Ruth Negga is having a moment.
In less than one week, the relatively unknown talent broke out in a big way with the Cannes premiere of “Loving” (on May 16) and the debut of AMC’s “Preacher” (on May 22). One role called for a subtle, subdued portrayal of a woman dealing with Southern, ’60s racial bias when she decides to marry the (white) love of her life. The other finds her cracking skulls and seducing a preacher as Tulip tries to fight for something real.
The roles couldn’t demand emotions, attitudes and mannerisms from further ends of her acting spectrum, and yet Negga is earning praise for both. “Loving” and “Preacher” showcased her range with a one-two punch for the ages. There’s already Oscar buzz swirling around “Loving,” and “Preacher” recently earned a Season 2 pickup after wide critical praise.
IndieWire spoke with Negga about how she selects roles, what she identified with in each character and how she feels about being labeled a “breakout” so early — after such a long wait since the first time she was given the title.
What’s your process in choosing roles?
What’s really important is the people, first of all. I like working with people who are kind, above all else. I don’t really want to work with someone who will manipulate me. The idea that you must treat actors a certain way in order to get a performance out of them kind of disturbs me, and it’s disregarding what we do. Our job is to do our job. I don’t believe that directors need to essentially manipulate actors into doing things. You can suffer for your art, and you can make your own self suffer for your art. You don’t need anyone else to do it for you. I work best when there’s a safety trampoline of kindness. [laughs] I think a film like “Loving” generates compassion and empathy. I really do think we need a lot of that in the world.
I’ve talked to a lot of actors who have been manipulated by their directors, in the sense of, “We’re not going to tell you this” about the character. And since you have a character that has a comic book backstory, how did you study her background?
With the manipulation thing: For instance, Ken Loach, you get the script on the day, and that’s fine. I mean, it’s sort of fucking with you mentally. Every director has their process, and I think Ken Loach is brilliant, and I know people who have worked with him and they think that’s really thrilling. But the research for “Loving” was quiet. You’re watching the documentary and reading about this time, but I think a lot of times research can be just sitting with a character. Just staring out a window and thinking about them, and building that jigsaw in your head.
What was it that made you decide that ‘Loving’ was for you?
It wasn’t one thing, really. I’d already watched Nancy Buirski’s documentary, and I fell completely, madly in love with these two phenomenal human beings, who I thought were such essentially good and kind people. I thought their story was extraordinary, and it really resonated with me. And then Francine Maisler, the casting director, brought me in to meet Jeff [Nichols]. I’d seen “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” and I thought, “This guy is a fucking genius.” They’re beautiful movies, and they’re not bludgeoning you over the head. So many movies insist on doing that, and his kind of unfold and unfurl, like jasmine tea. They’re subtle, and there are so many different nuances. They’re just beautiful films. I met him and I just thought, “Please. Let me get this job.” His script was so perfect. There was no excess. It was quite a quiet script, but the great thing about Jeff is that he knows exactly what he wants. He knows how to talk to actors.
What you’re describing makes it sound like “Preacher” is almost the opposite of that. It’s a TV show, it’s bringing together elements from a comic book, it’s very…
Yes, loud. So why did you spark to Tulip?
Well, it’s just so much fun. And I think it breaks convention, about what you’re allowed to do as a female protagonist. And I just thought, so often — and I’ve never really thought about it this way — but I often identify with the male character. [laughs]
You’re often asked to.
And they run the gamut of characteristics and color. I thought, “Oh my God, finally I’m identifying with the female protagonist!” Because I don’t know if it’s news to anybody, but I find it so odd that we have these feminine/masculine boxes that we put people in. Because I don’t relate to that, as me, and I know that I can’t be one in a billion. I just had this burst of joy when I read her.
Before “Loving” is released and even before “Preacher” came out, people are saying this is a breakout year for you. Has it felt like that?
Yeah, in terms of recognition and stuff like that. I feel like I’ve kept a relatively low profile, which I suppose is partly deliberate. I know I’ve said it before in interviews, but the idea that all actors have their eye on some sort of prize — it being an Oscar, or fame, or whatever — not all actors I know are like that. You really just want to do the job that you love and hopefully earn a living from it — that’s a bonus — but also really find material that challenges you, and that you love. I think that’s the goal, really. The god of theater laughs in your face at planning. You can’t plan as an actor, there’s no way, because so much of it is dependent on other people’s choices and decisions that you’re at the whim of fate, really.
I noticed you were nominated for “Most Promising Newcomer” in a play you were in–
Ten years ago. No, it was 13 years ago. It was 2003. Yeah.
So you’ve been given this label before. Is there a negative connotation to it, then, too? Another side to it?
I think so, yeah. There is because there’s such pressure, isn’t there? When you label someone “up and coming” or “the new breakout,” there’s this kind of expectation. And I think, like I said before, it’s very hard to live up to that expectation when you really don’t have that much power as an actor — in terms of your career path and the timing. In the beginning, you’re like, “Oh God, what if nothing happens?” But what is “nothing happens?” What is “breaking out?”” What is “up and coming,” and what happens when you get there?
Right. No one’s going to hand you a card that says, “You’ve done it”?
Yeah! And also there’s this kind of peculiar idea about success. It’s such a subjective thing, isn’t it?