Ruth Negga, Travelin’ Woman

Acclaimed for her mesmerizing performances on stage and screen, the Ethiopian-Irish actor Ruth Negga reflects on her nomadic nature and how her heritage follows her wherever she roams.

Through each of her choices as an actor, Ruth Negga reveals another facet of her remarkable talent. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland and London, Negga chooses films that write new narratives for Black performers, uncovering lost histories and untold experiences that deconstruct and expand our understanding of race. Negga earned an Academy Award nomination in 2017 for her portrayal of Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols’s Loving, the true story of an interracial couple that changed the Civil Rights battle – and the law – in the United States as they fought to be together. In 2021, she starred in Rebecca Hall’s mesmerizing, elegant and disturbing film Passing, adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. In the film, set during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in New York, Negga gave an alluring and mysterious performance as Clare, the wife of a racist white man who doesn’t know his partner is Black.

An accomplished Shakespearean actor, Negga made her Broadway debut in 2022 playing Lady Macbeth, opposite Daniel Craig. She will also executive produce the upcoming series Josephine, in which she plays the Jazz Age dancer, singer and wartime spy Josephine Baker. Here, Negga discusses the enduring place Ireland holds in her imagination, the role of artists as truth-tellers and why acting is akin to surfing.

SARAH LASRY You were born in Ethiopia and moved to Ireland as a young child. What are your earliest memories of Ethiopia?

RUTH NEGGA A very specific memory of monsoon rains – heavy rain that you can see. I have a strong memory of that. When I went back to Ethiopia for the first time in a while, as soon as I left the airplane, I could immediately smell the country. There’s a peculiar smell of spices and heat. I think smell is a powerful sense in terms of triggering memory. Sometimes, it bypasses our brain: we go straight to a feeling rather than a thought, or an image will flash by.

SL Do you remember arriving in Ireland?

RN No, I don’t remember moving to Ireland. The first time I went to Ireland, I went for a visit with my mom, and I was so shocked by the cold and the strangeness. And the food was very strange. It was a very different experience for a kid.

Ruth Negga photographed by Tess Ayano
Ruth Negga photographed by Tess Ayano

SL Does that strangeness now feel like home?

RN The weird thing is that I haven’t lived in Ethiopia since I was a very small child, and I haven’t lived in Ireland in 16 years, but I’ll always say I’m Ethiopian-Irish. Home becomes something different when you are a traveler by nature and when it’s the nature of your job as well. I’ve been a traveler my entire life, and I’ve grown up in places where I both belong and don’t belong. So, in many ways, it changes how you view place and identity. I’m very proud of being Ethiopian, and I’m very proud of being Irish, but there’s also an interesting thing that happens where you feel like – how do you say it without being cheesy? – “Oh, we’re all in it together.” We’re all just people trying to get along, muddle along. And I think that experience comes from being an immigrant in England, in the U.K. Living there as a teenager and having a mom who was an immigrant in Ethiopia for the first three years of my life, I felt very much at home among immigrants. I’ve always felt at home in a multinational community: when you have that multi-place experience from an early age, you realize that borders are very strange human inventions for various reasons that have nothing to do with connection, but with something else: power, greed… I’m very wary of any sort of jingoism. It bothers me.

SL In what ways does Ireland inspire you today?

RN For me, Ireland means family, but I also have a strong connection to the physicality of Ireland: the landscape, its earth, its energy, the sea. It’s a very visceral reaction to a country that is obviously in my heritage. On an emotional, soul and physical level, it’s somewhere that I feel… What’s the word I’m looking for? A vibrancy. The country itself has a certain energy, and it’s very potent and vibrant and very spiritual. When you read about the Celts and paganism and Mother Earth – that’s very alive in Ireland. You just feel like the earth is alive, especially when it gets dark in the countryside.

SL In Passing, you play Clare, a Black woman who “passes” as white and is married to a racist white man. You’ve spoken about being half in love with and half disgusted by your character, and being torn between those two different feelings. Is that what drew you to the part?

RN That’s what interests me in human nature! It’s the basis of what a human being is – our contradictory nature and contradictory desires. That tension causes all the joy and pain in our lives. So, why would you shy away from that, when your job is to be a conduit for the shit we’re all going through? That, to me, is vital, especially if you’re working from original material that is such a beautiful book. You owe it to the characters in the book, and you owe it to the writer who has taken the time to sculpt these characters. It’s only right that you would respect that and do everything in your power as an actor and an artist to bring that, in all its brutal honesty, to the screen.

I’ve been a traveler my entire life, and I’ve grown up in places where I both belong and don’t belong. Ruth Negga

SL Do you believe that films can enable political change? Is that something you think about when choosing a role?

RN I think it’s in there, though I don’t know on what level – conscious, subconscious… I like things that have the potential to be transformative, in any arena. It’s interesting when you look at countries that are very turbulent and lurching toward the extremes. That’s still happening now, and if you look at history, it’s often artists, poets and playwrights who are cracked down on first – people who, in their own way, through their artistic endeavors, are essentially “calling shit out.” Whether we know it or not, we’ve relied on artists as truth-tellers throughout history. If history books are written by the winners, then who’s going to tell us the truth? Throughout history, we’ve relied on some sort of integrity on the page or the screen or the canvas to bear witness to all the terrible things and all the beautiful things, in their uncloaked reality. Sometimes, you think, “Is art more reliable than history itself?”

SL Today, there’s also a movement to uplift Black storytelling…

RN If we’re talking about America as an example, there has been such a lack of Black performance in front of the camera. When you look at older films – even if I like old black-and-white films! – you see all the characters on the periphery played by people of color, and you realize that’s their opportunity to express themselves as artists on celluloid, in a narrative that centers on white people, and they are side pieces of someone’s life. When you think about it, that has a cumulative effect on an entire psyche – both Black and white – and it’s also sort of wrong. It encourages the idea that in the main event, the main characters are white people. From a personal point of view, I wanted to see the stories of people who looked like me and my family and my friends. I’m obsessed with “lost history,” and some of it is, indeed, lost. I want to know about the narratives of people in history whom we aren’t familiar with and who haven’t been on our screens in a way that I think is correct and honest about the world. I played Antigone, a powerful story about a woman who is not allowed by the authorities to bury her brother. That’s extraordinarily powerful, and it is political, whether you like it or not. And then, I played Mildred in Loving – most people hadn’t heard of her, and yet she is one of two people who managed to change the constitution of the United States. A humble, intelligent woman of color, at that time – that was unheard of! It’s still shocking today. And yet, that was a woman living in her full integrity, just doing what she thought was right and doing what she wanted, which was to be with her family – which sounds so simple. Or the concept of the film Passing in America, and how this major theme is still a secret in many families and unknown to many people. There’s something extraordinary that can happen in your career when what you’re interested in intersects with what you’re able to do. And that, to me, is super-exciting. So, I think I’d better do something with that.

Ruth Negga photographed by Tess Ayano
Ruth Negga photographed by Tess Ayano

SL In each performance, your voice drastically changes. How do you find the character’s voice?

RN I don’t have a specific way of working. It all depends on what the character desires of me and what it needs, ultimately. I like exploring, experimenting and the prep of acting. Voice is important, physicality is important – it’s a full-body experience. We sometimes get stuck in our heads too much. There’s an imbalance between the sensory part of our nature and our intellect, and we need to realize that they inform one another. But in terms of voice, my accent is very strange – it changes a lot. When I was a kid, I had an Irish accent, and then when I moved to London, it got more southeast London-y, but I still have a distinctly Irish accent. I think you’re influenced and informed by your surroundings; especially as a kid, there’s sort of a fitting-in. But I’ve always taken affront at having to change to fit in. It’s perfectly acceptable, if that’s what you want! But if it’s not what you want, then I just think, “Why?” I didn’t really want to change myself or my accent. So, I have an accent that’s a mixture of my experiences. When you have a unique experience as a child, what is normal and not strange to you can be strange and uncomfortable to other people because you’re unexpected, and people don’t really like unexpected things – especially in another human being. I think that at an early age, I became very aware of identity and how one navigates that world. How much power do you have over your own identity? We all accommodate the world to make our lives easier. And also, how much can we say, “Here I am, and if it bothers you, that’s not really my problem”?

You’re searching for that tang; you’re searching for the tickle of something. Ruth Negga

SL You played Ophelia in Hamlet in 2010 at the National Theatre in London, before performing the part of Hamlet in Brooklyn at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2020. Lady Macbeth on Broadway with Daniel Craig is your latest role. How would you describe the physical experience of performing Shakespeare on stage?

RN When you have moments that work – I’m reluctant to tell you how rare they feel [laughs] – but when it does all coalesce together, it’s like surfing. I’ve never surfed, but I read Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan, and I thought, “That’s like acting!” You’re searching for that tang; you’re searching for the tickle of something. Surfers talk about when they’re “going into the barrel,” when everything drops away, and they’re like, “I am the water” – I love all that. That’s what it feels like! And for as long as they’re on that wave – like, four seconds – that’s what it feels like, when it’s beautiful. When you fuck up your line or do something shit, it’s the opposite of that. It’s like when you’ve been tumbled by a wave, and you’re down, and you’re like, “Which way is up and down? Where am I?” And you’re stuck and fighting for your life, and death brings you toward the light, and you don’t know if it is the light, but you’re down, and it’s not going well…

SL In what way does the play Macbeth resonate with you today?

RN I think it’s a love story. I think we misunderstand what “love story” means, don’t we? The love stories that we’re familiar with are the heady, early stages, the “falling” and the longing, all those delicious things. This is different because it feels like a very established relationship. You’re exploring intellectual bonds, bonds of power, bonds of desire, bonds of losing a child, marriage, bonds of responsibility. How do we navigate that with someone we love? I do think they have to be in love – they have to be in a type of love that you read about and see in great love stories, but that you also see in Bonnie and Clyde. When did they become what they’ve become? Are people who do monstrous things monsters? There are all these different questions pinging at me. Essentially, I’m interested in the love story.

All clothing and accessories by Bottega Veneta.

Hair by Lacy Redway. Makeup by Rebecca Restrepo. Manicure by Julie Kandalec. Digital operations by Bob Wagoner. Production by Lauren Noonan at artProduction. Photo assistance by Dana Golan. Fashion assistance by Marley Cohen. Special thanks to Ben Cercio.

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