Following the release of the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Ismael Cruz Cordova has spoken about his upbringing and admiration for the author of the book. This love is not recent, just for a job; Cordova’s taste for books dates back many years, when one of the first DVDs the actor bought was “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (the 2001 film). Almost two decades after buying the DVD, Ismael landed an audition for the series The Rings of Power.
Reflecting on his audition, the actor said: “I knew the eyes of the world would be on me. He needed to be undeniable and be the elfinest elf he could be. And I needed my soul to shine too.” This may be more important to the Puerto Rican than any other job he has done in his acting career: Ismael Cruz Cordova made history by becoming the first person of color to play an elf in an adaptation of JRR Tolkien.
Like many of those who grew up reading The Lord of the Rings books, or enjoying Peter Jackson movies, Ismael Cruz Cordova dreamed of being a leprechaun. But living in Puerto Rico and being of Afro-Latino descent is a dream he never thought would come true. Born in Aguas Buenas, Cordova grew up in the mountains of the Puerto Rican island and describes his upbringing as “very poor” and “very rude”; several of the houses in which he grew up had dirt floors, and his family was “highly illiterate”: the only book in the house was the Bible.
Ismael Cruz Cordova’s relationship with Tolkien started young. He remembers that the movies came out when he was 14 years old and he took whatever job he could (washing cars, mowing the lawn) to save money to buy the DVDs. He describes seeing them as “a transformative experience. He was literally blown away,” he says. “It was unlike anything he had seen before. It is so adventurous, so exciting, so sublime. But the behind-the-scenes [extras] were just as impactful to me, because that’s where I saw that it was also a life that you could have — you can make these things real and also have a profession. I started telling everyone, ‘I’m going to be an elf,’ but they were like, ‘No, you’re not, they don’t look like you.’ They ended my dream.”
Fast forward to 2019 and now Ismael Cruz Cordova is an actor who has enjoyed a moderate amount of success: he’s had roles on the Showtime series Ray Donovan and the third season of Berlin Station, as well as Mary Queen of Scots. He was in New York filming the HBO series The Undoing when he got a call about “an untitled Amazon project.” Then someone blurted out that it was for a Lord of the Rings spin-off, and a once-distant dream moved tantalizingly within his grasp. “The Lord of the Rings was one of the movies that really made me very angry with the portrayal in the media,” said Ismael Cruz Cordova.
“[I understood] that there was a mission for me; there was a place and a purpose for me in life, in terms of bringing a voice and showing that we can have that kind of mobility. Especially in the fantasy world, only recently has the fantasy world started to open its doors to ethnic and racial diversity. So that was a guiding star for me. But then, I’m sure you’ve seen the reaction. There have been so many loud and despicable voices.” When the first images of the new series were revealed, including images of Ismael Cruz Cordova as an elf and Sophia Nomvete, who is Black, as a dwarf, there was unfortunately a negative reaction.
As inevitable as it was, it was illogical: for people to imagine a fantasy of elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, talking trees, and magic rings, but not a diversity of skin tones among these creatures, is ridiculously silly. And it’s not even true to the books: the harfoots, for example (a kind of hobbit we meet in this series), are described as “brown-skinned”. “I’m not very surprised by that,” says Ismael Cruz Cordova heavily. “I am surprised when people are surprised. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that. I’m like, ‘Welcome! Dust yourself off leaving your cave. It’s difficult, but it doesn’t surprise me at all.It’s still baffling, racism is not something I understand because there is no logic behind it, but in a way, I was very prepared for it.”