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How ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ Cast Brought a New Middle-earth to Life

TheWrap magazine: The cast and showrunners share behind-the-scenes stories about lengthy audition processes, casting Sauron and bonding during a pandemic

A version of this story about “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” first appeared in the Guilds & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

For the cast of Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” the road to Middle-earth was not a straight line. For some, like Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays breakout elven warrior Arondir, it was a road with multiple dead-ends.

After his first rounds of auditions for “an Aragorn-type character,” he was told he was out of the running. “I was like, nope, I’m not taking no for an answer,” Córdova told TheWrap. He fought and got another audition, this time pulling out all the stops by enlisting friends to help with cameras and lighting. Again, he was told no. Again, he fought, and then received a “final email” from the showrunners saying they were going in a different direction. “So I started grieving the character,” he said.

Then suddenly, another screen test materialized. This time, the night before the audition, Córdova received a piece of information that changed his entire approach to the role: The character he was auditioning for was an elf. “It’s a whole different performance,” he said. “But that’s what I always wanted to do.” He auditioned with a scene in which Arondir has to cut down a tree, and — armed with his new knowledge — he improvised a moment in which his character apologizes to the tree. “And I just dropped the mic,” he added with a smile. The role was his.

The commitment to the series and the respect with which Córdova approached the role of Arondir is a common thread through every cast member in “The Rings of Power’”s expansive ensemble. Sophia Nomvete, who plays the dwarf Disa, was nine months pregnant when she was called to audition for an “Untitled Amazon Project,” and two days away from her due date when asked to screen-test for director J.A. Bayona. “I toggled into London, the midwife’s on speed dial, begging me not to go, and I was like, ‘You’ve got this,’” Nomvete said. Eight weeks after giving birth, Nomvete and her family were on a plane to New Zealand, preparing for the adventure of a lifetime.

Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay worked with casting director Theo Park to find their ensemble. “While we were open to more established actors, we felt from the beginning that the show would bring in a lot of fresh faces,” they wrote to TheWrap in an email. “While the criteria for every part was obviously unique, the single overarching qualification for every person we cast was this: They had to have Middle-earth in them.”

Payne and McKay acknowledged three key roles that were particularly difficult to cast.

“We saw hundreds of actors for [Galadriel]. Her journey anchors the entire first season of the show, and we knew we needed someone special; someone who could step into an iconic character and bring to life what fans already love about Galadriel, while also illuminating new facets of the character for who she was in the Second Age,” they said. “Morfydd intrigued us away from her very first audition. Her fiery strength and intensity were pitch perfect. She felt like someone who carried the weight of immortal pain, but also brought enough impetuous spark that the character had room to grow over the course of the story, into the wise Queen she is one day destined to become.”

For the aforementioned Arondir they wanted someone “with the physicality of a warrior, but also the heart of a lover and the ageless wisdom of a poet” and were “grateful” to have found Cordova.

And then perhaps most obviously, The Stranger, whose identity is still a secret by the end of Season 1 and who has very little dialogue. “The Stranger was difficult to cast simply because the task he had to perform was so strange,” the showrunners said. “Introduce a character of enormous power into the world; a character with complex origins, feelings, and goals – all while hardly saying a single word. In Daniel Weyman, we found a joyful, old soul who was always up for the adventure, and willing to do anything to bring this character to life. And wait until you hear him speak more in Season 2!”

Of course the actor who plays Sauron in the show had an additional challenge in that he was playing two characters across the entire season, with his sinister intentions not revealed until the finale.

“His performance needed to be convincing as the roguish, lost king finding his way back to his crown – but we also knew that he would eventually need to be able to embody the Dark Lord himself,” the showrunners said. “To accomplish the latter without giving up the secret too early, we had actors audition with monologues from classical literature and drama, like ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Richard III.’ It actually wasn’t until a few months into shooting that we finally pulled back the curtain and told our actor everything.”

For some of the actors, stepping onto the immaculately crafted sets was enough to transport them into J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. “I think it will be seared into my brain, the first day that I was on (the Númenor) set,” said actress Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who plays Queen Regent Míriel. But for Owain Arthur, bringing the Dwarven prince Durin to life meant getting comfortable with the pounds of transformative makeup and prosthetics. “I quickly had to adapt to using prosthetics, wearing a beard, having a heavy costume in the heat and then also just trying to be one with this,” he said. Once he got the hang of what he likened to puppeteering, Arthur says it’s now “the proudest work I’ve ever done.”

The set of The Rings of Power was a collaborative one, particularly because they were “thrown into a whirlwind,” as Nomvete called it, when the pandemic shutdown production. While a few people went home, many of the cast members stayed in New Zealand and forged a bond for life. “This is a friendship, a family and a fellowship,” Nomvete said. “It was such a unique bonding because it was a unique time and a unique situation.” Harfoot actors raiding her fridge, pulling splinters out of the foot of actress Morfydd Clark, who plays Galadriel, and plenty of rounds of charades made the on-screen performances in the finished series all the more impressive for the cast, who were often splintered into separate units during production and didn’t overlap.

“Now I’m watching them and seeing them display the most exceptional work that I’ve not seen,” Nomvete said.Payne and McKay took to emailing Tolkien quotes to the cast every day to foster a sense of community, and they say they were thrilled to discover that spontaneous Tolkien book club study groups arose among the actors.

“We were incredibly moved at how they took care of and looked out for one another—which proved especially vital as we all weathered lockdown together in New Zealand during COVID,” the showrunners said.

And while the cast cites different moments as their most challenging during an epic, years-long production — some physical, some psychological — Nomvete’s recollection summed up the ultimate goal of every member of the ensemble. “Every day, we were challenging ourselves and our knowledge and our creative power, and what Tolkien has given us through his incredible works,” she said with a smile. “Every day was its own perfect, beautiful, creative challenge.”