PHOTOS: Val Vega
TALENT: Ismael Cruz Córdova
CREATIVE DIRECTION: Sebastian Rivera + Ismael Cruz Córdova
PRODUCER: Jasmine Perrier
In support of HBO’s highly anticipated new miniseries The Undoing, whose very first episode premiered on October 25th, we made sure to catch up with one of the stars of the show, Ismael Cruz Córdova. Born in Puerto Rico, the 33-year-old actor is a step away from becoming Hollywood’s next sensation. It is only a matter of time. Thanks to his involvement in not less than a dozen of some of the most talked-about movies and television series of these past years (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Sesame Street, Berlin Station, The Mandalorian), Ismael has gradually made his mark in the industry by proving to be suitable for any type of character.
From a boxer with a shady past in Ray Donovan (2016) to a queen secretary in Mary Queen of Scots (2018), Ismael’s artistic journey has allowed him to give life to a large amount of characters, as he made sure to dig deep enough to catch their individuality and do them justice on screen. “These characters spoke to me very deeply,” he declares about the roles he got, before insisting on the ability of a character to “reveal itself to you, to change you, to make you talk, act and think differently.” One aspect of Ismael’s work has remained consistent over the course of his ongoing career — he is indeed very careful about never judging the characters he embodies. Instead, he makes a point of developing a relationship with them. “You’re there to express, to interpret, and to show these [characters] in their truths, motivations, and reasons.” Driven by this mindset, he prepared for the “wonderfully well-written” role of Fernando Alves in The Undoing, a character that Ismael describes as a “ferocious father willing to do anything.”
I got my best roles when I wanted to quit
Based on the 2014 novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz and directed by Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner Susanne Bier, the limited series led by Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman follows the disruption of a Manhattan upper-class family generated by a sudden death and a missing husband portrayed by Hugh Grant. “I felt honored to be there. I was very excited,” Ismael states while recalling his very first table read where he was also joined by co-stars Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and Hollywood veteran Donald Sutherland (The Hunger Games). When asked about his approach to choosing his roles at a time when diversity is not much of a normality (yet) in Hollywood, Ismael answers, “I pursue roles that will trailblaze, that will break barriers, and that will show the world that they should cast us — people of color.” His portrayal of Mexican cartel leader Lino Esparza in Miss Bala (2019) sets an example. The movie starring Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), has been hailed as a trailblazer action film because his cast and crew were composed of about 95% Latinx. “I made my career so that people can see how much power, skills, and talent we have. And I’ve done it by choosing these roles.”
Although his journey started in Puerto Rico, where he grew up, Ismael later headed to New York University where he studied theater. Despite a full commitment to his passion for acting, Ismael hit roadblocks along the way such as “tragedies, family deaths, poverty, discrimination, troubles with the language, rejection” which “paused his journey” at times. However, these moments also led him to a phase of surrender punctuated by doubts over his future in the industry — retiring from acting was an option he even once considered — but he came stronger than ever from this. “When you go through all of these things which are so hard, you’re just at the bottom and you don’t know what to do. You run out of money. Everybody keeps telling you ‘no’ […] and all of a sudden you surrender and you’re like, ‘You know what? Whatever… whatever happens.’ You go in and you start presenting yourself in the most honest way possible since you’ve got nothing to lose.” Ismael’s motto seems to have been a successful one to be living by — his acting proves it. “I got my best roles when I wanted to quit,” he confesses candidly, before expressing how it has helped him to shape the actor he has become. “Getting exposed to your darkest, deepest, most painful moments present your skills to you.”
Moving forward, more of Ismael’s projects are expected. Starting with the upcoming and long-awaited television series based on The Lord of the Rings, which is set to premiere on Amazon Prime Video later in 2021. As production has resumed in New Zealand after an imposed hiatus due to the pandemic, Ismael — who was contractually unable to say much about it when we spoke a month ago — bashfully shares his excitement without glossing over the pressure to be involved in a narrative well known by so many people around the globe who might have strong expectations. “I definitely think that there is a pressure that comes with that. Moreover, there is a pressure for myself because I was a fan of the franchise and of the books,” he comments. “But I think it is no more than a self-imposed pressure that, as an artist, I give myself to do my best job each time. I take [this project] as another opportunity to pursue my art. More than pressure, it is just incredibly humbling and really exciting.” As the COVID-19 pandemic is still in full swing, Ismael admits to feeling nothing but gratitude to be working on such a production right now. “I feel very grateful to have a job. I connect with the fact that I get to perform and it makes the sacrifice worthy to be so far away for so long.” Family remains indeed a top priority for Ismael, whose dream to pursue a career as an actor comes with a bigger life goal that goes beyond his passion for acting. “I’ve been able to give myself and my family a better life and to share my experiences with them,” he says. “Every time I’m on set, I bring them.”
Presently, as he moves his career forward with bigger projects, Ismael reveals that he would also be interested in exposing himself through his music work. “I’ve always loved music. I love writing songs. Making a few songs, putting something out there, and showing that other honest side of me in a different way is something that I would like to do.” As a matter of fact, music is no stranger to Ismael. “Here’s one word that rhymes with Mando, and that word is cantando,” the actor sang as Mando on Sesame Street — a role he played from 2013 to 2014 which allowed him to gain national attention and prove his musical potential in the first place. From now on, whether it’s an album or a musical film, Ismael assures that he is willing to commit himself to this new goal. “That is definitely something that it’s in a future plan.”
Throughout my conversation with Ismael, I witnessed another side of the actor that deserves to be highlighted. Not only were his answers deep and thoughtful, he also unexpectedly reversed the roles at some points during the interview to ask his own questions. As our call between France and New Zealand was coming to an end, Ismael surprised me one last time by switching from English to French for a few minutes to talk about his career, his multiple Parisian getaways, and our common readings — James Baldwin’s prose specifically. Overall, speaking to Ismael felt easy, natural, and mostly rewarding. It tells a great deal about what kind of artist and person he is.