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Interview: Ruth Negga on racism, fame, and the chance of winning an Oscar

The Irish-Ethiopian actress has had a stellar year – and her latest film, Loving, touches on a subject very close to her heart.

Irish-Ethiopian actress Ruth Negga is up for an Oscar tonight – so we revisit this interview she did with TheJournal.ie earlier this year, where she spoke about racism, fame, and the story behind the film Loving. This article was first published on 23 January 2017.

“I think that marrying who you want to is a right that no man should have anything to do with. It’s a God-given right, I think,” Mildred Loving.

Gay Marriage Intermarriage Mildred Loving and Richard Loving. The couple's story is told in the new Jeff Nichols film Loving, in which Mildred is played by Ruth Negga. Source: AP/Press Association Images

MILDRED AND RICHARD Loving were a couple blessed with an unusual surname – one that was the exact antithesis to how their union was treated by the law.

Childhood sweethearts and neighbours in the rural Caroline County in Virginia, the pair didn’t give their different races much of a thought growing up. Mildred was Black and Native American, while Richard – older than her by six years, and even quieter than his softly-spoken wife – was white.

But five weeks after their 1958 marriage, in the heat of the country’s civil rights fight, their state’s anti-miscegenation laws – introduced to prevent marriage between people of different races – were brought to their door in the dead of the night.

Reluctant activists

At about 2am, the town sheriff and two of his officers burst into the Loving family home, telling them they were under arrest. The couple were brought to jail, then later put on trial and told they had to stay out of the state for 25 years. All because they each were of a different race.

“I didn’t realise how bad it was until we got married,” said Mildred of their situation.

An unassuming couple, they did not set out to be activists or civil rights heroes – they simply wanted to live their lives together at home with their young children. After five years of living in what was described as “hand-to-mouth exile” in Washington, they returned home for a visit, and were arrested.

The reluctant activists took their case to court, a long-running battle that would become a landmark moment in the civil rights fight in the USA.

When the photographer Grey Villet visited their home in 1966 to cover their story for Life magazine, he found a normal couple living among friends and family who cared not about the colour of their skin.

Life magazine brought the Loving’s story out of Virginia and into homes nationwide, contributing to the national debate about interracial marriage. At the time, 18 states forbade marriages between ‘Negroes’ and white people, a law which the Lovings’ lawyers believed needed to be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court.

Now the Lovings’ story, and their quiet, fierce battle for equality is told in Loving, the new film from Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special). Ruth Negga plays Mildred, with Australian actor Joel Edgerton as her husband.

“I fell madly in love with Mildred”

NY Premiere of Loving Peggy Loving, the daughter of Richard and Mildred Loving, and Ruth Negga attend the premiere of Loving in October. Source: Evan Agostini

Rather than focusing on the courtroom drama, Nichols instead concentrates on the personal lives of the Lovings: the impact of the anti-miscegenation laws on their daily life, and the cruelty with which they’re treated by local police officers.

But alongside the cruelty and racism, he also brings us their love story. It’s not bombastic, or showy, it just simply is.

Looking at archive footage of the real-life couple, you are struck by how completely Negga inhabits the role of Mildred, down to her inflections of speech. In a film that’s light on dialogue, but heavy on meaningful looks and touches. Negga tells Mildred’s story in how she carries herself, both alone and with her husband.

“I fell completely, madly in love with Mildred Loving and Richard Loving when I saw the documentary footage of them,” Negga tells TheJournal.ie.

That documentary, The Loving Story, was directed by Nancy Buirski, one of the movie’s producers. “The pair of them, something radiates off screen from them,” says Negga of the 16mm black-and-white footage.

It’s love but it’s also grace, kindness, dignity, warmth, all of these lovely things that I think we’re all truly aspiring to, really, in our hearts of hearts, and they just had it in waves.

For Negga, it was a “privilege” to play Mildred, who died in 1998. Though she and Richard were a quiet couple, Negga points out that “weren’t without depth either”.

“Mildred was a very shy woman but shy often gets confused for submissiveness,” she points out. “And I don’t think that’s true at all – she had this extraordinary sense of self, she very much owned her space and owned her own mind.”

It was that sense of self, says Negga, which helped Mildred Loving keep focused as the legal battle for equality dragged on.

“I think that’s what led to her perseverance in this case, it took them nine years and she had this tenaciousness which I have huge admiration of,” says the actress.

Negga herself is the daughter of an Ethiopian father and Irish mother, and grew up from the age of four in Limerick.

“I become very territorial about my identity because it’s been hijacked by so many people, with their own projections,” she told Vogue late last year.

I’m very careful to say I’m Irish-Ethiopian because I feel Ethiopian and I look Ethiopian and I am Ethiopian. But there are 81 languages in Ethiopia, and I don’t know any of them.

Loving’s release comes in the wake of a turbulent year for race relations in the USA in particular. But it also comes as debates about identity, race, immigration and free speech play out across the world, including here in Ireland.

What was it like to play Mildred Loving and be absorbed in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, while also reflecting on racial issues today, I ask Negga.

“That’s a really good question. A lot of people say it’s interesting that it was only 50 years ago and I think, well, have a think about it: how far have we come – race is still a question, I mean now at least it’s being talked about but for so long everyone didn’t.

It was this tinder subject that no one wanted to talk about because it would ignite something. And it has, it has ignited conversation and it has ignited debate, and while that’s terrifying it’s taken an awful long time.

The film also got her thinking about the impact the law has on people’s private lives.

“Thinking about talking about who has the right to legislation, who you want spend… marry, you know, and love. I think those are incredible things that we think that we’ve achieved,” she says.

But the idea of “achievement” isn’t what we should be focused on, she argues.

“I don’t know if anything gets ‘achieved’ does it, it has to be – we’re a work in progress, so are the things we do, all our actions are too, and so I think once we talk about achievement, a sense of complacency creeps in and for me that’s always dangerous because that assumes, I feel, [that we are] very self-satisfied and we shouldn’t, because we have to be vigilant to hate and unacceptance of one another.”

“I didn’t think it would ever happen to me”

The 35-year-old lives in London, and is a familiar face to Irish audiences – we’ve seen her in Breakfast on Pluto, Love/Hate, and the Misfits. There’s an enormous amount of pride in Negga’s achievements, and even more so to see her being touted as a possible Oscar winner (the nominations are tomorrow, 24 January).

But what is it like to be watching her own career go stratospheric, where a Vogue cover, high-profile US media appearances and critical acclaim are all now just part of the job? (Her acting in Loving is getting major kudos – the New York Times review of Loving described her as “a revelation”).

“It’s beautifully strange, peculiar… and I mean those things, I love those words and I always try and use them in the context that I feel them, and they’re great things. This is something that I didn’t ever think would ever happen to me,” is Negga’s considered response.

She’s been a professional actress for over a decade, so to see things paying off is special. But she also seems conscious that these are but dreams for most actors. So if you don’t make it to Vogue or Oscar level, that’s alright too, seems to be Negga’s message.

“I think that you’re always working, striving for something… but sometimes it’s OK if you don’t get there,” says Negga.

You’re striving for the Oscar or you’re striving for the cover of Vogue but you don’t think you’re going to get there, you don’t think it’s going to happen, so when it does it’s something really beautiful. And I’m very grateful and terribly flattered about it.

Watch a clip from our interview with Ruth Negga:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Loving is released in Irish cinemas on 3 February.

Read: Irish actress Ruth Negga has made the cover of Vogue magazine>

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