Power players: Inside The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Go behind the scenes of Amazon Prime Video’s ambitious fantasy epic, which hopes to introduce J.R.R. Tolkien to a new generation.

Not all who wander are lost — especially on the set of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Ever since Amazon Prime Video announced plans in 2017 for a new TV series set in J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy world, the show has been an errand of secrecy, a reported billion-dollar undertaking that required as much stealth as Frodo's journey to Mount Doom. Even the cast was kept in the dark: Many had no idea what they were even auditioning for. It wasn't until they arrived in New Zealand to begin filming that they realized the full scale of the project. That secrecy extended to set, where actors were often forbidden from visiting other filming locations. In other words, if you didn't have pointy ears, good luck getting into Lindon, the shimmering golden kingdom of the elves. Similarly, the doors to the grand caverns of Khazad-dûm were closed to everyone except dwarves.

Still, that didn't stop a few cast members from sneaking the occasional peek, desperate for a glimpse of Middle-earth. "They were kind of keeping it [secret], but I managed to sneak onto a lot [of sets]," admits Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays the bow-wielding elf Arondir. "I would just put my hat down, wear a mask, and turn my ID."

"I got told off quite a lot," adds Galadriel actress Morfydd Clark, who recalls wandering through the seaside kingdom of Númenor, marveling over the market stalls and heavy scent of incense. "You just can't help but touch and look at everything. I had to keep remembering, 'People spent hours making it that way, and you should only just look.' But you want to touch it!"

Now, after years of secrecy, audiences will finally have a chance to visit Middle-earth, too. The Rings of Power debuts Sept. 2 on Prime Video, aiming to win over longtime fans and introduce Tolkien's epic landscape to a new generation. Created by JD Payne and Patrick McKay, the show isn't an exact adaptation of an existing Tolkien book. Instead, it's set during the Second Age, a period of Middle-earth history chronicled in The Lord of the Rings appendices. The show takes place thousands of years before hobbits Frodo or Sam were even born, and the series will cover the evil Sauron's original rise to power and the forging of that familiar One Ring.

"We are not making this just because it's called Lord of the Rings and people make sequels these days," McKay explains. "We would never have given four years of our lives, 24/7, to this if we didn't feel that there's a really good story here that deserves to be told on this enormous scale."

And what a scale it is. Already likely the most expensive television show ever made, Payne and McKay have mapped out a five-season story arc for The Rings of Power. (When EW spoke to the two showrunners in June, they were already scouting locations for season 2.) It's an ambitious undertaking for Amazon, which beat out competitors in 2017 to close a reported nine-figure deal with the Tolkien estate. With entertainment giants like Netflix and HBO all racing to fill a Westeros-sized hole in the fantasy television space, perhaps it's no surprise that Amazon turned to Tolkien. Fans have obsessed over Middle-earth for decades, so why not return to the legendary professor himself, who's inspired nearly every fantasy story written in the last century?

Still, with prestige comes pressure — something the showrunners and cast say they were keenly aware of.

"I would worry about the actor who's casually walking onto the set of Lord of the Rings, knowing the devotion of the fans and the respect that Tolkien deserves," explains Benjamin Walker, who plays elven king Gil-galad. "There's nothing casual about the king of the elves. I love that the fans love it. It's a privilege for us to be welcomed into this Tolkien family, so the pressure's a good thing."

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Benjamin Walker as High King Gil-galad on 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' | Credit: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

After Amazon struck its deal with the Tolkien estate, the streaming giant soon began soliciting pitches for a new show set in Middle-earth. (One idea was a reported prequel series focusing on a young Aragorn.) The showrunner gig ultimately went to Payne and McKay, two writers who were, at that point, best known for uncredited work on the Star Trek franchise. Their list of credits isn't very long, but the two childhood friends are both longtime Tolkien obsessives, and they won over Amazon execs with their pitch for an epic, five-season saga set during the Second Age.

The two tall, lanky, blond men like to joke that they "share a brain," often finishing each other's sentences. When EW sat down with Payne and McKay earlier this summer via Zoom, their giddy enthusiasm was infectious, as they geeked out over Númenórean architecture and occasionally slipped into flawless Elvish. Still, they're aware that some longtime Tolkien readers might be skeptical. As fans themselves, they understand the weight and responsibility of their task. "This has been one of the biggest emotional rollercoasters of both of our lives," Payne says. "It's right up there with some of the big personal moments of our lives."

Sometimes, those personal and professional moments overlapped. Walker remembers an early phone call with Payne, where the co-showrunner first pitched him on playing the regal elven leader Gil-galad. "In the background, I could hear some kind of loudspeaker noise," Walker recalls. "I asked him, 'JD, where are you, man? What's going on?' He said, 'Oh, I'm in the hospital. We just had a baby.' And he's pitching this job to me!"

"We care so much about this, and we want to get it right, and we know what this means to so many people," Payne adds. "This isn't a job you do just to take another job. This is a job that you know is going to be part of your legacy forever."

Tolkien wrote extensively about the history of Middle-earth, particularly focusing on the Third Age (when The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set) and the First Age (which he covers in The Silmarillion). The Second Age is far more mysterious, and although the professor sketched out the main bullet points — the reemergence of Sauron, the forging of the rings of power, the rise and fall of Númenor — he also left a lot of questions unanswered. McKay and Payne have long been fascinated by this time period, and they found themselves drawn to the era's combination of grand, fate-of-the-world storytelling and small-scale human drama. Their goal, they say, was to approach the show not as inventors but as archaeologists, piecing together clues and details from Tolkien's work to help craft the show's narrative.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Princess Disa (center), played by Sophia Nomvete, leads the dwarves of Khazad-dûm in song on 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' | Credit: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

The Rings of Power boasts 22 regular cast members, including elves, dwarves, humans, and harfoots. (The latter are early, nomadic predecessors to hobbits. They're still pint-sized, hairy-toed halflings, but they haven't yet settled in the Shire.) Some Lord of the Rings characters play a major role in the Second Age, like Clark's immortal elf Galadriel (played in the Peter Jackson films by Cate Blanchett) or Robert Aramayo's Elrond (played in the movies by Hugo Weaving). Other Rings of Power names will be familiar to Lord of the Rings fans, like Aragorn's ancestor Isildur (Maxim Baldry), the young Númenórean sailor who grows up to cut the ring from Sauron's hand, or Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), the legendary elven craftsman who forges those titular rings of power. Still, others are entirely new creations, crafted to help flesh out every corner of Middle-earth.

"Tolkien would have a line or a reference, and from that, a whole character and an arc could spring," McKay explains. "That was part of the joy of coming up with this show. We just felt like Tolkien had this massive plot of land that we knew had oil in it somewhere, and every time we hit the ground, a geyser would spring up."

When the series begins, Middle-earth is in a time of relative peace. It's been centuries since the elves and their allies defeated the evil Morgoth and his apprentice Sauron, and the High King Gil-galad (Walker) now rules the elves in Lindon. In the dwarven realm of Khazad-dûm — also known as Moria — leaders like Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and his wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete) oversee a bustling underground civilization, years from becoming the abandoned mine where Gandalf will one day face down a balrog. Far across the sea, humans have spent years constructing the lavish island kingdom of Númenor, now led by the stoic queen regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson).

But some, like Galadriel, fear that a shadow might be creeping back into Middle-earth. The echoes of Sauron's cruelty still loom large, especially in places like the Southlands, where human Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and elf Arondir (Córdova) can sense something strange in the air. Even the nomadic harfoots, led by Sir Lenny Henry's Sadoc Burrows, recognize that something's amiss, and two of the halflings (played by Megan Richards and Markella Kavenagh) encounter an odd, unnamed stranger (Daniel Weyman), who mysteriously appears in the wreckage of a flaming meteor.

"We felt that this was this great epic that was distinct enough from what had been adapted before, but it had enough connections to be a little familiar," McKay explains. "That's kind of been the watchword from day one: to do something different but familiar, and hopefully huge, epic, and awesome in its own right."

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Poppy (Megan Richards) and Nori (Markella Kavenagh) are two curious harfoots on 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' | Credit: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

Any good Tolkien fan knows that if you're setting out on a long and potentially perilous journey, traveling with a fellowship is always better than going alone. Fortunately for the Rings of Power cast, they found immediate companions in one another. Hailing from around the world, a large number of the actors are veterans of stage or screen, but few — if any — have tackled anything as massive as The Rings of Power. Many had to leave friends and family behind to relocate to New Zealand, and when the pandemic paused filming for a few months in 2020, they hunkered down together.

"It became a fellowship," explains Nazanin Boniadi, who plays Bronwyn, a human healer and single mother. "We were forced to lean on each other. We didn't have anybody else. We were on an island, away from our support systems, mid-pandemic. A lot of people across the world could relate to that in that moment, being separated from loved ones. And if you're going to be stuck anywhere, let it be New Zealand. But we had to lean on each other a lot, and by default, we kind of became each other's support systems."

"We had to be there for each other in a way that is different from other on-location jobs," adds Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who rules over Númenor as queen regent Míriel. "It really was about that protective bubble, and trying to focus on the task at hand. You only get that first season once, where no one knows who you are and what it is. It's going to be different moving forward, and it won't have that same feel to it. It was a really special time, and a really special place."

Sophia Nomvete, who plays the dwarven princess Disa, was surprised by how quickly she and her castmates formed a tight-knit family. The actress learned she landed the role just days after giving birth to her daughter, and when she arrived in New Zealand, her costars quickly volunteered to babysit so she and her husband could have the occasional date night. "It took a village, and she was raised by everyone and knew everyone," explains the English actress. "People were learning how to change nappies. It was amazing." Adds Aramayo with a laugh: "I can't believe I'm capable of babysitting, but apparently I am." (The onscreen rivalry between elves and dwarves apparently doesn't extend to childcare.) 

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Robert Aramayo as Elrond on 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' | Credit: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

On set, the actors threw themselves into research and preparation. For some, like Aramayo, that meant poring over Tolkien's text, memorizing complicated lore just like Elrond would. "If he was in our group, he'd be the guy who knows everything," Aramayo says of his wise elven character. "He becomes a loremaster. So, I committed myself as much as I could to learning about those stories. I have a mad passion for it now, for all the small details. It feels very different to me every time I read it."

Others picked up new skills. To play an agile elf, Córdova studied various martial arts, including wushu, kung fu, and capoeira, while Boniadi took gardening and perfume workshops to prepare for her role as a healer. Nomvete, her onscreen husband Owain Arthur, and other dwarven actors learned how to smith and forge weapons. And when Clark had to prepare for a complicated underwater sequence with Charlie Vickers, who plays a mysterious human castaway named Halbrand, they both spent weeks training, learning to hold their breath for minutes at a time.

Each actor had a unique challenge: Some had to follow in the footsteps of iconic performers like Blanchett or Weaving. (Clark notes that she used to play dress-up as a kid, tying a T-shirt around her head to try and emulate Blanchett's long, blonde Galadriel hair from the movies.) Others had the burden of bringing iconic Tolkien characters to the screen for the first time, while several more had to tackle entirely new creations. 

But McKay and Payne encouraged each cast member to share their own insight and suggestions, and when EW spoke to several actors via Zoom earlier this summer, they said they were surprised by how collaborative the set felt. "It's almost like guerilla filmmaking," explains Vickers. "It can feel at times like you're on a little indie film with the way we're able to collaborate."

"But also, I think a lot of us have never been in anything [made by a big] studio," Clark interjects with a laugh. "So we didn't really have anything to compare it to."

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Charles Edwards as Celebrimbor on 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' | Credit: Prime Video

The show also presents a more diverse version of Middle-earth. The Rings of Power will include the first female dwarves depicted on screen, as well as many actors of color playing elves, dwarves, harfoots, and more. Several of the actors note that although their casting may be a milestone, diversity has always been a theme of Tolkien's work, which often tells of characters uniting in the face of adversity, despite their different backgrounds.

For actors like Córdova, starring in The Rings of Power fulfills a longtime dream. The Puerto Rican actor says he's "wanted to be an elf since I was a little kid," and he remembers jumping around as a child, aiming an imaginary bow. "That was something I really dreamt about, but on the flip side, it was something that was a little painful because there weren't elves that looked like me," he says. "It became a personal but distant dream, up until the moment where this opportunity opened up. So I ferociously went for it."

"This was not stunt casting," adds British actress Boniadi, who was born in Iran. "This isn't tokenization, or a lot of the things that we're used to in past roles. Every person has been cast because they are the best people for those roles, regardless of ethnicity and race. And I find that super empowering."

Like Tolkien's writing itself, the show aims to strike a tricky tonal balance, mixing action, adventure, grief, humor, and of course, friendship. Payne and McKay say they've always admired the scope of Tolkien's storytelling, and The Rings of Power aims to do the same, devoting equal screen time to both grand, mythic kings and tiny, seemingly inconsequential halflings.

Still, all those story lines are a lot to juggle. The Rings of Power may have a five-season plan, but plans mean little if the show's eight-episode first season doesn't succeed. The cast and creative team know that when the series premieres this fall, it has to win over both total newbies and hardcore, Stephen Colbert-level fans. (The Late Show host and noted Tolkien nerd moderated the series' San Diego Comic-Con panel, gleefully correcting audience members on their pronunciation of Eärendil and reciting parts of "The Fall of Gil-galad" from memory.)  

"We're trying to set up and introduce [this era]," Addai-Robinson says. "We are dealing with people who are very well-versed in this information, as well as people who are new to these worlds and new to these stories. That's a huge task to satisfy both of those audiences."

Still, the cast and creative team hope viewers will find their portrayal of Middle-earth as magical as they did. EW was present when several cast members got to watch the film's Comic-Con trailer for the first time, and when the two-and-a-half-minute clip ended, many had tears glistening on their cheeks.

"I'm so excited to see it, but it's more than a show at this point," Córdova says. "It was a life-changing experience. I think I speak for everyone in that we went in as certain types of people, and we left as completely different humans." Or elves, harfoots, and dwarves.

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