Ruth Negga: 'Stories about race and identity pique my interest... I have always felt like a fish out of water'
Nominated for a Golden Globe, tipped for an Oscar and on the cover of Vogue, Ruth Negga is the woman of the moment. Here, the actress tells Patricia Danaher how growing up mixed race in the Republic helped her inhabit the role that's made her a star
It seems somewhat fitting that, as the cover star of US Vogue's January edition, Ruth Negga wears an Alexander Wang blouse covered in red roses. After all, back home in Ireland it's for her role as Rosie in Love/Hate that Ruth is perhaps best known.
That part, as the star-crossed lover of the show's original protagonist Darren (played by Robert Sheehan) was, of course, just one of the many times the Limerick woman has graced TV screens in recent years. The chameleon-like actress has also featured in such diverse productions as Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, edgy Channel 4 show Misfits, and big-budget US series Agents of Shield and Preacher.
In the UK, she works almost continuously on video games, in theatre and on TV - winning critical acclaim for her portrayal of Ophelia at the National Theatre and of Shirley Bassey in a BBC biopic about the singer. Despite these numerous prominent roles, however, 35-year-old Ruth has managed to stay mostly under the radar in her long career.
Until now, that is. Nominated earlier this month for a Golden Globe and hotly tipped for an Oscar, she's gone from jobbing actor to Vogue cover girl in the blink of an eye. In Hollywood, those who have just discovered Ruth through her role in new movie Loving are calling her "an overnight success, 10 years in the making".
When we meet, it's before the nomination and subsequent whirlwind, and Ruth has a particular serenity about her as she goes about the business of promoting Loving. With her Ethiopian father and Irish mother, she has a languid and very individual look which made her the perfect choice to play Mildred Loving, a black woman illegally married to the white Richard Loving in 1960s' Virginia. The couple eventually took their case to the Supreme Court and quietly and determinedly succeeded in having the statute outlawing inter-racial marriage overturned.
Ruth inhabits the movie - set for release here in February - with an amazing dignity and calmness. It's clear in talking to her how strongly she appears to love and identify with her character Mildred. "Stories about race and identity pique my interest for obvious reasons," she says. "That's in my body, my brain, my history, my memories - it's all part of my toolbox as an actor. I've always felt like a fish out of water, and I think that's actually helpful if you are drawn to a profession like acting.
"Playing the part of Mildred, I felt very angry at times. I felt an outrage that they had to go through this and they had to struggle for nine years. The law had no respect for boundaries, in the way they invaded people's intimate lives, smashing up families. Mildred spent five days while pregnant in a tiny prison cell, surrounded by men, and I just felt so much outrage at the injustice on her behalf."
Ruth herself was born in 1981 in Addis Ababa where her father was a doctor and her mother had gone to work as a nurse. She very much identifies as Ethiopian-Irish, and speaks fondly of Ethiopian Emperor Haille Selassie.
"I would urge everyone to read his United Nations address - it's very eloquent and beautiful. Ethiopia is a very beautiful country. It was called 'the hidden country' because it escaped colonialism and it had a warrior-king, Tidris, who managed to fend off the Italians. It's an extraordinary country, extraordinarily beautiful. My mother certainly was among many people who have fallen in love with Ethiopia. She had no idea when she went there to work as a nurse that she would meet and fall in love with my father, but that is exactly what happened."
When Ruth was a toddler, however, political violence broke out in the country so she and her mother returned to Ireland, with her father intending to follow on. Tragically, he never managed to leave Ethiopia and was killed in a car accident three years later. Her heartbroken mother, Nora, never remarried. Instead, she threw her energies into raising Ruth alongside a big gang of cousins in Limerick city.
How was her personal experience growing up mixed race in the west of Ireland? Did she find people to be "colour blind" - unable to look past the colour of her skin? "I don't think a whole nation can really be colour blind. I actually have problems with that term, because it assumes there is something wrong with my colour and you need to be blind to it - that I don't want you to see it, or it can't be seen or it shouldn't be seen. Someone came up with the fabulous term 'colour appreciation'. Growing up, I didn't feel that Irish people were colour blind. There weren't that many black people in Ireland. I moved there when I was three or four, so I suppose there is an exoticism to someone who is not from Ireland - that does not look the same - but I never felt uncomfortable in any way. I have a large family who were protective of me and I felt very welcomed in Ireland. I identify as Irish because that is where I feel most at home and it has contributed most to who I am."
A graduate of Acting Studies at Trinity College, for the past eight years Ruth has lived in London. Six of those years have been with her boyfriend and fellow actor Dominic Cooper, star of The History Boys and Mamma Mia!. The two met during a London stage production of Phédre, which also starred Helen Mirren. Today, they play the leads in supernatural TV show Preacher, which has just finished filming its second season.
"I play Tulip O'Hare, who returns to her hometown in Texas on a mission," Ruth says of the show, which is based on a comic book series. "She is a fiery, feisty creature who is quite a fighter and I really love her. These parts for women are usually very clichéd - like a sexy assassin - and she corrupts that image and turns the idea of the Femme Nikita on its head. It's very interesting to play."
She and Cooper have been very protective of their privacy and, today, she doesn't want to be drawn on the pleasures or otherwise of working with her significant other. She is, however, more effusive when it comes to the wider subject of love. "The Lovings remind us all of our great capacity for love, our capacity for goodness and I think that's what people respond to," she says, returning to the movie. "Sometimes people can despair, we are cynical, we withdraw from one another and separate and distance ourselves. This couple reminds us that that is not necessarily our default and I don't think that should be a rarity, but it is. The thing about Richard and Mildred is that it's quite simple really: they really liked each other, they respected each other and they saw each other as equals. People appreciate the simplicity of that. It's already in us and we just need to listen to it and nurture it."
In preparing for shooting the movie, Ruth spent a lot of time with the one surviving child of the Lovings and also pored over a documentary of the couple from the 1990s. "Nancy Buirski's documentary for HBO was a real gift for any performer who was attempting to play Mildred. It was a bible for me; a portrait of a couple. It's really the clarity of this couple in love and how much in love they were, how much they adored and respected each other. By the time we got to set, I had spent two years with Mildred and learning about this couple. Our goal with this movie was to honour that couple."
The timing of the release of the movie, when racial tensions are again increasing in America and cultural divisions are becoming wider across the world, serves only to enforce its message. "All these moments in time - like the Loving story and moments in civil rights history - are moments that should be reminding us that we should be ever-vigilant," Ruth says. "Even though we are evolving in a forward motion, evolution may not necessarily be linear - it's not like we are just getting progressively better just by being. It involves work, it involves attention and conversation, and not letting that conversation be swept under the rug or put on the back burner and forgotten. We might like to think we've achieved something and that's done, but life doesn't work like that. It's about an ongoing dialogue with one another, I think."
Did Ruth herself ever have to stand up to racism or intolerance of any kind? "When you're young, it's usually in a school scenario when you see someone being bullied. You go, 'That's not right' and you step in. I would like to think I did that, unless I made those memories up! I think we would all like to think we would continue to do that in life beyond the schoolyard. Again, when you think what the Lovings achieved in taking on the might of the American legal system, coming from a small rural farming community in Virginia, their courage was extraordinary. But Mildred really believed that no one had the right to dictate who she could love or marry or where she could raise her family."
Arguably Ruth herself - the mixed-race child from a single-parent family in Limerick who became a Vogue cover star and Golden Globe nominee - has achieved extraordinary things herself. However, when she emails me a few days after our interview and following the news of her Golden Globe nomination, her tone is characteristically gracious rather than triumphant.
"I am profoundly grateful for this recognition. This is such an honour. I am humbled to be in the company of all of these extraordinary, talented, and powerful women. It has been such a gift to share Mildred and Richard Loving's important story with the world."