‘The Rings of Power’: Charlie Vickers on that monster revelation
By Jennifer Vineyard
When he auditioned for the Amazon prequel series “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” Charlie Vickers did not know he would be playing two roles: the conflicted human Halbrand and the ultimate deceiver, Sauron. But he began to have suspicions early on.
During his audition, he was asked to read pieces from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” — “literally auditioning as Satan,” he recalled by phone on Thursday, just hours before the Season 1 finale dropped overnight, on Friday. “That was a bit of a clue.”
But it wasn’t until filming was about to resume for the third episode (after a COVID production hiatus) that the series’ showrunners, Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne, took Vickers to the set for an evil fortress, turned to him and said, “Hail, Lord Sauron.”
“That was a seminal moment for me,” Vickers said.
While he missed out on playing the spiky armored version of the dark lord in the show’s prologue in Episode 1 (“I wish that was me!” he said), Vickers went all-in on his Sauron studies, reading “The Silmarillion” in its entirety and combing through obscure passages in Tolkien’s Legendarium as part of his “subconscious work.”
Taking a break from Season 2 production outside London, Vickers discussed the big revelation about his character and what it means for Halbrand’s relationship with Galadriel (Morfydd Clark). These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How does it feel to be the answer to the question tormenting the internet? Or if you’re Sauron, maybe you enjoy tormenting the internet.
A: [Laughs.] Exactly. Maybe there has been some kind of sick enjoyment that I’ve been getting. Luckily, I’ve managed to stay off the internet, but it’s been hard to avoid. I’ve had friends guessing and telling me I’m Sauron ever since the second episode, which I’ve not been able to confirm or deny. So it’s a relief.
What’s been so interesting about the show is that it doesn’t shy away from the lore. For the people who know, there are little Easter eggs or hints here and there. When you look back to the second episode, you’re like, “OK, that makes sense in the grand scheme of things.” So I think it’s great that there’s been so much debate.
Q: You once mentioned that you found useful things in Tolkien’s letters, although you didn’t specify which ones. I took that as a possible reference to the period in which Sauron sought redemption. But then the showrunners talked recently about another way to read Sauron-as-Halbrand: as a power addict. What was it that you found in Tolkien that helped shape your portrayal?
A: I think the repentant Sauron is a really interesting thing. But I like to leave it ambiguous because it was ambiguous in Tolkien’s writing, such as in Letter 131, and in “Morgoth’s Ring,” in the History of Middle-earth series. He spoke of Sauron repenting “if only out of fear.” I think his repentance is fascinating — and this is why I don’t want to say necessarily how I interpreted it as an actor — because it creates two different [possibilities] for Halbrand.
If you look at him as if he’s genuinely repentant, and he wants to escape this dark path and live as someone who’s been humbled, then Galadriel inadvertently draws him back to this power. She says to him in the smithery, “There’s no peace here,” and that scene illuminates this whole idea for him of: “Well, you’re right, there is no peace for me as a regular person. My peace is in power. I need to rule. I need to lead.” And she literally gives him the keys to the kingdom and sends him back down the rabbit hole. That is, if you view him as repenting genuinely.
But, if you view his repentance as an act, then it leans more into his deception, and his deception of her, in that she’s a tool for him to get back to where he wants to be. You rarely see Halbrand alone before the finale, save for this moment when he’s in the smithery, staring at his pouch, making his decision. Otherwise, you mostly see him through the eyes of other characters.
Q: And yet he’s about to cry in that moment by himself.
A: I always like to think that in shape-shifting, the best way to deceive is to fully take on the form of what you’re trying to portray: thinking, feeling, living, breathing as a human man. Only through a wholehearted embodiment of his form could he deceive these massively influential figures. This is even when he’s by himself, because the gods are always watching. And we know that he fears the gods; we know that he’s scared. Because Tolkien says that explicitly.
He can use Galadriel as a tool. She knows the right people. She gets into the right rooms. If he’s by her side, it can only lead to good things, as long as he remains undiscovered. So I made a decision as the best way for me to approach it, to make it real for me. And let people interpret it as they will.
Q: Did you decide for yourself about a lot of little details? Like, what’s in his pouch? Why was he at sea? Was his injury was self-inflicted so that Galadriel would take him to the elves?
A: I have a belief about what’s in the pouch, but I won’t share that. Him being at sea may or may not be explored farther down the line. The injury, yes, I think he wounds himself, because he was very aware of what was coming. He thought he had stopped it, but he knows there’s only one way to get out of this mess. He risks this Halbrand form to get to the elves because he understands that the only way he can be healed is through their power and magic.
Q: Do you think he wanted Galadriel to figure it out?
A: Yes. He’s ready for her to see him for who he is, and he thinks she’s ready to know it. He makes this pitch to her, and it’s so closely linked to the mirror of Galadriel in “The Fellowship of the Ring.” It gives it an interesting context, I think.
Q: What’s the plan going forward, given that Sauron is a shape-shifter?
A: There are a lot of twists and turns coming with the character of Sauron. We know that [his disguise as] Annatar is such a massive part of this world, and the prospect of that is really exciting to me. I can’t say much more than that.
Q: Annatar is the lord of gifts. Did you get or give any gifts on set? Maybe that wonderful hooded cloak you wear to Mordor?
A: I love that cloak so much! I didn’t get to keep it, unfortunately. I have one gift that was given to me by one of the stunt guys, Daniel Andrews, which is a T-shirt printed with an artist’s image of Halbrand doing the sword flip on the back. That’s Danny’s trick; he’s had it in his stunt arsenal for 30 years, and he’s been trying to get it into a show for 30 years. There’s been nothing released with Halbrand, so I haven’t dared to wear it, even around the house. But that’s the coolest souvenir.