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“I’ve never really had a plan,” says the actress Ruth Negga as we begin recording an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I don’t really sit at home and think about my career, in terms of how I’ve got somewhere and how I’m gonna get anywhere. You really just have to try and lobby for the parts that you think might be out there or know that are out there, and also feel free to say no.” The 34-year-old fought for the part of Mildred Loving, one half of the couple at the center of the landmark 1967 inter-racial marriage Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, in Jeff Nichols‘ Loving. The film had its world premiere — and Negga instantly became a best actress Oscar contender — at May’s Cannes Film Festival, just six days before she began starring in another production that couldn’t be more different, AMC’s comic book adaptation series Preacher.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet and Michael Moore.)
Born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland, Negga never imagined that screen acting was in her future. She got her first job at the venerated Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was racking up accolades for her early work on the stage when she first crossed the radar of film director Neil Jordan, who invited her to read for a part in Breakfast on Pluto. She landed it and, enchanted by her, he expanded it so that she would have more to do. The film, which was released in 2005, and which she regards as “one of my favorites,” put her on the map.
Negga began landing work on television, in TV movies and miniseries. (“In terms of character and quality, I don’t really see a distinction between mediums,” she insists.) She particularly was lauded for her work in the 2011 BBC movie Shirley as singer Shirley Bassey, who, like Negga, is biracial. “I enjoy giving voice to people who aren’t necessarily always portrayed in mainstream TV and cinema,” she says, “like brown women.”
One of the actress’ greatest disappointments was learning that the scenes she shot for Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years a Slave, the 2013 film that went on to win the best picture Oscar, were cut out of the finished product. (“I got a call from the Steve and I knew as soon as the phone started ringing, I just knew,” she says with a pained expression.) Ironically, the greatest film role she’s landed since also came in an indie about America’s troubled history with race that was shot in the south — because Francine Maisler, the casting director who had recommended her to McQueen, recommended her to Nichols, which led to her audition for Loving.
“I decided quite early on that I needed to convince Jeff and Sarah Green, his producer, that I had the right timbre, energy, spirit to play Mildred,” Negga says of the ethereal, soft-spoken woman she dreamed of playing ever since seeing Nancy Buirski‘s 2011 Oscar-shortlisted doc The Loving Story. “I wanted this film to be made because I think it’s important for Mildred and Richard’s story to be told, full-stop,” she recalls, “but gosh, it would be ever so nice if I could play her!” Therefore, even though it is not her normal practice to do so, she showed up for her audition in-character. “I knew that I had to make an impact almost immediately, so I opened the door and entered the space in the spirit of her.”
It worked. Negga was cast opposite Joel Edgerton, with whom Nichols had just shot Midnight Special. A year later the film was fully financed, and then a year after that the three of them headed down to Virginia for two weeks of absorbing its history and then to shoot the film there — something that was extremely important to the actress. “I know people say all the time, ‘It’s another character in the film,’ but it really is, because it was vital to Richard and Mildred’s identity,” she says. “You’re acting in the scene and you know that this actually happened.”
“It’s a completely different experience working on a Jeff Nichols film,” she continues. “He [Nichols] trusted Joel and I as fellow collaborators, in many ways,” adding of her costar, whom she had only met for one lunch prior to heading south, “My creation of Mildred is very much his creation of Mildred, too, in many ways. Totally symbiotic.” Therefore, it was extremely emotional for Negga when, seated between Nichols and Edgerton, she saw the finished film for the first time at Cannes. “We just felt very proud of one another and of this couple,” she says. “We felt really privileged to bring their story to this amazing screen.”
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