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The Rings of Power’s Sophia Nomvete on Moving Mountains as Princess Disa

Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Prime Video

Spoilers follow for the first season of Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

For viewers watching The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power with some advance knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien, the dwarven kingdom of Khazad-dûm is a place of both eventual tragedy and immediate discovery. What is presented in The Rings of Power as a lush, vibrant community on the technological cutting edge is a far cry from the Mines of Moria described in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. And at its center is Princess Disa, the warm, formidable, and proud wife to Prince Durin and the first dwarf woman depicted onscreen in a Tolkien adaptation. Sophia Nomvete, who easily speaks at length about Tolkien’s legendarium and lore, welcomed the responsibility of playing that role.

“What does it mean to be a female dwarf — or a version of a female dwarf? Hell, there’s got to be many different versions, and we’ll all have different traits and different dynamics. This is what we chose for her,” Nomvete says on a Zoom call from the U.K. “I found this out later: Aulë is our creator, our god, and to Aulë, there is Yavanna — Aulë’s wife. She was as powerful, a goddess, but she was the soft, the warmth, and the water to his stone. Without even realizing, that’s what we created. We wanted to create her to be powerful, to be strong, to have her own ambition and instincts.”

Penultimate episode “The Eye” ends with a cliffhanger involving a demon of the ancient world threatening Khazad-dûm, and it’s easy to imagine Disa picking up her axe and joining the fray. Nomvete, who coyly says that she’ll report for season-two filming of Prime Video’s series “maybe someday in the near future,” embodied Disa through a season-one arc that saw her helping husband Durin (Owain Arthur) reconnect with estranged friend and half-elven politician Elrond (Robert Aramayo), masterfully using her “resonating” power to communicate with the mountain that is her home, and encouraging Durin to stand alongside the elves and mine the rare mithril ore that could save Elrond’s species. And the haters who have a problem with the convivial and ruminative Iranian and South African Nomvete playing the first dwarf woman in Middle-earth will just have to deal with it.

There is so much responsibility in presenting the first dwarf woman with whom we spend a significant amount of time. I want to know what your way in was. 
My first in was the script. I read the audition script at a point when I didn’t even know who or what she was. It felt like everything of me rolled into one — bar her furious confidence. (I need to get a bit of that from Disa.) But it felt so close to me: her maternal nature, her humor, her groundedness. All of that was in the text.

The second part of that process was I sat down with the lovely co-creators and co-showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay. They said that she is the heart of Khazad-dûm and the heartbeat. Every time they spoke about her, I did more research into the dwarven culture, more research into every single emotion. They go to the extreme. They love — they’re breaking bones in a hug. They hate — they’re smashing an axe. That is how they express their emotions. So I started to play with the extreme and search for all the facets possible. I learned so much in working so closely with my dearest husband, Durin (Owain Arthur) and started to feel his nature and thought, Well, what would I, Disa, do in that situation? How would she feel about it? I started to dance with all those aspects.

I’m fascinated by the “resonating” process. Your character describes it to us and embodies it through a powerful ceremony in which you’re singing to the rock and asking it to let the trapped miners go. How did you prepare for that, and what was the experience like on set that day?
That moment is really close to my heart. Back in the audition phase, they put on the breakdown, “We would love this actor to be able to sing, but if she doesn’t, it’s fine.” I’ve had a career in singing for a long time, so I thought, Great, I’ll do my audition piece. I decided to sing “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and I had no idea what it was for. Fast-forwarding, J.D. and Patrick told me I’d be resonating and what resonating was: Essentially, she was able to speak to the rocks, the materials around her, to connect with them through the power of her voice. Literally move mountains.

That, to me, was one of the most exciting prospects about this character. I come from a musical-theater background where we were always, at the time, taught that cleanliness was the key and everything had to be whatever the version of perfect was. And suddenly, I found this opportunity to throw my voice into the world for exactly what it is, which is kind of loud, kind of powerful, but it’s got imperfections — whatever the hell imperfections are. There are no imperfections, but there’s a rasp. I wanted to be able to crack and fall, because this was not a song; this was about a release. We wanted to then figure out what that sound would be like. We found this opera meets sonar meets lament. It was just this medley of everything that I could find in my voice and soul.

With Wayne Che Yip, our director for that episode, we were like, “Okay, what are we going to do for this?” We just started to play with vocals, and I remember thinking, Something just sounds empty. It’s not right, And I said, “I want to write a monologue.” Every twist in the voice is a line. Every note is a paragraph. Every change in the voice is grammatic. We started to really build a structure and tell a story. Then, the night before shooting, Wayne and I decided that we wouldn’t speak of it until we arrived on set. No one had heard it. Rob Aramayo — the shot that you see of him hearing it, that is him hearing it for the very first time. None of the dwarves that are in that scene had heard it.

So I sang that for ten hours straight, for the whole shoot day. Bear McCreary then added his utter magic onto it all. Me and him had a great catch-up the other day, and he revealed a lovely little secret. We actually went into ADR after that and started to play around and figure things out, protect it and perfect it. He told me that whole ADR session that we did in the studio, “I have to question if any of it made the final cut” — meaning that everything that you see on the screen in the show is live. He said, “The best version of it was when you were in that room.” Time stopped, Roxana, that day. I hear that there were people coming from other sets to watch. I genuinely, as silly as it might sound, blacked out. I think I released love, excitement, pain, fear, everything into that mountain. It was a very special day, a very special moment, for her and for me.

Aside from everything else Disa does — her domesticity, her resonating — she is a consigliere, even a Lady Macbeth–type figure, when it comes to Durin’s friendship with Elrond. Did you see her as a political animal?
I can’t believe you said Lady Macbeth, because somebody said to me once through the shoot, “She’s sort of like a joyful Lady M.” I was channeling a joyful Robin Wright in House of Cards, you know? [Laughs.] This is what was so important to us, and I’m glad it landed: She has her own agenda — all for the good of Khazad-dûm and her family. She has her own story. She’s driven, and she can see beyond anything. That’s another one of her gifts. She doesn’t have the pull that sweet Durin has. She just wants to steer him and nurture him, and she sees his pain and his struggle. But she knows what’s best for Khazad-dûm. She is hearty, a mother, a parent, but she is politically minded. She drives hard. She’s fiercely loyal and protective and will push boundaries and revolutionize if she needs to.

How do you think she would have done in the test of endurance that Elrond and Durin do?
She would have embarrassed them both, obviously.

Had you hammered metal before? Or was that a first-time thing when we see you do it in episode seven?
Never! We had a blacksmith come and show me how to do it. Owain was, like, in fear for his life. He was like, “I don’t want to get anywhere near her at the moment!” But it is really hard graft. Huge kudos to people who do this. I had biceps of steel by the end of it and a slightly sore wrist. It was great, because that was another thing: We wanted to be able to let people know that if there’s a battle, she’ll be on the front line — as female dwarves will be, should be, would want to be, and are. That was the brilliant director and friend Charlotte Brändström. She was like, “I definitely don’t want to see her making food or having a conversation. I want to see her doing something. She should blacksmith!” Again, just giving a little nudge to another facet, which is her fearlessness. She will roll up her sleeves and get down and dirty if she has to.

Speaking of food, something I noticed about dwarven colloquialisms is that there’s a lot of food mentioned: Disa talks about “strong gravy” almost as a threat to Elrond. Durin later brings up “quail sauce,” and his line “Give me the meat, and give it to me raw” became a meme. 
They felt so dwarven. Food is at the heart of everything. We’re upset — we’re gonna eat. We want to come together — we’re gonna eat. We’re alone — let’s eat! Feed the kids, feed the kingdom, feed the family, feed the birds. Food is a big part of dwarven culture and the dwarven world, and I think that kind of is their metaphor. It always goes back to that. And as for Owain’s line, “Give me the meat, and give it to me raw,” there’s something in there that feels like an innuendo. [Laughs.] It’s all with the unapologetic gregariousness of that dwarven, Yeah, we’ll say it where everyone else won’t.

I’m Iranian American, and I was so pleased to see two actresses of Iranian heritage on a fantasy series together. I know you and Nazanin Boniadi’s Bronwyn don’t have any scenes together this season, but I’m curious if it felt unique to you to be Iranian in this space. 
This is absolutely huge. We have existed all this time, and yet we have never existed in one of the biggest worlds in creativity and art. Yet now, here we are. Nazanin was bridesmaid at my wedding. We speak Farsi together, and we’re very, very close friends — and we fight like Iranians, my goodness, we fight literally like sisters. But we often talk about what this means and, of course, what lies beneath, which is the challenge that brings for the world to catch up that this is happening. We’re here. Sorry, not sorry.

Suddenly, there’s a million Iranian children who say, “There I am,” and I’m staring right back at them. Suddenly, there’s a million Black children who say, “There I am,” and I’m staring right back at them. Tolkien gives us a vast amount of different cultures, races, humanity, and diversity coming together in Middle-earth. Suddenly, we get to take from our own experiences; it doesn’t look like one experience, one background.

We come from Iran — do I need to say any more? Now everybody knows, right? This is our background. This is our world. This is our culture. We get to inject that into this world. That brings a whole new energy, a whole new dynamic to a piece of writing because of our background, because of our very wiring and DNA. There is something hugely Iranian and South African about Disa and the dwarven world: passionate, strong, poetic — all of that. Food, family, loyalty, politics, loud! Who else is going to play that part apart from an Iranian and South African woman? Tell me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

LOTR:TROP’s Sophia Nomvete on Moving Mountains as Disa