When Ismael Cruz Córdova was a fourteen-year-old aspiring actor in the early 2000s, he washed cars and mowed lawns every weekend to finance his first big purchase: a television and a DVD player. One of the first DVDs he bought was The Fellowship of the Ring, the blockbuster adaptation that would forever change what was possible for fantasy on the big screen. Fresh off its global triumph to the tune of thirteen Oscar nominations and $860 million earned at the box office, the film made an indelible impression on Córdova, who dreamed of an actor’s life and longed to play one of Tolkien’s elves. In those mysterious, eternal beings, Córdova saw shades of his own life: the elves’ spiritual communion with nature resonated deeply with him, surrounded as he was by Puerto Rico’s majestic mountains and streams. But as an Afro-Latino teenager growing up in an under-resourced community, Córdova saw no place for himself among the elves’ lily-white ranks. “I was on a quest to find my voice and a voice for my people,” he says. “But then I wondered: why is there nobody like me in these movies?”
It was nearly twenty years later that Córdova scored an audition for The Rings of Power, Amazon’s behemoth adaptation of Tolkien’s robust appendixes, poised to become the most expensive television show of all time at a projected cost of more than $1 billion over five seasons. If you live anywhere within the tentacular reach of Amazon’s advertising, chances are you’ve seen Córdova emblazoned on buses and billboards, costumed in pointy elven ears. You know that this story ends with a dream realized: Córdova has made history as the first person of color to play an elf onscreen in a Tolkien adaptation. But as the author himself would tell us, just because we know a story’s ending doesn’t mean that there isn’t power in the telling. Zooming with Esquire during Rings of Power’s promotional victory lap around the globe, Córdova’s pride and excitement threaten to take the roof off of his London lodgings. But with four seasons of Rings of Power yet to come, the actor’s unexpected journey is only just beginning. To understand where he’s going, he insists, we’ll have to understand where he’s been. As Tolkien reminds us: “Little by little, one travels far.”
Raised in the mountains of Puerto Rico in a home with dirt floors, Córdova became an activist at an early age. Poverty, illiteracy, and underrepresentation surrounded him, lending to a sense of “struggle and voicelessness” within his community. “I always wondered why we weren’t included in what was happening for other people,” he remembers. “There was always this strong notion of the other people and us. Success, education, or ability was always for those other people.”
Córdova began working while still in elementary school, selling pumpkins and peppers to earn lunch money. When he discovered his talent for competitive swimming, he became consumed by the sport, swimming his way to national championships and a private school scholarship. Raised with the belief that becoming a doctor or a lawyer was the ticket to success, he poured himself into his science and mathematics courses, determined to become a pediatrician. All the while, he felt like “the little weird kid,” writing poetry in secret because it wasn’t sufficiently “manly.” Everything changed when he signed up for Drama Club on a whim. “Life immediately made sense,” he remembers.
Córdova threw himself into acting, keeping his pursuits secret from his parents
. It was during this season of life that he discovered The Fellowship of the Ring, which introduced him not just to elves, but to the idea of making a career in the arts. “The design, the community, the vast opportunities—it was a real thing,” he realized. “You could actually make a life in this.” In the beginning, Córdova whetted his appetite on school plays; then, “the hunger grew more and more.” He started skipping school and taking the bus into San Juan for auditions (a journey of over two hours, each way). But when he was cast in his first movie role at fifteen (a Puerto Rican film called Bala Perdida, or Stray Bullet), he finally had to come clean. His father reacted by calling in a psychologist to convince him to stop acting, but Córdova wouldn’t be deterred. Because he couldn’t afford a plane ticket to the States for drama school auditions, he very nearly had to continue his schooling in Puerto Rico, but ultimately, a community development prize funded his travel to New York University. During Welcome Week, most students arrived with their parents; Córdova arrived with just a duct-taped laundry bag of his belongings.
Córdova describes his life as a journey from “voicelessness to voicefulness”—and at NYU, he was already speaking up. In between working three jobs to afford tuition, he observed that NYU’s prestigious Tisch Drama School had no minority actors in lead roles on their main stages. He set his mind to changing that, breaking ground as the first Latino actor to play a lead role on Tisch’s main stage. After he graduated, he struggled with homelessness, sleeping on trains, park benches, and friends’ couches for years while booking plays and television gigs. When recurring roles on The Good Wife, Sesame Street, and Ray Donovan came along, his career leveled out, but all along, the “secret dream” of joining Tolkien’s legendarium never died.
This article appeared in the SEPTEMBER 2022 issue of Esquire
In the summer of 2019, that fateful moment finally arrived: Córdova had the chance to audition for Amazon’s top-secret Lord of the Rings project, reading for an unspecified role. He auditioned tirelessly for months, retaping his submission again and again at Amazon’s request, and when two rejections came, he refused to stop pursuing the project. “That’s not the answer I’m looking for,” he told his manager after the first “no” arrived. “This is my role. It’s what I’m doing.” Finally, after Córdova taped another audition in a tent in South Africa, traveled to New Zealand for a screen test, and wrote the showrunners a heartfelt letter, Amazon saw what’s clear elsewhere: a breakout star who could outwork and outact every other contender. Astonishingly, it wasn’t until the day before his final audition in New Zealand that Córdova learned he was vying for the role of an elf, a moment he describes as “massively emotional.” After that revelation, he came at the audition with a renewed ferocity; “I left all my soul in there,” he recalls. “Characters like this, it’s like they find you. I just always knew that this was mine.”
Córdova ultimately made himself so undeniable that he was cast as Arondir, a new elven character created for a series also loaded with familiar canonical stalwarts. Where others might be afraid to muck about in Tolkien’s sandbox, Córdova saw “immense, endless possibility.” With Arondir, he had the remarkable opportunity to create an otherworldly being wholecloth, trafficking in experiences completely alien to our own. “Elves and humans don’t move the same; they don’t talk the same,” Córdova says. “Their motivations are not the same. Their senses are not the same. They’re eternal—their relationship with time and work is not the same.” He dove into the process with characteristic zeal, crafting an immortal warrior of grace, vulnerability, and quiet strength. He trained day in and day out, grounding Arondir’s movement mythology in martial arts like Wushu, Kung Fu, and Capoeira. “I knew that I would have the eyes of the world on me,” he says. “ I needed to be undeniable, and to be the most Elven elf that I could be. And I needed my soul to shine through, too.”
At 22 series regulars, Rings of Power has a massive ensemble cast—and each one of its members, Córdova insists, are spiritually linked with their characters (he calls it “soul-casting”). He and Arondir are no different. “I identify with his groundedness—with what comes when you have to struggle so much,” he says. “You become more precise, more economical, more humble. You can tell that he’s willing to fight. He will fight and he will win.”
Lesser actors may have been intimidated by the prospect of joining the most expensive television show of all time, adapted from one of our most beloved literary properties, but it didn’t intimidate Córdova. As he points out, he’d already been on his own “journey of epic proportions” before joining Rings of Power. Or maybe it’s more like a calling—as Córdova says, he’s spent his life creating “visibility and representation” for poor communities and people of color. Humble, passionate, and wise, Córdova wants to make others feel seen and heard, as he finally does. With Rings of Power, he’s already putting in the work. Mainstream fantasy has long been overwhelmingly white, and with this long-overdue leap forward, the racist trolls have come out. Córdova’s DMs are tough to stomach; for two years now, “pure and vicious hate speech” has beamed into his inbox nearly every day. “I fought so hard for this role for this very reason,” he says. “I felt that I could carry that torch. I made sure that my elf was the most Elven, the most incredible, because I knew this was coming.”
Córdova has a warrior’s grit, a poet’s soul, and an activist’s powerful, undeniable voice. As one of fantasy’s new standard-bearers, he’s insistent that everyone should be represented in stories of joy and magic, but he’s not so focused on building bridges to the future that he can’t celebrate how far we’ve already come. “You can never use it as an excuse: ‘But elves don’t look like that,’” he says. “They didn’t, but now they do.”
Photos by Deirdre Lewis
Styling by Alfonso Fernandez Navas
Hair by Junya Nakashima
Grooming by Kuma
Production by Roger Inniss
Set Design by Michael Sturgeon
Adrienne Westenfeld is the Books and Fiction Editor at Esquire, where she oversees books coverage, edits fiction, and curates the Esquire Book Club.