Ruth Negga: ‘People who say they don’t consider skin colour... are you f**king blind?’

Ruth Negga. Photograph: Tom Jamieson/New York Times
The actor, known for Preacher, Loving, Hamlet and Breakfast on Pluto, on growing up in Ireland, the movie industry, and Black Lives Matter

I fantasise about the “before world”, in which Ruth Negga and I would have met for this interview in a sunny coffee shop, or indeed perhaps the dark corner of a hotel bar and settled down to set the world to rights. I find out however, that Negga is currently in LA, having made the move from London to the US some time ago (although she still makes time to get back to Ireland as much as possible). So coronavirus or not, we wouldn’t have been meeting. Like so much else these days our meeting is consigned to the digital realm – it’s going to be Zoom or WhatsApp, supported by the dubious recording techniques of my make-shift home office.

It’s 6pm and it’s gloomy and raining outside, unlike Los Angeles, where Negga reminds me “the weather is always amazing”. Both the time and the inclement weather conspire to insure that my kids are going to be close at hand, so I can’t guarantee that the interview will not be uninterrupted. It’s not the most auspicious of settings, but I’m excited about it nonetheless.

You see, I’ve wanted to talk to Ruth Negga for a long time. Notoriously private, with no public social media accounts, her world views and opinions, as well as the details of her personal life, are not widely broadcast in the manner we have come to expect from celebrities. Negga is far more enigmatic, a reluctant celebrity, seemingly not enamoured with the trappings of fame.

Ruth Negga as Charlie with Cillian Murphy (right) as Kitten in Breakfast on Pluto
Ruth Negga as Charlie with Cillian Murphy (right) as Kitten in Breakfast on Pluto

She first came to my attention in the 2005 Neil Jordan film Breakfast on Pluto. I didn’t know anything about Negga until she appeared on the screen. A revelation. I was immediately drawn to this friendship group of glamorous misfits, stifled by their grey, oppressive hometown. Along with their respective escapes to the bright lights of London town, and their eventual homecoming, it was a story with which I was familiar.

I am a mixed, black, Irish woman who moved to London in my teens. My mother is white Irish and my father is black Nigerian. Until then I’d never seen any other Irish woman on screen that resembled me in the way that she did. In many ways Breakfast on Pluto, although widely popular, felt like it had been made especially for me – not a sensation with which I was familiar.

Over the years since, Negga has taken on a dizzying array of roles. A mercurial performer, her career has been extensive: From her role in the movie Loving, a tale about mixed-race love for which she was nominated for an Oscar and which put her on the map in Hollywood, to the dark, US TV series Preacher. From Rosie in the RTÉ crime series Love/Hate, to playing Ophelia, and then the titular role of Hamlet, which she had just closed in Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse theatre when the lockdown began.

Ruth Negga as Hamlet, with Peter Gaynor (left) and Mark Huberman at the Gate Theatre
Ruth Negga as Hamlet, with Peter Gaynor (left) and Mark Huberman at the Gate Theatre

“I got here [LA]just under the wire,” she says. “The day after [Hamlet finished], because four days later they closed all the theatres and Broadway went dark. I was glad that we got to finish the play and then I got the f**k out of there.”

Negga is quite softly spoken, her tone at times sardonic, at others conspiratorial. Her sentences sprinkled with profanities in a way that is recognisably Irish. I sense a mischievousness. I warm to her immediately.

It is hard to think of any other actress, and certainly not an Irish one, who can embody such a range of roles across both race and gender, but also genre.

The breadth of characters Negga has embodied is no doubt reflected by her international background. Born in Black Lion hospital in Addis Ababa in 1981, her mother was a nurse, which is where she met Negga’s father, an Ethiopian doctor.

Ethiopia – like most African countries – is a diverse nation, with more than 80 different ethnic groups and languages, so I ask which one she belongs to. Negga’s people are Tigrayan, a group indigenous to the highlands of Eritrea and the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. Her pride in her Ethiopianess is apparent and unsurprising.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in the film Loving. Photograph: Focus Features
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in the film Loving. Photograph: Focus Features

Although Irish representations of the country were often circumscribed by a Do They Know it’s Christmas caricature that seemed to exist as a proxy for the whole of Africa, those who are better informed know that Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries on earth, was one of the most important ancient civilizations, and for the black diaspora, remains a powerful symbol of freedom and liberation, inspiring the militant sense of justice of the Jamaican Rastafari movement.

Negga mentions the importance of Emperor Haile Selassie’s address to the League of Nations, “and this is 1936, he is warning us that fascism is coming”. I am reminded of another powerful speech he made to the UN in 1963, that provided the lyrics to Bob Marley’s War, a song I grew up singing.

Her interest in black history is long standing and her references impressive, suggesting more than just a passing interest.

“I read the Malcolm X biography, I absolutely fell in love with him, and then I just became really sort of obsessed with black American history,” she says.

I tell Negga about the impact Malcolm X had on me too. It’s not every day that I meet another Irish woman who had a prepubescent obsession with Malcolm X.

I ask Negga where this interest came from: “Well I didn’t have very many other black people around me growing up, and I kind of had to seek out that identity for myself so I read books; books and films”.

Again the parallels between us take me by surprise. What were some of the books, I ask.

Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, I read Beloved, The Bluest Eye and I remember seeing [Spike Lee’s] Do The Right Thing, which blew my mind, especially because my name’s in it, when they say ‘and that’s the truth Ruth’. Then I went back, and I watched School Daze and I loved that and I wanted to go to Spelman [in Atlanta, Georgia], any historically black college.”

Ruth Negga photographed by Chantal Anderson/New York Times
Ruth Negga photographed by Chantal Anderson/New York Times

As Negga has lived in Addis Ababa, Limerick, London and now LA, I’m curious to know more about her thoughts on identity.

“Black Irish people and black people in Ireland, we’re not going anywhere. That’s a fact, and I think black kids in Ireland need to define their identity for themselves, now I don’t know when you were growing up, but this ‘You can’t be, no you can’t be that, you can’t be’, this constant narrative about can and can’t be, decided by someone else.

“And I’d think, wow, you just get to have your identity, I have to keep qualifying mine and, like, proving it, it’s almost like the birth cert thing with Obama... I was born in Ethiopia but I grew up in, and went to primary school in Ireland, and I think I get to define who I want to be and my nationality, and it’s no one else’s business and that’s what we want to afford everybody in Ireland.”

I’ve heard her make a similar point in other interviews where she talks about being “territorial” about her identity “because it’s been hijacked by so many people, with their own projections”.

Negga refuses to be fixed or framed by others’ need to reduce complexity into simple categorisation. She has said she doesn’t “trust anyone who doesn’t change their mind”.

In this regard, she reminds me of the French philosopher Michel Foucault describing why he writes: “I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”

Ruth Negga as Tulip O’Hare in Preacher
Ruth Negga as Tulip O’Hare in Preacher

Despite all these parallels between our upbringings, Negga is keen to point out that she didn’t experience racism growing up in Limerick. Elsewhere, I have heard her describe never feeling “uncomfortable in any way” and a large family who were very protective of her that she always felt “very welcomed in Ireland”.

Much as I love Ireland this is somewhat different to my own experience, but I can’t say it’s a perspective I’ve never heard before. In fact one or two mixed black people I’ve spoken to, particularly from the country have described similar backgrounds; coming from big, established families in the village or the town, and enjoying that cocoon of protection. A black mixed friend from London, with an Irish mum and an African-Caribbean father described similar experiences in rural Ireland on summer holidays, a gang of cousins who protected her, and not a word said, she recalled her surprise upon coming to Dublin, and being greeted with a racial slur almost on arrival.

Negga later sends me a text to reiterate her positive experiences: “I had excellent opportunities in Ireland in terms of jobs. I got my first job right off the bat after leaving college. Personally speaking the Irish arts have been very good to me. I definitely felt a level playing field at home in terms of work.”

'A black child’s first cognizance of their blackness is a negative experience and then you’re supposed to go forward into the world like there’s a meritocracy'

London, on the other hand, was a different story. “Being black and Irish in London wasn’t great. I did my secondary school education in London and being black and Irish in the 1990s wasn’t fun.”

I want to explore this further, but she doesn’t expand beyond describing being “profoundly shook by Stephen Lawrence, the aftermath, an indifference, a wilful, spiteful indifference, was very, very troubling to me, and troubled me to my core”.

Again she describes finding refuge in the movies, one French film in particular. “I found solace in La Haine, it was kids in the banlieue but I could understand their rage.”

Negga’s forthright attitude is apparent in her response to claims to colour-blindness: “People who say they don’t consider skin colour … are you saying that because you’re trying to reach out in a compassionate and empathetic way, which is lovely and great, or because you don’t want to talk about it or because you’re f**king blind?”

When I laugh, she points out that she doesn’t think saying that is “harsh or flippant”. “I find it patronising and it’s an erasure, of self, in order to be this thing, you have to get rid of that thing which to me goes back to the kind of self defining.”

This prompts me to share my experiences about the exclusion from Irish identity I experienced growing up, and how the same people would also take umbrage at any expressions of my blackness or my Nigerianess. She immediately gets it.

“You know the psychological cost of that… people don’t understand the cost of that on a kid’s mental health and its unfortunately not uncommon.”

Ruth Negga at the presentation of Ireland’s cultural ambassadors last year. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Ruth Negga at the presentation of Ireland’s cultural ambassadors last year. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

I start to feel like I’m in a therapy session, or perhaps with one of the imaginary black Irish girlfriends I longed for, but never had growing up.

“It’s so sad,” she continues. “Because it’s echoed through what W E B Du Bois calls double consciousness... A black child’s first cognizance of their blackness is a negative experience and then you’re supposed to go forward into the world like there’s a meritocracy and if you work hard and you be nice, and you behave yourself, its all fair, but its not a level playing field when you’re up against that.”

I ask her what she thinks about the global pandemic and the unexpected revolutionary turn it has taken?

“Jesus, where to start?” she asks. “Things are shifting now but there’s a long way to go. The success of Black Panther – people were in shock – but it wasn’t a shock to black people. [There was this] denial for ages that black films can’t make money, of course they can, [there’s been a] wilful exclusion.

'Audre Lorde [reminds us that] the transformation of silence into language and action, that’s our duty… Your silence will not protect you.

“Is it a watershed moment? It has to be. If I see more than one black crew member, I get the shock of my life, that has to change, we need to be reflected in this industry… and I think what’s happening now, this movement, this is our opportunity to precipitate change and we can’t let this opportunity go.”

I ask if she has thoughts on what concrete things need to happen. “We can hold people in power accountable, to make changes happen, and agitate for that.”

And the role of the arts? “Having black voices being heard, black writers in the room, having black studio heads, having more black agents. I have a black agent, I’m very lucky. There’s not a lot of us in this industry. [We need more black people] in the corridors of power. Certainly shining a light, on talking about this, pushing that [door] open, out of the darkness into the light.”

Negga also talks about the importance of black storytelling. How hard it is to “track the genealogy of slavery times over here [in the US]. There’s so much we’ll never know. But we can reimagine their stories. And we can tell their stories, now.”

Is she hopeful about the future? On this she remains philosophical and returns to reference one of the numerous black intellectuals and writers that she regularly draws on as though they were old friends.

“Unfortunately progress doesn’t work in a linear way –I wish it did –unfortunately, but that’s the nature of it. Audre Lorde [reminds us that] the transformation of silence into language and action, that’s our duty… Your silence will not protect you.”

Before our conversation ends it turns to some of the intersections between black and Irish history. I ask her if she knows about Frederick Douglass, the famed black American abolitionist (like both of us, also of mixed heritage) and his time in Limerick. Of course she does. Yes, she says, Douglass went on a “tour of Ireland, Daniel O’Connell invited him, and he saw a great parallel between the Irish, the oppression of the Irish by the English, and what was going on in America, and he found a great audience of people who wanted to hear what he said, there’s a book about it, fascinating isn’t it?”

Needless to say our conversation spills over our allotted time, when we do finally say our goodbyes Negga courteously tells me it was a pleasure and that this Irish Times special edition is “very, very exciting”.

Her last words to me are quintessentially Irish, “Take it easy, thanks a million”.

Upon hanging up, inspired by our conversation, I turn immediately to the turntable and blast out War by Bob Marley:

“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior, is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned… Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes… Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race… Until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained… Until that day everywhere is war.”