There are bonafide JRR Tolkien fans who are optimisticly optimism about journeying back to Middle Earth via Amazon Prime Video’s Rings of Power series. There are fans of Peter Jackson’s film trilogies who are just happy to hang out with Hobbits (called Harfoots this time around) again. And then there’s Benjamin Walker.
“I’m just trying to stay calm,” he tells Uproxx before we dive into his Lord of the Rings journey – one that started when he was a kid and has somehow ended up with him playing a key character in Tolkien lore. As Gil-galad, the High King of the Elves, Walker is tasked with confronting a rising evil when we meet him in Middle Earth’s Second Age – an era largely unexplored in Tolkien’s work.
“The Middle-Earth in the Jackson films is in its adulthood,” Walker explains. “When we meet them now, in our series, they’re in their adolescence. This is the forming of Middle-Earth. These are these peoples and species figuring out who they are and what their place is.”
It’s a blank slate that comes with its own storytelling challenges but those are largely curbed thanks to showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay — Tolkien scholars in their own right — who have crafted new characters and untold origin stories that the strictest Tolkien diehards might view as sacrosanct . In reality, Payne and McKay have simply opened a new window into a familiar world for returning and prospective fans to climb through. And, as someone who grew up with Tolkien’s writing, Walker can appreciate that.
“You want to give yourself somewhere to go,” he says.
Uproxx chatted with Walker about stepping into this familiar fantasy world to try something new, the enduring relevance of Tolkien’s work, and why he thinks meat was off the menu for the Orcs in Jackson’s films.
For a lot of people watching this show, you either grew up on Tolkien or you came to him through Peter Jackson’s films. Which camp do you fall into?
For me, it was deeply tied with my childhood. The first big boy book that I ever had was from my older brother who was an avid reader — infinitely smarter than I was or will ever be. The first book he ever gave me was The Hobbit. I’ve always loved it. I loved the Peter Jackson films. I think, luckily, Tolkien’s writing is dense enough that all these different iterations can have their own lives and stand alone and be part of this huge storytelling landscape.
Gil-galad is a character briefly mentioned in those movies. He’s a centuries-old elf charged with basically running Middle-Earth’s response to this rising evil. How do you fit into those pointy ears?
Immortality is naturally the hardest part to get your head around. And these elves, in particular, are unique in that they have applied their immortality to a potentially futile undertaking, which is to protect Middle-Earth. They have the possibility to return to elvish Valhalla and sit in the light of Ilúvatar and drink Mai Tais on the beach. But instead, they’re like, ‘No, let’s hang out with the frailties of man, grumpy dwarves, and God knows what else on this disgusting, dirty lump of rock.’ And so for me, that’s what informs him, that he takes this responsibility on wholeheartedly. And it is also one of the reasons I really like him.
Do elves have a bit of hubris to them? In some of the past iterations, they come across as a bit pretentious.
Well, it’s a different level of awareness. I understand why a human would think it’s rude. I would probably find them rude, but it’s because they’re functioning on a different level. Their experience of the world around them is heightened. Their wheels are spinning so quickly. It’s like the human mind, yours and mine, we could visualize things in the millions, but then when people start talking about quantum physics and trillions and the speed of light and the size of the universe, we just kind of glaze over because our brains can’t really comprehend it. So, you have to imagine elves have no problem functioning on that level. And, to us, that might seem a bit aloof or potentially condescending, but they certainly don’t mean it that way. They’re as willing to get their hands dirty, and they also acknowledged the necessity of all the species of Middle-Earth’s values and strengths coming together.
Now I’m wondering if you’re in that mind space filming all day, how hard is it to interact with humans again?
Oh, you small-minded creatures? [laughs] No, I found it refreshing. I’ve been asked a few times, wouldn’t it be great to be immortal? And the truth is no because the prospect of seeing everyone you know and love die over and over and over … the struggle would be to fight apathy. To know that entropy is inevitable and to garner hope. How do you have your heart broken for eons and still muster the strength to fall in love again? That must be exhausting and something that lends itself to a beautiful preciousness, to the finiteness of our lives, that it really counts. If anything, studying these characters, has made me really appreciate the limited time that we have.
What makes this story relevant right now? Why go back to that well?
I mean that’s the beauty of Tolkien. It’s applicable whether or not it’s about the Cold War or climate change or about the resistance to globalization. It is universal in that sense. Because he taps into something that’s uniquely human about the viewer, which is that place between light and darkness, the place between good and evil, which makes for riveting storytelling, but also is the reason he has endured in our minds and in our culture.
Lee Pace pilfered a blade from The Hobbit films. Have you thought about what you might steal, when the time comes?
Oh, I’ve got my eye on a few things. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you know Gil-galad, he’s got some cool equipment.
We’re talking weapons.
Yeah. I’m not going to ruin anything for you.
You won’t tell me if he kicks some ass?
That’s the cool thing about Gil-galad … we meet him when he is kind of like this peacetime consigliere, but we also know his history as a warrior. Kate Hawley designed the costumes, and she made these beautifully ornate golden and pearl rings. I mean, they’re almost like something the Pope would wear. But we also layered in this other detail, which is when you form a fist they kind of interlock into these intricate, gnarly brass knuckles. That duality of him is ever-present. And in terms of the scope, the luxury is, because it’s a series, we can really be immersed in those details and really enjoy them.
There’s tension between Galadriel and Gil-galad at the beginning of the series. Does he view her as reckless, or is there a deeper rift between the two?
[I think] he understands his subjects with love in the way that a parent does. You acknowledge where your children struggle, you acknowledge where their strengths are, and you try and help them manifest the destiny where they can flourish. When we meet them, Gil-galad is wary because Galadriel is blowing on an ember and potentially spreading it and making it worse. She’s trying to put out a fire with gasoline. How do you redirect that in a positive way?
One of the biggest mysteries LOTR fans are still trying to solve comes from Jackson’s early films. At one point, an Orc Commander tells his troops that “meat is back on the menu, boys.” As a Tolkien expert, can you explain why meat was taken off the menu in the first place?
[laughs] I know what you’re getting at. I had always thought that it was about the viciousness of evil. That once we’re on top, we can truly consume. And it’s another kind of nod to Tolkien’s understanding of the consuming of the self, that destruction, and entropy. If Middle-Earth was all Mordor, it would suck. The cyclical nature of it all — that from dust we come and we are the dust.
‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ debuts via Amazon on September 2nd.