Loving star Ruth Negga talks race debate, her audition
Ruth Negga was in Los Angeles, shooting a supporting role as Raina on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., when she found out that director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special) was holding auditions for his new film.
The role was Mildred Loving, one half of the Virginia couple who were arrested in 1958 for the crime of interracial marriage, a conviction that led to the landmark 1967 antidiscrimination ruling by the United States Supreme Court. For Negga, 35, the part struck a chord that resonated deeply. She is the child of a mixed-race couple: Her father was a doctor in Ethiopia’s resistance movement and her mother was an Irish nurse. “Stories about race and identity pique my interest for obvious reasons,” she says, in her soft Irish lilt. “That’s in my body, my brain, my history, my memories — it’s all part of my toolbox as an actor.”
At her audition, she performed three scenes — including one in which Mildred says, “We may lose the small battles but win the big war” — and Nichols knew he had found the perfect partner for Richard Loving. “After casting Ruth and [later Joel Edgerton], we went out looking for financing,” Nichols says. “And when anyone would ask, ‘Who’s Ruth Negga?’ — as they often did — I would show them a video of her audition and say, ‘Just look at her; she’s Mildred Loving.’ ”
People won’t be asking who she is anymore. Negga gained a new fan base thanks to AMC’s Preacher, where she stars as a Texas badass named Tulip, and after Loving premiered to raves at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Negga was instantly thrust into this year’s Oscar conversation. Her performance in the film — graced with quiet conviction, elegance and the ordinaryness of a modest, regular life — is the stuff that Oscar nominations are made of. Snubbing her in the Best Actress category would be a scandal, but how does she feel about that attention, in light of the fact that people of color have been shut out of acting nominations for the past two years?
“I’m all for philosophical debates about race,” she says, “but if you look at history, you see that the status quo has power when it’s unchallenged. So these conversations about inequality are crucial. I think we’re at such a point in time now that we don’t have time to worry about if it’s fair or not. We need to have a conversation about the fact that black faces are not as visible as they should be, that there is huge inequality everywhere in terms of race.”
Negga recognizes her own complacency. Growing up in Limerick, Ireland, she didn’t often see people who looked like her in movies and on television. “And I just went, oh well, that’s strange. And now I think, why wasn’t there this sort of energy, this anger? I think, well that’s the power, just things being not talked about. It just wasn’t talked about.”
She takes a breath and lets out a small laugh, aware she’s about to make a point that’s perhaps too neat. “I know this sounds sort of manipulative, because I’m pulling it all back to the film,” she remarks. “But Richard and Mildred had the energy to say, ‘Hold on, this is actually slightly ridiculous and unfair and not right.’ So I think any sort of peaceful agitation is welcome.”
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