The Ladies of the Rings
As we return to Middle-earth with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Inverse gathered five of the show's female stars to talk representation, secrecy, and Sauron.
In October of 2019, actress Morfydd Clark found herself on a 23-hour-long plane ride. She knew the destination: New Zealand. She knew why she was going there: to be part of Amazon’s expansive new show, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power — a prequel of sorts to the events laid out in Peter Jackson’s lauded films. She knew she might be there for at least a year. But Clark was missing one crucial detail:
“I moved to New Zealand not knowing who I was playing.”
Soon enough, Clark learned she would be portraying one of the most recognizable characters in The Rings of Power. She was — is — Galadriel, the powerful royal elf originally embodied by Cate Blanchett in Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy. The Rings of Power explores Middle-earth’s Second Age, a period of more than 3,000 years preceding any of the events of The Lord of the Rings. The Galadriel we meet here, rebellious and driven to action, is a very different character from the one we’re familiar with — and she’s living in an ancient Middle-earth pieced together by first-time showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay after scouring the Lord of the Rings novels and their appendices for details.
Galadriel, whose elvish immortality allows her to span the millennia between the Rings of Power and the Lord of the Rings films, is one of the few characters in a sprawling cast that anyone beyond Tolkien die-hards will recognize by name. And unlike its cinematic predecessors, this foray into Tolkien’s world features a broader, more diverse cast, with a more even balance between male and female leads. In New Zealand, Clark not only found a leading role but also something of a sisterhood.
Fast forward from that 2019 plane ride to this past August, mere weeks before the show’s debut, and Clark has joined four of her female co-stars around a table in Los Angeles for their Inverse cover shoot. “I just realized that the five of us sitting here all represent various worlds,” says actress Nazanin Boniadi, who plays a human healer (and brand new character) named Bronwyn, as we start digging into their respective roles on the show. “And we are all crucial to those worlds.”
Sitting with Boniadi and Clark are Cynthia Addai-Robinson (who plays Númenórean queen regent Míriel, the only other character of this crew created by Tolkien), Markella Kavenagh (Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot, a member of the nomadic proto-hobbits known as harfoots), and Sophia Nomvete (dwarven princess Disa, the first female dwarf brought to life in a Tolkien adaptation beyond brief asides in The Two Towers and a background character in the Hobbit movies).
They all find themselves at the precipice of a massive moment. Beyond the sheer pressure that comes with being part of the most expensive TV series ever made (Amazon is projected to be spending at least a billion dollars across a five-season commitment), the Rings of Power is awaited by a passionate Tolkien fandom — and the worst of that fandom has already begun complaining about the series’ foregrounding of female characters and the fact that non-white actors have been cast in roles beyond villains and orcs. Clark has an answer to that, though she isn’t the only member of this group to touch on the subject:
“[Tolkien] was a really complex person who wrote a really complex world,” she says, “and this idea that anyone could know exactly what he would've wanted or what he would've liked is, I feel, nonsense.”
Over the course of an interview that sometimes “feels like group therapy,” as Addai-Robinson puts it, these five female stars open up about the Rings of Power: their experiences on set and in Middle-earth, the intensity of diving headfirst into Tolkien lore, and the secrecy surrounding the show’s many mysteries, which include not just how its disparate storylines intertwine but also which character will turn out to be Sauron, the greatest villain of the Third Age.
For accomplished theater performer Sophia Nomvete, age 32, stepping into the boots of a dwarf was an unprecedented challenge. Literally. Being the first-ever female dwarf to play such a significant role in a Tolkien work means there was no real road map for her to follow. And although some darker corners of the internet might be unhappy about her character’s addition to the story, Nomvete isn’t backing down. She saw a rare opportunity in the Rings of Power to right a wrong in Tolkien’s world — and fantasy more broadly.
“There was a real imbalance,” Nomvete says. “And I'm really excited to be part of the redress of the balance that is absolutely necessary.”
Nomvete and her fellow castmates found themselves totally immersed in Tolkien’s world, both on set and beyond. “We would have moments off-set where we would talk or go for coffee, and it was like having Fast and Furious nitrous oxide pumped into your veins,” she says of the level of Tolkien enthusiasm around her. Even now, you can still feel that adrenaline and enthusiasm as Nomvete talks about a recent revelation she had about her dwarf alter-ego. She compares Disa and her husband Durin IV (played by Owain Arthur), who rule together over Khazad-dûm, to Aulë and Yavanna, the ancient holy beings responsible for the creation of the dwarves and the growth of all things, respectively.
“[Durin and Disa] are kind of like disciples,” Nomvete muses. “We literally feel like their children when we speak, move, and coexist together.”
The two also share a dwarf’s big, bellowing lust for life. “The dwarves, they feel everything 150 percent,” says Nomvete. “If they're angry, they're tearing the place apart. If they're laughing, they're farting. There is a gregariousness and a passion that is completely unapologetic.”
Disa also possesses a sort of superpower, known as “resonating,” that lets her communicate with the earth and the objects therein. Though she doesn’t use the power in the first two episodes sent to press (though we get a glimpse of a resonating ceremony in the series’ teasers), she does explain how it’s done and why it’s so crucial to the dwarves and their ever-expanding mines.
And if Durin and Disa mirror Aulë and Yavanna, there’s also a parallel that runs between Nomvete and the part she plays. As Nomvete puts it: “To be able to explore finding my inner voice and her inner voice to that magical level has saved me thousands of hours of therapy.”
“Tolkien’s world is massively about vibes”
Morfydd Clark has been a lifelong fan of the Lord of the Rings, with her love of the films and books expanding into Tolkien TikTok as well as this very earnest sentiment: “Tolkien's world is massively about vibes.” What the 32-year-old Welsh actress means is that Tolkien’s work is much less black and white than some might argue, especially when it comes to the Rings of Power’s increased gender parity.
“Tolkien's world is very of its own and never felt macho to me,” she says. “It feels really natural that if you're going to explore the weaving roads that he wrote for us, that there would be women and that they would be highly regarded as Galadriel. That's what's so special about Tolkien, is that he wrote outside the binary.”
To properly portray Galadriel, Clark also had to go on a journey of her own. “Galadriel was seen by Sauron as his biggest adversary,” Clarks says. “We know that Tolkien thought she was awesome.” By contrast, Clark’s previous roles — the lead in A24’s indie horror Saint Maud and an incredible comic turn in The Personal History of David Copperfield — had rarely put her in a position of strength.
Since the young Galadriel is much more of a warrior than we’ve witnessed before, Clark went through a unique type of action-ready preparation. “My physical strength, or lack of, is a big part of me feeling frightened, and [Galadriel] is strong,” says Clark. So her training included a “sort of exposure therapy” in which all the stunt actors would run at her while screaming. Clark’s job was not to recoil; good practice for when she’d be fighting against monsters on the set of the Amazon show.
“I had to really work on not being the person who's attacked,” she says. “I couldn't stop flinching, because, in loads of my parts, I've been the victim. That was a really amazing thing to embody.”
“The women on the show have such agency”
As we talk about the backlash to the Rings of Power and the degree of passion and frenzy surrounding Tolkien’s work, Nazanin Boniadi brings up a 1947 essay by Tolkien titled “On Fairy-Stories.”
“In this essay, he talks about the value of fantasy and myth,” Boniadi says. “The beauty of fantasy and myth is it cushions you into a world where you can comfortably explore your existential belonging and your existential longing. That existential longing exists for all of us, no matter what our creed or race or culture.”
The 42-year-old actress, known for roles in Homeland, How I Met Your Mother, and Counterpart, as well as her activism work with Amnesty International for her homeland of Iran, found her character to be almost a mirror of herself. Bronwyn, a human from the Southlands, is a healer; Boniadi was pre-med before becoming an actress.
“[Bronwyn] has this desire to liberate her people from the shackles of their past of choosing evil over good,” Boniadi says. “I'm an activist for my homeland, and I feel connected to that.”
To complicate matters, Bronwyn has a hush-hush romance with an elf named Arondir, and she’s the mother to a “rebellious teenage son” who finds a mysterious sword bearing the dark mark of Sauron. (“Sometimes I say she doesn't have any superpowers,” Boniadi says of her character, “but I think motherhood is a superpower.”) Bronwyn’s fate is inextricably intertwined with these two male characters, but that doesn’t mean she’s trapped in a passive role.
“The women on the show have such agency,” she says. “They're not serving the storylines of the men around them.”
“Their hunger will be satisfied”
Cynthia Addai-Robinson, 37, best known to date for her performance as Amanda Waller in Arrow and her turns in series like Spartacus and Power, found the key to playing Míriel in the circumstances surrounding the production of the show.
“I was in lockdown at home for many months before I got this crazy call from the heavens saying, ‘Hey, you're going to come and do Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, in New Zealand,’” the London-born actress recalls. “Here I was, in Middle-earth, in this bubble, and being part of a new family. I was always thinking about my friends, my family. So I just was always thinking about them and feeling like, ‘I just have to do this for them.’”
As the queen regent of Númenor, the kingdom of Men, Míriel bears a heavy crown — she’s in the lonely position of learning to trust her instincts while recognizing that no choice she makes will be universally approved.
And though we may know of Númenor’s ultimate fate from Tolkien’s writing — “Númenor is essentially Tolkien's take on the Legend of Atlantis,” she explains — Addai-Robinson stresses that the audience of the Rings of Power is meeting these characters just as the wheels are being set in motion. Pharazôn (Trystan Gravelle), who plays a key role in Númenórean history, will be a consigliere figure to Míriel as the series begins. Their relationship “is really one of being able to confide in one another,” Addai-Robinson explains.
That said, there’s much more territory in the show for the actress to explore since what little we know of Míriel from the novels serves Pharazon’s storyline rather than her own.
“I'm really proud to be part of this Lord of the Rings story with these female characters who have incredibly rich inner and outer lives,” Addai-Robinson says. “I think that the audience is going to be very satisfied. Their hunger will be satisfied. Their thirst will be quenched.”
“It was challenging at times”
The secret at the heart of the Rings of Power is, tantalizingly, one not even the cast may know the answer to. While we know the series will eventually chronicle the return and rise of Sauron as he crafts the titular rings, early episodes (and even seasons) may be a guessing game for both fans and the cast.
Australian actress Markella Kavenagh, 21, plays Nori Brandyfoot, a harfoot (one of the three tribes who would eventually find the Shire) who discovers a mysterious “stranger” (played by Daniel Weyman) after he falls out of the sky in a flaming meteor. The stranger’s identity is one of the series’ big mysteries.
“[Nori’s] strength is in her vulnerability and in her ability to speak to truth, and to shine a light on finding other ways to solve problems,” Kavenagh says of her character. “Her fearless pursuit of risk-taking, connection, friendship, and family — without being afraid of coming across as weak because she's so vulnerable — [and] her innocence and her naivety, are actually her strength.”
Even so, Kavenagh and most of the cast are part of a jigsaw puzzle without a box cover. When I ask her just how much they know of the season’s overall arc, it’s clear our guess is as good as hers. There’s no telling exactly who the fallen stranger is — whether he’s an Istari or, as some have theorized, Sauron in disguise — or where these characters will end up by the end of the first season.
“We were told what [the showrunners] thought we needed to know at the time,” Kavenagh replies in a sing-song voice. This isn’t a surprise considering Amazon’s billion-dollar investment, but secrecy has been a common theme during the interview. When I inquire about the Southlanders and whether or not they might be related to the Sauron-aligned Haradrim, the group effectively responds in unison: “We’re not allowed to say.”
Kavenagh says she’ll be watching the Rings of Power along with the rest of us to see what happens. And like the rest of the cast, she’s feeling optimistic.
“It was challenging at times, I wanted to know [what would happen] out of just pure excitement,” she says of the secrecy surrounding the show. “Ultimately, the benefit is that now, when people watch it, I will also be able to experience it in a new way.”
Top Image Credits: From left to right: Morfydd wears a Vince top, Silk Laundry skirt, a Jennifer Fisher necklace (as body chain), MER’s hoops, a Faris ring (silver and black), talent’s own rings, and Charles & Keith shoes; Sophia wears a GIA/irl dress, Oma the Label hoops (back), Joanna Laura Constantine earrings (front) and ring, and talent’s own shoes; Cynthia wears a Givenchy top courtesy of Paumé vintage, a Proenza Schouler skirt, Lizzie Fortunato hoops, and Scarosso x Brian Atwood boots; Markella wears a Calle del Mar dress, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, Lady Grey bracelet, Oma the Label rings, and Larroudé heels; Nazanin wears a Proenza Schouler dress, Lizzie Fortunato hoops, a Third Crown ring (silver), and Jimmy Choo heels.
Author: Karen Han
Photographer: Peter Yang
Stylist: Kat Typaldos
Production Design: Bette Adams / MHS Artists
Manicure: Emi Kudo
Art Director: Bette Adams
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Alexander Van Brande