Many kids aspire to become what they see onscreen. Some might dream of being a superhero or perhaps a daring detective or a celebrated athlete. Ismael Cruz Córdova couldn’t wait until he could be an elf. And lucky for him, that’s exactly what he is as the star of The Rings of Power, streaming on Amazon on September 2.
Growing up in the mountains of Puerto Rico, Córdova recalls always feeling connected to the nature around him and how that drew him to the elves he read about. Then, after finally saving up enough money for his first television set as a teen, he was mesmerized by the interworkings of the silver screen while watching the behind-the-scenes footage of The Lord of the Rings. It was so impactful that it cemented his intention to find his way to Hollywood. But despite a lifelong love for the world of Tolkien, Córdova is still processing his involvement in The Rings of Power.
“It hits you in different waves, like the first time I got to New Zealand and did my costume fitting,” he says. “That was so incredibly moving to me for so many reasons. Or the first time that I went to set. It's all these waves of unprecedented, epic proportions. I think it might finally hit when we go to Comic Con as well and first get to interact with these die-hard fans.”
Much like with another beloved franchise Córdova appeared in (albeit more briefly)—The Mandalorian, of George Lucas’s vast Star Wars universe—die-hard fans certainly have their opinions on new projects. Córdova isn’t concerned about any noise, though. He’s just excited for an opportunity to increase onscreen visibility for people who he says look like him. “I am galvanized by the dissent, to be honest,” he says. “It means that the disruption is happening. Without disruption, there is no growth.”
Córdova’s part in this “disruption” comes in the form of his character Arondir, a Silvan Elf. The character himself is a new creation for the television series, though Silvan Elves were discussed by J.R.R. Tolkien, the famed Lord of the Rings author whose writing is the basis for The Rings of Power. Córdova is the first person of color to portray one of Tolkien’s elves onscreen, and he says he relates to his character in a few ways—including, as someone caught within the intersections of multiple communities, feeling “othered.”
Below, get to know Córdova further for the latest installment of New Here.
Glamour: In 2019 you appeared in an episode of The Mandalorian. Be honest: Before filming either, were you more of a Star Wars or Lord of the Rings fan?
Ismael Cruz Córdova: A Lord of the Rings fan, actually.
I grew up with the older Star Wars movies, but there was something about Lord of the Rings when I first experienced the cinematic universe that connected with me more. I think it’s also the aspect that I grew up quite poor, and in many ways struggling. That was around the time when I started washing cars and cutting lawns and all sorts of work to be able to buy myself a TV and a little DVD player. The Lord of the Rings had come out on DVD, and I had the behind-the-scenes.
I was having all these desires and questions about this world that I’m now in, of entertainment. And it was the first time that I got a glimpse at not only an epic tale but the behind-the-scenes. I got to see the design and all the work that went into it, and it had a huge impact on me. That's when I understood I could live in this space, whatever shape or form it would be. That I could make it my life.
Was it daunting to enter the Lord of the Rings world, which has such a passionate following?
Also, to go back—that’s not me dissing Star Wars! I love it.
Let the record show.
I really did enjoy my time over there. We had an incredible time, and I hope that I get to go back to that franchise as well.
But to talk about the Tolkien following…daunting? Ah, no. At some point maybe I felt that way, but I've had to tap into the passion of it all, which is why I started doing this and why I wanted to do it. So you know, I always wanted to be an elf when I was a little kid. I don't know if you've seen that new little trailer that Amazon put out that says, “We need more elf fans.” That little kid looks like me. That was pretty much my journey. So I'm very, very excited. I understand some people have their doubts and questions about my inclusion, and those like me in this show, but I think the work speaks for itself.
So you obviously enjoy playing nonhuman characters?
What is it like, the experience of getting into character as an elf?
I will always try to draw from human experience, but I've also always felt weird as hell and different. [Laughs.] I've always felt like I've seen the world from a different vantage point. I like playing characters that are considered weird, broken, or dark. I tend to have empathy for that. It requires some sort of meditation, some sort of a what-if, and you have to extend your imagination in so many ways. I approach all my characters as if they’re just weirdos and underdogs, like I was. I still am in a certain way. I enjoy doing right by them.
In The Rings of Power you play Arondir, a Silvan Elf. Do you consider him to be an underdog or weirdo? If not, how would you describe him?
He has a curiosity and almost an affinity toward humans that does push him outside of his elven counterparts. At the same time he is with humans who don't want him to be what he is. So he is completely othered from both sides, which is something else in my life I've experienced, being from a culture that I feel outside of and then going into another culture that I also get booted out. I live in these in-between, or intersectional spaces, very much like him. Although he's a warrior and an adept archer and fighter, he's definitely quite vulnerable and internal and only speaks when he has to. For the most part, you could say he’s shy.
Silvan Elves are woodland creatures. Do you find yourself spending a lot of time in nature when you have free time?
Definitely. I grew up in the mountains of Puerto Rico, and I think that was one of the reasons why I was so drawn to elves. I grew up there and didn't have a TV—all I had was contemplation and being with nature. I always say that they were like my best friends. I learned so much from trees, and I played so much in nature and respected it so much, that when I saw the elves, that they revere nature and build around nature, that their spirituality is connected to it—I definitely felt an affinity to them more than any other characters.
Being in New Zealand, that is just one of the most beautiful places in the world. Also, with the presence of the Maori indigenous culture, who are also lovers of nature and protectors of their land, it was the perfect setting for me. I would go to the parks and touch the trees.
Was there a scene you loved shooting the most?
I have many moments I hope make it into the show after the edit. [Laughs.] I had one scene in particular, perhaps not the most epic, but I deliver a monologue I had auditioned with. The journey of auditioning was so epic—it was like six, seven months going through the audition process. I was rejected for the role several times and really fought for it. I really went for it and lived with this piece of text for such a long time.
Then COVID hit one day before my first day, after three months of training, and we went away for six months. So when I got to say that monologue, it had been over a year and a half of this journey. My soul was coming out of me saying this, and it's one of the most powerful moments that I think the character has created.
Within the onscreen world of LOTR, and The Hobbit, there hasn’t been much racial diversity. What does it mean for you as a Puerto Rican actor to be in the show?
As an Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean who also identifies as a Black person and an indigenous person of Puerto Rico, this is what I wanted. When I set out to start acting, I always say what drove me there wasn't another actor or a famous movie that I watched. It was coming from a voiceless place with voiceless people.
I was on this quest for voice-fullness, and acting gave me that. Every step along the way, all I've searched for is more opportunities to be visible that perhaps help in one way or another to visualize our peoples. When I came to this show, I knew it would be one of the biggest platforms and wanted to be there. I wanted to see myself represented. So I feel very ready and secure in the work that I do. I am galvanized by the dissent, to be honest. It means the disruption is happening. Without disruption, there is no growth. So I'm very happy to be disruptive, in that sense, and to help be part of the change, while working on one of the most beautiful, artistic, epic, beloved journeys to exist in fantasy.
Originally Appeared on Glamour