Cynthia Addai-Robinson: “The closer I got to ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, the more I wanted it”

How she built her career "brick by brick" before becoming a queen in Middle-earth

Cynthia Addai-Robinson was never supposed to play Queen Regent Míriel. When she auditioned for The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power, the gigantic Tolkien adaptation now streaming on Prime Video, she was originally vying for the role of Bronwyn, a village healer who is portrayed in the series by Nazanin Boniadi. Addai-Robinson got a long way down the line and, like many actors in her position, started to see herself as the character. “The closer I got to it, the more I wanted it,” she says. “It had been a while since I had wanted so badly to be part of something.”

Ultimately, however, it wasn’t to be. “I felt like I was so close; that one hurt a little bit,” the LA-based actress says. This was back in June 2019, but seven months later, just before our lives were turned upside down by the pandemic, Addai-Robinson had her first audition for Míriel. “I just remember thinking, ‘I really don’t want to have my heart broken twice on this,'” she recalls. Needless to say, she landed the role. But not before COVID-19 broke out, making everything – including filming TV shows – inexorably harder.

“It had been a while since I had wanted so badly to be part of something”

With a rumoured price tag of around $1 billion, The Rings Of Power is probably the most expensive television show ever made, backed by the second richest company on the planet. Addai-Robinson is part of an army-like ensemble cast that includes Morfydd Clark, Peter Mullan and Lenny Henry. Unlike Peter Jackson’s Oscar-gobbling film trilogy from two decades ago, its primary source material is the appendices that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to accompany his books. As House of the Dragon does for Game Of Thrones, The Rings Of Power looks back to events before the main event; to the Second Age of Middle-earth, thousands of years before The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring.

Two episodes in, the series is going down well with critics and the wider public alike. Addai-Robinson makes her debut in the third episode, airing tomorrow. Speaking to NME at a London hotel shortly before its premiere, she says that promoting the show globally has been so intense that she’s spent just two nights at home since the end of July. Being part of such an enormous project must be like being inside a washing machine, we say. Addai-Robinson agrees but doesn’t want to sound as though she’s complaining. “I’ve worked my whole career to get to the washing machine, be in that spin cycle,” she says.

Our introduction to Queen Regent Míriel will also bring our first visit to Númenor, the island kingdom over which she presides. It’s a place that has never been depicted onscreen before. “It’s a very spectacular part of Middle-earth. Númenor represents a civilisation at its peak,” Addai-Robinson teases, which is saying something, given how lavish the landscapes in the first two episodes have been. The kingdom is in the throes of a crisis over whether it should tear down its past and stride forward or hold its history and traditions tight to its chest. At the helm, Míriel clearly has a great deal of responsibility to bear. “To me, this character is somebody who truly has a moral centre,” Addai-Robinson says. “Her desire to lead is not a self-serving desire; it’s really about being concerned for the people that she represents – the people that she wants to take care of.”

Playing a queen made Addai-Robinson reflect on the idea of having a public versus private self: as a leader, one has to project strength at all times even when one isn’t feeling strong. “People want a version of you that you feel compelled to deliver,” she says, acknowledging that actors are subject to a version of this dilemma as well. “You don’t want to disappoint people,” she says. “So there is that thing of putting that on a bit, knowing that maybe it brings them [other people] inspiration or comfort or joy.”

“I was always drawn to performing”

Throughout our nearly hour-long interview, Addai-Robinson is articulate and friendly, serious but quick to smile. She spent the first four years of her life in London, and thinks this may have helped her hone Míriel’s British accent. After this she moved to the US, where she grew up in a suburb of Washington D.C. Though she was “on the shyer side” as a teenager, the stage called out to her. “I’m sure my mother had aspirations – as many parents do – for me to be something a bit more stable: a doctor; a lawyer… but I was just always drawn to performing,” she says. “That’s always where I felt like I belonged.”

Musical theatre was her passion and when she was around 15, she played the iconic title role in her school’s production of Annie. It proved to be a lightning bolt moment. “Before that, I’d probably been amongst a cast, amongst a group, safely tucked away, but there was something interesting about being the lead of a show and having the sense of joy that it brought for people,” she says. “I think it gave me this opportunity to set myself apart and be known for something.”

Still, being among a merry band of performers who embraced supposedly “uncool” behaviour was where Addai-Robinson wanted to be. She completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts: a prestigious establishment where everyone from Lady Gaga to Mahershala Ali learned their craft. Then she began to imagine herself on Broadway.

Queen Regent Míriel holding court in ‘The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power’ CREDIT: Prime Video

But becoming a Broadway star is tough, and only a tiny percentage make it. Addai-Robinson realised after a few auditions that to even stand a chance, she’d need to be a triple threat who could act, sing and dance flawlessly, all at the same time. “You know,” she recalls thinking to herself, “I enjoy this but I think my path may be different.” That path was TV, where she began picking up guest parts as a 17-year-old in 2002 and gradually built her career “brick by brick”. Over the last decade, she’s won larger roles in everything from superhero series Arrow to 50 Cent‘s cult crime drama Power. She also starred opposite Ryan Phillippe in the action thriller series Shooter, which ran from 2016-2018.

Along the way, roadblocks were commonplace. “You’re rejected more often than not and you hear ‘no’ more often than you hear ‘yes’,” she says. “This is a hard industry; it’s a business that can constantly smash you down.” For a long time, making ends meet was a juggling act for Addai-Robinson. “I was a cocktail waitress for a very long time just to support myself and pay my bills,” she recalls. “I just always managed to hold onto hope because as long as I felt I was moving forward, I had to trust that I was gonna ultimately get to the place I was trying to get to.”

“It was miraculous we could make this show in the middle of a global pandemic”

Then, of course, came The Rings Of Power at the second time of asking. Landing the role in the middle of a global pandemic was surreal, to say the least, and Addai-Robinson wasn’t allowed to tell anyone apart from her mother, her representatives, and her husband (who relocated with her to New Zealand during filming). The production was blessed – New Zealand had the virus comparatively under control – but, thousands of miles away from family and friends, the actors went through a singularly odd experience. “I keep going back to how miraculous it is that we were able to do this type of production in the middle of a global pandemic,” Addai-Robinson says.

The role called for an especially physical set of skills. Having starred in Texas Rising, a 2015 Western miniseries, Addai-Robinson had sat on a horse before, but it isn’t quite like riding a bike. “It felt like the first time,” she says of her horseback scenes. “You could have your plan for the day as an actor – ‘I’m gonna hit these beats’ or ‘I’m gonna do these things’ – but a horse is gonna do what a horse is gonna do.” Because Addai-Robinson had previously filmed the series historical drama Spartacus in New Zealand, she found herself working with some of the same equine talent. “These horses have longer résumés than me,” she says drolly.

Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Queen Regent Míriel CREDIT: Prime Video

Though viewers haven’t seen Addai-Robinson in The Rings Of Power yet, the show’s casting is sufficiently diverse across the board to give racist trolls something to apply their bile to. Shortly after the premiere, Prime Video even suspended user reviews for 72 hours to combat so-called “review-bombing” from small-minded bigots. The show’s official Twitter account has since shared a statement of solidarity with cast members of colour who have received “relentless racism, threats, harassment, and abuse.” Of course, the vast majority of viewers have welcomed this newer, more inclusive imagining of Tolkien’s world. As Addai-Robinson’s co-star Lenny Henry said recently: “That’s to do with it being the 21st century; people want to see themselves.”

This far into the show’s press tour, Addai-Robinson is accustomed to talking about trolls – and giving them the short shrift they deserve. “I would engage a healthy debate on a topic that I felt was coming from a place of respect and intelligence,” she says. “I do not engage with that other thing; that toxic thing. And in fact, I would never consider them to be fans. They have agendas. And I just legitimately don’t engage; I just don’t go there.” She is aware of the thinly veiled racism fuelling many negative reviews but doesn’t waste time looking at comments. “I don’t respect it,” she says. “It’s not worth giving it any oxygen.”

“I do not engage with toxic trolls”

When Amazon bought the rights to the Lord Of The Rings material, they made a bold five-season commitment. Addai-Robinson won’t be drawn on her involvement beyond this season, but she’s happy to talk about other projects in the pipeline. First up is comedy-drama film The People We Hate at the Wedding, due for release on Prime Video in November. She plays a British woman called Elouise, whose American family (played by actors including Ben Platt, Kristen Bell and Alison Janney) arrive in London for her nuptials. “I haven’t done comedy in a really long time,” she says. “As an audience member, I am very much in the mood for things that have levity and lightness and hope. The world is in a tough place right now so I’m ready to be hopeful and smile and laugh.”

Addai-Robinson is relishing this chance to show her range. “I’m really getting this opportunity to stretch as an actor. Variety is the spice of life, as they say,” she says. She had never before filmed in London, her birthplace, and loved feeling as though life had come full-circle for her. “It’s all been really beautiful, actually,” she says with a smile.

As she waits to see what the world makes of her role in The Rings Of Power, Addai-Robinson is holding her breath. “What I’m really excited and hopeful for is that people have a different sense of me as an actor and as a person,” she says. “I’m just ready to see what the future holds.” She’s waited a long time to be in that washing machine, and she doesn’t want to stop spinning any time soon.

‘The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power’ releases its next episode on Prime Video this Friday, September 9