With her mesmerizing performance in Jeff Nichols’s subtly groundbreaking film Loving, the Irish-Ethiopian actress Ruth Negga has become a star for our time.
“I’m a rag of a woman today,” Ruth Negga says in her faint Irish accent. She is pointing to her chipped green nail polish and apologizing for her eyebrows. She cut her hair herself, she says, before asking a professional to tidy it up. Earlier today she went to get her passport renewed. “Maybe . . . you could—blend?” the photographer said, gesturing around his face. She took a look and realized she had been quite slapdash with her bronzer and powder.
By lunchtime, there’s no trace of this—with her huge, doll-like eyes and closely cropped hair, she is as glamorous as a thirties aviator in Paige jeans and an olive bomber jacket—but it’s easy enough to imagine Negga dismissing vanity as a fool’s game. Her gift for self-mockery and her appetite for the craic—an Irish expression for fun or gossip or high jinks—are matched only by her levels of propulsion: Her neat, tiny frame always seems to move forward at great speed.
When director Jeff Nichols was trying to get financing for Loving, in which Negga and Joel Edgerton star as Mildred and Richard Loving—the real-life interracial couple whose quest to be considered legally married in 1958 Virginia became a landmark civil-rights case—he kept hearing the same thing: “Who’s Ruth Negga?” Few people are asking that now, but even so, Negga is not offended. “I’ve been working. Keeping a low profile—until bam!” She laughs. “Nothing slow and steady about me.”
Watch: Ruth Negga’s Best Worst Jokes:
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I had picked her up at home—a top-floor flat in London’s Primrose Hill, where she lives with her boyfriend and frequent costar, Dominic Cooper—and what felt like seconds after she’d stuck her head out the window and waved at me, she was bounding down the building’s stairs. “Dom’s doing a phone interview,” she said (I could hear a sonorous voice in the background), so we headed back to the street. As we walked to her favorite restaurant, she realized her just-renewed passport was still in her hand and, in one quick, disarming motion, pulled open the collar of her short-sleeved sweater and stuffed the passport into her bra.
If you’ve seen Preacher, the stellar AMC adaptation in which Negga practically blows up the screen as the lethal Tulip O’Hare, you may recognize some of this comic-book dynamism. It comes as no surprise to learn that one of Negga’s preferred forms of exercise is the Israeli martial art Krav Maga: Picture a quick-witted pixie trained by Mossad, and you’re almost there. For Negga, the pleasure of playing a Tulip sort of character is that “you get to be goofy in a way only men generally get away with.” (“She takes things that aren’t even meant to be funny and makes them funnier,” says the comedian Seth Rogen, one of the show’s creators.) In life she’s more poised and thoughtful, but just as expressive. Each time we meet, her eyes seem different: flecked with gold, framed by glasses, welling up with tears, or even, at times, presenting a challenge.
Negga is 35 (though she feels she “was about 22 a second ago”), and her powers of transformation are such that she’s been cast, with striking frequency, as people who look and are nothing like her. Tulip is a busty blonde in the original. Nichols thought at first that she was too petite to play Mildred. Six years ago, she became the National Theatre’s first black Ophelia and let a troubling force of revenge seep through her sweetness. She embodies these characters so fully, you forget they could have been otherwise. At a time when most British exports to Hollywood have tended toward the aristocratic, this Irish-Ethiopian actress is a different kind of royalty, a “brilliant chameleon,” in the words of her friend the director Annie Ryan, fit for a world of equal rights and dissolving borders.
In the theater, where she’s had a series of critical successes in Britain, there’s an incredible naturalism about her—“as if she’s short-circuiting technique,” in the words of one writer, “and simply relying on radiance.” On-screen, she can move you or make you laugh while appearing to do very little. Her exquisitely understated turn in Loving as a woman who bravely defends her family sparked rapturous reviews and immediate talk of Oscars. “I’ve witnessed some pretty amazing performances in my life,” Nichols says. “And you know it when you see it. It was uncanny what we were watching happening in front of us.”
Negga knows that Loving is different from anything else she’s done. “There’s often a job that’s a ‘before and after’ for an actor,” she suggests. “This is that kind of job for me.”
The impact was almost instantaneous. After the Cannes premiere, Negga and her cousin David Malone went back to the hotel and had martinis by the pool. There was a restaurant that Negga—in ruby lipstick, finger-waved hair, and a black-lace Marc Jacobs dress—had to walk through to get to the ladies’ room, and, Malone remembers, “someone must have recognized her from the screening, because when she came back there was a standing ovation. All of these people got up and started cheering her and clapping. It was absolutely amazing.”
Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to a white Irish nurse and a black Ethiopian doctor who’d met at Black Lion Hospital. When political violence broke out, four-year-old Ruth and her mother went to Ireland and waited for her father to join them.
“We were going to go to America,” Negga says, “but my dad didn’t get out in time.” Three years later, her father died in a car accident. “We found out in a letter and a phone call,” she remembers. “This was 1988. There wasn’t any grief counseling for kids.” Her mother was devastated and never remarried. “She’s a survivor. Very like Mildred.” Unlike Mildred Loving, though, Negga’s mother didn’t encounter any prejudice from being in an interracial marriage. “My mum never experienced that—I mean, never,” Negga says.
In County Limerick, Negga melded into a large extended family of “about 23 boys.” She remembers having a lot of freedom—“We weren’t allowed in the house from about 9:00 till about 7:00”—and developing an early sense of mischief. “I was an attention seeker,” she says, “always in trouble.” Even now, she confesses, “sometimes Dom says to me, ‘Why do you look like you’ve just stolen a bun?’ ”
She didn’t feel different from her fair-haired cousins, nor was she treated any differently. “I remember thinking, I’m just me. When you’re a kid, you’re just you, aren’t you? It was when I moved to England that I felt it, because I was Irish and black.” She was eleven. She was eventually drawn to Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin—none of them obvious influences for a girl from rural Ireland. “I didn’t have that many black people in my life, so I had to sort of search them out,” she says. “And I didn’t grow up in America, but I identified as much with their writing about the black experience as I did with their writing about the human experience.”
Negga knew she wanted to be an actor when she saw David Bowie walking down a set of stairs in the eighties fantasy film Labyrinth. That and two other essays in alienation—the dizzying adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and La Haine, a bleak French film about racial violence—made her think, “OK, I’m going to be eighteen soon, so I’ll just go away and figure out how to do that.”
While attending drama school at Trinity College Dublin’s Samuel Beckett Centre, she took to the work of the obscure Irish dramatist George Fitzmaurice and Seamus Heaney (she would later star in the first production of his Burial at Thebes). Annie Ryan, who gave Negga her first theater job in Dublin, as Lolita, saw her graduation performance and thought, “Oh, my God, I have to work with this girl.”
When Negga was eighteen, her mother took her back to Ethiopia to visit her father’s grave, which she found challenging, as she has found all of her return trips since. “I find it difficult because it was an abrupt sort of ending to a lot of my life,” she explains. “I’m always very careful to say I’m Irish-Ethiopian because I feel Ethiopian and I look Ethiopian and I am Ethiopian. But there are 81 languages in Ethiopia, and I don’t know any of them.” In her early 30s, she decided to have therapy to address the loss of her father. It made her realize, among other things, that her decision to be an actor “was no coincidence. I think it makes me able to access certain things that are quite near to the surface,” she says, “an honesty or something about life that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Nicholas Hytner, who has directed her twice at the National Theatre, sees this quality come through in her work. “She has a wonderful transparency,” he says. “You can see what she’s thinking, share what she’s feeling, without her having to show you anything. And at the same time, she seems to have secrets.”
The subject of how Negga identifies—nationally, racially, or otherwise—is one we circle more than once. “People have always made assumptions about me,” she says. “I become very territorial about my identity because it’s been hijacked by so many people, with their own projections.” Understandably, she doesn’t want to be pinned down, reserving the right to change her mind, about herself or anything else. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t change their mind,” she says.
That quicksilver quality has served her well. As Ryan says, “Maybe there’s something about her being a bit of an outsider, no matter where she is, that gives her that kind of fighter’s edge.”
Two days later, Negga and I meet at Tate Modern. There is an exhibition of work by Wifredo Lam, the Afro-Cuban–Chinese painter, and she wants to see it because Lam reminds her of one of her favorite artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
She arrives in a rush, a small whirlwind in a camel coat and oversize tortoiseshell glasses. “I’m so sorry,” she says, out of breath. Although she’s only a little late, she seems to have made a number of instant friends in the process. The driver has offered to take the blame, and the guards at the museum, it transpires, know her as Ruth. “It’s because they see my face and think, Oh. She’s in trouble,” Negga explains, her childhood as an impish tomboy never far from her mind.
The previous evening was the press night for The Libertine, a play in which Dominic Cooper stars as the lecherous seventeenth-century Earl of Rochester. Friends and family celebrated into the small hours, and the couple awoke to excellent reviews. A coffee seems to be called for. We head to the café, where Negga asked the waiter for “75 shots.” She is given to energetic exaggeration and peppers her speech with profanity for emphasis—which makes the economy of her performance in Loving all the more remarkable.
“We were very nervous,” she says as we perch on stools looking out over the murky Thames. Then she corrects herself. “I was nervous. They’re awful, press nights. But, you know, it’s a nice support group.”
Cooper and Negga have been together since playing Greek lovers in Phèdre—written by Ted Hughes and starring Helen Mirren in the title role—in 2009.
“Seven years,” Negga reflects. “What’s that in. . . .”
“Dog years?” I offer.
“Actor years,” she says. “Forty-nine million!”
She describes their working pattern as “brilliant. Because we just get on really well.” Their costarring in Preacher wasn’t entirely planned, however. “I had the script first. And he put me on tape for it, reading, and then he was like: ‘Hold on a minute; this is really good.’ I showed him the comic-book cover, and it’s basically his face.”
Rogen reports that Preacher benefits from their having known each other a long time. “When you understand the person you’re working with, it doesn’t always make everything easier,” he says, laughing a little, “but it generally makes everything better.”
As we wander through the gallery, Negga sees a Lam painting she likes—a small explosion of sinister, deconstructed figures—and makes a Chaplinesque gesture, as if to steal it. A security guard appears out of nowhere and intervenes, treating her more or less like a small child. “See?” Negga says in a stage whisper as we quickly move into the next room.
She tells me she painted a lot as a girl, but when I ask if she does now, she wrinkles her nose.
“I don’t like hobbies,” she says emphatically. In the little spare time she has, she says, “I read and travel and see my friends before they disown me.” She has just finished Patti Smith’s memoir M Train and is about to embark on Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time. As for the future, she’d love to work with Jeff Nichols again and maybe do a biopic about the Irish writer Maeve Brennan. For now, though, she can’t think much beyond the second season of Preacher, which she’ll finish filming in July. “I really need a holiday after that.”
When we next speak, Negga is in New York, on her way to the airport, and is shattered. She has spent virtually every waking hour since we last met promoting Loving. “My voice has dropped 72 octaves, and I sound like an emphysemic 80-year-old,” she says. She has found the whole process of being herself in public “terrifying.” She was once in a play in which she had to be naked every night for eight months, and claims that was “far easier” than a minute with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.
More seriously, though, she is all too aware that Loving has come at a moment of reckoning with America’s troubled history and current racial turmoil. In Hollywood, the lack of diversity has been “unacceptable for a long time, and it’s becoming clearly an embarrassment,” she says. Though she is beginning to see a shift, with the release of films like Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, there is still much more to be done. She is proud that Loving was the first full-length film to be screened at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. As Negga explains, “The film is reminding us that there’s a conversation that we need to be having still.” Though restrained in its style, Loving gestures strongly toward something much broader. “It does annoy Joel and me when people say it’s a quiet film,” she says. “Because it doesn’t feel very quiet to us. It feels really loud.”