LOS ANGELES, USA – Let’s get it out of the way. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a tough act to follow. But I can declare that the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power that I saw, both directed by JA Bayona, deliver.
As megged by Bayona, these initial episodes launch the new Prime Video series on a high note – they are lyrical, absorbing, and most important of all, epic. Based on JRR Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings and its appendices, The Rings of Power takes place thousands of years before the events in his The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books.
The sets and locations in New Zealand, from the forests of the elf capital of Lindon to far-flung areas of Middle-Earth, are breathtaking and fittingly grand.
Bayona and his fellow directors, Wayne Yip (four episodes) and Charlotte Brandstrom (two episodes), will take us to the Second Age of Middle-Earth’s history.
The cast is well-chosen. Some of the actors are familiar names. But I predict that many of the actors picked to play disparate characters will make a mark on the viewers.
In only my second in-person interview since the pandemic began, I was able to talk to many of the talents at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
These were, listed here as grouped, showrunner Patrick McKay and executive producer Lindsey Weber; Charlie Vickers (Halbrand), Tyroe Muhafidin (Theo) and Maxim Baldry (Isildur); Sophia Nomvete (Princess Disa), Ben Walker (High King Gil-galad), Leon Wadham (Kemen) and Trystan Gravelle (Pharazôn); and Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Queen Regent Míriel), Daniel Weyman (The Stranger), Sara Zwangobani (Marigold Brandyfoot) and Robert Aramayo (Elrond).
The rest of the cast includes Morfydd Clark (Galadriel), Markella Kavenagh (Elanor Nori Brandyfoot), Ismael Cruz Cordova (Arondir), Owain Arthur (Prince Durin IV), Ema Horvath (Eärien), Charles Edwards (Celebrimbor), Leon Wadham (Kemen), Lloyd Owen (Elendil), and Megan Richards (Poppy Proudfellow).
Face to face with Patrick and Lindsey, and no longer on Zoom, it felt energizing to converse live, in the flesh. I asked the two what the first things were that immediately came to their mind when Prime Video, in Patrick’s words, was “wonderfully crazy” to let them make the show they want to do.
“Terror!” Patrick exclaimed with a laugh. “No, I’m being slightly cheeky. But there was an element of, it’s scary because we take this responsibility really seriously.”
“This material is so beloved by so many people and they hold it so dear to them. To even think about touching the hem of its garment is scary.”
“But when you have that feeling, maybe it’s a good scare because it really makes you go like, okay, we got to step up to this. We got to be ready for this.”
Lindsey said, “With Amazon, they were so supportive that I just kept thinking, okay, we can’t screw it up. And if we do, it’s our fault because they were really supportive of what we wanted to do. And they were excited about what we wanted to do.”
“They are such a culturally ambitious company, a very forward-looking company. They were excited to try something bold.”
“And when you have that kind of backing from a studio, which is not always easy to find, it’s our fault if it doesn’t work. So, we have to deliver and hopefully, people feel we have.”
On how they struck a balance, given the grand scale of the Tolkien material – the first two episodes are both epic and a human story at the same time – Patrick answered, “Really good question. We talk about this a lot. Middle-Earth is vast and beautiful. We associate Tolkien with the epic but Tolkien is an incredibly emotional storyteller.”
“JD (Payne), my co-writer, and I, really wanted to honor that. We wanted a big canvas show and we felt that’s what the material demanded.”
“We had to meet that but we know that what’s actually going to make it feel big and expansive is how it touches you here (points to his heart).”
“In casting every one of these actors and working at every single one of these scenes and these relationships…and just a small example, we spent a lot of time designing the world of the Harfoots and finding a beautiful patch of forest where the show begins.”
“They migrate as they might have indicated. And so, there are other places they go to as well but just that one took an enormous amount of time and wonderful artists designing it.”
“But just as much time was spent on Nori, Markella Kavenagh’s character, and Poppy, Megan Richards’ character, developing the relationship between them and that pattern between them and their mannerisms that would tell the story of how close this friendship is.”
“Because you can have the most beautiful set in the world in the greatest location in the world with the coolest designs in the world.”
“But if there isn’t a big, beating heart at the center of it, you never hope to deliver what Tolkien was delivering because his stories are all very emotional and his characters are authentic and it’s about relationships. And I think the show is as well.”
“Very well said,” Lindsey chimed in. “What makes Tolkien so timeless is that simple human truth and authenticity. So yes, it’s nice that it’s wrapped up in this grand sweeping epic adventure but at the heart of it is just the basic human stuff we all go through.”
As I prefaced my question that the two and many others behind the epic have devoted almost five years of their lives to the show, Lindsey chuckled as she interjected, “So far!”
I asked what the highlight of those years for each of them was.
Patrick began, “I had to ride a helicopter with a skeleton crew and three or four actors on the south island of New Zealand up through the clouds to the top of Mount Kidd, this incredible mountain with 360-degree views, where if the clouds covered us, we would’ve hiked out for three days.”
“It’s the only way out. And it was the first day for Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who plays the Queen Regent of Numenor and Lloyd Owen who plays Elendil, both of whom you’ll meet in the third episode. And we were all absolutely mindblown by the beauty of this place.”
“Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays Arondir, an elf from down in the southlands, stepped out of the helicopter and immediately burst into tears. He said, ‘Oh my God, we’re in Middle-Earth.’”
“That was a pretty high watermark moment. Pun intended. My partner’s good with puns.”
Lindsey, for her part, said, “I have many favorite moments from season one but there’s one that stands out in my mind. There’s a scene later in the season that you haven’t seen yet between Morfydd Clark’s character, Galadriel, and Tyroe Muhafidin’s character, Theo.”
“It was a night scene, which means I was standing there at three o’clock in the morning in the woods. There happened to be 50, 60 Orcs on set holding torches.”
“I don’t know if it’s the delirium of being awake all day and all night but the magic of that intimate scene between the two of them was, I had that feeling of, I can die happy if nothing else, if this scene goes in the show, it will be special because what they did there was amazing. It’s maybe my favorite moment of all.”
When Patrick said, “That’s a good one,” Lindsey remarked, “And it has got to be with all of these crazy Orcs running around, too.”
Benjamin Walker talked about what Bayona certainly brought – grandeur – and more.
“JA certainly brings the scope,” Benjamin stressed. “One of the things that I’ve never had from a director is that JA plays music in between takes on loudspeakers.”
“At first, I found it really off-putting but then this subliminal thing happened, where his vision of the tone of what you’re creating starts to seep into your subconscious and unifies not only the cast but also the crew, everyone involved.”
“He was shepherding us, whether we knew it or not. I really liked working with JA.”
I can’t wait to see what director Wayne Yip brings to his next four episodes.
“Early on, we were looking for who would direct these episodes,” Lindsey replied. “It’s no small task. When we hired Wayne, we knew we had JA Bayona, who was wonderfully such a warm filmmaker.”
“As Patrick was saying earlier, it’s such a big part of Tolkien and we needed somebody. But JA could only do the first two and we needed somebody to take over. And that is a very difficult transition.”
“As you leave the first block that for some TV shows might be the biggest, it wasn’t true for us. They were all that big. And that director was going to have the task of introducing Numenor for the first time ever on camera.”
“So, it was a really special search. We had seen Wayne’s work and we were admirers. We met him.”
“And it was clear that the Legendarium meant something to him. He grew up in Oxford and the way he spoke about it just made us feel like, okay, he’s one of us. He understands what we’re trying to do.”
“And then we just got into talking about a story with him. He has a great reputation for being a hard worker and a lovely collaborator, which is also important to us.”
Patrick commented, “Wayne also really loves the genre and he comes with a real passion. When the third episode comes around, you’ll see there’s a visual imagination and he’s sort of making Middle-Earth weird again.”
“And he introduces Numenor in a way that is just…it’s some of our favorite stuff.”
I asked Sophia Nomvete to elaborate on her interesting audition story for the series. She gave birth two days after trying out for the Princess Disa role.
“The audition process was incredible,” Sophia replied. “It was all such a haze but something drew me to push through it. I think my baby, who I didn’t know was my daughter at the time – we didn’t find out any details – she was like, ‘You’ve got this, Mama!’”
“So, I went to the audition and had the support of lovely JA in my camera test. They were pulling me out of the chair at the end of it.”
“But the camera test was about being in the home. It was about motivating and strengthening the person, who I didn’t know it was at the time. So, what better support than my firstborn?”
“Eight weeks later, we fly out (to the set). It’s all a complete whirlwind. But what was wonderful is the support network that I had within my cast and my friends but also within the production.”
“And of course, the wonderful Kate Hawley (costume designer) stitched breastfeeding flaps into my costume so that I could feed and parent in the way that I wanted to parent while executing the biggest role of my entire career.”
In Benjamin’s case, JD offered the role by phone to him in unusual circumstances. Talk about commitment!
“Yeah, I couldn’t hear him on the phone,” Benjamin recalled. “I said, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I’m in the hospital.’ And I said, ‘You okay?’ He said, ‘Yeah. We just had a baby.’ ”
“And then he went right back into the Legendarium. And because it is a daunting commitment not only for me but for my family and for the amount of time and the dedication that this undertaking requires, I was a little nervous about it.”
“And the fact that JD had entrenched himself so deeply in the project really reassured me. That maintains to be the case. Both those boys, JD and Patrick, eat, sleep, breathe this job. And again, that’s the bare minimum.”
“For me, it was relatively quick although it was a complicated situation,” Robert Aramayo shared. “I made a tape and then Skyped with the showrunners. They told me who I was playing and I said, ‘Yes.’”
“Then all of a sudden, I was on a plane. So, it was all very quick. And then I was in New Zealand. Yeah, it was mental but amazing and really exciting time.”
Upon hearing Robert’s audition story, Cynthia Addai-Robinson quipped, “I’m so jealous of this, ‘very quick.’”
Cynthia recounted, “For me, it was a little bit different. I had auditioned originally for a different role. I had gotten far enough along, and then it went away. I didn’t get it.”
“So, I remember just being really devastated and thinking, ugh, man. I had really wanted to be part of that. And then the pandemic happened.”
“I was at home in lockdown for many months and got a phone call about this other role. I had a Skype session and a chemistry read. Then suddenly, I was off to New Zealand and out of lockdown. So, I was really grateful that the opportunity came back again.”
Sara Zwangobani said, “For me, mine was a bit more like Rob’s. It was a single self-tape. I did audition for a role earlier, about six months prior to that. But just again, just one quick audition and then done.”
“And then I did a self-tape while I was here in LA and then forgot all about it. Then I got a phone call saying, ‘Can you be in New Zealand in three days?’ This was many months later. I said, ‘Okay.’”
“And so, I got on the plane. And then I was in New Zealand and started work two weeks after that.”
Sara explained what her character, Marigold Brandyfoot, means to her.
“My character means a lot to me. Marigold Brandyfoot is a wonderful creature. She has so much heart and humor but also wisdom and care. And she’s a bit tough.”
“I’m a mom myself so I really relate to the struggles that she has, not only trying to parent her own children but trying to be a parent to the tribe as well. And I adore her. I’m really grateful that I got the chance to play her.”
Cynthia brought gravitas in her answer to my question about her part. “I am really protective of my character. I play Queen Regent Míriel. She’s a woman who, when we first meet her, has a lot on her mind.”
“And it just so happened that when I got to begin working on this, I had a lot of thoughts and feelings. I needed a place to put that in. So, that’s what she became for me.”
“It was this safe haven. There was a lot of beautiful overlap in terms of things that she might have been thinking or feeling and where I was at.”
“So, I was really protective of that and then wanted to really channel that and marry what Tolkien wanted to bring to that character and where I was at in my life. So, I’m excited and again, proud and honored that I get to play her.”
Robert said, “I love Elrond. I think he’s fascinating. And he’s half-elven so he doesn’t fully belong over here, and he doesn’t fully belong over there, at this point in his life.”
“We all know what that feels like sometimes. And so, to represent that, to play someone who’s an orphan, to play someone who’s so fascinating and so curious and has so much heart, it’s just a gift. So, I love him.”
For Tyroe Muhafidin, who has done mostly commercials before The Rings of Power: “It was massive. It was like a whole new world opened up to me because I thought I knew what it was like to work in front of a camera.”
“But I didn’t know what it was like to work in front of a 4K camera with a fake sun to my left and…”
Maxim Baldry added, “Fake moon to your right.”
Tyroe said, “Yeah, fake moon and then hundreds of people making sure that I look good. I’ve never had that before.”
“But it’s a really great privilege. I’m so blessed to be able to be a part of this and especially at my age. I’m incredibly grateful.”
Charlie Vickers, grinning, said, “Learning a lot from your peers. Learning a lot from us.”
“And my castmates,” Tyroe agreed.
Leon Wadham raved about the sets and how they helped the cast get into character.
“They’re phenomenal,” Leon said. “I live in Auckland so I know the studios pretty well. When I turned up to shoot on my first day, where there’s normally a big empty car park space on the back lot, they built blocks upon blocks of the city of Numenor with unbelievable detail.”
“They thought about everything. There was incense burning in alleyways. There were different sections with different architecture, depending on when they thought they were built, which centuries, how old, how new. There were boats on the water.”
“When you’re in an environment like that, it does feel like a real space. You can just fully surrender and live in it, no question.”
Trystan Gravelle agreed, saying “Leon said it all there.”
Leon said about the Tolkien source material, “I grew up with the books and my mom was always a huge fan. But I’d never gone near the appendices that we’re building from here. So, all of that was new to me.”
“Luckily, there are so many experts, so many fans working on the show, who could guide us along. Whenever we felt like there was just too much to read, too much information to process, there was somebody who could lead you through it and make it playable, if that makes sense.”
Trystan Gravelle was more specific: “For Numenor, I think the Akallabeth and the Unfinished Tales, those were important. I mean, all of it is important but that’s where you really get an insight into the Numenorean psyche.”
“So, you really get an insight into our train of thought when you see what that city is about. It’s as if you’re walking through the mind of these people. And they’re all about leaving a legacy because if they die, they’re not around forever.”
“So, these are the marks that they leave for other generations to come. When you walk through the city, you see how important that legacy is for them.”
“I read it after I watched the (Peter Jackson) movies,” Maxim admitted.
Charlie confessed, “I hadn’t read it, but luckily, I had a lot of time to prepare so it wasn’t as much of a mad scramble. I had time to read.”
Tyroe was candid: “I found it really hard to read. I watched all the films and I’ve read The Hobbit but I haven’t read the trilogy. I’m working on it. It’ll be done soon.”
Charlie offered his take on why, in this age of short attention span, social media and instant gratification, Tolkien stories continue to appeal.
“They have enduring themes,” he pointed out. “There are things in Tolkien stories which will forever be relevant to the human race.”
“It’s just our story and the stories we’ve seen adapted on screen. The stories in the Legendarium are of hope, love, the battle between good and evil, and the gray areas that lie in between there.”
Maxim said, “I always keep coming back to it. I watch it, and I’m like, oh! It fills some sort of void in me. I always just end up going back to it when I’m feeling a little low or dark because it just fills me with hope.”
“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel whenever I watch it. It’s amazing to be part of this. Something to connect to and continue the legacy of Tolkien.”
Tyroe shared, “I think why the stories still resonate is because the essence of human connection is what it’s based on. We can relate to that. Our show does the very same thing.”
For Charlie, taking free diving lessons “and a lot of horse riding” were the surprise perks that came with playing Halbrand.
“It was a challenging time but it was also really rewarding and fulfilling by the end. We went through a lot of training in order to do the underwater sequence.”
“It was a pretty amazing experience to be able to do these things as part of your job and develop your skills in these areas. Maxim got to horse ride as well, quite a bit. We got to horse ride together a bit, which was really cool as well.”
Maxim said, “That was quite bonding, wasn’t it?”
But eating lots of salami was one “perk” Charlie can do without. He had to eat a lot of salami in his screen test audition with Morfydd.
“I’m over it. Never again,” Charlie declared with a grin. “I haven’t touched salami since then, actually.”
When Maxim and Tyroe got curious about what I brought up regarding salami, Charlie explained, “In the screen test with Morfydd, Halbrand was eating salami in the scene, which was then cut from later scripts. It was big because I had to eat the salami and we did like 50,000 takes.”
“So, every time I ate the salami, there was one poor guy, on set who wore gloves because I couldn’t swallow the salami. So, he had to keep coming up at the end of each take for me to spit the salami back into his hands. Then he’d just take it to the bin.”
Tyroe quipped, “I think he probably hates salami now just as much as you.”
I asked Robert how different his experience was from Game of Thrones, where he played the Young Ned, to The Rings of Power.
“Very different,” Robert answered. “If you look at the source material, it’s very different. And so, the experience of working on them was likewise different.”
“On Thrones, my task was to recreate something that the audience had already seen. Whereas here, what was exciting was that I was given the license to create something new that was based on the Legendarium. Everything that happened in the first stage.”
“When we meet Elrond, he’s at a time where he’s not done any of the great deeds that you know about in the Third Age. So, he’s young. And that was a really exciting prospect.”
Back to Patrick, he reflected as The Rings of Power nears its debut date: “How does it feel to be at this stage? We’re really in the deep end of the pool here – all of us and it’s exciting and scary. We just hope that people find something to connect to in the show. So much love has gone into it. I hope people feel that.” – Rappler.com
The first two episodes of the multi-season drama will launch on Prime Video in more than 240 countries and territories worldwide on Friday, September 1-2 (time zone dependent), with new episodes available weekly.