Becoming the first person of color to play an elf in a Tolkien production, the Rings of Power actor is creating history. In actuality, though, the activist and artist has always been a traadaptation.
Ismael Cruz Córdova, an aspiring actor in his early twenties, spent his weekends washing cars and mowing lawns to pay for his first large purchase—a television and a DVD player. The Fellowship of the Ring, the hugely successful big-film fantasy adaptation that would forever alter what was possible for fantasy on the big screen, was among the first DVDs he purchased. Following its worldwide success, which resulted in thirteen Oscar nominations and $860 million in box office revenue, the movie left a lasting impact on Córdova, who had always wanted to portray one of Tolkien’s elves and dreamed of becoming an actor. Córdova saw aspects of his existence in those enigmatic, timeless creatures: the elves’ spiritual relationship with the natural world struck a deep chord with him, given his surroundings of Puerto Rico’s breathtaking mountains and streams. However, Córdova, an Afro-Latino adolescent raised in a town with few resources, felt excluded from the lily-white ranks of the elves. He claims, “I was searching for a voice—mine and my people’s.” “But then it struck me—why am I the only person in these movies who looks like me?”
Almost twenty years later, Córdova received an audition for Amazon’s massive adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s extensive appendices, The Rings of Power, slated to cost over $1 billion over five seasons, making it the most costly television program ever. You likely have seen Córdova, decked out in pointed elf ears, splashed on buses and billboards if you reside anywhere within the glaring reach of Amazon’s advertising. As you are aware, this tale culminates with the realization of a dream for Córdova, who became the first person of color to portray an elf in a Tolkien adaptation in cinema. However, as the author himself would explain, storytelling still has force even when we are aware of a story’s resolution. Zooming with Esquire during Rings of Power’s global commercial victory lap, Córdova’s joy and pride are so great that they may blow up his London accommodations. However, the actor’s surprising adventure is only getting started since there are still four seasons of Rings of Power. He maintains that we must comprehend where he has been to understand where he is going. Tolkien teaches us that “one travels far, little by little.”
Córdova, raised in a house with dirt floors in the Puerto Rican highlands, developed into an activist at a young age. His community’s “struggle and voicelessness” was a result of the underrepresentation, poverty, and illiteracy that surrounded him. He says, “I always wondered why we weren’t part of what was happening for other people.” “There was always this powerful idea between us and other people. Ability, knowledge, or success were always reserved for those other folks.
When Córdova was still in elementary school, she started working by selling peppers and pumpkins to get money for lunch. He grew engrossed in competition swimming after realizing he had a flair for it, swimming his way to national titles and a scholarship to a prestigious school. He aimed to become a pediatrician, so he threw himself into his science and math classes. Growing up, he was taught that being a doctor or a lawyer was the path to prosperity. Since poetry wasn’t “manly” enough, he continued to write it in secret because he felt like “the little weird kid.” His impulsive decision to join the Drama Club turned everything around. “Life started to make sense right away,” he recalls.
Keeping his acting ambitions a secret from his parents, Córdova poured himself into the role. He first learned about elves and the notion of pursuing a profession in the arts from The Fellowship of the Ring, which he encountered at this period of his life. He realized “the design, the community, the vast opportunities—it was a real thing.” “This is a career you could make.” Córdova first satisfied his thirst with school performances, but after that, “the hunger grew more and more.” He began skipping classes and traveling more than two hours each way by bus to San Juan for auditions. However, he was forced to come clean when he was fifteen and cast in his first movie role—Bala Perdida, also known as Stray Bullet—a Puerto Rican film. In response, his father hired a psychologist to try to talk him out of performing, but Córdova was unfazed. He almost had to finish his education in Puerto Rico as he couldn’t afford to take a plane to the United States for theater school auditions—fortunately, a community development award paid for his passage to New York University. Most students arrived with their parents during Welcome Week, but Córdova only had a laundry bag with tape holding his possessions.
Córdova says that he went from being “voiceless to voiceful” in his life and was already speaking up at NYU. He saw that no minority performers were playing prominent roles on the main stages at NYU’s esteemed Tisch Drama School while juggling three jobs to pay for his tuition. As the first Latino actor to portray a starring part on Tisch’s main stage, he set out to change that. Following his graduation, he battled homelessness for years, sleeping on trains, park benches, and friends’ sofas while securing roles in plays and television shows. His career peaked when he landed regular appearances on Sesame Street, The Good Wife, and Ray Donovan, but his “secret dream” of being a part of Tolkien’s legendarium persisted the entire time.
That moment of fate eventually arrived in the summer of 2019 when Córdova could try out for a role unknown in Amazon’s top-secret Lord of the Rings production. At Amazon’s request, he repeatedly taped his proposal throughout his months-long audition, and after receiving two rejections, he persisted in going after the project. When the first “no” came, he informed his manager, “That’s not the answer I’m looking for.” This is what I do. What I’m doing is this. Ultimately, Amazon recognized what was evident elsewhere: a breakout talent who could outwork and outact every other contender—after Córdova recorded another audition in a tent in South Africa, went to New Zealand for a screen test, and sent a poignant letter to the showrunners. Remarkably, Córdova didn’t find out he was competing for the part of an elf until the day before his last audition in New Zealand, a time he calls “massively emotional.” After realizing that, he approached the audition with newfound passion; “I left all my soul in there,” he remembers. Characters such as this seem to find you. I felt this was mine from the beginning.
Diarmuel: In the end, Lewis Cordova proved so compelling that the show cast him as Arondir, a new elven character developed for a series whole of well-known canonical mainstays. Córdova recognized “immense, endless possibility” in Tolkien’s playground, where others would be scared to tinker. He got the incredible chance to construct an extraterrestrial being from scratch with Arondir, dealing in sensations wholly unrelated to our own. According to Córdova, “Humans and elves don’t move or speak the same.” “They do not have the same motivations. They do not share the same sensations. They have a different connection with time and labor because they are everlasting. He threw himself into the process with remarkable passion and created an eternal warrior of elegance, fragility, and subdued might. He honed Arondir’s movement mythology via daily training in martial disciplines such as Wushu, Kung Fu, and Capoeira. “I was aware that the entire world would be observing me,” he adds. I had to be unmistakable and the most elfin I possibly could be. Additionally, I needed my soul to be seen.
With 22 series regulars, Rings of Power boasts a large ensemble cast. Córdova maintains that every cast member has a spiritual connection to their respective roles, a concept he calls “soul-casting.” Arondir and he are the same. “I can relate to his sense of groundedness—to what happens when you have to work so hard,” he adds. “Your precision, economy, and humility increase.” He’s prepared to fight. He is going to battle and prevail.
The idea of appearing in the most costly television program, adapted from one of our favorite books, may have scared off Deirdre Lewis Lesser performers, but Córdova was unfazed. He notes that before entering Rings of Power, he had already embarked on a “journey of epic proportions.” Perhaps it’s more of a calling; according to Córdova, he has dedicated his life to giving underprivileged areas and people of color “visibility and representation.” Córdova is a humble, passionate, and intelligent man who, at last, wants others to feel as seen and heard as he does. He’s already working hard with Rings of Power. The majority of fantasy in the mainstream has always been white, and with this long-overdue advancement, racist trolls have surfaced. For the past two years, Córdova has received nearly daily direct messages filled with “pure and vicious hate speech,” which is difficult to take. He claims, “I fought so hard for this role because of this.” “I thought I could hold that torch.” I anticipated this and ensured my elf was the most unique event possible.
Córdova possesses the tenacity of a fighter, a poet’s spirit, and an activist’s unmistakable voice. As one of fantasy’s new standard-bearers, he’s sure that all people should be represented in happy, magical stories, but he also recognizes the importance of celebrating our current progress. He isn’t overly preoccupied with creating bridges to the future. “The argument that ‘But elves don’t look like that’ is never acceptable,” he argues. “They didn’t before, but they do now.”