Exclusive interview: Sara Zwangobani talks ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’

marigold brandyfoot
via Prime Video

Taking creative liberties with a beloved property that spawned one of the greatest trilogies in the history of cinema, one that raked in billions of dollars and dozens of Academy Awards along the way, is sure to come under scrutiny from the fandom, and that’s without even mentioning that The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is also the most expensive television project in history, with the first season alone costing a reported $465 million.

That’s an awful lot of pressure, then, and we don’t have long to go until we find out if Prime Video’s massive investment justifies the expense when The Rings of Power premieres on September 2. Ahead of the show’s debut, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to star Sara Zwangobani, who plays Marigold Brandyfoot.

On original character created for the series, the Brandyfoots nonetheless have deep ties to J.R.R. Tolkien’s lore due to their status as Harfoots, precursors to the Shire-dwelling Hobbits everyone knows and loves. During our chat, Zwangobani dives into her lifelong love of both fantasy and The Lord of the Rings, how Marigold fits into The Rings of Power‘s sprawling story, her experience working on such a massive production, her thoughts and hopes for season 2, juggling acting with teaching, and much more that you can check out below.

The first question is an obvious but important one; were you a fan of either the books or the two trilogies prior to being cast in The Rings of Power?

I was a fan of the books, and the films! I read the books when I was very young. I loved them, they just drew me in. They actually started my love of fantasy and science fiction, which continues to this day. It was just such a amazing world to enter. And then, many years later, the films came out.

And I remember that so strongly, because they came out on Boxing Day. And I just remember that feeling of the magic of Christmas. And then the next day, The Lord of the Rings was coming out, so it was like an extra Christmas present! And I was just an absolute awe of them. I mean, the music still sends chills down my spine. And I think that they really captured the heart of the books. And so, now to be part of our show, which is equally amazing, it’s an incredible experience.

Having always been a fan, then, it must have been a dream for you to get to star in The Rings of Power?

It really, really, really was. And I didn’t have a lot of lead-in, I only had two weeks, a little over two weeks from when I found out about the role before I had to be on set. And I remember distinctly that first week on set, just standing there in my costume in the forest. And just being like; “This is this is literally like stepping into one of my books”. It was incredible. It was really great.

As a lifelong fantasy fan, as far as dipping your toes into the water for the first time goes, the single most expensive season of television ever made is definitely one way of doing it!

Yeah, that is true! So, you know, I didn’t know very much about my role. I knew nothing about my role, actually. And I was coming into the single most expensive, you know, show/series on television, I thought I was gonna be in some amazing, extravagant, and I was in an amazing costume, but it was twigs in my hair, dirt under my nails, you know, like a big sort of saggy, saggy dress. So not exactly glamorous! But I think you will see all of that onscreen, what they’ve done is so epic in scope, and you will see that budget on the screen, and it’ll blow people away.

What you’re saying about not knowing your role, I was going to ask what the casting process was like. Because a lot of projects of that size are completely shrouded in secrecy, and you don’t even know what it is, or who you’ve been cast as, until you’ve been cast.

That’s exactly right. I actually got the script when I arrived. The first day I arrived, I got the script for episode one and episode two. And I didn’t think I was in it, because the name that I had auditioned for it was a different name on the script. So I went, “Oh, okay, I’m not actually in the first couple of episodes”. And then they were like, “No, no, this is your character.”

So no, I knew absolutely nothing! I’d auditioned for two roles via two self-tapes. But that had been months before. And then I got the phone call saying I was on it, and knew almost nothing. The great thing about that, though, is that it’s like a massive adventure. It’s very nerve-wracking, of course. But it’s also just such a sense of discovery every day, which was incredible. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. And they were super supportive as well.

Did it feel daunting at all stepping into a world with prosthetics, massive sets, visual effects, green screens, action scenes, a huge ensemble, and all the other bells and whistles on a project of this size?

Well, actually… also, I was in the first scene shot on the first day, and it was a big scene with my daughter, so it was kind of being thrown in the deep end. I think I’m somewhat fortunate compared to some of my other castmates, in that I didn’t have time to think. It was literally three days to get on the plane, as soon as I got in New Zealand, it was a massive crash course in the world. I went to the wonderful Kate Hawley’s big museum to all things Tolkien, and she had all the sets of all the different worlds, all the costumes, all the drawings.

I mean, she just completely drew me in. And then it was a complete crash course in the rest of it. So I didn’t have much time to feel daunted. I will say, though, sitting there when they were about to say “action” on the very first scene, a pretty big wave of terror rose over me! But again, there wasn’t much time for that. I just had to get on with it. I’d be very intrigued to hear from other castmates how they felt knowing for months and months, because I’m sure that would be more daunting.

In some cases, it’s probably better on a project like this to find out at the last minute, because then you don’t have too much time to actually think about it.

You absolutely don’t. And you also have to trust that they’ve cast you correctly, because there’s not even much time to sort of think too hard about your character in those early days. Anyway, as it went on, we had plenty of time. And I spent a lot of time with my family on the show. So yeah.

The setting of The Rings of Power will be familiar to almost everyone, but the time period might not be. Where do we find Marigold and the rest of the Brandyfoots at the start of the story, and where do they fit into what looks like an epic, sprawling narrative?

So this is obviously set in the Second Age. So yes, it will be less familiar to people that have read Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It is… we find the Harfoot family, their way of life is a response to a war that has gone before. They’ve lived that way of life for generations and generations. They’ve kept themselves in hiding from the rest of the world. They are migratory. They’re nomadic, they move around as well to keep away from the rest of the world, but also in order to move to different places with the seasons in order to survive.

And that way of life has been really successful for them. But something happens that upsets that balance. And in Marigold’s case, she really struggles with it because she really is committed to the way of life they’ve lived. She is committed to her family and her tribe. And there are other members of her family that are a bit more adventurous. So that’s where the struggle comes in. And I can’t tell you too much obviously, because you got to wait and see it!

The Harfoots are part of Tolkien’s works, but you’re playing an original character in The Rings of Power. Were you assigned any sort of reading materials to help build Marigold, or was it all there in the scripts?

It was all there in the scripts, the showrunners are mad, passionate fans of Tolkien themselves, and their writing is so lyrical, and so rich, and so full of detail, that it all came from the scripts.

We also, though, myself, Dylan Smith, Markella Kavenagh, Megan Richards, and Dan Weyman, we sat together, we spent a lot of time together, we’d go for lunches, they’d come over to my house, or I’d go to theirs, we’d have chats about the scripts and about the characters, we’d sit and do dialect together, we’d go on holidays together.

So as a group, we also came up with a lot of backstory, and J.D. [Payne], and Patrick [McKay] were also very collaborative. So we could go to them, ask them questions, discuss character arcs, that was a total gift, because I’m not sure that that’s always possible.

Did you pay any attention to the external pressure? Because there’s inevitably going to be a lot of Tolkien and Lord of the Rings fans going through every single episode with a fine-tooth comb.

I don’t pay much attention to that pressure, mostly because I feel very confident in the show. And I feel that every person on the show, not just the actors and the showrunners, but the crew, the set designers, the prosthetics team, everyone in this season has worked their butts off, and also have been so passionate about the project. For no one, it was just a job, everybody was incredibly dedicated to bringing this world to life.

And I personally think that’s really all you can do. I think that they will see what’s on the screen. And it will change a lot of people’s minds about what they think is going to happen with this show. I’m a passionate fantasy fan myself. But trust me, I’ve sat there and gone; “Hang on a minute, that wasn’t in the book!”. But if the work is good, I think you always will be convinced by that. And I really do believe that this is going to be a fantastic show.

There was 18 months between the first and last days of shooting with a pandemic in the middle, for how much of that time were you required on set?

What ended up happening was… we did start working on the project, and there was a little hiatus thanks to COVID, and then we came back. From that time on, we actually didn’t leave due to the restrictions of the New Zealand government, which was very, very positive, actually, because it made sure that that we were COVID-free. But we couldn’t leave, so everything was shot within that timeframe. The difficulty there was, of course, not being able to go home and see family and so on, that was a real challenge.

But that also meant that everybody who was on the ground together became so much closer, I think, more close than they would have been otherwise, just due to the nature of the circumstances. So everything was shot within the within the year and a half from January 2020 to July 2021. I did have some time off, so I got to explore New Zealand as an added bonus. Beautiful country. But yeah, it was all done on the ground.

The Rings of Power was trailblazing in a way, because there was a period when The Rings of Power and the Avatar sequels were pretty much the only two major film or TV productions that were shooting at the time.

That was crazy, though, because the crews were stretched to their limits, because they were two such big shows. I can’t imagine what would have happened if there’d been something else shooting. And we had crew that had, you know, when they had a little hiatus of any kind would go off to the other one and come back again. And I mean, New Zealand was incredibly busy actually, with those those two things shooting at the same time.

The show was announced for a multi-season commitment, can you shed any light on production for season 2, which is moving from New Zealand to the United Kingdom?

No! What I can tell you, though, is we’re very excited for season one, for starters, and it ends in a way that makes you very excited for season two. I think the filming in New Zealand will be so apparent in every inch of of this season. The richness of that country in the landscape, and its history, and attachment to The Lord of the Rings will very much exist.

But I do think also it’s very exciting that we’re going to England. I mean, it’s Tolkien’s home. It’s where the stories were originated from. And I can’t wait to see what season two brings shooting in England. It’ll be such a different experience. But yeah, it’ll be great.

You appeared onstage with Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire [in 2009], and now you’re starring in a series where her former character Galadriel plays a pivotal role, do you see that as something of a full circle moment more than a decade on?

I feel like I don’t haven’t thought about it a lot. But I do think it is a bit of a full circle moment. Working with Cate in in A Streetcar Named Desire was a real pivotal moment in my career, seeing someone of that caliber, working with her closely, and seeing her performances, I think definitely changed the trajectory of my own career and the way I think about my own work. So yeah, there’s definitely a full circle moment coming around to Lord of the Rings. Because obviously, she’s amazing in the films.

Are you still balancing acting with teaching, after stepping in to help solve the shortage? Or is that something that could change once the inevitable offers start rolling in when The Rings of Power is out there for the world to see?

I truly love teaching, I find it very grounding. Obviously, I’m an actor. That’s my first love. That’s my career. But on the downtimes and the hiatuses, I actually quite like going back to teaching, it’s very grounding. And the kids, the kids get very excited about all this stuff, but only for like a New York minute. And then they’re just like, “Hey, now it’s all about me again”. And I think that’s a very good thing.

And I also think as an actor, if you just exist in the world of performance, then where’s your inspiration coming from? That, I think, can be sort of a bit like the snake eating its own tail. So I think going back to the sort of real jobs, and the real world, and talking to people every day, and working with kids, is just fuel for performance. And I get to do something when I’m not working. Why not help kids?

Give it a month, and you’ll be too famous to go back anyway, you won’t be able to cross the street!

Not in my little town! My little town’s just like, “Yeah”. I’ll still be going to my little local, and hanging out with the old geezers at the bar.

So how does it feel to become the latest in an illustrious and very length of names to have done the contractually-obligated several episodes of Home and Away before starring in a huge blockbuster franchise project!

It feels like a rite of passage! Every Aussie has to do that! Every Aussie, like, you’re so right. It’s completely obligatory on a resume if you’re going to be famous that Home and Away was there somewhere.

Were The Rings of Power to open every single door for your career, what would be your dream project to star in whether it’s film, TV, stage, anything, without restrictions?

Well, that’s a really good question. Stage? It’d be something Shakespearean like Lady Macbeth, or Cleopatra. In film and television? Again, I’m still so in love with fantasy, and I’ve only just dipped my toe in that water. So I think I’d love to do something that’s in the fantasy realm as well. I’d love to do a character that has stunts, something super physical.

And then, also, I have a fantasy book that I absolutely love by a writer called Jacqueline Carey. And it’s called Kushiel’s Dart. It’s a trilogy, and I’m desperately hoping that gets made one day, because there’s a character Kaneka that I’d like to play. So that, probably, would be my ultimate as well.

Catch Sara Zwangobani in the very first scene of the first episode from The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power when it drops on Amazon next month on September 2. The second season doesn’t have a release window as of yet, but production is expected to begin before the end of 2022.