Ismael Cruz Córdova is starring as ‘Arondir’ in the Prime Video series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, making history as the first person of color to play an elf onscreen in a J.R. R. Tolkien project. While you might know the actor as “Mando” from Sesame Street, Córdova has become a wise, intellectual, and humble 35-year-old man with a powerful voice, and a desire to make others like him feel seen.
The Black, Latino and Puerto Rican actor grew up in the mountains as a poor child who always wanted, and needed to have a better life. His role as Arondir is a full circle moment, because after he saved money to buy The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring DVD, he dreamt of one day being an elf. It was a dream he had to bury deep, as it was very clear that there were no elves that looked like him. With college on his mind, and a goal of becoming a pediatrician, everything changed when he found the drama club. Suddenly his dream of one day becoming an elf would slowly come true. But his casting has not come without pushback. In this exclusive interview, we talked to Córdova about his life in Puerto Rico, finding his voice, and more.
“I felt this extremely full circle moment. I dove in, and here we are, sitting with HOLA!, talking about this journey being a freaking elf.”
I’m incredibly excited. I mean, it’s a mixture of feelings, of course. There has been such a big lead-up to this release. I started this process in 2019. The summer of 2019 was my first audition, all the way to the summer of 2020- so much has happened. I lived two years in New Zealand, we went through a global pandemic, and everything has risen the stakes even higher for the show. On top of the fact that it’s a historical show, I also have the particular honor of being the first Black Afro-Latino elf of color in this franchise to represent that and open new grounds. So it’s a lot of feelings, but the biggest one is excitement and pride.
“I grew up in the mountains of Puerto Rico. I grew up quite poor- from living in houses with dirt floors to working as a child. I grew up surrounded by a difficult environment.”
Yeah, I mean, I grew up in the mountains of Puerto Rico. I grew up quite poor- from living in houses with dirt floors to working as a child. I grew up surrounded by a difficult environment. Teenage mom, those kind of circumstances making my way through school. And sometime when I was, I think in middle school, the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings came about. I saved all my money and bought the first DVD and DVD player that my family ever had. And I saw this film, and this film was just... I think it was a classic, so it definitely resonated and everybody knows how special it is. But all these circumstances that I had gone through in my life for some reason made me feel very connected to the elves. I grew up in that beautiful, although poor, just beautiful nature, surrounded by mountains and streams. And, now I would say that my best friend was this mango tree that I loved going to after school. And I was able to play as if I was in Rivendell, you know? So I said to myself, “I’m gonna... I’ll be an elf. One day, I’m gonna be an elf.” And it seemed to be laughable at the time because the truth is that there were no elves that I looked like, and people caught up to that and let me know very strongly that this was the case. And I had to put that dream- I thought I had squashed that dream but, it really was always a little flame. I made my way through school, into college, worked three jobs, got myself through NYU working. And then after that, I experienced a lot of difficulties even then, after college. I had to battle homelessness even, for many years, with couch surfing, and still, always kept that kind of desire to play this fantastical character. Then came 2019, and suddenly, I had this audition for Lord of the Rings. Which I did not know was an elf at first, and once they told me the day before my final audition that I was an elf, I felt this extremely full circle moment. I dove in, and here we are, sitting with HOLA, talking about this journey being a freaking elf (laughs).
“I always say, ‘if you can see it, you can imagine it, and if you can imagine it, you can create it.’”
I think- I’m happy that you call it what it is, you know? It’s a fine line because you don’t want to validate, hate, hatred, and the haters, but I think it’s important. I have to check in on myself, and I think it’s important to call it what it is, and it is racism, and it’s blatant. And although I do have a warrior’s spirit, we must also acknowledge that it hurts, you know? Sometimes it hurts, and it weighs you down. However, as I already shared with you, the obstacles that I’ve gone through already in my life- these little bits of vitriol, pale in comparison. And as I’ve had to do with every situation in my life, I take that energy, I reconstitute it, and I move forward with it to create the kind of life that I deserve and a life that is inspiring for others like myself, so that they can see that they can have a better life and space. I always say, ‘if you can see it, you can imagine it, and if you can imagine it, you can create it.’ So me being here and being this role, and standing proudly in this role, creates the space for other people like myself to see themselves, imagine themselves, and go ahead and create whatever life they want for themselves. So, I’m feeling very, very okay, and sipping my tea, very proud (laughs).
This all ties back to my story, you know? I’ve always wanted and needed to have a better life, and wanted to be part of that world that, us poor people, get shunned from. ‘Cause this goes beyond race, it’s also class. As a poor person, the world is kind of divided between what you can have, and what the rest can have. So I saw swimming as my ticket. I wanted to somehow get myself into college, I found swimming, excelled at it. And I wanted to be a pediatrician because it was such a position of influence, but also because the only person that I had in my life that had a profession, that I had a close relationship with, was my pediatrician, Rafael Perez. He was such an incredible person, and I wanted to be like him. So I set that path, and that path took me to this, I got this awesome scholarship at this prep school. I was ready, you know? Some of the best college test scores, SAT scores, best grades, national champion in swimming. Then suddenly, (laughs) the club fair comes along. I didn’t know what that was, because, in public school, I’d never seen that. [The drama club had the] smallest table, darkest little hallway, and dingiest thing, and it sucked me in like a black hole. I went, and in the first meeting, they give you a little monologue, like a piece of paper, and everybody’s just there, you have to recite it in front of everyone- and that changed my life forever. Not in hindsight, but in real time, I felt it for the first time that people were gathered to hear what I had to say. So that was the moment where I was like, bingo (laughs). This is it. This is where I will be able to have the most impact, this is where I will be able to disseminate and find my voice, and create something that will allow me to host and welcome people like me.
“I grew up in poverty while my parents grew up in misery.”
Have you heard, when DJs are spinning like, actual vinyl records, and they stop them? (laughs). Um, hold up, you know? ‘Cause my parents, my mother did not finish high school. My mother had my first sibling at 15 years old, my father was not able to finish high school either, the normal route. I grew up in poverty while my parents grew up in misery. So having a child that can and has everything set up, has set up for themselves a different life, of course, they’re going to jump and be like, ‘What in the name are you doing?’ They took me to a psychiatrist (laughs), or a psychologist, I can’t remember. And they were like, ‘Tell this kid that it’s crazy.’ And the psychiatrist was like, ‘Listen, you’re crazy.’ (laughs). They sided, they’re like, ‘just think about this. Think about it. How does it sound? Dr. Cruz Córdova. Like, it sounds great, doesn’t it?’ You know, it went to that point. But I am very much like my character, Arondir, in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. This is why I’m able to play this guy, ‘cause he’s a warrior, and I am very much a warrior. With all the circumstances that I’ve traversed in my life, I set a path for myself, and by that point, I knew what I could withstand, and I was able to withstand whatever journey this would take me on, which has been an incredible amounts of sacrifice, more than I can share with you in this limited amount of time. But I’ve sacrificed everything for this, and I knew it then, and I’m fortunate enough that my journey has definitely turned out this way.
“Black people, people of any kind of marginalized community, we deserve to have a voice, and we deserve to have a space.”
I think... Great question. I need a moment to think, that’s why you say great question. I’m happy you asked this question (laughs). I can say a resounding yes, but also, I think everyone on this call who is listening, we’re ever-evolving, you know? And my voice expands, contracts, and becomes more nuanced, and I have different needs. So I’m on a quest to continually refine, and listen to that voice. But definitely, I have found a channel to do that and to speak about the things that I do already know, and the convictions that I have, and those more basic things that I can stand firmly by, and it’s that we- people like myself, people that are coming from struggle, from classist struggle, from racist struggle, people of color, indigenous people, Black people, people of any kind of marginalized community, we deserve to have a voice, and we deserve to have a space. And, I found the channel to talk about that, and you know, TV, film, our medium, create, can shift and create culture. So I definitely feel that I’m happy to be a vessel for anyone who can identify with my journey.
“I think that every role teaches you something else, and this one really pushed me even further.”
I think... Great question (laughs) I’m kidding. I think that every role teaches you something else, and this one really pushed me even further. You know, there’s a technical aspect of it all. There’s a stillness that elves have- they’re eternal beings. They see everything from a different perspective, and in my still constant research of identifying with that and understanding that, I found a great deal of value in silence and a great deal of value in observing. I don’t know if you’ve gotten a chance to see any of the show yet?
With Arondir, there are different varieties of elves, and he’s, not of many words, you know? So I was able to center myself a lot, but also, I pushed myself physically to places that I’ve never- I learned more skills, I learned how to create, even more beauty and message through movement, and that was something very special for me.
Well, aside from being outstanding, (laughs)- I’m a warrior, and a lover, and someone who is self-improving. I really care about, and I know it’s going to be a never-ending journey, being the best version of myself, being the most useful version of myself, adding, never taking away. But also understanding that I am, you know, human, and I come with a lot of flaws, and there’s gonna be trials and tribulation. I do strive to be an empathetic human being, and to release myself and rid myself of judgment. I’m a fighter. I am a good son (laughs), and in general, I would like to think of myself as someone who wants to build community, a community that gives people a sense of belonging and that they’re seen, in anything that I do. Whatever, wherever this journey takes me or whatever other journeys I’ve had before, I think my life has been transformed by experiencing being seen, and I would like to pass that along and create those spaces as well.
“I was fortunate enough to work in Guillermo del Toro’s new anthology series, which will air I believe the end of October. I was able to go play and do that, which was just, I mean, I tip my hat to this man. He’s one of my heroes.”
I was fortunate enough to work in Guillermo del Toro’s new anthology series, which will air I believe the end of October. I was able to go play and do that, which was just, I mean, I tip my hat to this man. He’s one of my heroes. So yeah. I have that coming out on Netflix, and I have as well, a movie called ‘Finestkind,’ set up at Paramount, with Ben Foster, Jenny Ortega, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Wallace, that I believe is sometime this year as well. So yeah I have those two wonderful projects, and a short film that I’ll be working on based on the life of Pedro Albizu Campos.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power airs September 2, 2022 on Amazon Prime.