Benjamin Walker on transcending stage and screen to expand Tolkien’s franchise

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Television has slowly become the king of media. Streaming has elevated the platform, and TV is larger than the silver screen. Shows such as The Mandalorian, Squid Game, and Game of Thrones proved that audiences want good stories and don’t mind enjoying them all on their living room couch. 

One of the most prized franchises is The Lord of the Rings. Fans have been screaming for more for ages, and Ben Walker is here to take the role of the wise and noble Gil-galad, High King of Noldor. The role is a perfect match for the Julliard-trained actor since the eight-part series dutifully adheres to the source material. It gives Ben the chance to develop this immortal warrior with fury and with grace.

Ben makes it look easy, and during our interview, it is easy to see why. He is affable, funny, and a dad. He knows it is more important to give than it is to ask, and bringing Gil-galad requires such humility. The epic series is available on Amazon Prime in widescreen format, and has already been regarded as one of the most beautifully filmed series ever.

I read that you were cast as Hank McCoy/Beast for X-Men: First Class, but dropped out to star in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. What is it about the stage that draws your attention?

There is this type of magic to the fundamental storytelling experience of that project. It feels like one of those moments where you came back from an adventure, and told the rest of your tribe about your journey and what’s to come. It’s also something that can only happen once. It only exists in that moment. Even if you were to film it and put it online, it’s just not the same experience. And that to me is really beautiful. During that play, we had done workshops for almost five years. It was built in a small space, but over time, it made its way to Broadway! It would’ve been a real shame if I hadn’t done it. I’m a real dancer at heart. 

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Besides comedy on the stage, you have a rich history with drama. Did this affinity for Broadway derive from your time at Julliard?

Yes, I certainly went to The Juilliard School so I could do THAT. It really is a grueling experience. As pleasant as it is doing shows a week, it’s an athletic event. The knowledge and experience I have gained during my time at Julliard taught me to train both my mind and body — something I do recommend for those who would like to go this route, so your body and brain doesn’t break.

You bide your time between film and stage, and seem to enjoy comedy as much as you like drama. Where did you get that sense of humor, and how do you satiate it?

My father’s got a great sense of humor. Growing up in the South, we would all sit together and enjoy a nice meal. After the meal, we would sit around the table for hours and make up funny stories or augment real stories so they are funny. Later on in life, I ran a stand-up show in New York. I was able to surround myself with people that I thought had a great sense of humor such as comedians, writers, and so much more. 

I really like comedians and how they see the world. To me, there is this line between something deeply tragic and something so tragic that it becomes absurdly funny. That fascinates me. There’s humor everywhere if we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

What was it like when you got the call for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power? The world is so expansive, and the commitment must be very deep.

Before committing to the project, I had a call with J.D. Payne, the showrunner, and we were talking about his commitment, vision for this show and the world-building of the characters. I was filled with excitement but understood the commitment that it would require. It meant that I would be away from my family for a couple of years. To be quite honest, I was nervous. I’ve been a fan my whole life and was worried that they weren’t gonna do it justice.

I had a hard time hearing him over the phone because there was a noise in the background. Turns out, he was in the hospital so I asked him,”Are you okay ?”. He said “Oh yeah I’m fine! My wife and I had just had a baby.” It was really awesome to see J.D.’s dedication to the show since he was calling me from the hospital!

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(Right) Jacket Everlane Pants Brunelo Cucinelli Top Farah Shoes Harry’s 

I know that much of the script is kept in secrecy and there is not much you can reveal. But, everyone knows the $500+ million budget. What was it like to work on a set that epitomizes world-building?

Every penny is seen and utilized on the screen. The show demands a certain level of craftsmanship and artistry. They assembled the best people in the world to create this team of collaboration. In the last decade, VIA effects has evolved into its own art form. I come from a theater background so I don’t mind pretending there’s no wall there or 2,000 people staring at you in front of a green screen. I enjoy working in front of a green screen because it’s another opportunity for your imagination to fill in the gaps.

Also the collaborative aspect of wondering what the VIA effects artist will create too. They’ll say this wall is gonna be the ocean, you have an idea of what that looks like. Once the VIA effects are applied, I mean it’s beyond your imagination! The world building of it all is so vast, I really recommend those who can to watch it on their big screens. Every detail is able to be captured, and is a full experience in itself.

There’s a drone shot of Middle Earth and the storytelling in this sweeping landscape is mind-boggling to me. It takes one with real artistry and talent to do that. I appreciate seeing the finished product all come together, it just adds more to the storytelling narrative.

The Lord of the RIngs needs a studio like Amazon to succeed. How do you feel about the power of streaming and its ability to tell these long narratives?

It’s a luxury. Tolkien’s work along with the source material is so expansive that it allows for more to come. Even after seeing the epic film made by Peter Jackson, I still wanted more. With a large streaming platform such as Amazon, we are able to have eight episodes, and they’re all on film. So you can really curate in each world, dive into the characters and know who they are. Watching these journeys makes you really feel as if you are a part of it.

You play Gil-galad an elf in the series. What does it take to get you into the character of a wise warrior, and… immortal?

Alive! Luckily I have the source material that I can constantly go back to. I’m grateful to have members of the crew showing me support at any given time. Whether it’s our fierce dialect coach, elvish expert, or Kate (Hawley) who designed this flowing, gorgeous golden wardrobe with a corset. So you don’t have to worry about standing up straight. One of the joys of being an actor is you become a canvas for another. In some ways, a lot of your job is already supported. With Tolkien as the foundation, J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay next, then you just show up and do your best.

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(Right) Jumper Rowing Blazers 

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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is set thousands of years before The Hobbit. You don’t need to do a thing to sell it to the fans, but how will you tell someone who hasn’t seen the movies?

It’s the quintessential battle between good versus evil. It’s epic in scope, domestic in affection but also in fantasy. The perfect gateway to Tolkien is allowing your imagination to flow. We can see parts of ourselves in contemporary modern work.

The reviews for the show are fantastic. What can you say was the most difficult part of this journey? And are you ready to do it again?

We started shooting already. My schedule has resumed, but I really enjoy  working on the show. What a luxury it is to have a job. The hardest part is being away from my family and friends for an extensive period of time. The best part is also being away because I had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand. The mutual love, respect, and kindness of the Kiwi people there, it was wonderful.

With the season completed, where are the spots in New Zealand you would recommend to friends and family?

We were in Ponsonby. There’s this Indian fusion place in Ponsonby Road called Sidart. They do a tasting menu, it is a bit on the pricier side, but it is worth every penny. It was astounding! Also coffee, every cup I had in the last two years was amazing.

Finally, what’s the workout like to get into a warrior/High King elf shape?

It is a continuous and ongoing process. Although it is part of the job, I think it’s important to look after yourself and to be ready for what’s to come. You can also justify keeping in shape for work! It’s nice work if you can get it.

All episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power streaming now on Prime Video.

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