‘Tears streamed down my face’: Star’s journey to the most expensive TV show ever

By Michael Idato

As a child, Ismael Cruz Cordova dreamed of being an elf because of their connection to nature.Credit:AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

As the curtain goes up on the most expensive television series ever made, the journey does not begin as you might think in a tiny hobbit hole in a quiet corner of the fabled realm of J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic Middle-earth. Rather, it begins in the small mountain town of Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, in the early 1990s.

It was there that a little boy named Ismael Cruz Cordova dreamed of being an elf. “I grew up quite poor and I didn’t have a lot of things, we didn’t have a TV, we didn’t travel, we didn’t go to the city,” Cordova says. “I was also quite bullied when I was growing up for being different. My escape, my life, my everything, was nature.”

And his obsession with elves, the immortable noble species brought to vivid life in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? “Elves don’t destroy nature, they build around it, they build with the shapes of nature and they understand themselves to be part of nature,” Cordova says. “That was something that really spoke to me.”

Fast-forward three decades and that childhood dream, mocked by the little boy’s peers and dismissed by his elders, has brought him into the centre of the frame of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, a new excursion into the ancient history of Tolkien’s sacred lore. For Cordova, who plays the elf Arondir, it is the fulfilment of that boy’s dream.

“For people of colour or marginalised people in general … it’s also important to be portrayed in beauty.”

Layering on the costume, the 35-year-old star of Ray Donovan, Berlin Station and The Undoing says, involved more than a dozen artists, including leather workers and jewellers. “Masters of their craft,” Cordova says. And then elven ears which followed the line of his nose to his cheek bone. “They felt like something I’d been born with. It was very special,” he says.

As our discussion continues, Cordova’s emotions come to the surface momentarily, when the subject of his reflected image – Arondir, in character – is raised. The images are unequivocally striking. Arondir is blessed with Cordova’s natural beauty. But also the great symmetry in his face. And of course, those pointed ears.

“I didn’t sob [when they went on for the first time], but sweet tears just streamed down my face, because I felt so proud and I felt so happy,” Cordova says. “To embody such depth of character and beauty. For people of colour or marginalised people in general, we often get portrayed in our struggle, or in roughness or in grittiness, [but] it’s also important to be portrayed in beauty.”

Ismael Cruz Cordova plays Arondir, the Silvan elf in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.Credit:Matt Grace / Amazon Prime

And Arondir, a Silvan “woodland” elf, in many ways represents more than just difference of appearance. “He’s an extremely adept warrior, but also a deep thinker, a deep feeler, very vulnerable. It opens up a lot of space [around the idea of] masculinity. I’m sure you’ve seen there’s a backlash,” Cordova says (his casting announcement was met with some racist trolling on social media), “but the discomfort is a sign of disruption. No change comes without disruption, so let us be disruptive.”

Cordova is, ultimately, just a single piece of a vast mosaic, entrusted to writer/showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay by Amazon Prime Video when they acquired the television rights to The Lord of the Rings from the Tolkien Estate in 2018 for $US250 million ($361 million). It remains one of the most expensive rights acquisitions in recent Hollywood history.

That mosaic also includes familiar characters such as the elves Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), characters from Tolkien legend such as Isildur (Maxim Baldry) and Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker), and new characters such as Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and the healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi).

There are also a host of Australian actors in the show’s cast, including Kavenagh, Sara Zwangobani, who plays Nori’s mother Marigold Brandyfoot, Tyroe Muhafidin, who plays Bronwyn’s son Theo, and Charlie Vickers, who plays Halbrand, a human whose destiny is entwined with that of the future elf queen Galadriel.

Tolkien’s world, Cordova says, allows us to explore ourselves in uniquely heroic ways. “The world already prescribes a lot of things for us, we go through our days and maybe get stuck in certain rhythms and identities. And when you watch a show, a fantasy show, you’re able to feel and see yourself in a more whimsical way, in a more heroic way,” he says.

Cordova had to find balance, he says, between what he understood of Tolkien’s world from the literature and the pre-existing adaptations of the story, and allowing himself to interpret the new work with fresh eyes. “How much [do] you saturate yourself with certain inspiration, and how much do you allow the current work to inspire you to create something different?” he says.

Cordova as Arondir: “He’s an extremely adept warrior, but also a deep thinker, a deep feeler, very vulnerable.”Credit:Ben Rothstein/Amazon Prime

“You can sometimes fall into a trap of playing an aesthetic or playing a franchise, instead of allowing these roles to impact you from the ground up, from the seed of what’s already on the page,” he says. “I think we had to make certain choices of staying pure and staying in the mentality of being a new character in these worlds.”

So, where do you begin to create a new story from the historical footnotes of an existing one? As it was with Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, historical accuracy does matter, says Tolkien academic and Tolkien Professor podcaster Corey Olsen, but maybe just not as much as thematic accuracy.

“People are always concerned about details, but [the bigger questions are] is it going to feel like Middle-earth, is it going to really seem like Tolkien? Those are the anxieties that fans have,” Olsen says. “When the Jackson films came out, the anxiety was, are they going to do justice to this story? And now you’re hearing people talking in almost the same way.”

Payne and McKay, who are making the new series, came to Tolkien’s world, as many do, in their childhoods. Payne loved fantasy writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and C.S. Lewis, who are, he says, “standing on the shoulders of Tolkien”. The watershed moment for him came with Jackson’s films. McKay read and loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a child. “I think I got stranded for a while around [peripheral character] Tom Bombadil, but I persevered,” McKay says. (Don’t we all?)

For many, the Jackson films are a keystone. But adaptations of Tolkien’s work date further back, notably the BBC’s 1981 radio adaptation, which starred Ian Holm as Frodo and Michael Hordern as Gandalf, and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film, starring Christopher Guard as Frodo, and premiering to savage reviews. While the 1978 screenplay deserves credit for its faithful adherence to Tolkien’s dialogue, it is the BBC radio serial, Olsen says, that “does more justice to that whole heroic quality of Tolkien’s work, which is such an important element of the story.”

Patrick McKay and J. D. Payne, showrunners of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.Credit:Kevin Winter/Getty Images

For Payne and McKay, the task was not to interpret Tolkien’s masterwork on its own terms, but rather mine it for detail that would allow them to build a fresh take on the long arc of its history. Tolkien, who obsessed over the historic minutiae of Middle-earth, handed them a vast trove of detail, of characters like Isildur, Elendil, and Gil-galad, who are tucked away in the mythic canvas behind familiar characters like Frodo and Aragorn.

At the same time, Tolkien gifted them a clean slate. In a letter to Milton Waldman in 1951, published after his death, Tolkien wrote that he would “draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many others only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.”

“There are things Tolkien left us that have never been seen on screen before … It might be different, but it’s also familiar.”

What makes this Middle-earth largely unseen, even to diehards, is that the series takes us not into the Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings, which is broken and ruined, but rather back to Middle-earth at its historic height, when Khazad-Dum is not a dungeon but a glittering citadel, when the elven city of Lindon is a shining beacon and when Numenor, the fabled island kingdom, has not yet sunk into the sea.

“The Third Age, which is when the story of Frodo and Bilbo takes place, is sort of post-apocalyptic Middle-earth, the elves are sort of one foot out the door and Moria is a tomb, so the Second Age, which is more than 3000 or 4000 years before that, is worlds apart,” says Payne. “This is the golden age of the dwarves, Gil-galad is High King of Lindon.”

Creating that world also required a delicate balance of servicing both the established history of Middle-earth, and the passionate fans who obsess over every detail of it, and making it accessible to a new audience. “For fans, you’re meeting a place you love at a very different time in its history, and for new fans, you’re discovering it for the first time that way,” says McKay. “To us, it’s the reason why the Second Age is the great Tolkien story that deserves to be told.”

Perhaps the most complex soil in which Payne and McKay had to walk was exposing or creating hitherto unseen layers of the world, and its inhabitants. The elves, often portrayed as perfect, are seen here as at times flawed and uncertain. And the dwarves, often mired in cliches about boorishness and dank stony dungeons, are seen as deeply connected to both water and song. In a way, the series makes a provocative gamble on showing us a different side of something we think we know well.

The lush green of Middle-earth at its historic height.Credit:Ben Rothstein / Amazon Prime

“We went back to the books and what we were looking for in the books was things that hadn’t been seen before,” McKay says. “We wanted to find what was different, but familiar. It wanted to feel like Middle-earth and the spirit of Tolkien, but if there were things in the books you hadn’t seen this way, great, we have a shot at showing it to audiences for the first time.

“To us, that’s the opportunity,” McKay says. “That’s why the show, in our estimation, deserves to be made, because there are things Tolkien left us that have never been seen on screen before. Maybe there will be a little bit of an adjustment; it might be different, but it’s also familiar. Dwarves are brave, and funny and quirky. They are proud and hotheaded. But they are also in love and passionate.”

One of the historic criticisms of Tolkien’s work is that it is a world explored primarily through a cast of white, male characters. Notwithstanding references to Bilbo Baggins’ mother Belladonna Took, there are no significant female characters in The Hobbit, and the “Fellowship of the Ring”, the company who take the ring to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, was composed of nine male characters.

Tolkien was, perhaps, simply a man of his era, says Olsen. “Raised in a society that was a male-dominated society, in a time and place that was also very white and not particularly sensitive about the idea of white privilege; those things are true,” says Olsen. It is true too, Olsen adds, that the desire for inclusiveness was far from the literary culture of the time. “I’ve always felt that Tolkien was primarily writing what he knew,” Olsen says.

Morfydd Clark as Galadriel and Fabian McCallum in a scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which introduces new characters alongside familiar ones.Credit:Amazon Prime

He was also writing for a specific audience, Olsen adds: initially his three sons John, Michael and Christopher, but later, just his youngest, Christopher. Over time, his writing matured from the “slapped together in a lot of ways” The Hobbit to the more complex The Lord of the Rings, and later, Tolkien made edits to The Silmarillion which drew in female characters. “He begins to map Middle-earth so it’s not just a vaguely English fairytale; instead he begins to think of it globally,” Olsen says.

The other, less commonly examined aspect of Tolkien’s work, at least in mainstream discussion, is its complex and subtle connection to his devout Catholicism. On the surface the story is about elves, dwarves and magic rings, but beneath that are epic, almost Biblical notes, passages describing regions “where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness” and cataclysmic events, like the fall of Numenor, which has been likened by scholars to the “fall of man” in Genesis.

“The wine of blessedness feels very sacramental almost; there’s very many ways you can read these kinds of things in Tolkien, but what’s beautiful about it is it transcends any one denomination or religious background, and people of all faiths and no faiths resonate with Tolkien on this metaphysical level, because it is written in the language of the soul,” Payne says.

Cordova in action on the set of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.Credit:Ben Rothstein/Amazon Prime

McKay concurs. “The whimsy and the adventure and the fun coexist with the depth you’re talking about; that is the special sauce that is so unique and so rare, and which we’ve tried to honour in the tone of the show,” he says. “We love the sense of big genre adventure, but this show has the opportunity to do something unique, which only Tolkien does. A canonical richness of literary merit coexisting alongside those accessible, fun, audience-friendly elements.”

In the end, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power must stand on its own, and whether it equals Tolkien’s original works is for its audience to decide. The series launches on September 2, following almost two years of filming – from January 2020 to August 2021 – primarily in New Zealand. The second and subsequent seasons will be filmed in the UK.

Cordova, without realising it, finds himself echoing a sentiment expressed by many of his cast mates in interviews, that the journey “there and back again” was transformative in almost every way. All of them speak about the difficulty of the filming, the pandemic and, ultimately, the physicality of a television production which took an enormous toll.

“We shot for almost two years during the pandemic, so you create this emotional stamina at the beginning just to know you’re going to be able to make it to the other side,” Cordova says. “I lost a sister 15 years ago, so I hoped and prayed for the safety of my loved ones. The one thing that stayed with me was, let me see them again.

“And while my heart was preoccupied with that, I was also filled with what drives my character: determination, a fire that guides me, being filled with fear but [using my] determination to move forward through my fears. And my heart, at the end, felt deeply proud. I gave it my all, everything was given, and I hope everyone can connect with that.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power airs on Amazon Prime Video from September 2.

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