Amazon Prime Video made a splash this fall with the premiere of season one of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, estimated to be the most expensive show ever made and one that builds on JRR Tolkien’s expansive fantasy realm of Middle Earth. The show brought to the small screen stunning corners of the world thus far only described in books as well a brand new set of stories and characters (plus some familiar faces). As we await season two, we had the chance to speak with several lead members of the cast: Owain Arthur (Durin IV), Ismael Cruz Córdova (Arondir), and Markella Kavenagh (Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot). They shared with us their relationships to Tolkien, what they expected and did not expect from the role, and the importance of representation and authentic storytelling. (You can watch the full interview at the bottom of this article.)
Like many of us, all three cast members had an existing relationship with Tolkien’s work from a young age, whether through the movies or through the books.
“I came into it with the movies when I was 14 years old and the movies came out and revolutionized everything I’d seen before. It started a curiosity and hunger to get into this world.” Ismael continued with a chuckle, “Ever since then that curiosity has continued and it became a mission to want to be an elf and now I’m an elf, so, it worked.”
Owain jumped in next. “I hadn’t realized everyone watched them all at Christmas and I think I did as well actually. I’ll have to watch them again this Christmas. I had no idea that he’d created and written this vast world,” he shared. “I’ve dived in deeper since this job and I’ve learned a lot more about Tolkien’s world and I’m constantly learning more.”
Markella’s experience was similar. “The books were quite a big family favorite growing up so it was very much a part of my childhood, and the films as well, so it was quite surreal to find out that I’d be a part of it in some way.” Speaking on the discussions she had with the cast and showrunners about the series, “it’s been quite an amazing experience to be able to revisit and go back and fall in love with these stories again.”
The Rings of Power is an ambitious feat of storytelling with an ensemble cast spanning four storylines and even more settings and cities. Seeing everything come together was a novel experience for the cast (even those who haven’t quite finished season one).
“I haven’t watched the eighth episode,” admitted Ismael. “I’ve been working and traveling and doing this and that and I am very ritualistic about these things.”
Owain chimes in laughing, “That’s no excuse!”
Ismael goes on to share how filming these stories felt different from the viewing experience. “The way we shot this show, I think everyone could have felt they were the lead of the show because we shot our own worlds, and there’s not a lot of crossover until later in the season. So you do essentially feel very much like the center of this. It’s fantastic and very fun to watch how you fit into the world of Middle Earth.”
“That was the loveliest part,” adds Owain, “seeing other people’s worlds, how much detail had gone into the costume, the makeup, the relationships that they forged together, seeing all of that and knowing that other people have been working as hard as you. You just kind of go ‘Yes! We’re onto a good thing.’”
Markella explains how it felt to see the premiere three episodes together before they were released to the public. “It was a wonderful reminder of just how much of an ensemble it is and how everyone has their moving part in it…We all joke about it and everything but I felt like I was watching a family on screen in a way but in very separate contexts.”
For Owain, the role of Prince Durin IV was one that drew on his upbringing and resonated deeply with his history.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I was told what role I was playing. When they told me about what was going to happen, being a Welshman, being from a working class background, you related to the dwarves instantly. And the fact that they live inside the mountain, although I did not live inside a mountain, I grew up on a mountain…The way they’ve written them with humor, with anger, with hardness, I could relate to that quite easily. It was just a case of transferring all of that knowledge and experience into a different being wearing a beard and prosthetics and using a different dialect.”
Markella also expounded on her role and its spiritual relationship to the original trilogy’s hobbit duo.
“I loved the original trilogy and I also loved the hobbits. I think the relationship and the dynamic that Nori and Poppy have is so specific to them and so specific to their set of circumstances. The Harfoots are in a completely different time, they don’t have the Shire, they don’t have that home yet. The relationship that Poppy and Nori have has been borne of that and I think that if there was any pressure [to live up to the original trilogy], it was pressure that I was putting on myself…It was making sure we were building upon a foundation that the showrunners had already written and created and building upon that while still having respect for what’s to come.”
Regardless of a series’ strengths or popularity, there is always a corner of the fandom that will take issue over irrelevant details, particularly if it’s a fantasy series that casts people of color in roles that were historically white. Ismael shared his experience.
“I expected to have opposition, because my dream of being part of this world started with that kind of comment. As soon as I uttered the words ‘I want to be an elf’…people around me have brought the same kind of reaction. If that is any kind of indication of what was to come and amplified for the most beloved franchise, I knew that there was going to be a tough road ahead.” Ismael continues. “I’ve had to focus from the beginning on why I wanted to play this role, why it was important, and what I needed to tap into. This is everyday, exhausting work, and the world is essentially designed in a way that excludes a lot of people…I try to highlight the mental health aspect of it. It’s important to be vulnerable about the toll that this has. It’s not normal. It’s not ok.”
Ismael concludes by addressing some of the positive reception he’s seen as well, despite the backlash. “I’m thriving, I’m doing my thing, I’m taking all the love because the love is there, the impact is there.”
Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power season one is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.