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Ismael Cruz Córdova Belongs in Middle-Earth

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Ismael Cruz Córdova will be the first to tell you that there’s nothing more Elven than the magical realism that surrounds daily life in our homeland of Puerto Rico. It’s felt in the beauty of the archipelago, in the contradictions as the oldest colony of the world, in the pa’lante tenacity of our people.

It’s fitting, then, that the 35-year-old actor broke ground as the first person of color to play an elf in an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings universe. His turn as the Silvan elf Arondir in Amazon’s The Rings of Power, a prequel series that takes place in the Second Age of Middle-earth, set him up for the admiration of many fans who rarely seem themselves in high fantasy worlds — and of course, also opened the door for the inevitable racist backlash that comes with any effort to inject color into a lily-white world.

To the naysayers, Cruz Córdova responds he belongs in Middle-earth — and after this season, he is not going anywhere. (If you need proof of the actor’s staying power in Hollywood just look at the list of his upcoming projects, which include Guillermo del Toro’s horror anthology Cabinet of Curiosities and the film Finestkind, in which he stars opposite Jenna Ortega and Ben Foster.)

“I love the role. I love what I represent,” Cruz Córdova says about Arondir from London, where he is working on an undisclosed project. “This discomfort means that there is a disruption and that there is a change. I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to leave this show. I’m not going to stop existing.”

Cruz Córdova says he has spent his entire life moving toward this role — from the moment he fell in love with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s trilogy as a kid in rural Aguas Buenas. He clawed himself out of poverty to train as an actor, and has spent the last two decades honing in his craft. Playing Arondir has been earned.

As we approach the finale, how do you see Arondir’s journey unfolding?

One of the reasons why I so ferociously wanted to play him is because in the first episode alone, there’s already this big journey that happens with him. He’s someone who goes through loss, but there’s a clear north of love — his north is so defined, that which matters to him, which is the love for Bronwyn and Theo. The protection for them and his curiosity for those humans that he’s met. Nothing really deters him from that.

He’s very self-improving in the way that he’s questioning himself and everything around him all the time. So I think that’s his journey. He’s extremely inquisitive, curious, and self-challenging. I kind of identify with that myself. It’s very inspiring in the sense that it reminds me that you have to sometimes jump into your own. You have to be brave. I think it’s easier to be jaded, to criticize, to judge. But you have to continually challenge your notions of things.

How did you prepare to enter the Lord of the Rings universe?

There’s so many skills involved to play this role. There’s an accent. English is also my second language and I don’t even have an American accent. To go from Spanish straight into an RP British accent — I had to prepare so much with our vocal coach, Leith McPherson. The vast majority of the stunts that are in the show, I perform myself. So I am learning all of those skills — martial arts, capoeira to bring little flavor and nod to our Latino and Afro Latino cultures as well. The wirework and all the choreo took months and months.

And there were the movement-training sessions, learning how to develop that Elven walk, the Elven movement, the Elven stands, the Elven posture. It was very important that we created a physical language that was different from the high elves because Arondir is kind of a lower-class elf, a foot soldier essentially.

Did growing up in Aguas Buenas influence your portrayal?

Elves are beings that are very close to nature — they are informed by nature, are contemplative, and have a spiritual and energetic relationship to nature. I grew up in a very rural part of Aguas Buenas and the conditions that I lived in kind of felt like I was living maybe like 20, 30 years before my time. We didn’t have a lot of resources. Electricity would be cut off a lot. My family themselves were quite poor. I spent a lot of time looking in the clouds, being with animals, and walking like kilometers to go to school through hills. I developed a close understanding of nature and my place in it.

Our people are very proud and connected to our ancestral lands — both our Taíno ancestors and our ancestors that came from Western Africa as slaves that carried with them their spirituality. You think about jibaros, la gente del campo. All of that, to be honest, it’s all very Elven.

It is, and yet it’s been so rare to see Black actors and other performers of color in universes such as this.

A lot of us love high fantasy. In a lot of Puerto Rico we’re like, We are magic. A lot of magical realism is part of our daily lives. We’re superstitious. We believe in spirits, in ghosts, in energy. There’s a lot of magical thinking, so of course we love fantasy, as well.

One of the reasons why I wanted to see growth like this is because it disrupts, and because I want to be enough. I know that I have the skill and the talent, and it is important for us to be included in high fantasy, period.

I think this is a good place to ask about the backlash you’ve faced for playing Arondir. We’ve seen this happen with BIPOC actors in other very beloved franchises — Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, Disney films. How did you prepare for it? How have you handled it?

I knew [it would happen] because I live in this world. I don’t know if anybody can prepare you for the scope of it. It happened as soon as they put our headshots up two years ago. What’s hilarious is that people are saying, Why is he crying so much that people are being racist? I haven’t even seen it. You go through the comments, people are calling me the N-word.

I’m not making this up. People are bothered that I’m talking about it and standing against it. But there’s a lot of support. It makes people even madder. So I’m in a place where I’m consistently forced to talk about race and not given the opportunity to talk about my work and my skill and my talent, but that’s what gained me the role. [People argue] that I was cast because of affirmative action. Try doing one of the stunts that I did and tell me if I was cast without merit.

I think I’m trying to navigate talking about the race and backlash of it all with bringing focus back to me and others like me as artists. I hope the work that we put into it — the sacrifice, the passion, the skill, the preparation — is also highlighted. I’ve been preparing. I went to school for it. What you’re seeing onscreen, not only for myself, but many of us, is decades in the making.

Ismael Cruz Córdova Belongs in Middle-Earth