Ruth Negga: ‘I didn’t experience explicit racism growing up. Maybe some exoticism’

Ruth Negga: ‘I really resist fitting into other people’s narratives’
The Irish actor on her new film, Passing, being Hamlet, and Limerick’s Catalyst film festival

Ruth Negga picked an awkward time to settle into her new apartment. The Irish actor had been superhumanly busy. She played Hamlet in an acclaimed production that moved from the Gate Theatre to Brooklyn (“dizzying layers of performance,” the New York Times raved). She shot Rebecca Hall’s imminent Passing (“Negga, brittle and dazzling,” Variety reported from Sundance). Before that she was finishing up the last season of Preacher (“one of TV’s most versatile actresses,” IndieWire decided).

Time to enjoy southern California. This was almost exactly a year ago.

“I landed back to start my Los Angeles life on the ninth of March,” she said. “Then we went straight into lockdown. My experience of being in Los Angeles has been in lockdown.”

There have been compensations. A member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar body proffered the invitation following her nomination for Loving), Negga is watching screeners as she ponders her votes for the upcoming nominations. And she has taken time to act as ambassador for an online festival based in her home city of Limerick.

The second Catalyst International Film Festival “prioritises stories and storytellers currently under-represented on screen and behind the camera”. Two feature films, Bandar Band and MAXIMA, will premiere alongside a programme of international short films, interviews and panel discussions. Negga didn’t need to do any interviews to promote the event. But she cares. So she’s talking to us. 

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving. Photograph: Universal Pictures
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving. Photograph: Universal Pictures

“Well, obviously inclusion interests me and directly affects me,” she says. “I qualify by my existence as a marginalised voice – by nature of me being a woman of colour. I feel that, when we talk about inclusion, it’s become a word that is bandied about with super-good intention. We have to honour those intentions. I think this film festival is actually engendering an action. There is still huge inequality. People aren’t seeing themselves on screen. It’s about putting people in boardrooms. It’s about putting people behind the camera.”

A catalogue of cliches still follows minorities about the cinematic universe. But the situation is improving. Black Panther bossed the box office. Moonlight won the Oscar. Negga has now (astonishingly) been at this business for 20 years. She is the right person to ask.

“I definitely think things have got better,” she says. “Sometimes I get depressed by the fact that we have to compel these changes to happen. I don’t think they would have happened through good will alone.”

Historic outrages

She laughs drily at memories of historic outrages.

“It feels like there is less of this quota of one black best friend – preferably of lighter skin. You had the unthreatening gay best friend. You had the person who wasn’t able-bodied being the vessel for a pity party. Those things have to be dismantled before you can say we’re on a great path.”

Negga’s journey will already be known to most domestic readers. She was born in Addis Ababa 39 years ago to an Irish mum and an Ethiopian father. She returned to Ireland with her mother, a nurse, when she was just four as Ethiopia slipped into political violence. The plan was for the family to then move to the United States, but before her father, a doctor, could join his wife and daughter he was killed in a car crash. Negga spent the rest of her childhood in Dooradoyle, a suburb to the southwest of Limerick city.

Re-reading earlier interviews, I am reminded how journalists invariably react with surprise when she says she remembers little racism growing up. It’s almost as if this is the “wrong story”.

Ruth Negga as Hamlet and Fiona Bell as Gertrude in Hamlet at St Ann’s Workshop in Brooklyn, New York in January 2020. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/New York Times
Ruth Negga as Hamlet and Fiona Bell as Gertrude in Hamlet at St Ann’s Workshop in Brooklyn, New York in January 2020. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/New York Times

“I really resist fitting into other people’s narratives,” she says. “I can’t fit into a narrative because it suits other people. There is no point having a discussion if you can’t allow people their own stories. My narrative doesn’t just fit into being black and Irish. No, I didn’t experience explicit racism when I was growing up. Maybe some exoticism. Which is a whole other thing. That isn’t helpful in forming feelings about yourself.”

Lest we think her early life was an endless meander down a sunny river, she does admit to conflicts when she moved on to big school.

“Yes, it is complicated further in that I went to secondary school in London,” she says. “I have always occupied the ‘other place’. I have never really fitted in anywhere. I don’t fit into the normative Irish experience – because I was Irish in London. The pejorative term was ‘plastic Paddy’. So there were then these questions about my right to claim my Irish identity.”

We have this conversation in an interesting week. Denise Chaila, the Zambian-born winner of this year’s Choice Music Prize, is another proud product of Limerick. I imagine Negga has words of support.

“Yeah! Of course. When you are elevating artists like that and witnessing them being successful it is really encouraging to other artists. It’s women saying: ‘Look, there is a space at the table.’ Our stories are valued. It’s us saying, as black Irish women, and men: ‘We hold a multitude of stories.’ When I was first doing interviews people were gobsmacked that you could be black and Irish.”

Fringe productions

Negga went on to study drama at Trinity College Dublin and, even before graduation, was picking up decent roles in fringe productions. You can see her in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto from 2005. With Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Killian Scott, Charlie Murphy, Barry Keoghan, John Connors and others, she formed the staggering wad of talent that passed through the informal Love/Hate academy of dramatic arts. Gifted the cleanest of deliveries and a versatile charisma – kick-ass in Preacher, determinedly tender in Loving – she seems to have caught casting agents’ eyes from the beginning.

Does she remember her first paid job?

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in Passing
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in Passing

“Yeah, I was super lucky, because luck plays a huge part in this,” she says. “Annie Ryan at the Corn Exchange gave me a job while I was still in college. I played Lolita in their version of Lolita at the Peacock Theatre. I had opportunities in Ireland that I don’t think I would have been afforded in London. I don’t know if we had the entrenched racial stereotypes and marginalisation in Ireland at that time as they did in England. People had already been boxed there. I don’t think we had been boxed in yet.”

Have we changed? Maybe not. It was the Gate that invited her to take on the role of Hamlet in 2018. That role takes its toll on actors. Daniel Day-Lewis was so perturbed by his experiences that he never returned to the stage. It is a physical as well as a mental challenge.

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to sum it up really quickly,” she says. “It was an extraordinary experience. It stretches you. It also inspired some uncomfortable self-exploration. It’s an incredibly vulnerable space to inhabit. But there is so much joy in it.”

The last time we spoke she was on the cusp of that Oscar nomination for Jeff Nichols’s Loving. Dealing with the courageous couple whose case – as recently as 1967 – ended the state of Virginia’s prohibition on interracial marriage, the picture gave Negga scope to tease out the softer registers of her talent. By the time the ceremony came around in February of 2017, she had been run ragged by the tyranny of awards season.

Negga was, alas, never going to get past hot favourite Emma Stone but, rated the bookies’ outsider, she was able to sit back and savour the most astonishing moment in Oscar history. This was the year that Moonlight won best picture after Faye Dunaway initially handed the prize to La La Land.

“Wow, that was bonkers,” she says. “I am so glad I was there. Everybody’s jaw collectively hit the floor.”

She still sounds whacked by it.

“I got that unspoken realisation that we’d just witnessed something extraordinary. That was beautiful for me. It was so moving. For every single person of colour in that audience – and every LGBT person watching at home – it was such a buoyant and lovely experience.”

Presumptuous

It would be enormously vulgar and even more enormously presumptuous to begin speculation about the 2022 Oscars, but the responses to Passing suggest there is every possibility that Negga could be back in the awards season bunfight before the year is out. Rebecca Hall’s debut feature, based on an admired 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, follows two African-American friends reuniting in Harlem during the inter-war years. Tessa Thompson’s character identifies as black. Negga’s “passes” for white.

The film premiered to near-unanimous raves at the Covid-hit, online Sundance Film Festival in January and has been snapped up by Netflix. Even those critics less sure about the film heaped praise on Negga.

Ruth Negga arrives on the red carpet before the 89th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on February 26th, 2017. That night, La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner of the best film Oscar, which was won by Moonlighting. Photograph: Monica Almeida/New York Times
Ruth Negga arrives on the red carpet before the 89th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on February 26th, 2017. That night, La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner of the best film Oscar, which was won by Moonlighting. Photograph: Monica Almeida/New York Times

“I had never been to Sundance. I was looking forward to it,” Negga says. “I would love to have been there with producers and crew celebrating.” She puts on an exasperated voice. “We have to do it all from screeeeeeeens! Ugh! You miss the physical support. You miss the feeding off one another and the physical glances.”

It seems to have gone swimmingly well all the same. The reviews were good. The most gigantic of the screening giants will get the film into every second home.

“We are getting there,” she says. “When I think about Tessa Thompson and I sharing a screen, I realise there would have been a time when there was room for only one of us. And we would probably be an adjacent character to the white female heroine. That is becoming less acceptable.”

Who knows what we will be allowed to do between now and the arrival of Passing to our screens? We might be allowed to meet in person. We might celebrate the arrival of Passing to the Toronto Film Festival in September.

“Here’s hoping. Absolutely.”

The Catalyst International Film Festival runs from March 19th-20th via Eventive at catalystfilmfest.com