“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is as big a TV show as TV shows have ever been, with a record-setting budget spent on recreating J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth during the Second Age, and a cast of nearly two dozen series regulars and dozens more featured players deployed to enact its sprawling tale of the rise of Sauron.
And yet one character sits undeniably at the show’s center: Galadriel. The ancient elf, so old she was born before the moon and the sun first graced Middle-earth, was a crucial character in Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” novels and Peter Jackson’s “Rings” trilogy, as played by Cate Blanchett.
In “The Rings of Power,” set thousands of years before the events of “The Lord of the Rings,” a younger Galadriel is not yet the serene and wise co-ruler of the Elven kingdom of Lothlórien. Instead, she’s consumed by her hunt for the Dark Lord Sauron, the mysteriously absent master of evil responsible for the death of Galadriel’s brother. In “Rings of Power,” Galadriel is at once hardened by the millennia she’s already been alive, but not yet the stately (and formidable) woman of stature she becomes in the Third Age.
Somehow, Morfydd Clark (“Saint Maud”) manages to capture all of those dimensions of the character. In her review, Variety critic Caroline Framke praises Clark’s “arresting gravitas,” noting that “tasked with making Galadriel equal parts voice of reason and battling hero, Clark proves the series’ most reliable constant.”
A lifelong Tolkien fan thanks to her parents, Clark understands innately just how important Galadriel is. “My friends are all massive ‘Lord of the Rings’ fans, and I have to tell you, they describe her to me a lot,” she tells Variety. “She’s a living myth; a living legend.”
And yet, Clark explains that it wasn’t until she’d agreed to join “The Rings of Power” — and arrived in New Zealand in the fall of 2019 to shoot the first season — that she learned from showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay that she was, in fact, cast as Galadriel. Thanks to the pandemic, the experience became a nearly two year adventure, pushing the now 33-year-old well past what she believed to be her own limitations. She talked with Variety about training to perform Galadriel’s many stunts, how her Welsh heritage helped her with Tolkien’s Elvish language, what it was like to spend so much unexpected time in New Zealand and what she would say to Tolkien fans surprised to see Galadriel as a badass warrior.
When in the audition process did you understand that you were in the running to play Galadriel?
I didn’t know that I was playing Galadriel when I arrived in New Zealand, even. I knew that I was playing some sort of elf. I knew it was in the Second Age. Me and my sister were reading through it all, and I was thinking I was Celebrían, her daughter, because I don’t think I could fathom that it would be Galadriel. So I went to New Zealand not knowing who I was playing, which now looking back, it’s quite, quite mad. Everybody in the cast did the same. We all kind of dived in to this madness all together and met each other all down there. It wasn’t until I arrived that I found out who I was playing, and I obviously had to recalibrate. I still can’t quite believe who I’m playing.
How much did you know about Galadriel’s full history before you learned that you were playing her?
I knew “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” I hadn’t delved into “The Silmarillion” at all, really. I had no idea what she’d done. There’s a bit where Tolkien describes Galadriel as tying her hair up into a crown with a plait as she goes into battle. I was kind of like, wow this opens up so much, that this happened. And also, Tolkien changed his ideas about Galadriel, which makes her more interesting. I became obsessed with like, why did Tolkien need Galadriel to be that at that point? He kind of like fell more in love with her, I think, as he got older, and so there’s a fluidity to her character.
In the first two episodes alone, you’re climbing, you’re fighting, you’re swimming, you’re diving deep into the water. Did you have a sense your role would be so physical, at least?
No. That was a big surprise. I’ve never seen myself as a natural with that stuff. I’m dyslexic. I had extra time in exams because I was very bad at writing. So I really thought that I couldn’t do all that stuff. The people that I had working with me were so wonderful to get me to do that. It’s a testament to them that I was doing all these things. The stunt department were just amazing, and not just in terms of what they physically taught us, but part of it is your mind blocking [that you can do it]. I really think that everyone would do well to be taught by the stunt teams in New Zealand. If school was like stunt school for us on this job, we’d all be much happier.
What did you actually do to prepare? What was the process?
We’d start every morning with three hours of stunts, that would involve kind of general strength, flexibility, and then obviously, the swords would come in. And there were times at the beginning where, they’d be about 20 of us there, and we’d learn a sword fight all the same, and then perform it like a group of elves, which was really fun. We had an amazing personal trainer called Matt, who, at times, I did despise. But I think that’s part of being a good personal trainer. Did lots of climbing, which I love climbing anyway. It’s nice to have one thing that you’re learning that you’re already kind of good at. Otherwise, you could despair a bit. And then swimming. I actually thought I could swim, and after my first lesson, I realized I was mistaken and I should have never been in the sea. But now I can swim, thanks to Trent Bray.
How was it for you to incorporate the Elvish language into your performance?
Well, I went to Welsh-language school, and everything is taught in the medium of Welsh. Welsh is phonetic, so it’s much better for a dyslexic. I started learning English in year three, and was just like, “What is this?” Something that my Tolkien-obsessed mum was really proud of and passed down to us was that Tolkien was inspired by Welsh. So weirdly, his works have been a badge of honor for me, because the Welsh are obsessed with the Welsh and anything Welsh. It was really great to play a bilingual character. And yeah, I think it served me really well.
Some fans have a very specific image of Galadriel in their heads as this regal woman of the woods who is not physical in the way you are on the show. What would you say to fans who are sort of surprised by or skeptical of the interpretation of Galadriel in “The Rings of Power”?
I would say that her serenity is hard earned. I don’t think you get to that level of wisdom without going through things. She actually speaks about [how] with wisdom, there is a loss of innocence, which was a really good thing for me to find in the lore. Because, like, how young are you when you’re still thousands of years old? So it was thinking of what innocence she lost during this time. The elves by the Third Age have evolved to a certain degree. The elves in the First Age are really messy and screw each other over a lot, and fight and mock each other also. They are the history of Middle Earth, and so they are forever changing. It was really interesting for all of us playing canon characters to be exploring how these characters become what we know them to be.
The show is such a massive commitment — the showrunners have said that they’re planning a 50-episode series. All of my questions were prepared thinking that you knew more going into the show, so how much of that commitment was a factor for you in signing up to make “The Rings of Power”?
Yeah, I didn’t know. When you’re auditioning for something like this, you never fathom that you’re going to get it, and so you don’t really think about those things. I actually personally refuse to allow myself to imagine or daydream, because otherwise, you get so attached to everything you audition for. I think I’m still acclimatizing to what this means. The next few weeks are going to be huge in that, but also kind of a relief. You make things so they can be seen and enjoyed. It’s about time that that happens with this. But I think I’m gonna go through another acclimatizing period.
How long were you in New Zealand from start to finish?
It was meant to be nine months, and then ended up being in New Zealand from October 2019 to August 2021. Nearly two years.
So what did you do to pass the time?
There was not much time to pass, because we were quite busy. I was really lucky that I got to go around the South Island, which was just amazing. I mean, in New Zealand, you’re just in a constant state of the sublime, you really are. That was really important in terms of, the Elves are obsessed with nature. Beauty is such a huge part of their essence and what they kind of see as a reason to be alive. So that was really inspiring. I did lots of crafts. I also was very lucky to become really good friends with my neighbors, who kind of took me under their wing. You know, I didn’t expect when I went to New Zealand that I’d feel like I was moving away from home again when I came back. And that was — yeah. [Long pause.] I feel so lucky to have been welcomed into New Zealand like I was.
Finally, you mentioned earlier that you thought you’d been cast as Galadriel’s daughter. She does meet her husband and have a daughter in the Second Age — is that something that we might get hints of this season?
Galadriel’s family is a big part of who she is. There’s five seasons, and lots will be explored.
This interview has been edited and condensed.