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‘Rings of Power’ stars embrace the real-life pressure of being Tolkien’s fantasy elves

When the casting was announced for “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” the reaction was divisive, to say the least. Longtime fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work were divided because the international cast of the Prime Video prequel series was notably inclusive — something fantasy storytelling has frequently lacked. For the actors, who were stepping into both canonical and newly created roles, the response was expected, but still overwhelming.

“I wanted to play this role because of representation,” explains Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays a Silvan Elf named Arondir, a character not in the books. “I love Tolkien, like everybody else loves Tolkien, but there had never been a lead character of color, and, actually, no characters of color. It did not go over my head what I was getting into. I was completely aware of the impact it would have.”

He adds, “It was one of the reasons that I fought for the role, fully knowing what would happen, which was massive backlash, internationally, and online bullying, racism attacks, death threats, from the first audition I did. But the impact is undeniable … and I’m extremely proud I see how it’s reverberated through culture.”

Córdova’s casting process lasted seven months and resulted in several rejections before he finally convinced the producers he was the right person to play Arondir. He felt passionately about the series, as did Morfydd Clark, who plays a younger version of Galadriel (established by Cate Blanchett in the films). Clark only agreed to read for “The Rings of Power” after she confirmed the show would be colorblind casting the roles.

“I’m a big fantasy nerd and way before this I got quite into the [issues with] the whiteness of the fantasy genre,” Clark says. “It’s been a conversation that’s been happening for ages and this wasn’t a big step, in a lot of ways. It was just an obvious step. They were auditioning everyone and I’m grateful to [the producers] for doing that.”

Clark’s own casting process lasted six months — without knowing exactly what she was auditioning for — and she nearly passed out when she got the news during the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. She flew to New Zealand shortly after, where the cast spent two years in production and waiting out COVID delays, which intensified their bond. Before shooting, they endured a lengthy preparation process, which involved dialect coaching, horseback riding and sword fighting lessons, scuba diving and what Córdova refers to as “elf school,” where the focus was on movement and also doing their own stunts.

“I didn’t know about all the messiness the elves got into in the First and Second Ages,” Clark says. “So the physical stuff was a bit of a shock for me, but a welcome one. To be taught, as an adult, when you actually want to be taught — because I did not want to be taught in school — has been lush… The elves are so strong, so it was really important that we felt as flexible as we could and as strong as we could.”

Córdova embraced Arondir’s warrior spirit head-on, training for up to eight hours a day, including while filming. He was led by the first character description he received, which described the elf as an action hero.

“I created this whole movement mythology,” Córdova recalls. “We haven’t seen a representation of a Silvan Elf to that extent. We’ve seen a lot of aristocracy in terms of the elves represented, but we haven’t seen a common elf. I put together this original movement mythology rooted in capoeira, but I also did kung fu, Wushu, taekwondo and swords. I love martial art films and a lot of people don’t understand movement as a storytelling device. But I really do, because I grew up watching films in English and I did not know a lick of English. The more specific that you are with your body, the better.”

Although they spent months together in New Zealand prepping and in lockdown, Clark and Córdova didn’t actually shoot a scene together until Episode 6. Still, the pair felt a bond that reverberated through the entire cast and crew. Clark cites the crew as the main thing that helped relieve the pressures of being part of such a high-profile series.

“The experience of doing this job with everybody, in the circumstances that we did it in— it sounds so cheesy, but it did feel like our own personal little fellowship and journey into the complete unknown,” she says.

Córdova adds, “There was so much riding on this show and we were doing it completely removed from our network support, family, country, culture, but on top of that, in this global pandemic that made it impossible for us to leave. We had these personal responsibilities to make it as good as possible. And there was a moment where we were the only actors in the world working, so that also felt like a big responsibility.”

While Clark was able to draw on her native Welsh to help with the fantasy language of Sindarin, which the elves speak, Córdova struggled to find Arondir’s voice. The actor, who is from Puerto Rico and speaks English as a second language, was nervous about his character’s clear British accent.

“I had a massive stutter when I was growing up and I still I mumble,” he says. “But [our dialect coach] really encouraged me to find that voice and step forward into the power of that voice. He’s not a man of many words, but the words he says are considered and forward. That really moved me because it brought out an aspect of me that I’ve struggled with my entire life, which is occupying space and feeling like your voice is worthy.”

Galadriel helped Clark to find her voice, as well, but in a slightly different way. The actress, who was diagnosed with ADHD at 7 and has always grappled with feeling different, appreciated Galadriel’s unabashed strength and straight-forward nature.

“I’ve always loved fantasy as the outsider,” Clark says. “But also when you’ve been told a lot about what it’s like to be a human as someone who’s neurodivergent, I enjoyed that I didn’t have to do any of those things as an elf. She doesn’t have the hang-ups that we have as women in our human world and that was really fun to get rid of that… I really enjoyed the neurodivergent aspect of that. It felt more natural, in a way, because there was none of the flowery emoting you’re taught through life as a woman.”

She adds, “She’s someone who doesn’t fit the normal way of being. I felt very free in terms of the pressures of femininity.”

Because of the scope of the show, the actors, who are in production on the series’ second season in the U.K., weren’t completely sure what they were making until it was finished. It felt bigger than the individual performances, particularly because multiple storylines were being shot simultaneously.

“As rich as each world is, that’s how it felt to shoot,” Córdova notes. “You’re in a particular world, you’re in a narrative, which I think serves the characters. You really don’t know what is happening on the other side of Middle-earth. To me, it was impossible to think about the final product.”

Since the premiere of “The Rings of Power,” some of the backlash about the casting has died down. The cast members of the films have spoken out in solidarity with the new cast. Last September, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan and Sean Astin donned T-shirts with elf faces of various skin tones that read “You All Are Welcome Here” in Sindarin.

“That made such a difference to so many people who loved the films to see their heroes welcoming everyone,” Clark says.

“What she’s not saying is that she arranged for them to get those,” Córdova chimes in. “It’s important because we’ve really been there for each other. We had an experience that it was going be very difficult to repeat. We were our own island. We were our communities and caregivers. It’s something I don’t think we will ever repeat.”

Despite the ups and downs, Córdova is grateful to have helped to break down barriers of inclusion onscreen alongside the rest of the cast. He’s had to do a lot of therapy over the last few years, but he also know it’s important to give fans the representation they deserve.

“The chapter has closed where there wasn’t an elf of color,” Córdova says. “We closed that chapter and, poof, the dust went out of that book. And we started a new chapter. It’s come at an immense personal cost… [But] when you have a calling and you have the opportunity that very few people in this world and lifetime have, which is to shift history, I just dove into it. We all did.” [Source]

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Current Projects

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
as Galadriel
News Photos IMDb
Epic drama set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' follows an ensemble cast of characters, both familiar and new, as they confront the long-feared re-emergence of evil to Middle-earth.

Starve Acre
as Juliette
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An idyllic rural family life of a couple is thrown into turmoil when their son starts acting out of character.

Murder is Easy
as Bridget
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Follows Luke Fitzwilliam, as he finds himself on the trail of a serial killer after meeting Miss Pinkerton on a train to London. Now Fitzwilliam has to find the killer before any more blood will be shed.

The Fox
as Unknown
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In this black comedic folktale, an affable foxhunter encounters a shape-shifting fox who offers him an opportunity to transform his partner into the perfect woman and in doing so take control of the natural world.

The Duchess of Malfi
as Unknown
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A widowed Duchess falls in love with her steward Antonio.

as Ophelia
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A modern adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', set in London.

as Unknown
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After the brutal murder of their family, barely teenage MILLIE and her UNCLE JOHN embark on a brutal mission of revenge and retribution. But as they get closer to the people responsible, Millie must decide if she is ready to follow the bloody path of vengeance - and its violent, premature journey into adulthood.
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