[The following story contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.]
If the odds are stacked against Ismael Cruz Cordova, he will defy them. He’s been defying them every step of the way. When the Puerto Rican actor was told that he couldn’t afford to attend drama school in the States at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he found a way. Once he was enrolled at NYU, Cordova heard that no Latino had ever played a lead role on Tisch’s main stages, so he became the first person to ever do so.
When he originally auditioned for the role of Silvan elf Arondir on Amazon Prime Video’s exorbitantly priced The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, he refused to take no for an answer even after he was rejected twice. Once his casting was eventually announced, racist direct messages quickly overwhelmed his social media profiles, often saying something to the effect that an Afro-Latino man had no business playing an elf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s sandbox. But Cordova did anyway, and he did so to much acclaim.
But even though Cordova was expecting to be treated this way, it still did a number on him.
“That [treatment] has definitely had a surprising element that’s very revealing as to what the state of the world is. So I must admit that it takes a toll on me. There’s no denying that. At the same time, I just have to dust myself off, gather myself and try to just continue leading the change in any little way that I can,” Cordova tells The Hollywood Reporter.
With season one now in the books, Cordova also wants to let everyone know that he cracked the Sauron mystery very early on in production, so much so that he would tease the actor in hopes that he would cave in and admit his status as the series’ big bad.
“There was a moment where I gave Charlie Vickers a big wink. I was like, ‘What’s up, dude?’ and I gave him a very knowing wink,” Cordova recalls. “But he was very good at not giving anything away, and as we went on, it just became so clear. I would be like, ‘Hey, what’s up, Sauron?’ just to try to get it out of him, but I knew for a while.”
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Cordova also looks back at Arondir’s season-one arc and his key gains and losses along the way. And while he cannot officially say whether he’s back for season two or not, he still addresses Arondir’s new standing, post-Sauron reveal.
Well, you first caught my attention in Catherine Hardwicke’s Miss Bala in 2019. So did you feel like you had some momentum going into the Rings of Power audition?
I would actually say it felt quite cold. It didn’t feel like it had any correlation with that. It really felt like I had to try and prove myself again, alongside the hundreds of other actors who auditioned for this role in a worldwide search. So it was definitely a grassroots effort.
You’ve wanted to play a Tolkien elf for a very long time, and despite months and months of auditioning, you didn’t learn until the tail end of the process that you were actually vying for an elf role. Were the sides just completely misleading? Were there any clues?
Zero. I literally learned about the kind of role that I was auditioning for the night before [a later audition]. It was 12 hours notice. Before that, it was a character description. At one point, it even said that he was an “Aragorn type.” So I thought it was a human, which is a completely different kind of performance, background, philosophy and physicality. But when that detail was finally given, I said, “Okay, that’s why this guy likes trees so much.” (Laughs.) So it made sense.
Arondir was created for the series, which meant that you didn’t have to compete with any existing frame of reference. So prior to shooting, what steps did you take to develop his psychology?
I was able to do two things. In the macro sense of it all, I was able to locate myself and bring myself to the realm of Tolkien and the Elves. So I did my research there and focused on what already exists to try and find where, hypothetically, this guy and the chronology would fall. I also learned the contrast between High Elves and Silvan Elves, and I began to imagine where this guy was. He must have existed, but in that, I just focused on him like any other character. What are his motivations? What is in the text? What are his circumstances? What is moving him? What are his conflicts? What are the lessons that he’s learning? So there was a macro aspect of it, but because I didn’t have any competing pre-existing mandate, I was able to just focus on his truth and honesty.
Based on the way other actors have been treated by so-called fans of their franchises, you probably weren’t surprised that certain people bemoaned the skin color of a mythological elf before even seeing the show, but has that repugnant behavior only motivated you even more? Do you use it as bulletin board material, so to speak?
Absolutely. There’s no denying that. It galvanizes you. It moves you. It locates you. It hits a nerve. Yes, I definitely expected it. I had these conversations way in advance. It was a driving force to fight for this role so strongly because I knew that it was a necessary thing to do and something that I wanted to lead in the end. So it’s not surprising. There is an element of surprise, though. I even experienced it with Miss Bala. There was a lot of pushback that I didn’t look Latino enough by being an Afro-Latino. There is an issue of anti-Blackness in the Latino community as well. I also experienced it with Mary Queen of Scots, playing David Rizzio. So I’ve had my bouts with it [as an actor], and since I also live in this world, I’ve experienced it myself. But the scope of the show and the volume with which I’ve received that [treatment] has definitely had a surprising element that’s very revealing as to what the state of the world is. So I must admit that it takes a toll on me. There’s no denying that. At the same time, I just have to dust myself off, gather myself and try to just continue leading the change in any little way that I can.
How did you feel when you saw Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings cast lend their support to such a degree?
It was very special. There have been conversations between our cast and theirs, and people had many questions about how they can support. So it was a joint effort between them and us in order to put this together and send a clear message. I also had the opportunity of meeting Orlando Bloom in person, just randomly, so I had a chat with him and got his support. We took a selfie that kind of went viral as well, but it was a nice anchoring point. People were using the [The Lord of the Rings] trilogy as justification for their hate speech, and now I don’t think they can do that. (Laughs.)
Arondir’s season-one arc could be described, in part, as a love story. After 1500 years, he has a family to protect, not just an oath to honor. But how do you see his journey to this point?
I also see it as this guy who’s cracking open. He’s an elf, and I always say that there’s a crack that loss gives you. I’ve experienced it myself, and your humanity kind of seeps in and out. I went through quite a deep period of grief with the loss of my sister about 15 years ago. I felt this deep pain, and I thought that I couldn’t go on. In college, this teacher of mine said that the pain you feel is your humanity being carved, and that’s something that Arondir experiences so fast. His best friend [Médhor] is killed. His commander and father figure [Revion] is killed, and at the same time, he is separated from the love of his life [Bronwyn] and this little kid [Theo], who’s becoming a stepson-type figure to him. There’s a big conflict in his heart as he’s experiencing more and more human emotion. “What is this pain? What is this loss? What are these feelings?” Elves don’t necessarily have to contend with this conflict.
Defying the odds seems to be a theme with you. You defied the odds to get to NYU. You defied the odds once you were at NYU. You defied the odds once you were cast an elf. And now your character is also attempting to defy the odds by carrying on a relationship with a human despite similar relationships only ending in tragedy. So is this theme not lost on you? Are you fully aware of the overlap?
Oh absolutely. As you said that, it actually made me a little emotional. (Laughs.) You’ve made me reflect on the journey at a time when I have this forward momentum. I’ve had this mission, and a very clear goal in my life is to keep moving forward and keep breaking ground and keep defying the odds. But I haven’t really had an option not to do that. So you mentioning all these things has made me reflect and stop for a moment because I really haven’t stopped. There’s always that next door that I have to get through and the next thing that I have to achieve and the next “no” that I have to conquer.
When I read the script and learned about Arondir, to me, he was just a guy. He’s a soldier who’s prescribed a task, and he’s at the lower end of things. He’s been told what he’s going to do for almost a hundred years, and then he can report back. That’s it. So there’s not a lot of options. There’s not a lot of colors. Life is not as expansive as it is for other people. So I inevitably attached my own experience to him, and it’s really not lost on me.
What scene served as a turning point for you and your understanding of the character?
There’s this metamorphosis situation. When we go to the trenches, it’s the scene in which he has to essentially become the leader of this thing. His best friend and commander die, and he’s just completely shattered. And then he meets potentially the biggest evil [Adar] that there is. So that was a turning point where I understood a little bit more about who this guy is. I could see that brokenness and that humanity. I can philosophize quite a bit about what it is to be Eleven, but it’s not something that I can actually grasp. But I can latch onto these other conflict points a little bit better, and the trenches helped me with that.
Alright, so when did you find out the identity of Sauron [Charlie Vickers’ Halbrand]?
(Laughs.) It was kind of a game amongst the cast. I had a feeling from the get-go based on what we were reading, so I would cross people out. “This person is canon. This person is not canon. There’s something fishy here.” So a few of us narrowed it down to the possibility that it was either me or Halbrand [Charlie Vickers]. (Laughs.) The Stranger [Daniel Weyman] was a possibility as well, and Adar [Joseph Mawle] was one of the more obvious ones. But after a second, I was like, “It’s definitely not [Arondir]. This guy is good. This guy is good to a fault.” So I don’t know if he remembers, but there was a moment where I gave Charlie Vickers a big wink. I was like, “What’s up, dude?” and I gave him a very knowing wink. (Laughs.) But he was very good at not giving anything away, and as we went on, it just became so clear. I would be like, “Hey, what’s up, Sauron?” just to try to get it out of him, but I knew for a while.
I had previously viewed Arondir, Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Halbrand as the series’ primary heroes on the battlefield, but now it’s down to your character and Galadriel. Can you feel that added responsibility already, both as the character and the actor?
Yes, and I love it, man. I don’t know much about the second season, but I really hope that the showrunners keep going with that. I’m quite drawn to the people who have all these odds stacked against them, but they still try. And Arondir is that guy who keeps trying. Even Galadriel is still trying to find her way. She’s from the high side of things, and Arondir is from the low side of things. But they have this clear moral compass, whether they know it or not, whether they understand the fullness of it or not. So I do love that idea. I feel the fire of the character, and I feel like he has so much potential.
I know season two just started shooting, but being in a new location outside of London and now having season one released, do you feel more confident about what’s ahead?
I feel confident. I feel anchored and more tethered to the soul of my guy and what his potential can be. I also feel more comfortable. But in terms of where the story is going, I have very few details about who’s coming back or not coming back or how they’re coming back. So this is an open-ended question becauseI really don’t have that much information. But if I do come back, I will feel more centered or grounded in what Arondir is and much more attached.
Your character is already having a positive impact on people around the world. Have you been able to witness this firsthand yet?
Yeah, I actually have. Amidst the wave of hate speech and all those things that we talked about, there is a significant amount of people that take time out of their day to write to me. I try to read as much as I can, even if I have to swim through the negativity to get to it, but I still do just so that I can find the positive messages and interact with a little like or emoji. A 74-year-old guy wrote to me that he’s a longtime fan who’s read everything and that he loves what I’ve brought. And then all these parents are sharing stories of how they can now point at me for their children. They don’t have to dream or hope; it’s right there. You look like them, and they look like you. So the stories that people share are overwhelming, and they do not pass me by. I care so much about this. This art. This is life. This is legacy. This is social mobility versus social impact. This is my purpose.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is now streaming on Prime Video. This interview was edited for length and clarity.