Ruth Negga accommodates a rare combination of strength and frailty. She professes to nervousness when speaking in public. She talks sincerely of a need to hide from the world. But few other actors display her steady focus. There are all kinds of typhoons raging beneath the becalmed surface.
Last May, I watched her address a press conference at Cannes after the first screening of Jeff Nichols's deeply moving Loving. Telling the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the Virginia couple whose 1967 case helped dismantle that state's miscegenation laws, the film was greeted with warm waves of applause. The Oscar rumours that began then have persisted to the brink of next week's nominations
Negga seemed confident, controlled and unfazed when greeting the press.
"Oh, it was my first time talking in public," she says, with something like a shudder. "I was quite tired. We'd wrapped Preacher the day beforehand. I flew to LA for the premiere of that. I then went straight to the airport and flew to Cannes. It was very discombobulating."
This is surprising. Now 35, Negga is finally approaching stardom – thanks to turns such as that in the zippy TV series Preacher – but she has had her shoulder to the wheel for well over a decade, including a role in the acclaimed Irish series Love/Hate. You can catch sight of her in Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto from 2005. She has had a regular role in the BBC's Misfits. She has played Shirley Bassey, for heaven's sake. Yet she admits to nervousness when put before journalists.
“All that is daunting,” she says. “It’s nerve-racking. I want to do myself justice and I want to do the work justice. I don’t want to get in the way of what I am doing, which is speaking about something very special to me: my work. I am also very shy about public speaking. Being on stage – or on camera – and speaking in front of people as oneself are very different things.”
Negga speaks quietly, but with crystalline clarity, in a voice that still bears traces of her Limerick upbringing. You get a sense of her weighing each word's place within each cautiously chosen clause.
“I became an actor to hide. We all become actors to hide, to disappear. So, the idea of having no script is daunting.”
A mildly disconcerting concentration has now set in. Perhaps without meaning to, Negga has, within a few minutes, talked herself round to her core motivation. What is she hiding from? Will she always need to hide?
“It’s quite simple,” she says (as if it really were). “You’re shy. But just because you’re shy doesn’t mean you don’t have extrovert qualities. Acting is a safe way of expressing those qualities and interests without coming under fire for being yourself.”
You can always say that somebody else wrote this?
“Yes, yes. That’s it. Ha-ha!”
Let us investigate further. Ruth Negga, daughter of an Irish nurse and an Ethiopian doctor, was born in Addis Ababa in 1982. When she was just four years old, the country descended into political violence, and she returned home to Ireland with her mother.
The plan was that her father would follow and they would move to the United States. Tragically, Dr Negga died in a car crash before making it back to his young family. Negga eventually got to visit his grave in Ethiopia when she was 18.
Quite a few international profiles of Negga tell us that she grew up in "rural Ireland". The good people of Dooradoyle might disagree. A suburb of Limerick city, it boasts a big cinema, a huge hospital and the shopping centre where this writer bought his second David Bowie LP. Over the last few decades, Dooradoyle has become more racially diverse, but I imagine there were not many people of colour there when Negga was a child. She has, however, always argued that she suffered little racial prejudice when she was young.
“People are shocked when they hear that,” she says slightly wearily. “In Dooradoyle? Well, it’s very simple. That never happened. When people ask me, I think they are looking for something that wasn’t there. You have to take a person’s word for it. People have very unique lives. I just didn’t feel my biracial heritage was a problem growing up Limerick.”
Understandably enough, as she promotes Loving, a film about a black woman and a white man fighting prejudice, she is asked whether her mother suffered similar degrees of antagonism in Ireland. Negga remembers little of that.
“People assume certain things about what ought to have happened in your life,” she says. “It’s fascinating. People can’t cope with particulars, things that don’t fit into their experience. If you go off-piste with your history, then they need you to reclarify.”
She pauses and pulls on a cryptic smile. “Maybe that’s why I became an actor.”
Negga studied drama at Trinity College Dublin and went on to work steadily in theatre. In 2006, she made the jump and moved to London where she still lives with her partner, the equally pulchritudinous actor Dominic Cooper.
At this year’s British Academy Film Awards, Negga is nominated for the EE Rising Star award. She would be too well mannered to complain, but she has surely long ago “risen”. (Three of the other four nominees are more than a decade younger.)
In 2010, she played an acclaimed Ophelia to Rory Kinnear's Hamlet at the Royal National Theatre. In 2011, her turn as Shirley Bassey in the BBC's Shirley fairly rattled the windows and shook the foundations.
There have been some disappointments. Her scenes in 12 Years a Slave were cut from the final film. However, I get the sense that Negga has had few quiet periods. There can't have been many occasions when she felt tempted to throw it all in and become a carpenter (or whatever).
“Well, the further down the line you go the more that window of opportunity closes,” she says with a laugh. “The worst part is when you don’t get parts that you would have loved. Also, when you get a part and it evolves into something different. Being cut out of things is hard. If you are feeling delicate, the round of auditions that result in a ‘no’ can be painful.”
She shakes herself and smiles ruefully.
“You do know that’s part of the process. But that doesn’t make the hurt any less. I am really not fond of people who say, ‘surely you knew that going in’. You can know something and still be upset. That doesn’t really make it any less hurtful.”
At any rate, that understated, nuanced performance in Loving has pushed her celebrity to another level. Playing a real person offers particular challenges to an actor. A balance must be struck between impersonation and creating a compelling character.
Most viewers will know little about Mildred Loving. The trials are, thus, different to those faced when playing Shirley Bassey. It seems hard to credit, but, as recently as 1967, Mildred Loving and her white husband, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, went before the US supreme court to protest their conviction for defying Virginia's Racial Integrity Act. They won the case and prohibitions against "inter-racial marriage" were deemed unconstitutional.
“You feel a complete responsibility whoever you are playing,” Negga says. “It doesn’t matter if nobody knows who Mildred is. I know who she is and her family know who she is. People can then go and search out the documentary on her. Even if they haven’t seen what she was like that feels like a responsibility to me. If you’re playing a real person you should step fully into their skin. Don’t bother if you’re not going to do it to the best of your abilities.”
The story had a tragic aftermath. Less than a decade after the case, Richard Loving died in a car accident. Mildred died in 2008 and only one of their three children, Peggy Loving, lived to see the film.
"It's tragic that they didn't get to spend the rest of their lives together," Negga says. "Peggy loves it. That was the most important thing to us. Sarah Green, our producer, says she burst into tears when she saw it."
As we speak, the awards chatter has propelled Negga on to the cover of American Vogue and (perhaps, comparably important if you grew up in Limerick) on to the Late Late Show. She has found her life under greater scrutiny than ever before. She is forced to tease apart every corner of her upbringing.
In the Vogue interview, she talks about how her identity has been "hijacked by so many people". I wonder if some of that hijacking involves our next-door neighbours' habit of deciding that Irish actors are basically British and that any assertion otherwise is a sort of eccentricity. Saoirse Ronan got a lot of that from British journalists during the 2016 awards season.
Negga makes a “what can you do?” face.
“It doesn’t make me growl at all,” she says. “But it’s like saying your hair is blonde when it’s clearly black. It’s just a fact. It’s not true. Sometimes the interview goes too fast and you don’t get a chance to correct it. Just because you are clarifying something, sometimes people assume you are furious and you want to be difficult. It is just correcting something that’s not true.”
There is bizarre footage of Chris O’Dowd making three (polite) attempts to correct a red-carpet interviewer’s stubborn assertion that he must be British. The journalist gives the sense that he’s stressing an arcane technicality rather than clarifying an indisputable error.
“Yeah, that’s weird!” she says. “That has happened to me once. The interviewer was actually getting annoyed with me. I thought I’d better leave it because you just know what they’ll write otherwise. It’s an extraordinary thing. People just don’t listen. That’s a key tool for actors: listening. How rare it is in life!”
The dreaded notion of "early Oscar buzz" so often leads, months later, to disappointment. But the chatter after that Cannes premiere was resumed when the film played at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Loving feels very much like the sort of film that, in an era of rising racial tension, young people need to watch and absorb.
Negga was nominated as best actress at the Critics Choice Awards, the Independent Spirits Awards and the Golden Globes. Most bookies reckon her name will be there when the Oscar nominees are announced on January 24th.
All of this has meant an introduction to the bizarre jamboree that is “awards season”. There are endless lunches and unrelenting photo calls. We live in an era when certain journalists are paid to do nothing else but chart the various skirmishes that precede Oscar night itself. The word “campaign” is well chosen. The studios are mounting something that feels a little like a political operation and a little like a minor war.
Was Negga prepared for it?
"I don't think I was prepared for how much I have to talk about myself," she says. "I find that intensely boring. I do love talking about Richard and Mildred. Also, I get to meet people who I have been admiring for years. I did a round table with Natalie Portman, Emma Stone and Amy Adams. And they are all incredible women. You get a sense that, though it's overwhelming – this is not a film set – we are still normal people. It's nice to find a connection with other actors and have a bit of a laugh."
Negga looks to have set up a comfortable balance in her career. Loving will win her awards and consolidate her position with the critics. Meanwhile, she has fun kicking up the dust as the pistol-wielding Tulip O'Hare in the western/vampire hybrid Preacher. (Dominic Cooper, her partner, plays the titular minster in that AMC series.)
Dignified, flexible, striking in a very unique manner, Negga has the gifts any young actress requires. But that disconcerting fragility still hangs about. She seems wary of the indignities the industry can inflict.
“It’s that way for actresses,” she says. “You oscillate between being really tough – warding off hurt – when you’re told you’re not good enough to having this really translucent skin, so you can absorb people and their vibrations. So you can do your job basically.”
She makes a noise between a sigh and a laugh.
“It’s no wonder we’re all so peculiar.”
- Loving opens in Irish cinemas on February 3rd