From the start, Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” didn’t call attention to itself. Although Focus Features paid $9 million for world rights to the drama based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the industry adopted a wait-and-see approach toward the project. After all, Focus had just undergone a major management overhaul, and the acquisition was based on a short screening of footage for buyers at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival — just five minutes of two scenes, cut together with music.
Behind the scenes, however, Focus CEO Peter Kujawski was jubilant over scooping up the project that was based on the 1967 ruling of Loving v. Virginia, with stellar performances by Australian Joel Edgerton and half-Irish actress Ruth Negga. “This was exactly what we want the company to be,” he told his colleagues. “This kind of movie! We have to have this movie!”
When “Loving” screened at Cannes, the quiet romantic drama immediately emerged as an Oscar contender. Still, “Loving” isn’t the kind of movie that pulls the most noise among Oscar pundits. Meanwhile, it’s playing and reviewing well. And many Academy voters — especially the directors, writers, and actors’ branches — will appreciate why this movie is so rare and brave.
“I feel this was a courageous true story lacking any spice,” said Edgerton during a Q&A after a screening at UCLA’s Sneak Previews series. “It doesn’t happen very often.”
That’s because writer-director Nichols dares to be quiet, authentic, and true. He doesn’t follow a conventional three-act structure, nor was he tempted to explore the courtroom drama attached to the core story of two people in love who fought miscegenation laws to take care of their family. The director opted not to sprinkle any Hollywood magic dust. (No dramatic Oscar-clip speeches here.) And the actors, along with everyone else on his team, took the ride with him in their efforts to capture the essence of this courageous couple.
While actors’-actor Edgerton earned raves in “Animal Kingdom,” “Warrior,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Black Mass,” and “The Gift” (which he also directed), he has never earned an Oscar nomination. He’s due. And newcomer Negga wowed Nichols at her audition —Francine Maisler brought her in first — by launching into a dead-on impersonation of Mildred Loving. Then she revealed her Irish heritage. The biracial actress had the role.
The movie won the audience award at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and both Edgerton and Negga landed Gotham Award nominations. More critics’ groups will be weighing in over the next two months.
Many people remember the Lovings story that ran in Life Magazine, showing the rugged construction worker and housewife at home with their three children. Nichols and his cast were able to draw from that material (Nichols regular Michael Shannon cameos as the photographer) and other footage from the period, especially Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary “The Loving Story,” to lend the film as much realism as possible.
Edgerton brings muscular conviction to this strong but tender brickmason who wants nothing more than to be able to take care of his wife and family. He loves and cares for Mildred, deeply, and can’t fathom why others (including his own mother, a midwife) would disapprove of his marriage.
Edgerton plumbed the depths of this quiet construction worker, from his clipped (and specific) Virginia accent and close-cropped hair to his (prosthetic) teeth. “The words barely escaped his mouth,” he said, admitting that Nichols told him, “I almost want to understand you less.”
Edgerton and Negga aimed at showing the “true traumatic situation that these two people endured,” he said. “We aimed to tell the truth. What crime is love and a gentle feeling between two people?”
But they also revealed an extraordinary chemistry, somehow channeling the love and physical intimacy these people shared, constantly touching each other. “Together we created something that felt akin to the magic the two of them had together,” said Edgerton, who put in some bricklaying time to get a sense of the man’s posture and physicality. “We weren’t going to go half the way there, we were going to all the way there.”
“She was the vocal one, they balanced each other out,” said Negga. “They grew up together from childhood. And they want the same things. You see Mildred evolve and find that voice, gain confidence in her own voice, in the knowledge of what they are asking for — to be able to come home and raise their family. I am not alone in being captivated by this couple. They glowed. They had a sort of guilelessness, integrity, and truth. It was such a joy to play her. I think we were both bereft afterwards.”
Said Nichols, “What we were making was a film about marriage.”
“Loving” is in theaters on Friday, November 4.