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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sian Cain

‘They scan your eyeballs just to get on set!’ Charlie Vickers on The Rings of Power

Charlie Vickers, pictured at the premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power in New York in August.
‘You have to live and breathe Tolkien’s imagination to get it right’ … Charlie Vickers as Halbrand in the Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power. Photograph: AP

It’s a curious development of the internet age that, when someone becomes very famous very quickly – as Charlie Vickers has – gossip websites rush to gather banal facts about them: where you are born, who you are dating, even how tall you are. And if you’re an actor in one of the biggest shows (The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power), playing a lead role (the mysterious Halbrand) while daring to have no social media accounts – as Charlie Vickers has – those sites just start guessing. If you believe everything you read online, Vickers is a 33-year-old British actor who came out of nowhere. “Who is this dark-eyed golden boy?” one website recently asked.

“Oh God,” the dark-eyed golden boy groans. Well, he’s not from Britain, for starters: Vickers is Australian, born in the Melbourne beach suburb of St Kilda in 1992. He grew up in Geelong, where his family moved when he was eight. “But in England they have no idea where Geelong is,” he says, sitting in a London apartment. “So I say Melbourne.”

The one thing the gossip sites got right is that Vickers did sort of come out of nowhere, being cast in Amazon’s billion-dollar Lord of the Rings show with very few credits to his name. He plays one of the most intriguing roles: Halbrand, a gruff human who, by the forces of fate, is pushed into the life of the elven warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark). Halbrand carries a pendant that eventually identifies him as the rightful king of the Southlands; whether or not he truly is, or simply came by the pendant, remains to be seen. If he is king of the Southlands, he is also the last: the region was destroyed by a volcanic explosion in last week’s episode, turning it into what we know to be the evil land of Mordor. We last saw Halbrand steaming off on a horse, Galadriel by his side, to get help from the elves ahead of Friday’s much-anticipated finale.

Vickers’ love for JRR Tolkien was not first fostered in his books, or Peter Jackson’s films, but the PlayStation game for the second movie, The Two Towers; an oddly satisfying hack-and-slash game that was released when Vickers was 10. “It was so good!” he says. “I would spend hours playing it. I didn’t even own it – my brother and I would go to Blockbuster and rent it every week. By the end, we definitely could have just bought it.”

Vickers never thought he would be an actor, despite persistent encouragement from school drama teachers. Instead, he did an arts degree at RMIT University in Melbourne and indulged in some amateur theatre, until he heard that London’s Central School of Speech and Drama was holding auditions in Sydney. “I never really believed acting was something I could do until I got into Central,” he says. “It’s the only audition I did, because I never had the courage for anything else – I feared rejection that much. I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing it, apart from my mum, because I was afraid I’d have to say I didn’t get in, which is just crazy. But I did and it altered my life.”

Vickers at the world premiere of the Rings of Power in London
‘I’ve grappled with anxiety my whole life’ … Vickers at the world premiere of The Rings of Power in London. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Prime Video

Relocating to London so early means Vickers has had a different career to most young Australian actors, who often spend time on local soaps or ABC dramas before being whisked off to Hollywood to do good accents and look handsome. When Vickers graduated in 2018, he immediately landed a part in Medici, a Renaissance drama that starred Sean Bean, Brian Cox and Dustin Hoffman. Vickers played Guglielmo de Pazzi, the boyish, romantic nephew of Bean’s character. “I was acting with legends when I couldn’t tell the back of the camera from the front,” he says.

Not long after, Vickers auditioned for The Rings of Power. It was so secretive that he had “no idea” who he was even auditioning to play; months later, reading the scripts, he realised it was Elrond, played by Robert Aramayo. “They must have decided they wanted to go in a different direction, but still wanted me. So I did a few more auditions and eventually figured out I was playing a human, but I didn’t know anything beyond that.”

It wasn’t until Vickers walked on set, in New Zealand in 2019, that he was told about Halbrand. That must have been very weird, I say. “Yes, but I was like: ‘if I have an opportunity to be part of this I’m just gonna take it, even if it requires blind faith.’” What if he’d turned up to find he had three lines? “I would have been an extra just to be a part of it,” he says. “There’s not many worlds that most actors would blindly throw themselves into, but Tolkien is one of them.”

While Galadriel and Elrond are familiar names, Halbrand is a new creation. Vickers did as much research as possible to shape him: “I read The Silmarillion a few times, Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-earth series and then you have The Hobbit and the trilogy, of course … What I found really useful were Tolkien’s letters – there are hundreds of them and there’s so much of his opinion of his world in them. Because Halbrand is an original character, you have to live and breathe Tolkien to get it right.”

Morfydd Clark and Charlie Vickers on the set of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Morfydd Clark (centre) and Charlie Vickers (right) on the set of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Photograph: AP

As part of Halbrand’s opening scene – evading a sea beast on a ramshackle raft – Vickers had to learn how to free-dive, which was unexpectedly rewarding. “I’ve grappled with anxiety my whole life,” he says. “Before this, when I started to feel anxious, I’d just grit my teeth. At free-diving sessions every week, I felt overwhelming anxiety because of how physically challenging it can be. But the only way to do it is relax, because you can’t do it if your heart rate is going up – it uses up too much oxygen.” To start with, he could only stay under water for 30 seconds; by the end, it was more than four minutes. “It became very meditative for me,” he says. “The personal growth has been really profound.”

Now The Rings of Power is out, Vickers has been able to take stock of his new fame, which has been “pretty overwhelming” he admits. “There have been amazing positives and amazing negatives.” One negative was the vitriol of racists who “review-bombed” The Rings of Power to share their displeasure over the show’s casting, noticeably more diverse in both race and gender than Jackson’s films two decades ago.

In a rare example of proactive solidarity, the cast collectively issued a firm statement addressing the “threats, harassment and abuse” directed at actors including Sophia Nomvete, who pays the dwarven princess Disa, and Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays the elf Arondir. “Our world has never been all white, fantasy has never been all white, Middle-earth is not all white,” the statement read. “Bipoc [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] belong in Middle-earth and they are here to stay.”

“We anticipated that this would happen, and as a cast, we had really long, important discussions about the best way to support people,” says Vickers. “The racism is incomprehensible. Chatting to cast members who have gone through it, the burden they have to carry, that really hit home for me. Whatever you believe about Tolkien’s beliefs around diversity, inclusivity and representation, you can’t deny people the ability to exist. That’s horrific.”

Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Ismael Cruz Córdova and Charlie Vickers in The Rings of Power
Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Queen Regent Míriel), Ismael Cruz Córdova (Arondir) and Charlie Vickers (Halbrand) in The Rings of Power. Photograph: Matt Grace/Prime Video

The cast have a WhatsApp group, allowing them to share the joys and burdens of their new fame. “It’s nice knowing that we’re all going through it together,” Vickers says. It is a unique experience that not many actors will ever have, I say: being in something that is watched by so many – 25 million people in the first 24 hours, if Amazon’s numbers are to be believed.

“Yes, which brings with it a whole host of challenges,” he says. “But it’s a real honour.”

Vickers can’t say much about the next instalment of The Rings of Power, except to confirm that there is one. He’ll next appear in The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, a miniseries adapted from the Australian novel that he recently finished filming in the outback, an experience he speaks about with noticeable happiness.

“It was amazing after being in studios for so long doing Lord of the Rings,” he says. “Being able to just drive on set – compare that to Lord of the Rings, when they scan your eyeballs just to get in! Now that was really refreshing.”

  • The last episode of season one of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will stream on Prime Video on Friday.

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