Ruth Negga's ascendency has been gradual, but consistent. For the past decade, the Irish-Ethiopian actress has landed pivotal parts in interesting films (Color Me Kubrick, World War Z). Then came television, which immediately took a liking to Negga's understated presence. After appearing on shows like Criminal Justice, Personal Affairs, and Misfits, she was plucked by Marvel to join their ever-evolving universe on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. On the hit program, Negga convincingly plays Raina, “an inhuman scientist devoted to the studying of human nature.”
Now Negga is playing a different kind of superhero as Mildred Loving, who—with her husband, Richard (Joel Edgerton)—broke down racial barriers with unadorned love. Against the miscegenation laws of the time, the interracial couple were sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married. The jailing spurred Loving v. Virginia, a landmark civil rights case that undid laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Nearly fifty years have passed since that ruling was made in 1967—and even longer for Mildred and Richard’s incredible story to be told. But with Loving, it has finally happened. Under the direction of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special), the biographical film delivers an achingly beautiful and human portrait of two people madly in love. The outside world—racist, bigoted, unjust—is rendered irrelevant, so long as they have each other.
Oscar prognosticators have already declared Negga a potential nominee in the “Best Actress” category come March, and for good reason—she’s reserved and confident, saying plenty by saying little. Her chances of winning a golden statue (which would make her only the second black woman to win “Best Actress” after Halle Berry) are improbable, but not impossible. Future award nominations aside, Negga’s performance deserves to be seen.
We sat down with Negga before all the awards madness began, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. In conversation, she was eager to discuss the difficulties young actors face in Hollywood, the therapeutic side of acting, and the incalculable importance of Loving.
Let’s start with your story in Ethiopia.
I was born in Ethiopia to an Ethiopian father and an Irish mother, in the Black Lion hospital, where my dad was a doctor and my mother was a nurse. I had a very peripatetic childhood so I bounced around. Lived in Ethiopia until I was like three or four and then lived between Ireland and London.
Was that difficult?
I think kids are amazing. You kind of just deal with stuff, don’t you? It’s only years later that you have to spend thousands in therapy. I think it’s really important to talk about your feelings, but I get to act.
Is that therapy enough for you?
People hate saying that it is, but it’s not that simple a statement. You’re not saying, “I do acting for therapy,” but it is sort of an exploration of oneself and the idea of being a human being, and playing with who we are.
Have you taken a part in a movie where you didn’t identify with at least a fraction of the character you’re playing?
I think you have to try and find something, some small spark or similarity, and turn the volume up on that. We all have some point of a connection, don’t we? But then again, that’s not always more difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to play someone so similar to you, because you can muddy the character. Often, it’s easier to play someone further away from you, because it’s clearer who they are. I think if you want to make a performance authentic, there are a certain amount of leaps of faith into the unknown that you have to take. Otherwise you’re not really risking anything. I think if you don’t risk something in art, it’s not really important.
When was the first instance you thought, “Oh, acting could be the thing I do for work.”
I was quite naive about it. I trained, went to college, trained, and got a job. Then got another job. When I wasn’t working I worked at a bar, then got another job.
Did you have any doubts along the way?
No. Doesn’t mean I didn’t doubt my abilities or talent, but I didn’t doubt that I would try and at least make a fraction of my living through this job.
In regards to Loving, is this the most proud you’ve been of a piece of work?
Yeah, I think so, definitely. It’s an important story, for various reasons. It’s a beautiful story—one of the greatest love stories never told. I adore working with Jeff [Nichols], he’s a genius. I’d like to work with him for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t have been able to create the character of Mildred without Joel [Edgerton].
Why do you think it’s a story that hasn’t been told?
I think sometimes we look over the quiet ones, don’t we? It’s the stories that shout the loudest that get heard. They were quite a private couple and they didn’t shout very loud, and history has a tendency to gloss over the quiet ones. In many ways, it feels like it was a story waiting around for Jeff Nichols to be born, go through film school, make films and magically come ‘round to this.