Wayne Che Yip will never forget walking through Númenor. The director was one of the many creatives who helped bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary island to life as a key location in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. The opulent human kingdom had never before been depicted on screen, and Yip and showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay worked closely with production designer Ramsey Avery to help sketch out every corner of the coastal capital. But it wasn’t until Yip stepped on set that he realized the full scale and detail of the island: The crew had essentially built an entire seaside city from the ground up, stone by stone. As he wandered through the narrow alleyways and past the ship docked in the harbor, he felt truly transported to Middle-earth.
“Being on set was just breathtaking,” Yip explains. “We were there for weeks, but every day I’d notice a new detail I’d never seen before, like graffiti etched into weathered stone, or a small shrine. There was a whole wall made out of oyster shells. Every corner you’d turn, there was just so much storytelling.
It’s that storytelling — and that level of obsessive detail — that anchors The Rings of Power, Amazon Prime Video’s sprawling new epic (debuting Sept. 2). Not only is the show an ambitious new chapter in one of the most beloved franchises of all time, but it’s also an uncertain swing, a pricey new saga that hopes to redefine fantasy television. With a reported price tag stretching well above $1 billion, The Rings of Power stands to be the most expensive TV series ever made. More importantly, the series faces the scrutiny of millions of fans, all of whom have spent the last few decades poring over Tolkien’s writing (and rewatching the beloved Peter Jackson film trilogy.)
That devoted fandom is why Payne and McKay pondered every tiny detail on The Rings of Power — right down to each stone in Númenor. “It was one place that we were just laser-focused on saying, ‘We need to get this right,'” Payne explains. “It’s never been seen before. People have some ideas of what elves look like or what dwarves look like and what those kingdoms might look like. But Númenor was, in some ways, a blank canvas.”
Tolkien describes Númenor as the greatest human civilization in Middle-earth’s history, a beacon of knowledge and culture that influenced the rest of the world. However, hubris and ambition rot the kingdom from the inside, and the island is ultimately destroyed, falling into the ocean like Middle-earth’s version of Atlantis. In some ways, the story of Númenor could be seen as a cautionary tale for the show itself. If The Rings of Power succeeds, it could rise to unprecedented heights, leaving a legacy that could endure for years to come. If it fails, it could instead go down like the doomed island itself, destined to sink beneath the waves.
The Rings of Power isn’t a direct adaptation of an existing Tolkien novel. Instead, it’s inspired by the author’s extensive notes, published in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. After Amazon closed its multimillion-dollar deal with the Tolkien estate in 2018, the streaming giant began soliciting pitches from different creators. The winners were Payne and McKay, two largely unknown writers whose highest-profile job at that point was uncredited work on the Star Trek franchise. “We did not have the résumé that might make a studio head think we were a natural choice for this,” McKay admits. “We went up for it, basically saying, ‘Well, let’s leave everything on the field and see what happens.'” Despite their relative inexperience, Payne and McKay were lifelong Tolkien geeks, and their pitch centered on a story they themselves had always wanted to see on screen: the Second Age.
“We were not interested in doing a show about the younger version of the same world you knew, where it’s a little bit of a prequel,” McKay explains. “We wanted to go way, way, way back and find a story that could exist on its own two feet. This was one that we felt hadn’t been told on the level and the scale and with the depth that we felt it deserved.”
The Second Age occurs thousands of years before Bilbo or Frodo Baggins were even born, but the era includes some of Middle-earth’s most significant events, from the forging of the rings to the rise of the evil Sauron. The era begins in a time of peace, but tension lurks throughout the land. The elves have founded the great kingdom of Lindon, but some fear that evil is creeping back into Middle-earth. Meanwhile, the dwarves are at the height of their power, living large in the underground realm of Khazad-dûm.
The island of Númenor is ruled by the queen regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), and this seemingly idyllic paradise is facing tensions of its own. Númenórean royals are human but have elvish blood, and for years, they’ve been friends with their immortal counterparts. Over time, however, a schism appears, as some residents continue to pledge their loyalty to the elves and the godlike Valar, while others ponder a more modern, independent future (and become increasingly afraid of their own mortality). The showrunners note that Tolkien never wanted his stories to directly echo real-world politics, and they feel the same way about The Rings of Power. Still, Payne points out, there’s something deeply relatable — and timely — about the anxieties and political divisiveness wracking this fictional island.
“Tonally, we wanted [Rings of Power] to reflect [Tolkien’s] main story points of friendship and good and evil,” Yip says. “One of the ideas is: How far into the darkness are you willing to go to do the right thing?”
At Númenor’s center is the royal Míriel, who is wrestling with how to guide the home she loves into the future. “When it comes to playing a character that holds such a lofty position, I can’t say that I necessarily relate to what it is to be a queen,” Addai-Robinson says with a laugh. “But I think there is something relatable about how isolating that can feel, and how you’re grappling with things that no one else can really understand.”
Míriel is aided by her close counsel Pharazôn, played by Trystan Gravelle. (No spoilers, but Tolkien readers know him as one of the major players in Númenor’s eventual downfall.) His son Kemen is played by Leon Wadham. “When you see the set of Númenor, it’s like you’re walking through [Pharazôn’s] mind,” Gravelle teases. “When you see these epic statues and this wonderful masonry, you’re walking through the mind of a person that’s burdened by his own mortality and is very concerned about what legacy he’s going to leave behind.”
Fortunately, Númenor also has hopeful allies, like the sea-faring Elendil (Lloyd Owen) and his son Isildur (Maxim Baldry). The young Isildur is Aragorn’s direct ancestor, and fans know he will grow up to face off against Sauron, slicing the ring off the enemy’s hand. But for now, he’s just a young sailor trying to find his place in Middle-earth. “You know where he goes, but how does he get there?” Baldry offers. “That’s what is exciting about this show: You see Isildur as a young man at a crossroads.”
Addai-Robinson, Gravelle, Owen, and Baldry all play characters who loom large throughout Tolkien’s work — but the actors caution that although you might know how their story ends, the journey can still hold surprises. “There are signposts on the way,” Owen explains, highlighting his regal mariner as a prime example. “Ultimately, those of us that know the lore know Elendil ends up helping to lead the Last Alliance of elves and men. But how he gets there? Tolkien hasn’t written the man in three dimensions, and that’s the gift of this [show].”
One new character is Isildur’s sister Eärien, played by Ema Horvath. Invented for the series, this bright and ambitious young woman has dreams of being an architect. Horvath describes her as being “on the cusp of womanhood,” adding that “she’s still quite insecure and naïve about the way the world works.” Tolkien wrote that Elendil had two sons: Isildur and Anárion. (At the start of Rings of Power, Anárion is off screen.) When it came to inventing new details like Eärien, McKay and Payne say they and the writers’ room approached the task almost like historians, poring over Tolkien’s work to “excavate” details and common threads they could weave into a larger narrative.
For fans worried about conflicting canon, McKay and Payne point to one of Tolkien’s published letters, where he wrote about wanting “other minds and hands” to create art in his legendarium. “We feel like we’re taking up the gauntlet that he himself put down,” Payne adds. “He gave us what we like to say are the stars in the sky that we have to connect and draw the constellation in.”
The diversity of the cast has also been scrutinized. For the first time, Middle-earth will be populated by multiple actors of color, including those playing dwarves, elves, and more. It’s a decision that’s been key to the show’s DNA from the start, and Addai-Robinson says to complain about that diversity would be to go against the very spirit of the source material. “[Tolkien] explores many themes, but one of them is the idea of people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and walks of life all coming together for a common cause,” she says. “For me personally, as a viewer, I would have the expectation that [the show] would reflect the real world, as well as the world as I aspire it to be.”
Off screen, the cast bonded quickly, united by the top-secret shoot and their isolation in New Zealand at the height of the pandemic. (The Númenórean actors still have a “Númenóreans only” WhatsApp group chat. And early on, Baldry and Horvath did some brother-sister bonding by bungee jumping and zip-lining together.) But both cast and crew are keenly aware that their days of relative anonymity will soon end — though Payne and McKay admit they haven’t fully processed the fact that The Rings of Power‘s premiere is finally around the corner.
Still, the two writers hope audiences embrace the Second Age as much as they have. Their goal, they say, was to craft a series that appealed to both hardcore fans who can order their morning coffee in Elvish and newbies who “don’t even know what a ring is.”
“It needs to feel the way you feel when you are in Middle-earth,” McKay explains. “It needs to pull you in and make you fall in love the way you fall in love with those books.”
“If people come out of this feeling like they’ve gone to Middle-earth, that’s such a special thing,” Payne adds. “Middle-earth fills us with hope, and it inspires us. There’s a reason why people reach to Middle-earth when they’re going through hard times.”
As Tolkien himself put it, their quest stands upon the edge of a knife. But even now, there is hope left: Amazon recently screened about 20 minutes of the show for a group of Tolkien superfans. As Payne and McKay hid in the back, they overheard one audience member say that the show “felt like Middle-earth.” “As he said that, I was surprised by my own reaction,” Payne says, laughing. “I spontaneously burst into tears. I was like, ‘That’s all I wanted to have happen!'”
Maybe Gandalf was right: Not all tears are an evil.
Top photo, from left: Leon Wadham as Pharazôn’s son Kemen, Cynthia Addai-Robinson as the queen regent Míriel, Trystan Gravelle as advisor Pharazôn, Lloyd Owen as Elendil, Ema Horvath as Elendil’s daughter Eärien, and Maxim Baldry as Elendil’s son Isildur.
Stay tuned for more exclusive details about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on EW.com.
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