Don’t believe anyone who says Oscar nominee Ruth Negga is an overnight sensation. Born to Ethiopian and Irish parents, the actress has been grinding for over ten years in film and television. With small roles in Brad Pitt’s World War Z and Andre 3000’s Jimi: All Is by My Side, she has slowly climbed the ranks of Hollywood, paying her dues and mastering her craft.
The hustle paid off when she landed a dream role playing Mildred Loving in Loving. Mildred was the wife of Richard Loving, an interracial couple who helped to abolish bans against interracial marriages in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia. The story is powerful, unforgettable and deeply relevant for 2017. Ruth’s dynamic performance hits you right in the heart and landed her an Oscar nomination for lead actress, making history — she is not only the eleventh Black actress to be nominated for lead, but the first Black African and Black Irish actress to be nominated in the category as well.
We caught up with the humble Oscar nominee to talk her rise in Hollywood, racial identity and politics. We guarantee you, Ruth Negga is a name you will be hearing for many years.
How does it feel to be an Oscar nominee?
Pretty awesome! I just have these really strange moments where I’m like, "Oh my God. I’m nominated for an Oscar with all these amazing people." I’m trying to absorb it and I haven’t yet. It’s mind-blowing and I’m still in the mind-blowing stage. It’s not going to ever not be mind-blowing.
You’ve been called an overnight success but you have been working for years. What has been your journey as an actress?
I trained at the Samuel Beckett Centre at Trinity College, Dublin and I graduated when I was 21 in 2002. I was lucky enough to go straight to work. I started off in the theater then I gradually got into Irish television. Then, I was doing English television and Irish film — I feel it’s quite rare. I feel very privileged. I’ve always earned my living through what I trained to do as an actor and that, to me, is the greatest privilege because I wasn’t expecting that. I think when you’re trying to be an actor, you’re immediately very aware the limitations. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You’re not guaranteed a job. There’s no job guaranteed being an actor. So I was just really happy to be working. You can’t really forecast or foresee what happens to you as an actor. You just hope that you work with amazing people and get good roles. As a kid, it was always my dream to be in this position.
You are Irish and Ethiopian. How do you think your diverse background affected you playing Mildred?
I don’t think I would limit it to just playing Mildred. I think it would be every single part I played, and it’s many other factors. It’s not just that I was born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland and England. There are lots of other factors — I lost my dad at an early age, I went to like 10 different schools, all these things have molded me into the actor I am. They all have that contributing effect, and I think what that is for me, the quickest and simplest way to explain it, is I think when a person has that kind of super multi-faceted background, there’s an empathy you kind of generate naturally. I’m extremely grateful because that’s given me an outsider’s insight into human beings, if that makes sense.
Do you identify as Black or do you prefer biracial?
I’ve always identified as Black and if anyone asks, it’s always like, “Yeah my mom is white and my dad is Black.” I’m not wedded to the term biracial or mixed-race. I understand why people are, but that’s just me. I understand people’s sensitivity of being biracial or mixed-race, of course, and that determining how you should be described as an individual. I’m very much for whatever you describe yourself rather than having to acquiesce to anyone else’s description of you, which is what happens so much, especially with Black people and especially mixed race people because people are wanting to define us. It’s weird because you’re always living this life of having to be defined by other people when you just want to wake up in the morning and feel like you. But I understand where the terms biracial and mixed race came from, which I’m very familiar with because I grew up in the ‘80s, of being half-cast. Which even in its onomatopoeic term, that sounds offensive, even if you don’t know what it means, which is completely wrong so I do understand the kind of movement to sort of [renaming] half-cast people for a more sort of inclusive term, but I also think it’s an individual thing.
What do you think Loving teaches us about justice in Trump’s America?
Justice is not a blanket thing. I’m not a lawmaker but I do know some lawmakers and lawyers. What I admire most about those people is that you do bring in your own consciousness into it. I think that’s the most important thing — to make sure that your humanity remains while you’re in those positions of power. Sometimes it feels like the people who make laws, these lawmakers are devoid of humanity, individual thinking and human thinking and that, to me, is the scariest thing. The two lawyers for Mildred and Richard, their human nature was part of their job. I think that’s super admirable and that’s what we need. We need people who, regardless of how they feel, they’re making the right choices for the countries that they serve and I think we’re seeing the extreme end — people we are in admiration of and people that we hope our children never turn into.
A big topic on BET.com is the idea that light-skinned actresses have it easier in Hollywood than darker-skinned actresses. As a lighter-skinned actress, do you feel like you’ve had privilege?
I can’t intuit people’s biases just by being alive. All I can do is work from history. I can’t say for certain, but all I can say is once you look at history and read your history books—there’s your answer.
When it comes to interracial relationships, there is a feeling from some black women that some black men, especially famous ones, favor white women. What's your reaction to that?
I can’t speak for other people’s experiences. I can only speak for myself and that’s the difficult thing about being asked these kinds of questions—I only have so many experiences to speak from. I can’t turn into a spokesperson for every single mixed race or Black person’s experience. That is not my job nor do I think any Black person or mixed race person would want me to be doing that. I can’t really be that spokesperson and I don’t want to. It’s none of my f*****g business. [Laughs] That’s the danger in the first place, you have all these people generalizing about you. For me, generality is the problem. I don’t want to be a feeder for that. That’s why many people have been reduced to one-dimensional beings and I feel that’s wrong.
How has playing Mildred Loving changed you?
I wouldn’t have gotten an Oscar nomination without Mildred, so that’s the basics. I think what she’s done for me is she’s reaffirmed my belief in human beings. Jeff Nichols for casting me, and the producers for casting me, let me have access for about eight weeks — six, seven weeks — to playing the most beautiful human being I’ve ever played. I got to spend time and I don’t think you can get time playing those people without them rubbing off on you a bit, so I hope she’s rubbed off on me. It was my favorite experience. When we came near to the end of shooting, we were so bereft because we knew we would have to leave these people but it was so lovely waking up in the morning and knowing you would slip into the skin of a woman that I have come to know and admire and is my hero and that’s been the most precious gift of being an actor thus far.
Root for Ruth Negga on Oscar night on February 26, 2017! See Five Couples Who Fought for Love in the clip below:
See how the upcoming Academy Awards are shaping up to be #OscarsSoBlack with BET Breaks, above.
(Photo: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features)