An Oscar nomination catapulted Ruth Negga into the A-list, but it’s taking on ‘Hamlet for our times’ that will really test the Irish actress’s mettle. Jude Rogers meets an extraordinary star and an accidental fashion icon
There are fabulous hotels and then there’s the Hotel Du Cap-Eden-Roc, a breathtaking chateau on its own forested peninsula in Antibes on the French Riviera. American author F Scott Fitzgerald used it as the inspiration for the Hôtel des Etrangers in his 1934 novel Tender Is The Night. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned here. Picasso designed the restaurant menu in 1955.
Fast forward to 2018, and one of Hollywood’s most exciting talents – and newly crowned Louis Vuitton ambassador – the Academy Award-nominated Ruth Negga, is sitting on a window seat in the ground-floor bar, yachts glistening in the bright blue Mediterranean sea behind her.
‘This isn’t too shabby, is it?,’ she says, in a soft Irish accent that makes every word she says bounce with life. Her silent-movie star eyes are round like saucers; an Alexander McQueen skull T-shirt hugs her neat, fine-boned frame. ‘Honestly, there was a yacht this morning outside my window that emerged from the sea. Have you seen it? It was so huge I thought the apocalypse had come!’
At last night’s Louis Vuitton Cruise 2019 show at the Fondation Maeght art gallery, Negga, 36, took her place on the front row next to Emma Stone, and shimmered in photos with Sienna Miller and Sophie Turner. And anyone who recalls her bold, vintage dash on the red carpet for 2016’s Loving (in which she played one half of the first interracial couple to have their marriage recognised by the American Supreme Court) won’t be surprised to learn her stylist is Karla Welch. But it’s how she encountered Welch (whose clients include Karlie Kloss, Lorde and Elisabeth Moss) that reveals Negga’s true devil-may-care nature. ‘I googled “top 25 stylists in the world”,’ she smiles.
Currently on our screens as ball-busting Tulip in the third season of Preacher – alongside her now ex-boyfriend Dominic Cooper – this autumn sees her embrace the biggest challenge of her career: playing Hamlet at Dublin’s Gate Theatre.
‘I’m terrified,’ she says, convincingly. ‘Full-body terrified.’ She’s got form with Shakespeare, though, having played Lavinia in Titus Andronicus in 2006, a performance that sticks out in her mind because her mother walked out. (‘Lavinia gets raped, her hands cut off, her tongue… so when someone said, “Some bloody person walked out,” I said, “That was my mum!” and they went, “Ooh, understandable!”’).
She was also Ophelia in Hamlet at London’s National Theatre in 2010, but playing Hamlet him/herself is very different. ‘For a long time, Hamlet’s characteristics have been monopolised by a certain type of person – these pale princes from the West. But what he goes through – his thoughts and feelings – they’re all our things, aren’t they?’
The show’s director, Yaël Farber, has hailed Negga as the ‘Hamlet for our times’. ‘That’s about me being brown and a woman, quite explicitly and obviously,’ she points out.
Negga is candid about her frustrations surrounding attitudes towards black and ethnic-minority actors, especially after a particular film or actor wins a slew of awards. ‘People go, great, that’s all sorted, and it drives me fucking mad,’ she says. ‘This is a continuing conversation. We have to move forward with the questions we ask and evolve with our society.’
She also finds it maddening that diversity of opinion is rarely recognised when race is debated. ‘I mean, if you’re a brown woman, it doesn’t mean you have the same thoughts as another brown woman,’ she says. ‘Of course it doesn’t! It’s damaging and diminishing. We have to ask different questions.’
Negga’s early career included some fantastic productions – Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast On Pluto, alongside Cillian Murphy, and the title role in a 2011 BBC Two Shirley Bassey biopic, among others. But her career didn’t properly take off until she went to America. She raises her eyebrows when I ask why; perhaps race is the question again.
She’s grafted hard, especially as her life hasn’t been heavy with privileges – although she snorts at that suggestion. ‘OK, I’ve had some unlucky moments [her scenes for Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave were lost to the cutting-room floor], but I’ve also been lucky – with kind people essentially, especially directors.’ She shrugs like a charmingly petulant teenager. ‘But you just fucking get on with it.’
When Loving came along in 2016, Negga was suddenly on red carpets, at the Met Gala and on American magazine covers. She found the promo for it nerve-wracking, but also knew it was worth it. ‘If I don’t do anything else for the rest of my life, I’ve done that film,’ she says proudly. Did she worry about keeping up her career momentum? She grimaces. ‘This sounds terrible: I am ambitious, but I’m not ambitious at the same time. I don’t have any desire to be anything or [play] anybody. Genuinely, I just want to work, but if I feel a role’s for me,’ she narrows her eyes, playfully, ‘it won’t pass me by.’
Producers flocked to Negga after Loving’s success. Some said she could do anything she liked, ‘which was brilliant’, she beams. And not just in acting, either: she’s recently bought the film rights to an Irish book, and is working with other actresses on film scripts they’ve written. ‘It’s all super-exciting,’ she says. ‘Even if these films don’t get made, there will be others – and I know they will come. You can’t hold the tide [of what’s happening with women in the industry] back with a broomstick.’ The industry’s been using the excuse of the dollar with women for years, she continues, ‘but it was never about the dollar. It was about power. That cold, dead hand that wouldn’t let go.’ She smiles broadly. ‘That’s changing now.’
Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1982, the only child of an Irish nurse mother and an Ethiopian doctor father. When she was four, she and her mum returned to Ireland; her dad intended to follow, but got caught in the burgeoning civil war. Then, two years later, he died in a car crash. Negga is unflinching about the effect his death had on her. ‘I’ve always had that thing of thinking, “Do I have real memories of Dad? Or have I just taken a photograph of our time together and transplanted it into my brain?”’
She thinks of￼ him often – whether he would have liked her to act (‘he’d probably have wanted me to be a doctor’) – and Ethiopian history, culture and food remain a big part of her life. ‘One thing I would tell people is that it’s OK to have your grief,’ she says. ‘You can’t do anything about it because it’s intrinsically part of you. And that’s OK.’
Her family were a huge support throughout her childhood, especially her ‘ton of Irish cousins’ – she FaceTimed one of them, Dave Malone, just before we met, and they’re still best friends. They used to rent videos from their local shop as kids and live for the weekend to see them. Two years ago, Malone was her guest at the Golden Globes.
Negga’s early heroes were bold, inventive pop stars. She had a crush on David Bowie in Labyrinth and adored Kate Bush – she spent hours trying to recreate the video for Wuthering Heights, in which Bush does a heavily choreographed, solo dance routine, widening her eyes, and raising her arms. This time around, though, Negga was the choreographer. ‘I remember making my little cousin wear a nightie and dance in my granny’s front room for hours,’ she says. ‘She would say, “Can we please stop?” and I’d say, “No, do it again, we haven’t got it right yet!”’
Negga moved to London with her mum for her teenage years, then returned to Ireland in 1999, to do a drama degree at Trinity College, Dublin. This crucially allowed her to study acting without paying drama-school fees. She’s very proud of Ireland at the moment. The result of the recent abortion referendum had her in tears – when the news broke, she was in New Orleans having just wrapped on Preacher. ‘I’d only had a few hours’ sleep and woke up to it,’ she says. ‘It was very moving and I got really emotional, especially because I couldn’t vote. I was so proud of everybody.’
But she felt a spirit of change in the country as far back as her student days. ‘I remember thinking, “This is a different place, a different country to what I’ve heard it used to be,”’ she explains. ‘And Dublin particularly was a forward-propelling, moving city that I could literally feel wanted to change. You could sense people wanted to leave behind this old, haunted Ireland. And then came the exposing of abuse in the Magdalene Laundries, and then having the referendum on gay marriage, and then, you know, it’s today, and we have a mixed-race, gay Taoiseach!’ She’s practically jumping up and down now. ‘And now this!’
Next year holds even more excitement. She’ll star in Brad Pitt’s new sci-fi film Ad Astra (‘I’m kind of a guide. I’m only in it for half a second, but an essential one’). Then there’s the ongoing success of Preacher. Even though (spoiler alert) Tulip died at the end of Season 2, comic-book rules means she returns – and with a bang. ‘She gets her groove back,’ she says. ‘I had lots of fight scenes too, which are great. There were bruises all over me, but it was worth it.’
Dominic Cooper, of course, plays the titular preacher, hard-drinking and with added superpowers, and the chemistry with his ex-girlfriend is palpable. I’m surprised Negga doesn’t mind talking about him. She’s sheepishly delighted, in fact, to reveal that the press got the date of their break-up a bit wrong. How wrong? ‘We broke up a very long time ago,’ she says. ‘It’s just people knew about it recently. You found out a couple of years too late. Ha!’
Cooper’s her ‘best friend’. Has acting with him (after a six-year relationship) been hard? ‘To be honest, no. I think if you really love someone and care about them, and you’re going to work with them… maybe it doesn’t work for some people, but it just worked for us. We know each other, the way we work, and he’s super-supportive of me.’ She leans forward and smiles. ‘I know this sounds like a fucking spiel, but it’s not. We’ve literally got each other’s backs.’
They used to live together in London’s Primrose Hill, and Negga still thinks of that area as home. ‘But then I go to Dublin too, and I don’t know where I’ll go next year,’ she says. Not that she looks worried. She still sees a lot of her mum, who’s delighted about her success. ‘But we don’t talk about it, really. She just visits and goes, “Are you eating?” [rolls her eyes] “Yes, Mum.” And then she does my laundry. She irons my socks!’ Negga is grateful to her mum for letting her be who she wanted to be. ‘She never said, “You need to have a fall-back career.” I’m very grateful to all my family, actually, for believing in me.’
Slowly but surely we wrap up, but not before Negga insists on us doing a silly selfie for my young son – another only child, like she was – back at home. Tonight is a precious evening off before she sees what life brings her next. ‘I mean, I can’t complain, can I?’ she says, gesturing at the yacht still in the bright blue sea, dazzling. And the joy in her eyes; her humour and humility, continue to dazzle long after she’s gone.
Preacher is available on Amazon Prime
Photographs by Tesh, styling by Jayne Pickering