorial Lecture, an annual event designed to raise awareness of dyslexia and ADHD.
On being diagnosed with dyslexia
I was first diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of seven. I did an IQ test, they put a lot of puzzles in front of me, and I had to color things and mark charts. It was quite fun, actually, at the age of seven. I had a pretty high IQ, is what my mom ultimately told me, which was a really nice thing to know, but I struggled with reading and spelling.
When my mother told me that I was dyslexic it was both a gift and a bit of a cross to bear, but she tried to make me feel like it was something special and I was going to be great with it. But it was something that I hid from other kids as best I could.
On going to school
School was a struggle; it was really hard work. I remember reading a school report that said, “If he would only stop looking out the window or into the hamster cage, we think he’s probably a bright boy.” I was quite distracted. I was good at sports although I was very accident-prone, very physical.
I was an angry child at times. I was frustrated with the learning disability. It makes you feel stupid; you just don’t feel smart. Somewhere in me I knew that I was smart, I knew I wasn’t thick, but I was just really struggling with spelling and writing, and it was holding me back.
School for me was just a lot of extra work, a lot of extra classes, a lot of frustration and sometimes screaming at whoever it was that was making me feel like I wasn’t good enough.
I had some extra classes with a teacher who taught me specifically to write joined-up, which would help my flow. One of the greatest struggles for me was that I couldn’t write fast enough for the words, so I would have all these ideas and things that I want to put down on the page and I could never get them down, and when eventually I did, it wasn’t quite as it had been in my mind. It’s still a problem now because even when I’m talking my mind moves faster than the words can come out.
On the challenge of reading
I didn’t do a lot of reading, though I did a fair amount—mostly because my mom bribed me. As a kid I always wanted a motor bike, and she said, “If you read 50 books, I’ll get you a motor bike.” I never got to 50 books and I never got a motor bike until I was old enough to pay for it myself. But that carrot definitely helped; she did that with me a lot. She said, “I’ll give you five pounds if you learn this poem,” and I’d learn this poem and get five quid; put it towards a motor bike. It was great.
But reading out loud was just a disaster. I always had excuses: I was sick, I had a sore throat, whatever it was just to avoid speaking out loud, because it was a disaster. And to be honest, if I was calm I probably would have been fine, but it was just the anxiety of having to read out loud that led to me jumping, skipping words, skipping lines. It was the anxiety that really freaked me out.
On reading and thinking
I mastered reading out loud in drama school somehow. The three years of training at drama school, with reading stuff like Milton’s Paradise Lost where the imagery is so profound and great, you start to connect with thoughts. I had this great teacher, a Russian director who couldn’t speak English actually, and he had a translator, but he seemed to be able to see your soul when you were performing. He taught us to learn everything by thought as opposed to just learning the text. Just learn the thoughts and forget the text, and we weren’t allowed to even recite the text. So that sort of stuff helped.
I think creativity is the key to any child who has dyslexia. When I was on stage performing, creating—that was really what got me through. When I was in high school I had the character roles; I would never get the leading roles because I was younger, but I got the character roles. So in The Pirates of Penzance, for example, I played the Chief of Police and in The Boyfriend I played the dirty old man. I had a lot of fun and actually it was thanks to that creative outlet of performing. Because when I was on stage I was more focused than I was anywhere else.
I decided really young that I wanted to be an actor, which was a gift actually, because I’m nothing if I’m not driven. I’m like a dog with a bone in many respects when I set my mind to something, and I was just like, I’m going to be an actor.
The gift of dyslexia was that I learned everything forward and backward, inside out, so I was fully prepared. I had to learn everything so that I wouldn’t have stage fright or the lines wouldn’t fall out of my mind. I was terrified that with my dyslexia I would not be able to retain the dialogue. So I suppose I had a good handle on language, in a sense, at a young age. I would find that if I learned my lines at night and slept on them and then looked at them first thing in the morning, they would sort of sink in.
Some advice for parents
If you have kids who are struggling with dyslexia, the greatest gift you can give them is the sense that nothing is unattainable. With dyslexia comes a very great gift, which is the way that your mind can think creatively. If your kids can be given the opportunity to find that way of thinking, what works for them, they will be very happy and successful in whatever field they choose to go into. That I think is what my life has been.
Some advice for kids with dyslexia
I’d say just hold on to your dreams and never ever think that you’re not good enough or that you’re stupid. Never let anyone tell you that you’re not capable. We’re all the same, we’re all equal and we all deserve a shot. Take this obstacle and make it the reason to have a big life, because if you can overcome this obstacle you are going to be that much further ahead than anyone else. It takes having obstacles to learn and grow and be better. The challenge of dyslexia—the challenge of climbing that mountain—is something that you can make your own and make it a reason to be a winner in life.
Find more video clips of Orlando Bloom in conversation with Dr. Harold Koplewicz here.