Interview: Ruth Negga Talks 'Loving', Becoming Mildred & Revisiting Our History
A gorgeously subdued film about the power of love and the faults of humanity, “Loving” is a compelling character driven film on American history. Director Jeff Nicholas hones in on the two very real people whose decade-long battle with the state of Virginia helped topple the grotesque anti-miscegenation laws of the era. Carried by stunning performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, “Loving” is much more than a footnote in our history books. It’s an intimate portrait of race and American life.
I recently sat down with the soft-spoken and warm Ruth Negga in a restaurant in New York City. We chatted about Loving v. Virgina, how she came to embody Mildred Loving and the one thing she would say to Ms. Loving if she could.
Aramide Tinubu: What drew you to “Loving” and the role of Mildred?
Ruth Negga: I auditioned for it actually. Francine Maisler is a fantastic casting director, and she’d put me forward for other parts. Jeff [Nicholas] was in town prepping for “Midnight Special,” and Francine suggested that we meet. So, [Jeff] very kindly sent me some scenes from the script that he was writing along with Nancy Buirski’s documentary “The Loving Story,” and the extra archival pieces that she discovered and I just studied that. I knew that it was such a privilege to have footage of real people and we had quite a lot. I knew that any actor worth her salt would just study that and I knew that I had to do my homework. I actually went in as Mildred, and I never do that in auditions because I feel a bit embarrassed, to be honest. I was very nervous, and so was Jeff, but I knew I had to do it. I didn’t actually hear that I got the part until about a year later.
RN: And then it was a year after that when we began filming, so I lived with Mildred for two years. I will say that regardless if I would have gotten the role or not, I was just so fascinated by this couple. I fell in love with Mildred, and I couldn’t get her out of my head, and that was fine with me because I really liked having her in my life. I liked knowing that this woman existed. I called her part of this regiment of unknown soldiers, and these are especially Black women whose stories have been discarded or sidelined for whatever reason but who have made a huge contribution. In Mildred’s case, she actually changed the Constitution of the United States. For that reason alone, I was expecting a statue of her or something. However, it’s only people who have a special interest in Civil Rights history or people who go to law school; because they study Loving v. Virgina that know about her. I was kind of shocked by that.
AT: When did you first learn about Mildred Loving and Loving v. Virgina?
RN: Like Nancy [Buirski], I didn’t really find out about Mildred Loving until her obituary in 2008. I thought that in itself was quite saddening, and Nancy did as well. I think that’s what drove her fascination with the story. Everyone who watches Nancy’s documentary falls in love with Mildred and indeed Richard. I think it’s very important for us to celebrate and honor this couple and share them. The documentary is also extraordinary and really was the genesis of our film. That’s what Colin Firth and Ged Doherty saw when they decided to make this film, and it’s the first film they made under their production company, Raindogs Films.
AT: Did this character change you in any way?
RN: I don’t know if embodying Mildred changed me, but it reinforced things that I knew about the world and humanity in a very good way. It made me consider what we are capable of. It made me in many ways less cynical. I thought if this woman can do that…I fell in love with her tenacity. Even though she was quite quiet and reserved, she had this deep strength and steeliness especially when it came to her family. It was something that I heard about many Black women of that era; this quietness wasn’t just a personality trait necessarily, it was a necessity for survival. And yet, there was this strength that was bolstering and actually bolstered communities and I was fascinated.
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Image: Focus Features