Sunday 19 May 2019

How Oscar-tipped Ruth Negga's star has finally ascended...

She's the next big thing with a dozen years' experience. Vicki Notaro charts the actress's steady incline

Red carpet: Ruth Negga poses during a photocall for the film Loving in competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival
Red carpet: Ruth Negga poses during a photocall for the film Loving in competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival
Heart and depth: Ruth Negga as Rosie in Love/Hate with co-star Darren Sheehan

Ruth Negga has been breaking through for oh, about a decade now. But it seems with her latest projects, the talented Irish-Ethiopian actress is finally going from respected under-the-radar thespian to bona fide star of the silver screen.

Lauded this week at Cannes for her portrayal of a woman arrested for the crime of matrimony after wedding a white man in 1950s Virginia, 34-year-old Negga is now garnering the kind of buzz for Loving that surely all working actors dream of - and the word "Oscar" is being uttered in relation to Negga all over the French Riviera.

For her portrayal of Mildred Loving in the true story, Negga has been receiving rave reviews; Variety said she embodies her character "with a quiet dignity and deep inner strength", while the Telegraph said Negga is "place-your-Oscar-bets-now tremendous".

High praise indeed, but the actress isn't taking it lightly. She dodged reporters' questions about potential Oscar glory steadfastly, but did say that it was the most important film she's ever made.

The buzz is undeniable though, and hopes are once again firmly raised that we'll see an Irish Best Actress winner clutching a gold statuette next February.

One might presume that she's something of an overnight success, but like all the best newcomers, Negga has been toiling away in the television and movie industry for 12 years.

After graduating from Trinity College with a degree in drama, she stuck mainly to the stage following her training in the university's Samuel Beckett Theatre. Odd jobs on television cropped up, in RTÉ dramas Love is the Drug and Doctors, but it was in theatre she thrived - and it's to theatre she always returns.

A big break came when she auditioned for director Neil Jordan. "I didn't know much about her when she came to the casting," he previously said, "but the moment I saw her act, I decided to change the script so that she could appear in the movie." Cast as the pregnant girlfriend of an IRA man in Breakfast on Pluto, Negga made an impact.

However, over the subsequent years, she remained primarily in theatre and television - something she joked about with the Guardian in 2012 when, during an interview, she looked under the tablecloth for the shining film career that had been prophesied.

Negga is someone who has been on the cusp of greatness for years, someone who has been profiled as the next big thing in the Irish and UK media many times, but has never become the kind of household name one might expect of someone with the kind of talent to play Hamlet's Ophelia in the National Theatre.

But celebrity has never seemingly interested her. "I have not been aggressive in my pursuit of being a star," she told the Hollywood Reporter at Cannes. "I've never had a plan. Maybe I need to be more aggressive, because it's quite tough!"

Born in 1982 in Addis Ababa to an Ethiopian father and Irish mother, Negga's family moved to Limerick when she was four.

An only child, her parents both worked in the medical industry until her doctor father died in a car accident when Negga was seven.

She lived her teen years in London, and it's where she still lives today with her partner, actor Dominic Cooper.

The two have been a couple since 2010, but are private about their relationship despite the fact that they co-star in two massive upcoming projects - the big budget sci-fi film Warcraft directed by Duncan Jones (the artist formerly known as Zowie Bowie), and Preacher, a 10-part comic book adaptation for American cable television. Between these projects and the aforementioned Loving, it seems certain that this is the year that Negga will truly become an international star - and that the relative anonymity she's enjoyed will be a thing of the past.

Yet Negga has always felt like she never fit in, in Ireland, in the UK or in Hollywood. "Partly my feelings of difference were down to having parents of different races," she told the Guardian in an interview published on St Patrick's Day this year. "I had quite a scattered childhood. I was Irish in London, because I had my secondary school education there. I never really fitted anywhere. I didn't feel it was a negative thing and I was never made to feel different - I just knew I was."

Irish audiences may know Negga best as Rosie in Love/Hate, the girlfriend of Nidge's most handsome henchman, Robert Sheehan's Darren. A stand-out character in seasons one and two, Rosie and Darren's relationship gave real heart and depth to the show. Audiences lamented her realisation of what Darren had become just as the drama was really becoming popular, and were bereft when she left him - one of the few characters to exit the show without any bullet wounds. Sheehan and Negga had acted together previously in E4's Misfits, perhaps accounting for their on-screen chemistry.

After that role, things continued to chug along for Negga. She appeared in the Brad Pitt war flick World War Z, had a small part in 12 Years a Slave and also had a role in Irish flick Noble among parts in small, independent productions and turns on the stage.

But it was landing the part of Raina in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D that really heralded the big time. Seventeen episodes of big budget, big name TV can't be discounted in terms of reach, but there's more to Negga than an impressively varied CV and impeccable technical skills.

"I'm not in any rush to get anywhere," she told the Guardian in that same interview in 2012 that questioned her slow rise to A-list status.

"There's a pressure on actors to get somewhere before it's over. But everyone wants longevity, don't they? It's a career. Why be that flash in the pan, taking every job out of worry it'll soon be over?"

Perhaps it's that wisdom that has stood Negga in good stead, and a refusal to get ahead of herself. In her lack of planning for her career, she's eventually managed to strike gold and is unlikely to be dismissed.

Negga is something of an enigma, and her quiet, unstarry presence draws you in far more than a list of her accomplishments. Perhaps Hollywood is only now experiencing what Neil Jordan did all those years ago - that moment of magic when you realise that someone just has "it", and you need to see more of them.

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