Up for both a Bafta and an Oscar this month, it’s been a great start to the year for Limerick actresss Ruth Negga, writes Susan Griffin.
IT MIGHT only be February, but 2017’s already looking bright for Ruth Negga. She’s graced the cover of American Vogue; appeared in the Hollywood Issue of Vanity Fair, celebrating the most compelling women in the industry right now; received an Bafta Rising Star nomination, and on February 26, will go head-to-head with the likes of Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, and Natalie Portman, for the Academy Award for best actress.
“It’s a peculiar thing to happen to people, to be in the public eye and people knowing about you,” muses Negga (pronounced ‘Ney-gah’), 35.
Befitting her title as one of the industry’s new fashion darlings, she’s sporting a glamorous 1970s-style maxi dress as she relaxes on a huge, squishy sofa, and jokes that she won’t be able to move again.
“I don’t know whether I would’ve been ready for it [when I was younger], or wanted it, but when are you ready? It’s not like you wake up one day and go, ‘I’m ready! Success and fame please!’”
Her stunning role in new romantic-drama Loving, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, has captured audiences’ imaginations.
It’s based on the real-life story of interracial couple Mildred (Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton), who grew up and fell in love in Central Point, Virginia.
Expecting a child and unable to wed in their segregated home state, they head to Washington, DC in 1958 to get married, but on their return to Virginia, are arrested and indicted for violating the Racial Integrity Act.
Given suspended sentences on the proviso they leave Virginia and not return together for 25 years, they move to Washington, DC, and live with relatives.
But Mildred is determined to fight and find a way back home.
“You meet Mildred and she’s this shy and retiring person, but there’s also a steel thread of strength and she’s not ashamed or abashed,” says Negga.
The subsequent civil rights case, Loving v Virginia, went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1967 issued its unanimous decision, striking down all anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional.
Given their legacy, it’s astonishing Richard and Mildred’s story isn’t better known.
“I felt infuriated with all of us, really,” says Negga, the only child of an interracial couple (her mum’s Irish and her late father’s Ethiopian).
“I thought we’ve really done this couple a disservice by not speaking to and about them more. But I feel there’s a thirst to tell stories that have been sidelined or neglected.”
Negga, who was born in Ethiopia and moved to Limerick when she was four, first heard about the Lovings when she watched the 2011 documentary The Loving Story.
“I was completely fascinated, not only because it was a landmark civil rights case, but also because theirs is the most beautiful love story,” says the actress, who has been in a long-term relationship with Dominic Cooper, her co-star on the TV series Preacher, since 2010. “All Mildred wanted was to be able to be married to the man she loved. Not every hero has a loud voice.”
In preparation for her meeting with Nichols and producer Sarah Green in 2013, Negga watched the documentary on repeat, and in her own words, “worked on those scenes from the script like I had never worked on anything before”.
She also turned up for the audition in character, a first for her.
“I did it because I thought it was absolutely necessary to make absolutely clear to Jeff that I could play this woman,” she explains.
“I think it would’ve been a disservice to Mildred, and also myself as an actor, if I didn’t bring myself wholly and fully and utterly to that meeting.”
She admits she feels “silly” for the embarrassment she experienced in showing such commitment at the time. “My job is often to turn up and create the character, but sometimes it can be quite personal and shyness rears its head. I have to quash those fears, because there’s a lot at stake.”
Negga, of course, got the job, but it would be another two years before the film was made, in which time Nichols helmed his 2016 movie Midnight Special.
“In a way, it was fortuitous that he did go off and make that film, because it feels like the timing of our film is quite extraordinary,” says Negga. “It [their story] has always had relevance, but it feels like people are wanting and demanding stories like this because it’s important to reflect the whole of society.”
Given her lineage, the story “definitely” has personal resonance.
“It’s a story I needed and wanted to hear. It was very important for me to be part of this, because I knew it would move people, and move them in a fashion that would be undeniable,” she says.
“I don’t think anyone’s come out of this film and thought for one minute that what they’re doing is not right, because it challenges people to come up with a reason why it wasn’t right. It’s a couple in love.”
Asked if the movie prompted a conversation with her own mother about her parents’ experiences, Negga shakes her head.
“She’s always been quite open and answered any questions I’ve had, so no, I don’t think that’s something that’s been taboo at all. It’s always been lucid and clear and transparent.”
Recalling her childhood in Limerick, Negga says she was a relatively shy girl and doesn’t know where her interest in acting stemmed from.
“I liked playing dress-up and telling stories, as all kids do,” she says. “I knew it was a possibility. I went to the theatre a lot, and I just decided that was the life I wanted. I mean, I didn’t know it would happen, and didn’t know if I’d be any good, but if you want something bad enough...”
She studied acting at Trinity College, Dublin, and among her early acting gigs was one with Corcadorca in Cork for Amy the Vampire (& her Sister Martina).
She’s since appeared in Breakfast On Pluto and World War Z on the big screen; Hamlet and Phedre at the National Theatre; and the likes of Misfits, Love/Hate, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D on TV.
There was also her captivating performance as Shirley Bassey in 2011. “I didn’t get to meet her, unfortunately,” says Negga, laughing.
“I loved playing her. Women like that are incredibly special to me, that charisma can’t be duped. [I’m] So impressed by it, and to get an opportunity to play her was so special and so much fun.”
Reflecting on her achievements so far, she admits she’s “super proud” of Loving — and that’s nothing to do with the awards buzz.
“I love this film. I love this couple,” says Negga.
“We all felt there was a special energy on set. I could feel we all needed to honour these people and do them justice, and that energy in itself gave it buoyancy.
“We all knew how extraordinarily lucky we were to be part of it.”
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