In Loving, Ruth Negga—star of AMC's Preacher—delivers a precise performance as one half of the Virginia couple whose 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case tore down laws against interracial marriage.
Negga, who was born in Africa to an Ethiopian father and an Irish mother and grew up in Limerick, Ireland, related to the tribulations of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving, who were arrested in 1958 for violating Virginia’s antimiscegenation laws. “Their story felt so dear to me and a part of my own history,” she says. “And I feel so relieved that human beings like these two have existed, with all their grace and integrity and lack of cynicism. Especially when there’s so much tumult in the world and we’re all feeling the strain. I think more than ever we need to see things of beauty and people being kind to one another.”
When Loving received a standing ovation after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Negga was moved to tears. “Weepy Ruth, that’s what I’m known as down my way,” she says. “But I’m in a constant state of sniffliness when I talk about this movie.” She also wasn’t dry-eyed when she met the Lovings’ daughter Peggy, the only member of the family who’s still alive. “I’m shy when I meet people, especially if I’m going to be playing their mother,” Negga says. “But I just wanted to show myself to her. We both sat in her home and cried for an hour or two.”
Negga, 35, has appeared in projects as varied as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and World War Z; she also filmed a supporting role in 12 Years a Slave that was later cut. But as a mixed-race, mixed-nationality actress in Hollywood, her encounters with casting directors have been, well, mixed. She is refreshingly frank about the challenges. “I did an interview a few years back [with The Irish Sun] and the headline was something like, ‘Ruth Negga Believes Her Heritage Is Holding Her Back.’ That was quite a funny phrasing, because I didn’t mean my heritage at all. I was talking about other people’s preconceptions of what actors who look like me are able to play. It’s not the color of my skin that’s limiting, it’s people’s perceptions.”
Negga’s powerful performance in Loving is the sort of role that Academy voters traditionally value. After two years of all-white nominees, she’s one of several minority actors positioned for serious Oscar consideration this year. And for evidence of her incredible range, check out Preacher, where she plays a Texas badass named Tulip—who, incidentally, is a Caucasian blonde in the graphic novels on which the series is based. “It is an absolute joy,” she says of playing both Mildred and Tulip in the same year. “I must say that if you’re shy but you have a certain energy about you, acting is a great, fantastic job, especially now as opportunities for women of color are changing. The changes may be slow and they may be a bit later than we would have liked, but—as Mildred says— ‘We must be hopeful.’”