Love/Hate star still a misfit at heart
Ruth Negga's talent has been recognised with two IFTA nominations for roles in Shirley and Misfits but as Emily Hourican discovers there are aspects of the acting profession that the Love/Hate star rails against
BY the time she did her A-levels, actress Ruth Negga had been to "about" 10 different schools.
It was a peripatetic childhood -- moving between Ethiopia, London, Leicester and Limerick -- that has left her with a low threshold for the boredom of staying in one place for too long ("I get itchy feet after a while. I like knowing that I can just go, that a job won't last forever."), coupled with a fear of somehow slipping through the cracks of society and becoming isolated. "I'm really bad about maintaining friendships and relationships," she confesses. "When you move around a lot, you don't always have the opportunity ... I'm getting better at it. It does require effort and time, and I'm realising that more and more."
Born in Ethiopia, to an Ethiopian father and a mother from Limerick, Ruth and her mother left when she was four, because the country was becoming troubled. Her father, a doctor, wasn't allowed to leave, and died three years later in a car crash. Neither Ruth nor her mother, a nurse and health visitor, had seen him in the interim. These days, Limerick is home, because her mother and aunts live there, but London is where Ruth is mostly based. "I went over to do Criminal Justice for the BBC, and stayed. I always wanted to go over with a job; I didn't want to be lonesome in London, because it is a lonesome place," she explains. "It's a great city, I love it, but you can get lost there. I can see how people can pine for something more intimate and local, no matter how suffocating it might be when you're there. At least you won't get dropped through the cracks."
This fear of falling through the cracks is so acute that, some years ago Ruth was asked to read for the part of Joyce Carol Vincent in a film that was recently completed, Dreams of a Life, but opted not to. Joyce, a beautiful sometime-singer of Caribbean descent who, for a time, lived the high life, once meeting Nelson Mandela at a fund- raiser concert, was discovered in her flat in 2006. She had been dead for more than three years. In that time, no one had apparently noticed that the 38-year-old was gone, or reported her missing. On the floor was a small pile of unopened Christmas presents, in the sink a pile of dishes. Ruth visibly shudders when she thinks of the circumstances of the young woman's death. "I remember thinking it was a really good script," she says, "a really good idea. But had to distance myself because it was so scary, so depressing. That's every person's fear."
Peculiar though life can be, I can't imagine Ruth being gone anywhere for long before someone noticed. She's too vivid, too engaged, too connected to her own life, despite claiming to be bad at the maintenance of friendship. There is also every chance that she will become an actor of considerable stature, because she has, as well as mesmerising beauty, talent and dedication.
She has been nominated for two Irish Film and Television Awards -- for the lead role in Shirley and for a supporting role in Misfits. She played Nikki in series two of Misfits, the hit E4 drama -- a role that gets her recognised all over London, mainly by teenagers. "I can't overestimate how huge it is for placing you in the public eye," Ruth says. "Teenagers and young people just love it. They love Nikki, because she's got an edge, she's slightly different from what young women are often portrayed as -- they are usually portrayed so flat, and they're the most complex people on this earth."
Sadly, Nikki was killed off at the end of the second series, something that happened arbitrarily. "If I was one of the leads there would be consultation about the story line, but not with guest appearances like mine," she explains. "I'm dead and that's it." Did she mind? "Some people were really outraged," she says, before adding with a laugh, "Well, like my mum." She has a very attractive laugh, one that appears to come out of nowhere, because generally she seems so serious. Just when you assume she doesn't have much of a sense of humour, she will send herself up, and laugh, a deep, hoarse chuckle. "I don't really mind. It was a great show. Viewers like drama, they like people to die."
Misfits is an unsurprising hit -- sharp, fast-moving, often raunchy. Ruth, as Nikki, is involved in a fair few steamy scenes (enough to have inspired her own smattering of internet websites, devoted to bringing these scenes to a wider audience). "It's explicit," Ruth agrees, "but also really funny and sharp and witty. There's nothing worse than something being explicit and sexually edgy, and being really cliched and boring. This is really exciting." However, that said, she still finds that "the boys still get the better parts, in terms of writing. But that's in everything, not just TV series. A lot are written by men and it always falls down when it comes to women. That's why a lot of actresses return to theatre".
Her own recent theatre appearances have included Pegeen Mike in Synge's Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic last year and Ophelia in the National Theatre's production of Hamlet, two years ago. Does she prefer film to theatre? "They're different muscle groups really, it's good to keep both flexed," she says. "The first day of a shoot is the first day of school. It's awful. You never sleep. I always know what my first day was when I look back at something, because I look awful. But that's nothing compared to the absolute vomit-your-guts-out nerves of press nights."
Ruth's second IFTA nomination is for her role as Shirley Bassey in the BBC biopic Shirley. "That was really difficult," she confesses, "the scariest thing I've ever done -- playing a real person, still living, is scary. I didn't want to do it, mainly because I can't sing." What
changed her mind was meeting the director and producer, and being persuaded that they knew exactly what they were doing and who they were looking for. "I was really wary going in. But the director and producer were so lovely and their ideas were so exciting. They seemed not too bothered about my lack of singing. Maybe they thought there was an air of modesty," she laughs, "but really there wasn't, I truly can't sing." In the end, they used Shirley's voice, but the acting is very much Ruth. It was the first time she has played a specifically mixed-race character (indeed, one of the great strengths of her career is the way she has been able to step into roles, such as Ophelia or Pegeen Mike, without race becoming an issue).
"I do feel quite lucky not to be pigeon-holed. It's not that I don't want to play mixed-race, because I am, but I don't want that to become the issue. I think most black actors don't want to be 'the black actor'." Playing Shirley Bassey -- who had a prickly relationship with the notion that she should be a role model for race relations -- forced Ruth to confront the issue herself, though in an oblique way. "I think people expected her to become the face of the movement and be vocal about equality, and she never wanted that. Is it unreasonable to expect her to? If you're a trailblazer, as she was, surely that comes with certain responsibilities ... ? I don't know how I feel about it actually," she admits. "The race issue irritated her. She didn't want to address it or be defined by it. In a way, that makes her quite brilliant; it's a testament to how confident she was." Certainly Bassey was a larger-than-life character. "She was fabulous, with a dramatic private life. She was 'unlucky in love' -- I hate that expression. What is luck in love? I don't think luck has a whole lot to do with it ... "
Ruth confirms that she is in a relationship, but won't talk about it. "I just don't," she says, perfectly sweetly but firmly. Last year she was briefly the subject of media speculation when she was spotted out and about with Dominic Cooper, star of Mamma Mia! and The Duchess, with whom she was romantically linked when they appeared together in Phaedra at the National Theatre. Cooper's on-off relationship with Amanda Seyfried (his co-star in Mamma Mia!) added an extra frisson to the gossip, and I suspect the intrusion has left Ruth with a profound distaste for all things paparazzi.
"When Kristen Stewart said being photographed by the paparazzi was like being raped, I think I know what she meant, which is not to belittle anyone's experience of rape at all. I think there's a difference between putting yourself out there to be photographed at a premiere, and having a camera shoved in your face and being called 'c**t' deliberately to get your attention. That is really scary." She is quick to point out: "I don't experience that ... most people are lovely," but also emphasises, "I'm ambitious, but reluctant to go anywhere too fast." There is a level of fame that is "not appealing" to Ruth, whose plan is more subtle -- "I want to get there and stay there."
Those of us who know Ruth primarily as Rosie in RTE's Love/Hate will recall her fairly explicit sex scene with Robert Sheehan (which has its very own dedicated following on the internet). Clearly, she's not averse to such scenes where the script demands it. "I've never been asked to do anything I don't want to do," she insists. "I make sure I'm not pushed into anything. If I had a problem I wouldn't do it; it depends on how it's written and the script, but I don't have a no-sex-scenes clause." Presumably that means she's perfectly comfortable with her body? But no. "I am hung up about my body," she claims, adding, "I don't know anyone who isn't. I've got issues. Most cameramen aren't going to shoot from an unflattering angle, but there's no angle that's going to make my boobs look bigger, or my stomach look flatter, or my arse look smaller."
However, she also makes the point: "I don't think you have to have a perfect body to be naked on television. What is a perfect body anyway?
"This industry for women is just the worst, for physical confidence and physical scrutiny," she says. "The hyper-sexualisation of the female form does worry me, although I also know that if I became overweight suddenly, I definitely would find it hard to get parts. So there is this body maintenance, 'image maintenance' -- that's what it's called on the tax receipts, anyway," she laughs, before adding seriously, "Sometimes I do think everything is geared towards making life easier for men ... It's always trickier if you're non-white and non-male."
Trickier, but not impossible; as Ruth is clearly demonstrating.
The IFTAs are on Saturday, February 11, broadcast on RTE One at 9.30pm
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