For The Breakout Star Of The Undoing, Success Is The Only Option

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For The Breakout Star Of The Undoing, Success Is The Only Option

Words by Ms Lili Göksenin | Photography by Mr Beau Grealy | Styling by Ms Gaelle Paul

24 November 2020

I can genuinely say I knew him when. Now a successful actor, Mr Ismael Cruz Córdova was a 21-year-old college senior living in a dorm for freshmen students when I first met him. We had both gone through the rather rigorous hiring process to be Resident Assistants – or RAs – at New York University, and were required to keep kids (new to the city, mostly) in line, help them with their first year and support them when things got tough. We were assigned to one of the rowdiest dorms at the university. The year before, a freshman student in a nearby residence had tragically jumped to his death from the roof, hitting the courtyard in full view of the other kids who lived there. During our weeklong orientation, Mr Cruz Córdova and I (and dozens of others in their early twenties) were told that, if such a thing were to happen again, we were to find a blanket and cover the body.

“It was awful,” he reflects more than a decade later as we talk over Zoom. I’m in Connecticut, he’s in California and we’re reminiscing about the bad old days. “I think that the bliss and ignorance of our age at the time allowed us to do it,” he says. “But if we knew the requirements of that job now in our thirties? No, absolutely not.”

Mr Cruz Córdova recalls spending hours in the emergency room with drunken students, calling parents who blamed him for their kid’s behaviour, then hustling off to take finals on no sleep. “When I graduated, I was like, I’m done with school. I never wanted to go back.”

He not only studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts along with thousands of other aspiring actors, he made it out in one piece. Then, more impressively, he made it.

He got his break on The Good Wife before doing two years as the voice of Mando on Sesame Street and then graduating to bigger, meatier roles on Showtime’s Ray Donovan and then Mr Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. But things really took off for him when he was cast as David Rizzio in Ms Josie Rourke’s 2018 period drama, Mary Queen Of Scots.

Then came a leading-man role alongside Ms Gina Rodriguez in Miss Bala, a character part in Disney+’s The Mandalorian and now, starring alongside Ms Nicole Kidman and Mr Hugh Grant in The Undoing (HBO/Sky Atlantic).

“I’m trying to think of what I was thinking back then,” he says of those early career steps. His drive, he maintains, stems from growing up in Puerto Rico with very little. When he transferred to NYU to study to be an actor – a career with a hazardous and rarely completed route to success – he was a man on a mission. “I was on a set path, I had success as a single option, because of where I come from and what I had to do to survive, I just had to make it. I had no other choice than to make it.” 

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Back then, Mr Cruz Córdova was beautiful and sweet. He was a hugger, a “community builder” (his own words). I remember hemp shirts, sweatpant shorts and, of course, those green eyes. Did he seem like someone who would definitely make it, someone who had undeniable star quality? It’s hard to say – you couldn’t swing a cat at NYU without hitting an aspiring actor or filmmaker, all of them convinced they were the next Mr George Clooney or Ms Ava DuVernay. But out of the hundreds, only a tiny number make it, so even as a bystander you become a cynic. But Mr Cruz Córdova has done it.

Not that it was easy. “I’m a black Puerto Rican actor ­– for a Latino, it’s another layer,” he says. “There’s a lot of colourism in the Latinx community. I had to convince a lot of people that there are Afro-Mexicans, and that they could actually have a Latino of black descent play a Latino. [Racism is] on both sides. I just want to go to Mars. Start again in a different place,” he sighs.

He describes what it’s like to fight for a part, which starts with insisting that he be seen for a role even if he doesn’t fit the “type”. Then he tries to meet with the powers that be, getting an early version of the script to prove he knows his stuff. “I’ve written appeal letters based on the script,” he says. “Massive op-ed quality letters!”

Even when the nos come in, he insists on a meeting. “Meet me and see the qualities that I have as a person that will just come through in these characters,” he says. “I pour all of me into them. I come with a lifetime warranty.”

Mr Cruz Córdova’s portrayal of Fernando in The Undoing is electrifying, sinister, quiet and a bit scary – he doesn’t say much, but the actor has mastered the art of emotive jaw clenching. (Fernando has made only short, limited appearances, but the structure of the show is designed to keep viewers guessing, and his increasing, and increasingly emotional, presence suggests he plays a bigger role than we might have initially suspected.) Maybe it’s because I know him, or maybe it’s because he positively ripples on screen, but even in scenes with legends such as Mr Grant and Ms Kidman, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. The murder mystery, which is written and produced by Mr David E Kelley, has been unfolding slowly over the course of five episodes, building to this weekend’s finale.

Of course, the show centres on the characters played by Ms Kidman, Mr Grant and Mr Donald Sutherland, whose stone-faced sneer is only amplified by his character’s enormous wealth and perhaps the largest apartment in Manhattan. “I was stopped in my tracks with this cast,” says Mr Cruz Córdova. “I was such a huge Nicole Kidman fan, and everyone loves Hugh. Donald Sutherland? They’re part of our entire lives,” he says.

He says he’s loved Ms Kidman since he was a little kid. “The first DVD I bought was Moulin Rouge,” he reveals. I ask him if he, like me, would watch the DVD extras with the commentary from Mr Baz Luhrmann, costume notes from Ms Catherine Martin and, most importantly, the extended dance scenes. “Who are you talking to?” he laughs. “I memorised the commentary. That and Lord Of The Rings were out around the same time when DVDs were happening. You got the options to see the behind the scenes. That opened doors for me, that changed my life.”

“Meet me and see the qualities that I have as a person that will just come through in these characters. I pour all of me into them. I come with a lifetime warranty”

It’s strange how things turn out because now he’s playing the lead in the upcoming, big-budget Lord Of The Rings series being produced for Amazon. Of course, there’s virtually no information about the series available, but when we speak, Mr Cruz Córdova is about to return to New Zealand to continue filming.

My first reaction is one of concern: franchises as big as Lord Of The Rings tend to attract fans that are, let’s say, resistant to change. Mr John Boyega and Ms Daisy Ridley endured racism and sexism by Star Wars fans who felt it was somehow offensive for a stormtrooper to be black or Jedi hero to be a woman. I mention this to Mr Cruz Córdova and he pauses before replying, very slowly and very carefully: “There are very loud voices online that are concerned with a type of purity that we know does not exist. Especially in the realm of fantasy.”

Fantasy should surely be a safe haven from racism and sexism, homophobia and all other forms of prejudice. But writers and consumers of fantasy are creatures of our world, where all of these things still exist, which in turn can make for a rather challenging environment for actors who, after all, are just trying to do their jobs. Mr Cruz Córdova seems determined, if a bit apprehensive, about what’s to come.

“There’s been a lot of backlash,” he says. “And I know it will only amplify, but that actually makes my casting and my fight for it even more important.”

He is, through it all, the happy warrior because he knows from personal experience how hard it is for people of colour to be a success (even if his IMDb page makes it look easy). “We’re taken out of period films unless we play slaves, and we’re also taken from the world of fantasy,” he argues. “The pool of opportunity is miniscule. It’s hard to be a pioneer, it’s scary. You mention Daisy and you mention John, and it’s dawning on me right now that this role, this franchise, is as big as that one. But this is how I feel: boo hoo!”

Who cares if James Bond is white or black or Asian? (“I’m rooting for Idris,” he says. “Him or me.”) Who cares if Middle Earth has a black wizard, or an indigenous dwarf? Obviously, people care, or Mr Cruz Córdova wouldn’t be receiving hateful messages accusing him of ruining it before they even know anything about the dang thing. But for Mr Cruz Córdova, there’s only ever been one path: success.

“The things that I’ve had to go through… I grew up in misery, but we slowly went up – and I know I didn’t even have it the worst,” he says. “I’m ready. I’m ready to open up doors and I’m ready for other people to sit at a table. If that is at the expense of the hatred of a few people online…” He pauses before continuing. “It’s not going to determine [how I feel]. I’m taking care of myself so that I am strong enough for when it comes.”

The Undoing airs on HBO and Sky Atlantic