“LOTR: Rings of Power” Producer on the Timelessness of Tolkien’s Tale

The only reason to gamble half a billion dollars on a TV show is because you know that everyone will want to live this fantasy

You know it’s big—$465 million big—and that’s just for the first season, making Amazon’s new heavyweight contender, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the most expensive TV series ever produced. Fans will be relieved to hear the studio has spared no expense in bringing J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe to life with a story that spans every corner of the map, from the delicately carved heights of Lindon (the mountaintop Elven kingdom) to the majestic city of Númenor, the author’s own take on the Atlantis myth. 

Derived from the appendices of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the new show is a sprawling saga set thousands of years before the time of Bilbo Baggins. After a costly and devastating war, the dark army of Orcs has been subdued and the evil lord Sauron is in hiding. While most believe the worst is behind them, one young Elven warrior, Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), vows to avenge her brother’s death at the hands of the Orcs, taking up his sword to hunt and kill those who remain. Many think her mad, wasting good men on treacherous expeditions tracking an enemy that doesn’t exist. 

“You have a faction of society that wants to maintain a sense of tradition and connection to their Elven roots,” explains Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who plays Queen Regent Míriel of Númenor. “Then you have another segment of society that is interested in moving forward—tearing down the old to build the new in its place. You see those two ideas come to clash.”

Sound familiar? No, the new show is not a metaphor for the polarization afflicting the U.S. And while many suggest Hitler’s rise was the basis for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was not interested in commenting on current events in his work.

“The thing that attracted me and the showrunners . . . was the timeless and universal qualities of the story, which someone could transpose onto modern issues,” observes Wayne Yip, co-executive producer and director of a few episodes. 

Producers spent lavishly on sets by production designers Ramsey Avery and Rick Heinrichs, a frequent Tim Burton collaborator. Their vision of Númenor is a city built by hand, with tall structures, streets, and public squares. 

“My first memory of walking through the Númenor set was with Wayne,” recalls Addai-Robinson. “It hadn’t been dressed, and there were no people in it. And it still had this feeling of a palace with cobblestone walkways and little alleyways. There’s incense burning in the air, the sound of lapping water on the docks. It feels like a real place.”

While the show employs a wide range of visual effects, showrunners Patrick McKay and John D. Payne wanted to do as much in-camera as they could rather than have actors respond to a green screen. “It really helps and transports you when you see what feels like a very real place. It’s a testament to all of the craftspeople and laborers and those who built an entire city,” exclaims Addai-Robinson, who underwent stunt training for her role. 

Most of the team grew up on Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film series, and for a while, it seemed like the maestro himself might participate in the new show, providing notes during the script phase. But in the end, he did not contribute, although the show’s CGI work was managed by his special effects house, and many of the film crew had worked on all of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. 

While common tattoos united the core cast of Jackson’s first three Tolkien films, this time around there was no such ritual for Addai-Robinson. But while shooting in relatively COVID-free New Zealand, the cast bonded in ways that were impossible during the pandemic back home. 

“I went from lockdown in L.A. to almost full normalcy,” sighs Addai-Robinson. “We really relished those opportunities when we had them. It felt like a special time in a special place with a special group of people.”

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This story is featured in the September 2022 issue of Los Angeles

(Photographed by Beau Grealy)