Ruth Negga: 'I'm glad people are feeling angry'
The Oscar-nominated actress tells our reporter she is hoping that audiences will be inspired by the real-life heroism in interracial marriage drama 'Loving'
Suddenly Ruth Negga, a reluctant conscript to Hollywood, is everywhere. Until just a few months ago, she was best known to most of us as Darren Treacy's girlfriend Rosie in Love/Hate, or for her roles in Misfits and Breakfast on Pluto.
And then, seemingly all at once, there she was - on the cover of American Vogue, stunningly shot by Mario Testino. Co-starring with her real-life partner Dominic Cooper in the hit Amazon series Preacher. Storming the red carpet at the Golden Globes, in shimmering Louis Vuitton - and getting name-checked by Meryl Streep in her show-stopping, Trump-skewering speech later that night.
The Limerick actress has finally made her name - and the awards circuit - with the movie Loving.
Loving, the story of real-life Virginia couple Richard (played by Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Negga), whose 1967 Supreme Court case legalised interracial marriage in the US, has catapulted the Irish-Ethiopian actress into a dizzying new direction.
The role has brought her plenty of industry nods, nominated for a whole host of awards from critics' circles to the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, and, at the end of the month, we'll find out if Negga will become an Oscar-winning actress. Her newfound fame has also seen her land the covers of W magazine (puckering up for a kiss with fellow Oscar-nominated actress Natalie Portman) and Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue, to name a few.
The Oscar buzz has pulled Loving's centre of gravity towards Negga but fame isn't something that sits comfortably with her. For a notoriously shy and private actress, all this noise must be deafening. "It's surreal," she says, when we meet in the Westbury, a few weeks ahead of the movie's Irish release. Her words delivered in a neutral-non accent that would be impossible to place if it wasn't for the occasional Limerick lilt. "I'm a talker but I've never talked this much, ever."
The 35-year-old possesses a steely shyness which prevents her from talking freely. In person, her answers are careful and considered, with a genuine earnestness for "the art". Questions directed at her personal life (or her long-term relationship with Cooper, with whom she has lived in London since 2010) are politely and gently eschewed but when it comes to her work, she lights up, albeit slowly... finding a space where she feels comfortable, beaming with luminosity.
"I love this couple," she says of the Lovings. "I fell in love with them the first time I saw the documentary, Loving Story. And I fell even more deeply in love with them when we were filming. When we were wrapping up the movie, with just 10 days to go of filming, I felt this feeling in the pit of my stomach. This sense of loss. She adds: "Joel had the same feeling. It was because we were going to have to part ways with these people. And I realised how much of a privilege it was for us to play them. They made us better people."
As Mildred Loving, Negga brings so little ego to her role, so little of herself, that you believe in her character all the more. Her performance has a quietness that is devastating. It's hard not to marvel at how, as an actress, Negga can deliver so much with a simple look, a quiet persistence. It's that sobering intensity that has made her the talk of Hollywood. But while Negga was able to allow her emotions to gently simmer on screen, the injustice she felt for the Lovings bubbled over into anger and frustration in real life.
"Even to this day when I see it, my response is very emotional, a bit teary because it's a sort of angry sadness. This couple were robbed of nine years of living in their home, without looking over their shoulder, without fear. I feel angry on their behalf. What's good about that anger, I think, is when it's translated into some sort of movement, it can be a really good thing," she says.
The Lovings' battle changed America but they weren't political. They were a regular couple who understood that the situation they were in was wrong, and that innate sense of injustice is what pushed them to fight.
Sentimentality and melodrama were pushed aside for a soft-spoken message that ultimately yielded tremendous power.
While the segregation laws described in the film may seem archaic to modern viewers, its exploration of racial tensions is eerily relevant. Watching Loving feels immediate and deeply personal. At a time when thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest, appalled and terrified by the current political and social unrest, perhaps they might find relevance in the Lovings' battle? The couple's real-life heroism is something that Negga hopes inspires audiences.
"I think (Richard and Mildred Loving) remind us that we equally have as much as a right to own the space that we're in as the next person - and that's not always what I think we're led to believe by people who wield power," she says as her voice gathers speed.
"I'm glad people are feeling angry because maybe that gives them impetus to do something. To speak. To use their voice. To search for the humanity in every one of us, rather than try to distance one another through differences, or perceived differences.
"You have a right to use your voice. People have always been loathe to do that because it can be quite intimidating. I think people who may feel that they're not articulate enough but how articulate do you have to be to say 'I don't agree with that and that's wrong'?
"I really do believe that and I think this might inspire confidence in people to become part of something."