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.
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.