Ruth Negga employs a couple of handy metaphors when talking about her turn as Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols’ biographical drama, “Loving,” from carrying a precious vase to safety alongside her co-star Joel Edgerton to launching off a trampoline under the guidance of Nichols. But each metaphor – thoughtfully considered and very charming, much like the Ethiopian-Irish actress herself – help drives home one single thing: The delicate, brave nature of taking on such a meaningful and important role.
Nichols’ film eschews the standard high-drama biographical movie formula, instead focusing on the more intimate aspects of the love story that would go on to change the face of marriage in America. While many Americans are at least aware of the existence of the landmark Loving v. Virginia case, few know the details – how the Lovings were ambushed and raided after their 1958 marriage, charged with a slew of crimes, forced to leave their home state rather than face jail time and how it took nearly a decade for their case to lead to the kind of change that changed the laws forever – and while Nichols packs all of those aspects into his film, he also relies on the unshakable love between the pair.
For Negga, Nichols’ approach to his work and his films was essential – as she tells it, “they’re as far away from formula as possible” – and the kind of thing that allowed her to embrace a role that she felt almost cosmically motivated to play. IndieWire recently sat down with Negga at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film had its North American debut, and the actress got honest about how much the role – already much buzzed-about for awards consideration – took out of her (and how rewarding that was).
“Who Are They?”
“I’ve always had sort of an interest in American history, full stop, and especially people who contributed to the civil rights struggle,” Negga shared. “I came across an article about Peggy, Mildred’s daughter. I thought, ‘What? I’ve never heard of these people? Who are they?'”
Negga’s interest in the Lovings eventually turned into one of those spiraling Internet searches that only lead her to more intriguing information, including a watch of Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary, “The Loving Story.”
“I went searching,” she remembered. “I was like, ‘These two are incredible. This couple is extraordinary. All the more extraordinary for their ordinariness, and look what they managed to achieve.'”
The actress sparked swiftly to the couple’s obvious love and affection, finding an inspirational romance at the heart of one of the world’s most publicized legal cases.
“Like most people who watch the documentary, [it was] immediate love at first sight with this couple,” she said. “The energy and the space between them is so potent and vibrant and lovely and just tender and shy. It’s lovely to see that sort of joyful innocence really, isn’t it, sometimes?”
“I thought, ‘When I grow up, I want to be like this couple,'” she added.
That eventually became one of the driving forces behind both her performance and the film itself, and one she knows audiences are already reacting to in a major way.
“I think a lot of people are responding to the love story because they are like, ‘Wow, I want that. Whatever they are, whatever that was, please, dear God, let me taste that in my lifetime,'” she said. “I think that’s why it resonates.”
Finding (And Loving) Mildred
But while Negga was enthralled by the Lovings and their very special relationship, she was particularly invested in Mildred and the unique spirit that helped drive her during some of the Lovings’ darkest moments.
“It was Mildred’s tenacity and perseverance,” Negga said firmly. And who wouldn’t want to play that sort of role?
Working with both Nichols and Edgerton gave Negga the freedom – and confidence – to portray Mildred in the ways that Negga felt were most important, and the collaborative nature of the film’s production only further fueled her creative process. As she put it, “The Mildred I created, I could not have created that Mildred onscreen without Joel or Jeff.”
First and foremost, Negga had to allow herself to create said Mildred without feeling too beholden to the real-life Mildred Loving, or too trapped by the responsibility at hand.
“There is that responsibility that can sort of turn into paralysis,” she said. “The great thing about Jeff is that he makes you feel so minded and safe, like there’s this safety trampoline, so you just launch. Because if you don’t launch and be brave and, then I wouldn’t be doing her any justice.”
When it comes to Edgerton, Negga emphasized the unique nature of their bond and commitment, one that didn’t need extensive discussions to ensure that they were on the same page when it came to doing both the Lovings justice.
“It’s so funny, because we didn’t really talk about that, and it’s like in the film, it was sort of like this energy between us that we kind of instinctively knew that how much this meant to one another,” Negga said. “He said it felt like we were both like carrying this really special antique, priceless vase, but we were both carrying it together.”
“Well, It’s Dangerous, Isn’t It?”
Negga also believes that audiences are responding – and will continue to respond – to the larger issues that the film raises, issues that weren’t simply left behind in 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings.
“I think that people can’t quite believe that you could do go to jail, be banished from your home state just because you want to legitimize something as beautiful as falling in love and wanting to make a life with someone,” she said.
But perhaps “Loving” can help make some of history’s greatest injustices all the more vivid to its audience.
“I’m delighted people are feeling utter outrage on their behalf, but is it really surprising?,” Negga continued. “Shouldn’t we have more knowledge about that period? Shouldn’t we have? When I heard of it, it didn’t really surprise me, I thought, ‘Well, it’s dangerous, isn’t it, because you’re legitimizing something that is saying that a black person and a white person are equal.’ At that time, there were a lot of people who weren’t happy about that.”
She added, “I find that kind of fascinating that people are quite shocked that it happened so recently. Lots of shocking things have happened really recently.”
A Precious Gem
Negga is less concerned with the awards viability of the project, though she readily admits any awards-centric attention paid to the film, which debuted at Cannes in May and will open at the top of the awards calendar in November, is a good thing.
“It’s lovely, because it means people are responding and it means people see the film,” she said. “That means people will be introduced to Mildred and Richard, and I think that the world would be better off if they knew, if more people knew about this couple.”
While particular attention has been heaped on Negga’s individual performance in the film, the actress is clear about not getting caught up in that narrative either.
“I think you take it as something that’s really flattering and then you don’t sort of get wedded to the idea that ‘I’m going to get an award,'” Negga said. “Because I definitely didn’t do this film to get— I’ve never done anything to get an award. I think there’s bad karma in that.”
Really, she just wants to focus on the work and the pure affection she feels for its creators and content.
“I’m trying not to get overwhelmed,” she admitted. “The great thing is that this is a film I adore, so I just want to do the best I can do. Talking about it in an authentic, honest way, which isn’t going to be hard because it’s an authentic, honest film.”
She’s even got one final metaphor at the ready to explain how she feels. “These films are so rare,” she said. “They’re precious gems.”
“Loving” had its North American premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on November 4.