Ruth Negga: ‘There are films that really mark you. Loving is one of those for me’

The Ethiopian-Irish actor has shot to fame thanks to a restrained performance in the interracial marriage drama Loving. And now she has an Oscar nomination

First, the noise, Ater a decade of restrained, subtle excellence, Ruth Negga is suddenly everywhere. She appeared gamine-iconic on the front of the January issue of American Vogue, photographed by Mario Testino, a huge deal for a little-known, 35-year-old Ethiopian-Irish actor. Now shes on the cover of another fashion bible, W, which shows her and Natalie Portman leaning in, seemingly a moment before kissing. A rare, powerful talent, Portman called Negga.

At the Golden Globes, Negga headed those silly best-dressed lists, wearing a Louis Vuitton gown made from thousands of hand-sewn gold and silver paillettes. More satisfying for her was being name-checked that evening by Meryl Streep in her excoriating, Trump-skewering defence of diversity in Hollywood, which is coming up for 9m views on YouTube.

What you probably havent seen and must, first chance you get is the signal, so to speak, which has inspired this fuss. Her new film, Loving, is the real-life story of Mildred (Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), an interracial couple threatened with prison in 1950s Virginia because of their decision to get married. The case went all the way to the supreme court and would become a landmark judgment in American civil rights, although one that was only fully appreciated after Mildred died in 2008.

And Neggas time in the spotlight is only just beginning: next month, shes up for a Bafta in the rising star category and an Oscar for actress in a leading role; these add to her Golden Globe nomination, where she lost out in the best actress category to Isabelle Huppert in Elle. When you think of awards-buzz performances, it is typically the showy, exuberant ones that catch the eye and grab the lapels. Neggas portrayal of Mildred Loving is nothing like that. It is quiet, even wordless for large chunks.

Emotion is created with weary eyes, pursed lips and a slow, long-suffering gait. Proper acting, in other words. If Modigliani ever painted the Delta blues, it would look something like Neggas expression in this movie, wrote film critic Wesley Morris in the New York Times.

Its a thrilling and invigorating thing to discard language in a way, almost completely, explains Negga. First of all, some things can be really overwrought and overwritten and if its a realistic story, thats just not the way humans exist: long monologues and quick, sharp banter.

Then we have the ability to lie verbally but its much harder to get our bodies to lie, because theres a truth there. We are constantly communicating with our bodies subconsciously and I find that absolutely fascinating. Theres a lovely tension that can happen in a silence.

Ruth Negga with Joel Edgerton in Jeff Nicholss drama Loving. Photograph: Allstar/Focus Features
Negga stops speaking as if to prove her point. Loving was a very special film, she continues eventually. There are films that really, really land on you and mark you and I think this is one of those films for me.

We are speaking on the phone: she has been yo-yoing between New York and Los Angeles and had set aside the week to catch up with family and friends in London before heading off to New Orleans for the best part of six months to shoot the second season of the comic-book TV adaptation Preacher. But, inevitably, people want to talk to her about Loving.

I have not seen the inside of a yoga studio in too long because of talking to journalists, says Negga, her Irish burr coming as a surprise after seeing her play a run of Americans. Ive never really had to do anything on this scale before, so its been a huge new experience for me and Ive had some amazing moments. Nothing really to complain about, but my poor old voice is very tired and raggedy. And Ive got a cold, so excuse me sniffling.

Negga, to be fair, has gone above and beyond to support a film that lacks the firepower of other Oscar contenders: it was made for just $9m by a director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud), who is acclaimed but defiantly indie. The campaign started at the Cannes film festival last May, where Loving received a rapturous ovation, and will no doubt continue until the Academy Awards on 28 February. You hope that you dont let the film down thats the worry, Negga says. Its a responsibility, because essentially youre communicating to the world why they should see this film and that they should see this film. So you want to serve it in the best possible way.

Being picked out by Streep is still surreal, she admits, but it feels like these are career-changing moments for Negga: overwhelmingly positive, though also clearly discombobulating. She has worked steadily since she graduated in 2003, winning effusive reviews in film, theatre and television without ever looking set to become a household name. There has been modest interest in her private life since 2009, she has dated the actor Dominic Cooper but mostly she has avoided talking about it and diffused much of the clamour. So does whats happening now feel brilliant crazy? Or strange crazy?

Glittering: with director Jeff Nichols at the Golden Globes. Photograph: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Moet & Chandon

Its both those things, she says with a laugh. I dont think its just one kind of crazy. You become an actor some people do, not everybody to hide and disappear and I worry sometimes, Gosh, doing this circuit, as they call it, is very much presenting yourself to the world, and that can be a little intimidating for actors who basically like to hide.

I thought most actors wanted to be the centre of attention, I say. Shyness and a peacock-ness they are not mutually exclusive, Negga says. Some days, you wake up and feel like poo and other days you wake up and you feel OK. Sometimes, you just feel like, Oh, I dont want to be the centre of attention today. And others, youre like, This is fabulous! People coming up to me and saying that the film moved them.

When Negga signed up for drama school at Trinity College in Dublin aged 18, shed never done any performing at all: no school plays, no terrible teenage bands, nothing. What made her think that she would be any good? I didnt know Id be good at it, she says. I just knew I wanted to do it.

Her inspiration was Kate Bush on Top of the Pops, David Bowie walking down the steps in the 1986 musical-fantasy film Labyrinth. But it wasnt a lightning-bolt moment, says Negga. It feels vocational for many actors. Some not, but for some it feels theres a need, a calling. And people might think that maybe sounds a bit wanky, but why should it? Why shouldnt it be like that?

Where did that drive come from? Who knows? she shoots back.

Negga was born in January 1982 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; her father was a doctor at the Black Lion hospital in the capital and her Irish mother, Norra, was a nurse. Ethiopia was a mess then: a civil war raged between the Soviet-backed Derg government and rebel groups and divisions were exacerbated by the droughts that led to the famine of 1983-1985. Negga and her mother left for Limerick when she was four. Her father was supposed to join them, but died in a car accident.

I didnt go back to Ethiopia until I was 18 and I havent been back in a very long time, says Negga. But its a very familiar culture to me; I grew up eating Ethiopian food and listening to Ethiopian music and reading Ethiopian history, so its part of me.

Negga was raised by her mother, who never remarried, and has no siblings, but a large extended family. When you lose a parent its not about coming to terms with it, she says. I resent the idea that there are stages of grief. Its a very peculiar and unhelpful notion: that you come to terms with something. Its ever-shifting and most human emotions are shifting.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga on Loving, interracial marriage and gay rights

So I do remember. When a child loses a parent its a very confusing time, but then I dont think its something one comes to terms with. One learns to live a life without your father being present.

In recent years, Negga has analysed the impact of her fathers death in therapy. Grief to me is something we tentatively explore because its a terrifying thing and theres a weird embarrassment that people feel about it, says Negga. Im glad that is something thats changing now. It isnt something to be embarrassed by. And its something that is not very straightforward. You have to try and sort of negotiate that every day.

Negga and her mother moved to London when she was 11. A lack of opportunities in rural Limerick seems to have been behind the decision: I was a kid in the 1980s and there was loads of Irish emigration, thats the history of our country we haemorrhaged people. She didnt much enjoy school. I was very impatient because I wanted it to be over, she explains. Its not that I have a problem with authority, but I remember thinking, I dont really want to be spoken to by teachers in that manner. Whats their problem? I kind of resented that.

But dont you now spend your life being ordered around by directors, I say. Yeah, its kind of ironic, she laughs, because youre being told what to do by someone and its a rigorous schedule. But I think there was the glamour of being, I dont know, a band of gypsies on tour. I just found the idea of it so freeing.

It would certainly be hard to accuse Negga of lacking range. Alongside poised, dignified Mildred Loving, her main gig right now is Tulip OHare, a formidable, sassy gun for hire in Preacher. She was introduced to the show, which is screened on AMC in America, Amazon in the UK, last year by killing a man using an ear of corn and then fashioning a DIY bazooka on a kitchen table, with the help of two children who think its a craft project.

Thats the whole point isnt it? says Negga. If I was playing the same part and characters, Id bore myself senseless and the audience too Im not that interesting, to be honest.

With Preacher co-star, and partner, Dominic Cooper. Photograph: Matthias Clamer/AMC/Matthias Clamer

Preacher, which was developed by the comic actor Seth Rogen and his Superbad co-writer Evan Goldberg, involved Negga having to sign a contract pre-screen test for a potential commitment of seven years.

The decision was made easier by the fact that Cooper happened to be cast opposite Negga as the male lead, Jesse Custer. The pair met when they were both in Nicholas Hytners production of Racines Phdre at the National and they have worked professionally a few times since then. People dont believe me, but strangely we just keep kind of going up for the same things, Negga insists. Its really weird. For a while we would joke that we got each other the job and I think we have to stop that because people are actually taking us seriously.

A sigh, then a mental note. Yep, remember not to joke.

Still, with the long, location shoots required of a TV series, Negga admits she is relieved to be doing it with Cooper. Its perfect because youre working with your best friend, she says. No one likes to hear actors moan about the lonesomeness of a shoot, but it can be quite lonesome actually. Maybe if youre staying in a hotel and its not like youve got friends to call around because youre in the desert in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, it can leave you feeling quite adrift, so one also has to be very careful about keeping your sanity.

We are speaking a few days before the Oscar announcement, but I ask how she might feel if she was nominated. Oh my God, it would be huge, she replies. Listen, Im not expecting anything and I dont think you should. Awards are funny. So its all subjective, but of course the Oscars are the pinnacle of this awards season and Id love it. And Id love it for our film and most of all, oh God, for Richard and Mildred. They are the essence of what we should aspire to be as humans.

As it turns out, in contrast to the past two years where the four acting categories have been an all-white club, Negga find herself on shortlists with a record number of black actors: six from four different films. This, no doubt, will be a relief. Sometimes it gets a bit tedious being asked about these things, because I cant be a spokesperson for an entire group of people, she tells me. Its just like when people call films black films and youre thinking, Why? They are not just for black people, you know. Our film is not about black America, its about America. White and black America. You know, were all in this together.

Loving is released on 3 February

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