Irish actress Ruth Negga is a strong contender for an Oscar nomination for her work in Loving, the powerful new film about one couple’s historic challenge to the interracial marriage ban in the United States. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the Limerick-raised actress about her role, her Irish background and her serious bouts of homesickness.
For weeks now Limerick-raised actress Ruth Negga, 34, has been touring the planet in a never-ending publicity blitz for her powerful new film Loving.
Directed by Jeff Nichols and co-starring Joel Edgerton, it’s a masterful recreation of a shameful era in American history that opened strong in limited release at the box office last weekend.
You might think that when an actress transitions into a film star (already there is Oscar buzz about Negga’s performance) that all the ordinary considerations go out the window and celebrity takes over.
But for most Irish actors this kind of Mercedes and Malibu transformation is an embarrassing non-starter. Negga just wants a bit of time at home.
“I’m quite homesick at the moment because I’m spending a lot of time promoting the film,” Negga confessed to the Irish Voice during an interview last week.
“I live in London but that’s just a stone’s throw from Ireland and I’ve been away for too long. I do get homesick now at this stage. Do I miss the place? I do, yeah.
“But funnily enough – and I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to the Irish Voice – it’s one of the parallels with Mildred Loving (the woman Negga plays in the movie) and myself. There’s a deep homesickness in her too. It helped me understand her character.”
When Mildred gets escorted out of Virginia (where in the early 1960s it’s illegal for interracial couples to marry) it becomes a propelling force for her to pursue a legal case.
“She can’t understand why she can’t raise her own family in her home state,” Negga says.
The cruel absurdity of the situation is conveyed in the beautifully understated central roles played by Negga and Edgerton, and she confesses she used her feelings about Ireland to get a firm grasp of her role.
“I would ask myself, ‘God, imagine being told I could never go home to Ireland again?’ I immediately felt this wave of homesickness about it,” she says.
As well as telling a gripping story, Loving presents one of the most realistic portraits of a marriage that this reviewer has ever seen.
“Ah, thank you,” Negga laughs. “Neither of us is actually married. We’re just very good actors.”
In a recent interview Negga mentioned that her experience of growing up Ethiopian and Irish in Limerick was delightful. She didn’t encounter any anti-black sentiment until she moved to London she says.
“I think that each person’s experience in Ireland is quite individual. When I was little I thought that everyone wanted to hold me as a baby because I was this thing of fascination,” she says.
“But rather than this thing that wasn’t quite right, I just felt that my difference was something that was probably very exotic. I didn’t know any black people in Ireland. There were none where I was growing up.”
Seeing anything or anyone out of the ordinary in Limerick was actually an event back then. “I remember seeing my first punk rocker in Limerick and he just absolutely flabbergasted and amazed me in a brilliant way. I was fascinated,” Negga recalls.
Her childhood was idyllic she says. “I have a very large family and I just felt very loved. And also because my dad had died as well (tragically he was killed in a car crash when Negga was seven) there was probably an extra set of defensives around me,” she says.
Things changed when the family moved to London to live, though.
“I did feel it quite keenly when I moved to London, because being Irish and black became an issue there for some people. That’s when I first felt that gosh, I’m really different.”
“But that’s just my narrative,” Negga adds. “I can’t speak for everyone’s experience. The thing that worries me is that people are going to say, ‘Is she trying to speak for me?’”
One thing she definitely misses about Ireland is the banter, the opportunity to have the craic she says.
“A lot of my friends are moving home to Ireland now. I think it’s because they miss that shorthand,” says Negga, who lives in London with her boyfriend and fellow actor Dominic Cooper.
“I do sometimes feel a bit misunderstood because you know that relief when you’re among Irish fellow people and you’re not being misconstrued? You’re free to use certain words.
“Some people say to me you don’t sound very Irish. It’s because I have this tendency to iron out my accent. Not because I’m ashamed of it, but because it makes my life easier if I don’t keep having to repeat myself.”
That might be a hang-up since she was a child she says. “People would say, ‘What are you saying?’ I got very defensive about my accent. Now I have to slow it down and iron out causticness. It’s not meanness; it’s just a way of interacting. There’s a lot of affection with a good Irish slag which I don't think translates,” she laughs.
Does she think the message of Loving is timely in this era of racial and religious mistrust?
“There’s fear and there’s divisiveness now that I haven’t felt this strongly in a long time. This real kind of fear of one another,” she says.
“There’s an aggression, an accusatory atmosphere. People are quick to point fingers for whatever bloody reason. I really feel that Loving taps into that. It shows us that this isn’t how it has to be.
“We’re capable of great goodness and great kindness towards one and other. I think that this film shows us we don’t need walls. Walls are what create fear. They beget it.
“When you connect to someone on a human level and you get to know about them you can begin to love the things that make them different. That’s when fear dissipates and that’s when we can live the life that we’re all supposed to be living.
“I think our film does highlight that because it’s about this couple that all they want to do is get married. They have different identities but I think that’s great. I think in a modern society that’s something we should aspire to, you know?”
Clearly this is an issue that Negga thinks about often. “We live in a society that says if you’re this you must be that. I’ve had it all my life. You can’t be Irish. Why can’t I be Irish? Why can’t these two people who love each other be together?”
What makes Loving really work for many critics is how well it conveys the ups and downs of a longtime marriage.
“I find that what’s most fascinating about this couple is that they're deeply in love but they also really like one another. On paper that doesn’t make for a thrilling movie but for me it absolutely is,” Negga says.
“It’s something I don’t think we celebrate often enough The mundanity of being in love is something that is quite special and should be cherished.”
Onscreen Negga’s expressive mastery reminded me of the young Bette Davis at the height of her powers. When I tell her she immediately lights up.
“I love her. My favorite film is All About Eve. I’ve basically been channeling her my whole life and seeing if it hits or misses,” Negga says.
In Loving it definitely hits. But she’s not about to lord it over us just yet.
“I don’t think I have ever thought of myself as a movie star. I think when I was about seven I thought it must be lovely to have an Oscar. But the more involved you are in this business, the more that pretence disappears and you really get to see what you love about it, and what I love is working.
“I think there are very few people I know who say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll have that role please, and abracadabra – I nearly said Abrakebabra! You see, I’m homesick!” she laughs, referencing the popular Irish fast food joint Abrakebabra.
“What I can say is no, and I can wait. I don’t necessarily think about making my mark or being famous. That’s never interested me. What does interest me is storytelling.”
What could be more Irish than that?