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If moviegoing audiences weren’t yet familiar with Ruth Negga, that changed Jan. 8 when Meryl Streep name-checked the Ethiopian-Irish actress during her much-discussed Golden Globes speech celebrating the diversity of Hollywood. “If I was at home, I would have jumped up and down and started screaming,” laughs Negga, 35, who on Jan. 24 found herself with something else to celebrate when her name was announced among the Oscar nominees for best actress. She’s being recognized for her portrayal of Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols’ Loving, about the couple behind the Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 ruling on interracial marriage. The first-time nominee spoke with THR about her personal connection to the story, how the real Mildred (who died in 2008) might have felt about the film and why she’s bringing peanuts to the Oscars.
What drew you to the story of Mildred and Richard Loving?
There’s so many different reasons. You feel such empathy for this couple and what they went through. That resonates with me, and I think with any genuine human being — but also, I suppose, because I’m mixed race, although I had a very different history, personally, from what they went through, and the country that I come from has a very different history from America. I like being part of unearthing previously untold stories, bringing more and more attention to this couple. Their love for each other was such a tender, good thing. I think that’s what people have responded to.
How did you and Nichols approach your performance?
We realized that our main priority was them as a couple. There is a velocity of their journey that was very important for us to show. We all just kind of wanted to strip it down and not really add anything superfluous.
Why was it important that Loving not turn into a big courtroom drama?
It wouldn’t have been true to this couple. It would have been about the lawyers and the case instead of about these sweet human beings who were in love and just wanted to be together and live together and raise their family wherever they chose.
How do you think the real Mildred would have reacted to the film?
I’ve gathered she would be very shy of any press attention. That wasn’t something she enjoyed. I would love for her to take away from this film the feeling that her efforts have been acknowledged, that they have been celebrated and that this is a sort of “thank you” from lots of people.
Has the reaction to the film been different since the election of Donald Trump?
I think so. But what a serendipitous time for it to come out. I mean, in a good way. People legislating on other people’s lives, encroaching on other people’s lives, [the film] really feels like a sad mirror in a way to the present situation. But on the flip side, it’s maybe a little bit of a solution to something because our film contains so many instances where compassion and empathy are key.
What was your most challenging scene?
Some of the things that we’ve taken from the documentary with the filmmaker coming in, that was quite nerve-racking because I did want to find some sort of visual accuracy and also an emotional accuracy, too. So that was a bit of a balancing act.
Have you received any advice about how to make it through your first Oscars night?
People have just been like, “Enjoy it. You know, this is your once-in-a-lifetime kind of chance. Drink it up, really just enjoy it and bring peanuts for snacks.”
How did you feel when Meryl Streep called you out in her Golden Globes speech?
How would you feel if Meryl Streep said your name out loud? That’s exactly how I felt. Astonished. Super flattered. I don’t have any words to describe those emotions that were going on underneath. If I was at home, I might have jumped up and down and started screaming. I didn’t think that was appropriate. To be honest, it wasn’t about me, the speech. And to be there in the room, you could hear a pin drop. The hairs on my arm went up because it was so elegant, it was so truthful, and I think she was able to articulate what many, many of us felt — what many people feel — in such a beautiful way. How lucky I was to have been present. How lucky.
A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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