Star en­ti­tled to preach

As Ruth Negga re­turns in the new se­ries of Preacher, she tells why Sa­muel L Jack­son is wrong about black Bri­tish actors.

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Be­ing a Hol­ly­wood star is not all glitz and glam­our – just ask Ruth Negga. The pre­pos­ter­ously tal­ented ac­tress, who was a fix­ture at ev­ery awards cer­e­mony go­ing ear­lier this year for her ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance in the race re­la­tions drama Lov­ing, is sit­ting in front of me, wrig­gling out of a bat­tered denim jacket, hav­ing just spent two hours be­ing yanked re­peat­edly from a chair by an an­gry priest.

Rub­bing her shoul­der, she looks san­guine, de­spite the fact she has another five hours of rough treat­ment to go. ‘‘I’ll be dragged across a floor and then I might pull my gun out,’’ she says with arched brow.

Such is the life of a work­ing ac­tress. We meet six weeks af­ter the Os­cars (where Negga was nom­i­nated for Best Ac­tress), 13 weeks since she was sin­gled out by Meryl Streep in Streep’s Golden Globe speech, and we are in New Or­leans, on the set of her hit tele­vi­sion show, Preacher. A cool road-trip West­ern in which Negga stars as a gun-sling­ing, mar­tial arts mae­stro op­po­site her real-life part­ner Do­minic Cooper (the epony­mous preacher), the Ama­zon Prime se­ries (which ac­tu­ally screens in New Zealand on Light­box) gar­nered wide­spread praise dur­ing its first run and is re­turn­ing for a sec­ond se­ries this month.

‘‘To close the door on all that height­ened emo­tion and ex­cite­ment, to hear Meryl Streep call your name, or walk on the iconic red car­pet at Cannes, and then find your­self star­ing into the abyss would have been quite a shock,’’ she says. ‘‘Thank­fully, I got to come back to a job with peo­ple I love and ad­mire.’’

Negga has a dis­tinc­tive, lilt­ing voice that re­flects her pe­cu­liar her­itage. Born to a white Ir­ish nurse and a black Ethiopian doc­tor, the ac­tress spent her first four years in Ad­dis Ababa, Ethiopia, be­fore mov­ing to

County Limerick, in Ire­land, with her mother, mov­ing again at the age of 11 to Lon­don to go to sec­ondary school, and then re­turn­ing to Ire­land to study drama at Trin­ity Col­lege’s Sa­muel Beck­ett Cen­tre, in Dublin.

De­spite this itin­er­ant child­hood, Negga al­ways knew what she wanted to do – she de­scribes her­self as ‘‘tena­cious’’ and ‘‘fo­cused’’ and has said in the past that she spent her teenage years ‘‘just wait­ing’’ to go to Trin­ity and start an act­ing ca­reer – and made her big screen de­but in the 2004 Ir­ish film Cap­i­tal Let­ters.

Af­ter that came var­i­ous roles in tele­vi­sion and theatre, in­clud­ing one as a young woman with tele­por­ta­tion pow­ers in the hit se­ries Mis­fits. In 2010, she was the Na­tional Theatre’s first black Ophe­lia. But her big break came three years later when she landed the role as the oth­er­worldly sci­en­tist Raina in the splashy tele­vi­sion su­per­hero se­ries Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and starred as a doc­tor in Brad Pitt’s hit zom­bie ad­ven­ture World War Z.

It was this lat­ter part that brought her to the at­ten­tion of Hol­ly­wood and led to Lov­ing, the pow­er­ful drama, di­rected by Jeff Ni­chols, about a real-life cou­ple who went to the US Supreme Court in 1967 to over­turn a law that banned in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage. Negga’s per­for­mance op­po­site Joel Edger­ton was ex­quis­ite and the film was an el­e­gant ri­poste to some of the ugly un­der­cur­rents that sur­faced dur­ing last year’s Amer­i­can elec­tion.

But what was strik­ing was how much Negga was en­joy­ing the Hol­ly­wood hoopla. A huge fash­ion fan, the 35-year-old sported Ni­cholas Gh­esquiere for Louis Vuit­ton at the Golden Globes and a cus­tom-made red Valentino gown to the Os­cars. She also ap­peared on the cover of US

Vogue last De­cem­ber. Con­se­quently, she has no time for #AskHerMore, the so­cial me­dia cam­paign that crit­i­cises broad­cast­ers for ask­ing ac­tresses ‘‘su­per­fi­cial’’ ques­tions about what they are wear­ing on the red car­pet.

‘‘I re­ally didn’t mind be­ing asked about my dresses be­cause I’m a huge fash­ion fan,’’ she says.

She also de­clares her­self puz­zled by Sa­muel L Jack­son, who crit­i­cised the cast­ing of Bri­tish black ac­tor Daniel Kalu­uya in Jor­dan Peele’s race re­la­tions satire Get Out ear­lier this year. ‘‘The whole point of be­ing an ac­tor is to gen­er­ate em­pa­thy and with that comes an abil­ity to step in­side some­one else’s shoes,’’ she says.

Jack­son’s no­tion that only African-Amer­i­cans can fully un­der­stand what it is to be a black man in Amer­ica – in par­tic­u­lar when the sub­ject is race re­la­tions – is ab­surd to her. ‘‘It de­feats the point of be­ing an ac­tor and the joy of see­ing some­one slip into another per­son’s skin.’’

As to Jack­son’s as­ser­tion that Brits are cheaper, she shakes her head.

‘‘I re­ally don’t think some­one like Jeff Ni­chols would em­ploy me just be­cause I’m cheaper than some­one else. He’s an artist and I think he would want the best per­son for the job, that’s the bot­tom line.’’

Negga iden­ti­fies as Ir­ishEthiopian, al­though she doesn’t be­lieve that la­bel sums her up. ‘‘I have a very com­plex his­tory and spent my ado­les­cence in Eng­land, but if I choose to be iden­ti­fied as Ir­ish, rather than Bri­tish, then hope­fully peo­ple will re­spect that.’’

Has she been in­un­dated with of­fers since her award nom­i­na­tions? Negga says she hasn’t even glanced at a script. ‘‘I’m not in a rush,’’ she says. I’m not that kind of per­son. I move quite slowly in my work. It’s im­por­tant for me to fig­ure out what I would like to do and what’s pos­si­ble be­fore I get sucked up into any whirl­wind.’’

In­deed, Negga seems to like tak­ing things slowly in her per­sonal life, too. She and Cooper, whom she met in 2009 when they ap­peared in Ted Hughes’ Phe­dre at the Na­tional Theatre, live to­gether in Prim­rose Hill, north Lon­don, but Negga is not des­per­ate to ex­pand the house­hold.

‘‘I don’t know,’’ she says when I ask about mar­riage and babies. ‘‘Life moves so fast. In­stead of thinking of the fu­ture and mak­ing plans, I’m learn­ing to stop on the ground and en­joy where I am.’’

With barely a mo­ment free either to en­joy the tem­po­rary home she shares with Cooper in New Or­leans’ Gar­den District or to knock back a Hur­ri­cane on Bour­bon St, she’s ex­cited to re­turn to Lon­don.

‘‘I try to sur­round my­self with good peo­ple, peo­ple I can laugh with, who I’ve known for years out­side of this strange world. I love my job, but it can be so con­sum­ing that you for­get to go to mu­se­ums or read a book or ring your mates.’’

She says that her friends – in ‘‘fi­nance, char­ity, medicine, any­thing but act­ing’’ – roll their eyes if she starts talk­ing about her job. Right now, she misses them.

‘‘I do get home­sick some­times. But I’ve got used to this gypsy life.’’ – The Daily Tele­graph

Sea­son 2 of Preacher be­gins screen­ing on Light­box on June 27.

Preacher’s Ruth Negga and Do­minic Cooper are part­ners in life and on screen.

Ruth Negga wore Ni­cholas Gh­esquiere for Louis Vuit­ton at this year’s Golden Globes.

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