Who to Watch: Ismael Cruz Córdova, Star of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’

The actor has a big year ahead of him, having just wrapped shooting on Season 2 of 'The Rings of Power.'

Nazanin Boniadi and Ismael Cruz Córdova in Episode 1 of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Courtesy of Prime Video

There may be one ring to rule them all, but there’s one actor who’s staking his claim and making a name for himself on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Ismael Cruz Córdova plays the elven Arondir on the Amazon Prime series, but that role barely scratches the surface of what else he can do. Cruz Córdova spoke with the Observer about everything from elf improvisation to his time on Sesame Street, and with a range like that, he’s certainly one to watch.

Ismael Cruz Cordova and Saoirse Ronan at the New York premiere of Mary Queen of Scots. Photo by MJ Photos/Variety/Penske Media via Getty Images

A Key Supporting Player

Cruz Córdova has had the opportunity to work alongside A-list talents, from recurring roles early in his career in prestige TV shows like The Good Wife and Ray Donovan to being cast in Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s ambitious 2016 drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The actor is full of praise for many of his co-stars; Saoirse Ronan (who he acted alongside in Mary Queen of Scots) is a “masterclass,” Nicole Kidman (who he acted with in The Undoing) is an “incredible force.” According to Cruz Córdova, each colleague has made him “a better actor and a better person.”

That said, few acting experiences have been as informative as his time on Sesame Street. Cruz Córdova played Mando, a techie writer who joined the block for about a dozen episodes. When asked what was more intimidating, Sesame Street or Middle-Earth, the actor laughs. “Let me tell you that they’re quite close. They both have such beloved characters, they both have such power, they both have impacted people’s lives, and they both took absolutely everything I knew and everything I could give.”

The Rings of Power and an Unlikely Elf

In The Rings of Power, Cruz Córdova portrays Arondir, a warrior elf who has a complicated relationship with the humans he’s tasked to watch over. While he’s a standout among the cast (he received a Critics Choice nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series), whether or not he would win the role of Arondir was surprisingly up in the air for the actor. After several auditions, callbacks and self-tapes, Cruz Córdova was rejected, but he says that he and his team were resolute and would not take no for an answer: “I really believed that this role was the role that I needed to play, that I wanted to play.” That dedication paid off when he was invited for a surprise screen test in New Zealand. Cruz Córdova knows that moment was a game changer. “I went, as a dark horse like they call it, and did what I knew I could do. Because I always believed that if they saw me in person, they got my energy and they saw what I’m about, then they would change their minds. And they did.”

The role of Arondir gave the actor many challenges, but not all of them had to do with the character. When The Rings of Power announced its diverse cast, there was intense backlash concerning the actors of color brought onto the series. Cruz Córdova says that the negativity surrounding his casting as the first non-white elf in the series did affect his performance, but he’s been able to use it as a source of inspiration. “It confirms that you’re engaging in something that is necessary, engaging in something that needs change, and that kind of feedback tells you you’re on the right path.” He says that he fought for the role with that in mind, hoping that he would be “opening space up for [him]self and for others” with Arondir, a character that he thinks aligns with his own values and experiences.

(L to R) Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Ismael Cruz Córdova, and Charlie Vickers in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Matt Grace/Prime Video

His affinity for the character yielded one of the most quietly beautiful moments of the season, as Arondir is forced to kill a tree by his orc captors to save the life of another. Before he brings his axe down, the elf puts his hand on the trunk and apologizes for the damage he’s about to inflict. According to Cruz Córdova, it’s an idea he came up with for his screen test while rehearsing in a park. “I was very bold and just did it,” he says, “And it stuck. It went all the way to the show. It’s one of the most iconic moments of my character, and I think it’s because it’s very full of heart.” 

That heart is one of the many things that has kept The Rings of Power in the awards conversation this year, but the actor is already looking forward to how the next season will turn out. Though Cruz Córdova mostly kept mum on Season 2, he offers fan an assurance. “I think the second season is very exciting. I think people are in for a treat, truly.”

Who to Watch: Ismael Cruz Córdova, Star of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’