The fighter: Ruth Negga on her journey from being cut out of 12 Years A Slave to being hailed by Meryl Streep

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Getting a shout-out from Meryl Streep and receiving spontaneous applause in restaurants: Ruth Negga’s determination has paid off. Stylist meets the actress

Words: Colin Crummy
Photography: Austin Hargrave

On the Best Actress Oscar stakes, you will need no introduction to most of the nominees. You’ve probably sung along with Emma Stone in La La Land, marvelled at Natalie Portman’s portrayal of a First Lady in Jackie and been in awe of Meryl Streep’s record-breaking 20th nomination, this time for Florence Foster Jenkins. If you’re also a fan of European arthouse cinema you’ll probably even recognise Elle’s Isabelle Huppert. But then there is Ruth Negga.

Whether you’re a film connoissuer or casual observer, it’s unlikely that 35-year-old Negga has demanded your attention. Until now. Her first major film role, in real-life drama Loving, is the reason she’s received her first Oscar nomination. It’s a Hollywood story in the making.

Within the industry, Negga has already been acknowledged as one to watch. Her Oscar nomination follows similar accolades on both sides of the Atlantic (including BAFTA and Golden Globe nods). After the film premiered at Cannes in May, she received a standing ovation in a restaurant. Even her fellow nominees are getting in on the act. In Streep’s barnstorming speech at this year’s Golden Globes, she highlighted the diversity of Hollywood and namechecked Negga for being born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “That was one of the most surreal moments of my life,” Negga tells Stylist. “I was like, ‘Don’t freak out because then you will just look really ugly and unattractive!’ I wish there was an internal camera so you could see what my brain and insides were doing, which was having an incredible moment.”

In Loving, Negga and co-star Joel Edgerton play Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple arrested for marrying in late-Fifties Virginia. They spent nine years fighting the state’s anti-miscegenation laws via the US Supreme Court, and their 1967 ruling established the inherent right of everyone to marry, regardless of race. Though they were not ones for rousing courtroom speeches or publicity, they became civil rights heroes. As Mildred, Negga embodies this loyal,defiant spirit fully. She rarely speaks, communicating love for her husband and anger at the system through her eyes.

In reality, Negga is, by her own admission, chatty. “I don’t do well with small talk,” she says. “That polite talk where you know your script... I like the unexpectedness of chat.” She’s also down-to-earth and candid about sudden success, failures and her life, marked by early tragedy. Born in 1982, she left Ethiopia aged four for Limerick, Ireland with her mum as the country descended into violence. Her dad never joined his family, tragically dying in a car accident three years later.

Negga doesn’t remember much about her early childhood; what she does know is she always wanted to act. After studying drama at college, she got her break in Irish cinema, played Shirley Bassey in a BBC biopic and was the first black Ophelia in the National Theatre. It hasn’t been all plain sailing; her role in 12 Years A Slave didn’t make the final cut. But she kept working, most recently alongside long-term boyfriend, Mamma Mia’s Dominic Cooper, in acclaimed US supernatural drama Preacher. Now, between Oscar nominations and Streep’s blessing, a steady climb has turned into a quick ascension to the top of the pile. So how is Negga handling success?

Have people stopped asking you about being namechecked by Meryl Streep in her Golden Globes speech?
Oh god! Someone asked me the other day if I’ve come to terms with it yet. Completely not. I styled it out, [pretending] like me and Meryl talk daily, she mentions me all the time.

How did you feel when you got the standing ovation in Cannes after leaving a restaurant bathroom?
That was embarrassing. When I went to the bathroom again, they were like, ‘Would you ever just feck off?’ [Laughs.] It’s new territory but it’s lovely when people recognise your work. You know, they’re not throwing darts at you, they’re clapping.

What appealed to you about the story behind Loving?
I fell head over heels for this couple. They were captivating. They really glowed with love for one another. They radiated goodness and dignity, and distilled this idea of what we’re aspiring to be as human beings. To be the very best of ourselves. The film does a great job in demonstrating how oppression can operate. That when society stigmatises you, it can be as damaging as physical violence or arrest. That pervasive fear and the threat of violence are almost as unbearable as actual violence. How do you live when you’re always besieged by the very real possibility [of violence or arrest]?

How important is it to tell this story now?
It’s strangely prescient. Race has become something we’re finally having to address on a level that’s not just surface, asking real questions and trying to negotiate or figure out answers. These are things that need to be addressed fully before we can ever evolve or move on. It’s happening in the world at the moment, especially in America. And our film is part of that [conversation]. The Lovings’ case invalidated the idea that you can discriminate in marriage so was very important in legalising same-sex marriage. We had people coming up after screenings saying thank you for telling our story, our parents’ story. That’s what art does. It bears witness.

Do you think the opportunities for you as a black actress have been improving?
I do. People have been gently pushed in the right direction and also encouraged forcefully [laughs]. What’s so offensive for people of colour is that others assume we don’t run the whole gamut of human experience. That a black person couldn’t be a nerd, that kind of idea. This idea that you are not allowed to own your own humanity fully. I just find it so bizarre that you are given limited colours to work with. It’s something we have to keep addressing and never get complacent about.

Has race ever stopped you from getting a role?
No, it’s a very subtle thing. There are no big pointers or arrows going ‘racist behaviour alert’. It’s not so apparent for me either because I’m too short [for some roles]; I’m 5ft 21⁄2in. No-one’s actually going to say [that race is a factor].

Did you experience any racism growing up in Ireland?
I knew I was different, obviously, but I was never made to feel that difference made me any less. I never experienced racial abuse in Ireland. There weren’t that many black people in Ireland. I don’t remember any other black kids at my school. People were just interested in me.

How did you know that acting was what you wanted to do?
There was no epiphany. I knew when I was young that this is what I wanted to do and I knew I’d find a way to try to do it. I didn’t know if I’d be any good and I didn’t know if I’d ever get a job or if I’d ever be able to make a living. But those sorts of questions weren’t really important at the time. I just thought that if you wanted to be on the telly, you’d be on the telly. [As a child I thought], ‘I’ll have a go at that Oscars business, yeah, yeah, OK,’ having no idea of the process involved.

Having left Ethiopia at four, would you ever go back to live?
Gosh, I never thought about that. Who knows? I move around all the time. That means you don’t rule out anything. It’s a very beautiful country and the history is incredible.

Have you been back to visit?
I’ve not been in about five years. I haven’t had the time, to be honest. When you’re going, you want to go for a couple of weeks. There are places I haven’t been. I’d like to go the mountains, go trekking and to the south. My father was from the north.

What are you most proud of?
My tenacity. I look back at my younger self and think, ‘What a tenacious young woman.’ I was very determined, I grafted.

Have you ever wanted to call it quits?
Oh yeah. I’ve thought, ‘Am I cut out for it?’ Those moments of doubt and questioning are important, as long as they don’t cripple you. Without doubt, we can’t evolve or improve. When I was cut out of 12 Years A Slave, it was really tough. It knocked me and it took me a while to stand up properly again.

What got you back up?
Just time. Time. Time and friends. It’s like a heartbreak. It’s a heartache that grounds you for months. That’s what it feels like. Especially because the film was very dear to me. But look, these things happen to everyone. At the time you’re thinking if one more person says to me, ‘Something good will come of this,’ I’ll lose my head. At the time, you’re just like, ‘Let’s not go there.’ But it did. The casting director of 12 Years put my name forward for Loving and well, you know...

Loving is in cinemas from Friday

Photography: Austin Hargrave/August