Leon Wadham was a Wellington primary school student when Peter Jackson began making his magnum film opus, The Lord of the Rings.
Fast forward to 2022 and the now 22-year-old is still in shock that he’s scored a role in Amazon’s highly anticipated small-screen adaptation of the beloved tale, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which debuts on September 1.
“Utterly surreal” is how the affable actor, writer and director describes an experience that’s evolving day-by-day.
His role, as young Numenorean nobleman Kemen, a major player in this $US715 million production, the most expensive TV series ever made, has already shot him from relative obscurity to international status.
Yet it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that Wadham’s journey has brought him here; novelist J.R.R. Tolkien’s work has been a backdrop for much of his young life.
“I attended drama school at Toi Whakaari Aotearoa, when Peter Jackson was making the Hobbit movies,” he tells The West Australian.
“And even despite having grown up in Wellington all my life, I’d never considered that there would be a home for me in a Tolkien story until this show came along.”
This show, which has taken him from a mere observer to an active participant in this epic high-fantasy world, is the work of showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, who developed the prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings set thousands of years in the Second Age of Middle-earth, well before the events of those beloved Tolkien tales.
“I don’t fully have my head around the visibility of it yet,” Wadham says of joining one of the most anticipated TV series in history. “I mean, obviously I’m on this massive, unbelievable press tour. And I am aware that the series will be available everywhere, which is not something that has happened to me before.”
He admits it is with a mix of excitement and nervousness that he finds himself standing on the precipice between life as it was and a version forever changed.
“Yes, I definitely feel a bit of both,” he notes, taking a deep breath, as if to steady himself. “I have lived and worked in New Zealand my whole life. I’ve loved it. I have been sheltered from the kind of attention that something like this involves. It’s honestly not something I’d ever considered.”
Until now, Wadham had been slowly breaking ground on the New Zealand circuit, writing and directing short movies including School Night (2014) and Moving (2016). He starred in A Bend in the Road (2012), Blankets (2013) and has appeared in such movies as Pork Pie (2017) and Weirdos (2020).
In The Rings of Power, his character inhabits a unique universe. “Kemen is in Numenor, an island that was gifted by the Elves after the Men sided with the Elves in the fight against Morgoth,” he explains.
“So, it’s an island paradise and the people who live there have extended lifespans. Centuries on, there’s a schism in Numenor between the faithful, the people who want to honour their Elvish roots, and the King’s men, the people who want to forge their own path independently of the Elves.
“Kemen falls into that latter category. His father is Pharazon (Trystan Gravelle) chancellor of Numenor, and Kemen is interested in following in his father’s political footsteps. However, he’s pretty young, pretty green, pretty naive.”
The ensemble cast also includes Morfydd Clark as Galadriel, Robert Aramayo as Elrond, Benjamin Walker as Gil-galad, Nazanin Boniadi as Bronwyn, Peter Mullan as King Durin III, and Lenny Henry as Sadoc Burrows. Perth teen Tyroe Muhafidin also has a key role.
Wadham says he loved being part of such an expansive and capable group. “It’s such a big cast and I know we’re all sharing the load so I feel quite insulated from feeling any pressure. I’m not on my own out on a limb,” he says.
The series was primarily shot at Kumeu Film Studios and Auckland Film Studios, and Wadham won’t soon forget strolling on to the set for the first time.
“I’ve worked in these studios before so when I arrived on set to see Numenor built on the back lot, I was blown away,” he says.
“They’d built blocks upon blocks of this ancient city and in such high detail. There was incense burning in alleyways, they were cooking real fish in the marketplace. There were boats on the water sailing in and out at the harbour, it was truly an immersive experience.”
And what of his linguistic challenge, which necessitated his learning to speak Elvish?
“We had an amazing dialect coach. On set I’d stay in the accent the whole time. I was nervous that if I dropped it, I’d come back in and you’d hear some of my New Zealand sounds. That said, Te Reo Maori does have a few of the same sounds, so that tapped R is a really common thing you’ll hear in Te Reo and I was grateful for that,” he chuckles. “It helped me get my tongue around more Elvish sounds that don’t necessarily live in everybody’s mouth.” He pauses. “Then again, I haven’t seen everything yet that I do in the show so I’ll be mortified if I watch myself back and hear this thick Kiwi drawl all the way through.”
He certainly lucked out in another department though — costume. “I feel almost guilty because I am in silk the whole time,” he says. “I’ve got such a comfortable, beautiful costume. Some people are wearing what you could call a puzzle with layers upon layers that click into place. The dwarves have cooling systems inside their suits because they get so hot under all their layers.”
He also wears no prosthetics. “I think Kemen is the most comfortable person in the show.”
Effortlessly charming and self-deprecating, Wadham recounts an anecdote from the set. “One of the first times I met Trystan (Gravelle), who plays my father, we were in a movement class, and I offered him a ride back to the hotel,” he says. “So, I started driving, confessing all my fears and anxieties about the job. I realised that we were backed up in traffic and I had gotten us stuck on a train track. The bell started going for the barrier arms to come down and he was like, ‘We’re on the train track!’ And I was going, ‘Yeah, I know. I know’.
“And he was, like, ‘You need to get off the train track!’ And I went, ‘Yeah, I can’t at the moment because of the cars’. And he was like, ‘But there’s a train coming!’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m going to have to get off pretty soon’. Eventually I managed to get us to safety, and I dropped him back to the hotel. I think that really set the status for our two characters. From there on out, I was the guy who almost got us killed on the train track before we’d even shot one day on the job,” he laughs. “Not my finest moment.”
Now, on the eve the show’s global premiere, Wadham says he’s thrilled with the reaction from his family and friends. “Everyone’s so happy, proud and excited for me. My mum, in particular, introduced me to the books. They were in the house as long as I can remember.”
Determined to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground, he offers, “I often see Karl Urban shopping with his kids at my local mall. He seems to be living a pretty normal life. So, I keep thinking, ‘If the lead of (hit Amazon series) The Boys is getting along OK, then I’m sure that I’m going to be fine’.”
He smiles. “I guess time will tell.”