With the release of Jeff Nichols’ acclaimed drama Loving (in select theaters now), many people are learning for the first time about the modest, real-life couple who changed the course of American history. Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested in 1958 for the crime of interracial marriage, which at the time was outlawed in the commonwealth of Virginia and 19 other states. Over the next decade they fought their case all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. And in 1967 — still less than 50 years ago — the highest court ruled it was unconstitutional to restrict marriage rights based on race.
Those who are seeing Loving in theaters — and stay for the end credits — might be doubly surprised that Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary, A Single Man) is one of the film’s producers. Firth, 56, was born in England but raised partly in Nigeria and for most of his three decade career has championed social causes such as the rights of refugees and indigenous people.
His heart for the disenfranchised and his eye for great untold stories gave Firth the inspiration to make Loving, starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as the title couple. The film’s rave reviews since premiering in May at the Cannes Film Festival has placed it squarely in the race for awards attention — and moreover, for a wider public embrace of this gracefully told story about two unsung American icons.
EW chatted with Firth about his early involvement in the project, his hesitations about the film’s lack of exposition, and the major differences between wearing an actor’s hat versus a producer’s.
[The following interview is excepted from a post-screening discussion featuring Firth, producer Ged Doherty, and associate producer Oge Egbuonu.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When actors get involved in producing movies, they usually have one eye on securing a role for themselves. This isn’t the case here, is it?
COLIN FIRTH: No, there’s really no role in the film for me. I first heard about the Lovings in 2009 when I was making a film in Durham, North Carolina, and I met Nancy Burski, the documentarian and filmmaker. She had recently read the obituary of Mildred Loving and the story had gripped her and she said she planned on making a documentary about them.
And what was going on in your mind then?
I immediately wondered why more people didn’t know about this story. So I shared the idea with my friend Ged Doherty, who comes from the music industry, and that’s what started us off as producers. Eventually Nancy made her documentary, which everyone must see, and we formed our production company.
But it still took some amount of time, six or seven years, to get it made?
I became completely obsessed with the project but then The King’s Speech came along and I got a little bit diverted for a year. My question to myself was always, “How do I be an instrument for getting this made?” I contemplated directing it. In fact, there are some forever-embargoed pages of script, attempts of mine to write it. I do think it’s a great blessing that that’s not the route we chose.
You ended up going with Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special) to write and direct the film. No one would have blamed him for making a straight courtroom drama version of this story — but that’s not what you get with Jeff Nichols.
No, not at all. You could make this whole movie from the lawyers’ point of view and still have a very interesting film. But Jeff told us from the outset that that was not where he was going. And I honestly had mixed feelings about it.
Well, as an actor, you have the ability to reject all commercial interests and just strive to give the best performance possible. But, suddenly as a producer, you’re not thinking like that anymore. It wasn’t just a question of making it commercial — you want the story to reach everybody. And part of you will do whatever it takes.
Was that also a concern in the casting? Joel Edgerton had worked with Jeff before but is not a superstar. And Ruth Negga isn’t a household name, not yet.
There was a discussion along the lines of “What about this big star, who could double or triple our budget?” Again, this was me with my producer’s hat on. But Jeff wanted to keep in within the parameters of his own vision. He knew what he wanted and he knew what he needed. He needed 40 days. He wanted to shoot on 35mm film. And he knew how much that would cost, so he wasn’t really interested in having more money if it meant making the slightest compromise in the integrity of the film. And, my God, how could we have done this film without Joel and Ruth?
We’ve seen movies about social issues, like Loving, compromise so much with casting or script that they become phony.
True. And so there was this thing on the other hand — authenticity. If authenticity is always important in storytelling, it seems especially important here with the Lovings. As people, they were not demonstrative, they were not exhibitionists, they were not attention-getters. They weren’t even activists. They were quiet and utterly true to themselves. So if you tell a story about them and distort them into something else just to ramp up drama, you might as well not have done it.
There’s so much built-in poetry with the story. I mean, they lived in a town called Central Point. He was a bricklayer, which is a beautiful motif in the film, building block by block. And their name, for God’s sake, was Loving!
Beautiful, isn’t it? And if we’d made it up, it would have been cheesy. Actually, when we started emailing each other in the early days, another one of our producers, Sarah Green, said, ‘Isn’t it great that that’s the subject heading on our emails? Loving.”
And in the film, most poignantly, when the Supreme Court decision is being read in their favor, we simply see them going into their bedroom and close the door.
It’s an incredible scene. And that bedroom — that’s sacred space. A bedroom is the “Do Not Enter” area. And that’s where law enforcement barged in. I know we’re not dealing with the very extreme ends of racial oppression in the country, the absolute horrors. But nevertheless, that’s a violation. When we talk about the sanctity of family, I mean, to think that you could be dragged out of your bedroom just for sharing it with another person. That room becomes emblematic of their basic human rights being violated.
It also shows, once again, the restraint that Jeff Nichols brought to the story. He keeps it with the family.
Jeff makes such a wonderful study out of the power of restraint — almost to a fault at times. Jeff’s own wife even said, “Can we have a little bit more when he asks him to marry her?” Jeff was going to cut out her saying “Yes.” But Jeff’s language is cinematic. If something is unsaid, he will leave it unsaid. And that makes room for incredible little things, like their comfortable body language with each other and the hand holding in the car. Their both looking out the window and there’s all this trepidation, but they’re holding hands.
What’s your favorite scene in the film?
Well, one of my favorite scenes, which is a perfect example of what Jeff does so masterfully, is when Richard and Mildred come back to Virginia. They’re not saying a word and Mildred just takes a moment to feel the sun. In that moment, without any dialogue, you not only sense what coming home means to her — you also feel it. You feel the temperature, you feel the light, you can smell. It’s like adding another dimension to watching a movie. And it’s not just that, you see him looking at her. And the tiniest bit of a smile breaks through his reserve, because he’s given her what she’s wanted so badly. And then he looks up the road, where all the bad things may come from, and he feels the anxiety again. And all of that happens in a few seconds of screentime.
The movie is not overtly political. In in the end, cards tell us about the Lovings’ lives, but we’re not informed that Loving vs. Virginia was used as precedent for the court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. Did you discuss doing that?
Well, a bit. But the beauty of Jeff’s approach is that by focusing on the personal, he’s rendered all labels absurd. I knew a guy at school who was a very open racist. And there were four Asian guys at school, they were Indian. He absolutely hated Indians — except for these four guys. He gave them a pass because he knew them, but he still kept his prejudices intact for anyone he didn’t know. And it just heightened the absurdity of his views. The personal is where all commonality lies.
You recently attended the film’s official Virginia premiere. What was that like?
It was kind of amazing. When you’ve lived with people in your mind, you feel a little bit in awe of meeting the actual people. You just so deeply hope that you’ve done them justice. It’s such an overused word, when people say they feel “humbled.” I mean, come on. But that was humbling for me to meet the surviving members of the Loving family. There’s 24 of them and there’s such an incredible energy and spirit that they all have. I was sitting behind Peggy [the Lovings’ only surviving child] at the Virginia premiere and, of course, It gave me a very different perspective of what I was watching.
Even the daughter of Sheriff Garnett Brooks [the lawman responsible for arresting and imprisoning the Lovings; played in the film by Marton Csokas] was there. She’d said to us while we were shooting, “I have his old uniform. Do you want to use it for the movie?” And she said, “He was like that, he did say that stuff.” She thought he was misguided but he was still a human being. And she made that stipulation. There’s a real sense even among the locals to want to address that side of their history.