Ruth Negga: ‘I found London quite limiting to be honest’

Ruth Negga: ‘I feel very lucky that this was my dream – to work as an actor.’ Photograph: Andres Poveda

‘I feel very lucky that this was my dream – to work as an actor’: Ruth Negga chats to Irish Times film correspondent Donald Clarke about her flawless performance as a black American woman ‘passing’ for white in Rebecca Hall’s Passing.

Ruth Negga is not loud. She is not enormously tall. But she has presence. She gives off waves of gentle charisma as she makes her masked way across the floor of the Merrion Hotel.

This is the sort of performer you want to ride the awards season train. She speaks in a crisp actorly voice that, despite a year and a half living in LA, reveals few American vowels amid the rich Irish timbres. She makes a reasonable attempt to answer even your dumbest question. If things had gone differently she would have been an asset to the diplomatic service.

It’s important for me to come to Dublin whenever I do press. I always put that request in. There is a pretty selfish reason

“It’s important for me to come to Dublin whenever I do press,” she says. “Whenever I do press I always put that request in. There is a pretty selfish reason. It is not me being magnanimous. Ha ha!”

It’s not an outrageous request.

“It’s not. But sometimes, on these tours, they just lump London in with Dublin. You know?”

Oh we love getting annoyed about that.

“Yeah, there is something lovely about being righteously annoyed. Maybe there is something dangerous about it too. But I try to not get into those conversations. I don’t read my own press until months after. I don’t read reviews.”

You see what I mean. A diplomat.

The last time I met her aboard this particular train, in 2017, she was on the brink of a best actress Oscar nomination for Loving. This season she is in with a strong chance of a best supporting nod – Caitríona Balfe and Jessie Buckley are also domestic contenders – for her flawless performance as a black American woman “passing” for white in Rebecca Hall’s Passing. There will be a lot of campaigning between now and the ceremony next March. That can’t always be fun.

“It is lovely to be considered,” she says. “We must never forget that. I am more prepared this time. I have had a break which I hadn’t had the last time. I had gone straight into filming stuff back to back. It is still pretty intimidating. Tiredness gets in the way. So you have to keep yourself rested.”

Negga’s story has been told often enough. Born in Addis Ababa to an Irish mother and an Ethiopian dad, she travelled, at the age of four, to Limerick as Ethiopia’s civil war escalated. Her dad died in a car crash before they could continue a planned move to the US and she ended up being raised happily in Dooradoyle. Negga is articulate about the challenges facing black people – she will be talking a lot about that when promoting Passing – but she has frustrated a few interviewers by explaining that she remembers little racism in Limerick.

Ruth Negga plays a black American woman ‘passing’ for white in her latest movie. Photograph: Netflix
Ruth Negga plays a black American woman ‘passing’ for white in her latest movie. Photograph: Netflix

 She doesn’t get back as often as she would like, but her connection with the sod remains solid. What has changed?

“I don’t know. When I come home I spend most time at our holiday home in Kerry,” she says. “But in Dublin, it’s the faces. It’s just a more diverse city and country – even than 20 years ago. I don’t know. I don’t really know how to speak about Dublin because I haven’t lived here for years. It’s lovely being back but it’s not really my city anymore. But it feels like a vibrant place to live.”

She studied drama at Trinity College Dublin and, in relatively quick time, began picking up decent roles on stage. She remembers an early professional gig with the Corn Exchange company giving her a significant nudge forward. In 2010 she became part of the unofficial theatrical university that was RTÉ’s Love/Hate. She had a key role in the rollicking TV series Preacher. In 2018 she played Hamlet at the Gate.

It strikes me that she has never had much time to ponder the road not taken.

“I feel very lucky that this was my dream – to work as an actor,” she says. “I feel grateful and lucky. Because I don’t quite know how it happened. I had no fallback plan. There are times I wish I had done a history degree and could maybe work in solitude. When you have voices going at four o’clock in the morning. When you can’t sleep because you are jetlagged. The reason I became an actor was because I am really shy but I love connecting with people.”

She goes on to explain that she prefers expressing herself through other people’s words. Yet I have always found her an excellent talker.

I really felt you had to move to London. Now looking back retrospectively it was like a stepping stone to America, because that’s where I found my opportunities

“My wheelhouse isn’t speaking for myself. But I have learnt to enjoy it a bit and not be so terrified. But it still makes me anxious.”

Like so many Irish actors before her, she made the transfer to London and then to Los Angeles. She moved into her new LA apartment days before lockdown hit in 2020.

“I really felt you had to move to London,” she remembers. “Now looking back retrospectively it was like a stepping stone to America, because that’s where I found my opportunities. I’m not saying it’s the promised land – land of milk and honey or anything – but there are just more widely available roles for people who look like me. I found London quite limiting to be honest with you.”

So that is still the case there? Some doors remain shut to her?

“I’m fascinated by that. I just don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know why it feels like that. I want someone to explain that to me. But I didn’t feel there was the availability of opportunities.”

Her role as Mildred Loving, one half of an inter-racial couple that challenged Virginia’s anti-miscegenation in the 1960s, propelled her to that Oscar nomination and anointed her as new royalty. Negga’s performance in Passing is at least as impressive. Based on an admired novel by Nella Larsen, the picture casts her as Clare Bellew, a young woman who, pretending to be white, has married an unapologetic racist. She meets up with her old pal Irene, played by a less flighty Tessa Thompson, and, bumping about Harlem of the prohibition era, reconnects with the culture she left behind.

I wonder what Negga thinks of Clare. Did she find herself judging the character’s decisions?

Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving in film Loving

“There is something about her I just fell in love with,” she says. “But, yeah, she also makes me deeply uncomfortable. I find her irritating. Everything’s declaratory. She says: ‘Oh, I miss listening to negroes laugh.’ I don’t know how I feel about that. But it’s not her trying to win friends and admirers. It’s a genuine expression of desires. She’s the one passing, so we judge her for the superficiality of her masks. Irene’s masks are more society-approved. She is a pillar of the community. She is a mother. Toeing the line. To me that is not living.”

This is a fascinating (and slightly risky) reading. Irene, who has mapped out a bourgeois existence, is draped in as many facades as her more conspicuously deceptive friend? We are all performing?

“Yes, I think we are.”

Attitudes have, of course, shifted in all kinds of ways since Larsen’s novel was published in 1929. The concept of “passing” is now less socially acceptable. It is seen as a rejection of culture and heritage. Yet I imagine – and I confess to genuine ignorance here – that it must still happen from time to time.

“It is very hard to plot it historically,” Negga says. “We know it’s been around – I mean in America, though obviously it happens elsewhere – for as long as black people have been in the country. The option to pass is about access – economic access, social access. But we are only discovering it now because it was taboo. It is very hard to discover what happened to these people because they are absorbed completely into white society. It’s a devastating choice. And it’s not really a choice to be white.”

I don’t need to put myself in those positions where I think: what are the people going to say? That way madness lies

Rebecca Hall has an interesting connection to the story. The actor will forever be plagued by profiles that mention her father, the director Sir Peter Hall, in the first line (as I have just done). But her mother, the opera singer Maria Ewing, is the daughter of a black American man who passed for white and, as a recent Variety article claimed, handed down “an ambiguous racial identity to the actor and her mother”.

“She’s white-presented,” Negga says of Hall. “But she has this history of passing in her family. So I think that it’s an interesting conversation. Who has rights to a story? But I think, you know, in a perfect world, anybody can tell any story. People are conscious of who tells stories because so many people have been denied the right to tell their own stories. And Rebecca is an exceptional artist and this is deeply personal.”

Next Negga moves on to play Lady Macbeth opposite Daniel Craig’s Thane on Broadway. This really is the season of the Scottish play. Frances McDormand is appearing opposite Denzel Washington in Joel Coen’s film. But the unavoidable comparison will be with Saoirse Ronan’s turn in Yaël Farber’s production at the Almeida Theatre. It is not just that both Ladies Macbeth are Irish. Farber also directed Negga’s acclaimed Hamlet. The critics will be lining the two of them up.

“Of course they will,” she says, smiling good-naturedly at the absurdity of it all. “Like they do with Hamlets as well. But I can only control what I can control. I don’t need to put myself in those positions where I think: what are the people going to say? That way madness lies. I really try to keep out of other people’s heads.”

I am partly joking.

“I don’t really think in those terms at all,” she says. “There’s going to be a broad audience because everyone wants a ticket. Daniel Craig as Macbeth? I see him as deeply charismatic. In the sense that people will follow him into battle and respect him.”

Are they doing it with Scottish accents?

Her eyes widen and she half-smiles, half grimaces.

“Oh god. I hadn’t even thought of that!”

I’m sure she’ll be fine. 

Passing opens in selected Irish cinemas on October 29th and will be released on Netflix on November 10th