To no fault of actor Charlie Vickers — or maybe to great praise — we knew something was up with Halbrand the minute he picked Galadriel up in the Sundering Seas early on in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Through eight episodes, the reluctant king of the Southlands was always a little out of place among the epic ebb and flow of Middle-earth drama. Turns out, he had a big secret.
[Ed. note: This interview contains spoilers for The Rings of Power season 1.]
Vickers was was flippin’ Sauron the whole dang time!
By the end of The Rings of Power, the viewers (plus a few elves) know Halbrand’s secret, paving the way for Vickers to operate an entirely new mode in season 2. But Amazon’s first season was a juggling act we rarely see on TV; the actor had to possess the spirit of Morgoth’s No. 1 guy, while faking it as Halbrand until he made it to Mordor. So what’s Sauron’s actual deal, which Vickers had to let simmer under his skin for those eight episodes?
Over Zoom from London, where he’s currently shooting The Rings of Power, we asked the actor about his villainous journey and where it’s headed next.
Polygon: In what terms did you first discuss Halbrand/Sauron as a character? What kind of headspace were you in playing the character, pre-reveal, throughout season 1?
Charlie Vickers: I think when you look back to where he is, at the beginning of this season, it’s that he’s in this period where he’s rebuilding. Tolkien talks about him lingering in Middle-earth, and then very slowly he sort of regathers strength and returns to power. And I think we’re seeing him in that state, that kind of repentance stage. The question is whether the repentance is genuine or a facade. And I think you can view the season in both terms, whether he’s manipulating his way through and manipulating Galadriel in order to return to power, or whether he’s genuinely seeking a different life and trying to be a good person. What’s interesting is that those things aren’t mutually exclusive. He could be thinking he’s trying to do one thing, trying to do good, but really, in order to do that, he can’t resist manipulation.
And I think he’s motivated to heal Middle-earth. And he talks about in the last episode, when Morgoth was defeated, “It was like a great clenched fist and released its grasp from my neck. And then I realized I have to undo all the pain that I caused” — something along those lines. And I think he’s trying to heal Middle-earth from the destruction that it’s had over the First Age, to rehabilitate and reorganize it. While these things are a product of what happened in the First Age, and then what’s happened in the Second Age, I also think that he’s had these things built into his being, his personality. This desire for perfection. It’s craftsmanship.
The showrunners, Patrick and J.D., compared Sauron to Walter White in Breaking Bad. Was that a touchstone or were you considering other portrayals of morally poisoned characters? Or even real-life people?
I haven’t really thought that much about real-life examples. I’m very interested in politics, and I did watch a documentary about dictators in history and the way they crafted their rule. But that was more to inform it subconsciously. The Walter White comparison is interesting because he’s kind of an antihero. He does bad things, but we’re on his side. And I think there might be an element of that in our story.
I did find a lot of inspiration in other performances as well, watching different actors play villains. [...] While we were doing this show I was watching The Boys, and Antony Starr did such an amazing job with Homelander. There was an element of things that are going forward with the character. And then in that last scene with Galadriel he has something scary that just sits beneath the surface of what he’s doing. So I was inspired by that. And he has the manipulation without it, most of the time, without being unhinged. I think that’s interesting with Sauron because a lot of villains have this capacity for being really scary in the sense of there’s something out of control. Whereas Sauron is all about control. And there might be elements of his personality where he loses control, because of the circumstances that he’s come across in the First Age, but his manipulation comes through seduction and gaining trust of the people that he comes across. And so it’s quite unique to strike that balance, because he’s not your traditional villain like the Joker.
Speaking of seduction, the introduction of Sauron was one of the Polygon team’s most anticipated moments in The Rings of Power, mostly because we knew from Tolkien’s writing that he was supposed to be, to quote our resident expert, “totally hot.” First off, congrats. Second, did the sex appeal of the character come up? Was it a topic when navigating how Halbrand would play off Galadriel?
[Vickers melts into a puddle of bashful goo before quickly reforming] I think that any complication there in terms of chemistry and romance, it’s something that just naturally occurred, it wasn’t really a conscious decision. I like to think of [Sauron and Galadriel’s] connection to be something greater than romance, but I also think it’s really interesting that some people have interpreted it that way. But I think if that’s a byproduct of what people took from the relationship in the show that’s really cool. Sexy Sauron... that’s all the makeup and costume departments’ work [laughs]. I’m just a pretty regular-looking guy in real life.
Tolkien created so many bits and pieces of history that define Sauron — were there specific “memories” that you carried with you from the beginning? What is Halbrand dwelling on that we haven’t actually heard him admit until the finale?
A lot of the subconscious work was a creating a human life for Halbrand. In order for Sauron to effectively portray Halbrand and deceive people, I think he would have to have a pretty comprehensive life mapped out. I guess all the subconscious work I did was in creating that and then also creating Sauron’s life and really thinking about where he’s come from. It’s a lot of reading, but also a lot of practical things. We were so lucky in New Zealand to have the country. So I went hiking for a long time to create Sauron’s world. I went to Tongariro National Park, which is [what] they used for Mount Doom in The Fellowship of the Ring, the original trilogy. So the subconscious work was all kind of there. And I hope that it informed the performance — I kept that in my mind as we were going
You’re in London now shooting season 2, and while I know we can’t talk about it too much, what do you make of the dynamic between Adar and Sauron? Did that weigh on you in these first episodes, and where is it going?
They have a complex past. They have been in conflict for quite a long time now. We see an element of that in the sixth episode. And I think it’s pretty obvious when you watch the show that there’s going to be more of that relationship. We’re going to learn more about it. So I don’t want to speak too much about it, but pretty quickly in the second season, we learn more about that history. But it is complex, and it has deep roots, and I think that will be exposed as the show goes on.
Finally, where’d Sauron get his black robe? Is there a dress code in Mordor?
Wow, that’s a great question. Did he walk through a village and just steal it from an inn? Or did he, on his way into Mordor, maybe he killed someone and stole their robe? There’s a whole bunch of different scenarios. But you have to have a big robe!