Ismael Cruz Córdova grew up with little money in Puerto Rico; but for many years he didn’t mind, or even know, that he was deprived of luxuries other youngsters take for granted. Without a television in his house, he was oblivious to the world beyond his hometown of Aguas Buenas, and lived in the moment, enjoying the natural wonders of the beautiful island.
“I lived in a mountain town which was very remote and isolated,” Ismael explains. “It was not connected by any major roads or highways, although it has changed a bit since then. Our house had dirt floors and no bathrooms, and we would wash our clothes in the river outside.
“We were quite poor, and there was a lot of illiteracy in my family. My grandmother would sign her name with an ‘x’, and I remember as a child watching her journey as she started to learn to read and write.
“Although life was hard, I didn’t know any different. I was just so taken by nature that I was really happy. I loved going to the river, splashing around, and the trees were my friends. We didn’t have a TV, so I would just sketch and draw instead.”
By his early teens, Ismael had grown intrigued about the world beyond where his young legs could take him. He began to earn money cleaning cars, harvesting and selling his own vegetables, and teaching other kids to swim. He also found other inventive ways to support his mother, a cleaner, and his father, who worked in a local factory, as they grafted to raise Ismael, his two sisters, and two cousins who were like siblings to him growing up.
“By that point, the magical years of childhood had been met with the realities of the world,” he says. “I started to understand how difficult it was, how little we had, and how much my mom and dad had to break their backs to feed us.
“I was always quite entrepreneurial, and had my first part-time job at eight years old. By the time I was 14, I had my own clandestine brownie and cake bakery business. I was not supposed to sell them at High School, but my teachers loved them so much they would close the door to the classroom, and keep lookout for me.”
Next, Ismael took a crucial step on his path to fulfilling his potential, although he did not realize where it would lead him at the time. He used the dollars he had saved from his various jobs to buy a DVD player for his family home; and the first DVD he bought was ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’.
“Everything in my life to that point converged in me watching that film,” he explains. “We didn’t have a reading culture in my household, there were no books in my home, so this was my introduction to the world of JRR Tolkien.
“I saw the elves, and it felt spiritual to me. I was this mountain boy, I loved nature so much, and they revered nature too. Their values seemed so relatable to me; how graceful they were, the beauty with which they created everything, and their connection to the earth.
“So I told everyone who would listen, ‘I want to be an elf!’ But the world replied, ‘You can’t be an elf, little guy. They don’t look like you.’ That really upset me, and I revisited the film and realized they didn’t look like me, and no-one in it looked like me. There was no representation at all.
“By that point, I had already been struggling with myself and my community being voiceless and invisible, and trying to figure out how to better my life and my people’s lives. I’d been taught that there were ‘the others’ who had a life that was not for you to enjoy, that they had different opportunities. But I was always like, ‘F*** that. We deserve to participate in whatever conversation is happening.’
“It wasn’t just the movie. The bonus features on the DVD were really impactful too, because I saw what it was to make a film, and it made me fall in love with that aspect of it too. I’d already started my journey, but that DVD was an important step.”
We now know how this story ends, and it truly is a real-life fantasy. Two decades on, the Black Puerto Rican actor is playing Arondir in the Amazon Prime series ‘Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’, making him the first person of color, or Latino, to play an elf in any branch of the franchise. The prequel, released today, is the most expensive show in the history of the small screen, costing the streamer around $715 million.
It’s a destiny that Ismael has manifested, from that declaration of his ambition as a teenager, and then with a series of purposeful steps he took along the way. First, his dedication and talent as a swimmer got him a scholarship to a private school. Then as he started to flourish academically, his parents wanted him to be a doctor, but after joining the local drama club he knew the arts was his calling. Next, he taught himself ballet which helped him to earn his place at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts.
“This was before the internet, and I secretly taught myself all the ballet positions by myself at home, using an encyclopedia,” he explains. “Me doing ballet was met with resistance by everyone. It’s the worst thing you can do to assert your masculinity as a teenager. But I loved the expressiveness of it.”
Ismael has helped bring his dreams to life by journaling every step of the way, recording his goals and ambitions, and holding himself to account. This process, known as manifestation journaling in the self-help world, is something that Ismael has done naturally since he was a youngster, doodling under a tree in Puerto Rico.
“I’ve always written lists of my goals. I wrote down as a young boy I was going to graduate from an Ivy League school, and ended up going to NYU, which is like Ivy League adjacent for the arts. I wrote down I was going to be a lead in a studio film by the time I was 30, and I achieved that in [the 2019 movie] ‘Miss Bala’. And I wrote that by 35 I was going to buy my first home, and I did that at 33.
“But it wasn’t always straight forward to achieve these goals I set out for myself. I applied for 13 schools, but because I couldn’t go and audition because I couldn’t afford it, I got 13 rejection letters. But soon after those rejections, I won a local award for community service and academics, and the prize was $1000 and two tickets to travel wherever I needed to. I used it to audition for NYU, got in, and arrived there with nothing and no scholarship, because I had already started at college in Puerto Rico and was a transfer student. So I got three jobs to support myself through college; I was a lifeguard in the morning, worked at a cafeteria during lunch, and as a resident assistant in the freshman dorm after school, which allowed me to live in the dorm as payment.”
It was Ismael’s mentor Cándido Tirado, a Puerto Rican playwright and director who was the first person to cast him in a lead role at NYU, that solidified this journaling as a discipline which he would follow religiously for the rest of his life.
“I was getting auditions in New York, but they were all for terrible, stereotypical roles,” Ismael recalls. “But I needed to eat, so was having trouble saying no. Cándido told me, ‘You have to sit down and write down your mission. Not just thinking, not just talking, but write it down. And any decision you make that follows that, you will never experience regret.’ So I did that, and I started really committing to what it was I wanted to create in terms of a legacy. And it became a journey, not just taking job after job out of chance.
“I wrote down that I wanted to stretch people’s perception of what Afro-Latino, diasporic people were and could achieve. And I wanted to play with my masculinity too, and to surprise people. So I started pursuing roles that would allow me to do that.”
Life after college was tough for Ismael, and he spent several years couch-surfing and essentially homeless as he auditioned for roles that would fulfill the targets he had laid out for himself, putting strain on his mental health. He landed a recurring role in CBS ‘The Good Wife’ in 2011, and was then cast as Mando in the iconic PBS kids series ‘Sesame Street’ the following year. Although the public broadcasting salary on ‘Sesame Street’ didn’t pay enough to get him off his friends’ couches, it was an important step along his intended path. Then a life-changing break came when he was hired to play boxer Hector Campos in the hit Showtime drama ‘Ray Donovan’ in 2016.
Ismael says, “When I landed that role in ‘Ray Donovan’, I was in the depths of despair, to be honest. The previous year, I did a movie with Ang Lee [Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk] that I thought was going to tip the balance, but when it came out it didn’t do much at the box office, and I was back to living on the couch and being broke. I started to consider pivoting from acting for the first time, and going back to school to study filmmaking and writing.
“And then I got the role of Hector, and I decided to give it absolutely everything I had. I lost 40lbs in six weeks or so. And although he was a Puerto Rican boxer, who could have had a certain type of masculinity, I started working to make him more vulnerable and childlike. There’s something behind his eyes that makes him a little bit different.”
That “something behind his eyes” is what makes Ismael so magnetic and helps him to bring a depth and intrigue to all his roles, including as Arondir in ‘Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’. Playing an elf in Tolkien’s universe was a goal he continued to target throughout his career, so when he heard about auditions for the television prequel in 2019, he dove in. He believes he beat off competition from thousands of other hopefuls to land the role because his mind was in the best place of his adult life, partly because he had committed to a therapy program for several years.
“I started my therapy journey when I was about 20 years old,” he says. “I lost my sister Maria, who was my best friend, my everything, and the closest person to me, and that was extremely tragic. She believed in me and loved me, and was always there for me, no matter what. She was the person who made me believe that I could achieve whatever I wanted, and that my authentic self was good enough. So while I’m going through my journey, I’m also experiencing the deepest of griefs.
“But I’d like to highlight, that first therapy experience was failed. The therapist made me feel silenced and not cared for. And that shut me down for about five years. Then I started with another therapist, but that was also quite difficult by virtue of where I was in my life; I had a lot of resistance, and lot of rebelliousness, and a lot of pain. But it’s like dating, it takes some time to find the right person, and I learned something from each one.
“I’m 35 now, and since I was 31 I have been seeing the same therapist consistently. I met the right person, and it was someone I had completely crossed off. I was looking online, and from her picture and bio she looked like the most unfamiliar person, who I would never connect with. But I was in a moment of crisis and messaged her one night as a last resort. She messaged back, ‘Can you talk tonight?’ She has gained my trust and helped me confront a lot of things in my life, accept my shortcomings, but also tap into my potential and grow.
“It’s not a magical process, it’s about learning skills. It’s like going to the gym for the mind and soul. Therapy is a form of mentorship, and most people, if not everyone, need that outside influence. You have to work on your mental health so everything else can fall into place. If you externalize and connect with people, it takes the power out of the monster.”
So now, Ismael has landed what is literally the role of his childhood dreams, with uncanny similarities between his character’s journey and his own. “How I lived my life has all converged into this moment,” he says. “The audition came at the right time for me, when my mental health was better. I was rejected several times, but I kept fighting for it.
“Arondir is an elven warrior, led by love. No amount of obstacles stops him from going for what he wants. He has a very clear north, and with fear continues that movement forward. So when this role came about, I had no doubt I was the person to play it.”
Manifesting is nothing new. It has its roots in ancient spiritual teachings, and the Hindu belief that the mind, body, and universe are all connected. But in recent years, it has hit the mainstream, with the hashtag #manifestation hitting 20 billion views on TikTok, and ‘Shut up, I’m Manifesting’ one of the decade’s most viral internet memes.
This surge in popularity has, understandably, been met with cynicism by many. How can you make something happen just by declaring your desire for it? Is that not, by definition, just wishful thinking? But behind the mystique is real discipline exemplified by Ismael. He doesn’t put a label on it, but he’s essentially manifested his entire journey, from humble beginnings in Puerto Rico to the Hollywood A-list. But he’s not done it just by dreaming while sitting on his backside, cross-legged or not. He’s done it by recording, and then committing to, his personal goals through purposeful intention and directed action.
“When you have thoughts in your head, they’re kind of bouncing around in an echo chamber,” he says. “You cannot see your own rhyme or reason, but it’s there, and it comes out when you put it down on paper. I journal in some way every day. I have lists, notes, inspirations, mood boards, goals. When you name it, you can claim it. I named what it was that I wanted to do, and I did it.”
Styling by Alfonso Fernández Navas
Grooming by Jason Murillo at Art Department