Ismael Cruz Córdova on Bringing Diversity to The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

When Ismael Cruz Córdova appears on Zoom, it’s difficult to make out the image on his graphic tee. “That’s Madonna, baby!” he exuberantly explains, pointing to the Material Girl. Córdova’s nails are painted a “soft sky blue,” matching the cloudless stretch of sky behind him in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He’s recently returned to his home in New York after two years in New Zealand, where he was filming the new Prime Video blockbuster TV series Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Córdova’s buoyant demeanour is strikingly different from the characters he’s known for playing, like Hector Campos, the pro boxer with a secret on Showtime’s Ray Donovan; Lino Esparza, a gang leader in the 2019 action-thriller Miss Bala; or Fernando Alves, the widow of a murdered woman in the HBO miniseries The Undoing. It’s true that Córdova’s chiseled features and piercing stare project an intensity that make him well-suited to playing a man with a dark secret or mysterious past. But it’s his knack for bringing depth and dimension to complex characters that’s helped him transition from eye-catching scene-stealer to bona fide star. “They’re very curious, very internal,” says Córdova of his LOTR character Arondir, a Silvan Elf who falls in love with a human.

Growing up, Córdova never got around to reading the classic Tolkien novels. At home in Aguas Buenas, a rural, mountainous town about a half-hour drive from San Juan, he was never much of a reader. “The one book that was in my house was the Bible,” he says. “And not even that got read.” Competitive swimming earned him a spot in a prep school, where he thought about becoming a pediatrician after graduating, as a path out of generational poverty. “But even within my community, I was weird and artistic,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to do calligraphy with ink that I made from flowers.”

At the first meeting of his high school’s drama club, he was tasked with reading a monologue in front of the group. “That was the moment where I experienced for the first time that people were gathered to listen to anything I had to say,” he recalls. “And I knew right then and there that this was different — and it changed my life. That moment, that’s when I set my path.” He began taking three busses into San Juan — a two-hour journey each way — for dance classes and acting auditions. He managed to keep these efforts a secret from his family for a while, but when he booked his first role at 15, he had to come clean to his mother. “I knew I had found my thing,” he says.

Since then, Córdova has applied that same tenacity to building a formidable career in Hollywood. For example, Córdova was rejected not once, but several times from LOTR, even after the casting director vouched for his raw talent. “I would push my team to go further,” he says. Finally, after several auditions, he wrote an essay to the director pleading his case for why he should be cast. It worked. “I didn’t take no for an answer,” says Córdova.

The role is a testament to Córdova’s perseverance as much as his acting ability. But it also places him, an Afro-Latino man from Puerto Rico, in the Middle-Earth canon, LOTR author J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe, where characters have historically been presumed white by fans. This show’s notably diverse casting represents a more inclusive vision of this brand of fantasy — as well as a broader direction for Hollywood.

Pants ($1,290) and jacket ($1,850) by Zegna; necklace ($975) By Tiffany & Co.; chain, stylist’s own; bracelet ($9,900) and ring ($4,000) by Cartier; shoes (price upon request) by Dior.

Over the last five years, Córdova says, casting calls have dropped some of the practices and avoided some of the tendencies that have historically stereotyped actors of colour. “In the beginning, I remember when they would describe the character while you’re auditioning and they would specify the ethnicity,” he remembers. “I don’t think they do that anymore that much, but it was the male, then Caucasian, Caucasian, Caucasian. And then the few roles that were for us that were for us were like ‘open ethnicity: janitor number four, criminal number three.’” He credits a couple of major industry changemakers, like powerhouse producer Shonda Rhimes, for pushing casting directors to create space in Hollywood for nonwhite actors.

Córdova has already worked with from some of the most legendary names in show business, from Life of Pi director Ang Lee (“extremely generous, always”) to veteran actors Hugh Grant, Julianna Margulies, and Nicole Kidman (“gentle and generous with their fellow actors.”) But with more high-profile projects coming up — including a highly anticipated movie with Oscar-winning director Guillermo Del Toro — he’s well on his way to joining their ranks himself.

Photography: Heather Hazzan (Eye Forward)

Styling: Julianna Alabado (The Wall Group)

Grooming: Laila Hayani (Forward Artists)

Production: Maddy Askwith (Hyperion LA)

Stylist Assistant: Andrea Galvez

Photo Assistants: Luis Burgos, Warton Paigge, Ashlee Huff

Photo PA: Karyss Butcher