Passing star Ruth Negga has learned from the past in order to illuminate the present. In 2016, Negga earned an Oscar nomination for playing Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols’ Loving, which chronicled Mildred and Richard Loving’s 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Virginia laws prohibiting interracial marriages. And in 2020, Negga played Clare Kendry in Rebecca Hall‘s Passing, which adapted Nella Larsen’s seminal 1929 novel of the same name. Hall’s directorial debut reunites Kendry (Negga) and Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), two Black women from Chicago, and the latter quickly learns that her childhood friend is “passing” as a white woman.
As an American history buff, the Ethiopian-Irish actor isn’t surprised that two of her favorite and most celebrated roles deal with the history of race in America.
“I’m super interested in American history and the history of race in America and how that has contributed to where we find ourselves today,” Negga tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s important to look to the past and not erase it and also unearth stories that haven’t been told. I don’t think we realize how much people who want to maintain their power and status quo actively work to erase facts. So I’m interested in how stories that we’re not familiar with contribute to our understanding of the present, and Loving and Passing, obviously, are very much a part of that.”
Negga is grateful that she’s had the chance to honor trailblazers like Larsen and the Lovings, who had the courage to speak up on behalf of people like her.
“I just find it fascinating to imagine women who look like me living in a time when all their options were severely limited. It’s also a real sort of learning curve for me,” Negga explains. “I recognize how far we’ve come and how far we’ve got to go and how progress is not linear and how much I am actually grateful to women like Mildred [Loving]… and indeed Nella Larsen for speaking up and telling their stories. Otherwise, I don’t think we’d have had these stories.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Negga also looks ahead to her upcoming Broadway debut alongside Daniel Craig in MacBeth. Then she reflects on Preacher and how much she misses her character, Tulip O’Hare.
When a filmmaker comes to you directly and offers you a role like Rebecca did, is there no greater compliment to you as an actor? Is that more satisfying than any review or award?
Wow, I’ve never thought about it, actually, but yes, it is more satisfying, especially when it’s someone like Rebecca whose performances I have long admired, both in the theater and on screen. And especially with something that has the kind of quality that this novel [Passing] has. Everybody and their mother wants these kinds of roles, so for her to approach me, yes, it’s absolutely more satisfying. That’s why I said, “Yes, yes, yes. Whenever you’re ready, I’m ready.”
As I told Rebecca, I knew that “passing” existed, but I certainly didn’t know the extent of it. So growing up in Limerick and London, how much did you know about this term and this lifestyle?
I only found out about it through literature. I found out about it just through reading Black writers. But when you’re a kid, you don’t care. You don’t give a shit where anybody is from or what anybody looks like. I think you kind of understand that people who are not easily placeable or are ethnically dubious or ambiguous … I use the word dubious because what I’ve always thought is that if people can’t place you, they can often be suspicious of you. And I found that myself because sometimes people have misplaced me, or my origin story is assumed or whatever. So the human condition is really interesting, isn’t it? When we don’t understand something or we can’t label it as you label anything, really, we become a bit anxious, like it’s a threat. I think we’re nervous about what we don’t understand or what we can’t identify in our immediate environment and world, as if we don’t have the language for it. And that’s another element to passing; it’s the physical embodiment of a lie. Gosh, there are so many other ideas and concepts that we hang on it that make it so suspicious and not talked about. That’s why I’m so interested in it because it’s something that happened so pervasively in America and in South Africa. But across the world, it’s been discussed very little, and many people don’t know about it primarily because by its very nature, it was kept secret. The people who did know were conspiratorial and would often choose to protect their own families. So I think we all grow up with it, but we just don’t know how to name it or talk about it.
You touched on this already, but as a child, do you remember when you first realized that your identity may not be as clear-cut to other people?
Yeah, I think I understood that unconsciously before I did consciously. If you have a peripatetic childhood like I did, then that becomes quite clear early on. Like I said, it’s not necessarily that you have the language to name it or talk about it; it’s just that you know that you’re different. And sometimes that can be a good experience, and sometimes it can be a bad experience.
Since Clare is often the center of attention wherever she goes, how much awareness does she have in terms of her impact on people? Is she knowingly using her power, or is she naive to her effect on people?
Well, this is all my opinion and my opinion is not fact. But what I love about the book is, in fact, the ambiguity of all of it. After reading it, everybody comes away with a different idea of what it’s even about than the next person. And the same with our film. But I think she’s fully aware. Someone who is left with nothing as she was as a child must really use their skillset to survive and really explore what that skillset is. And maybe fine-tune it, you know? I don’t think Clare was always this ultra-feminine charmer, seductress. And Nella [Larsen] actually hints at that quite clearly in the beginning of her book when Irene [Tessa Thompson] remembers Clare as this kind of tomboy who always had scuffed knees from defending herself. So that was a really lovely notion from which to build a backstory. This woman has always had to rely solely on herself for survival and often affection. So she fine-tuned all those skills so she could survive, flourish and actually use those skills to explore a life fully. And she’s fully aware of her desire in everybody, and she’s really skillful at it. But I don’t necessarily think she’s a manipulator because I don’t believe her intentions are devilish or dastardly. When you’ve grown up relying solely on yourself and having no one else to rely on, perhaps that’s to be expected. And the other side of that coin is that she’s had no one to please but herself for her entire life. So if that’s the rhythm of your life for as long as you can remember, then it does affect your interpersonal relationships quite strongly, as we see with Clare.
In some ways, Passing is the inverse of Loving. So they’re a fitting double feature for reasons beyond the titles being similar and you and Bill Camp starring in both.
(Laughs.) Yes! I’m so glad you noticed that.
So having played one half of a proud interracial couple like the Lovings, did that make you even more interested in exploring the flip side in Passing?
Yes, I suppose it did. I haven’t thought about it like that, but I have a real passion for history. I’m obsessed with history. I absolutely love it. I really enjoy learning about history, and I’m super interested in American history and the history of race in America and how that has contributed to where we find ourselves today. I just find it endlessly fascinating, really. It’s important to look to the past and not erase it and also unearth stories that haven’t been told. I don’t think we realize how much people who want to maintain their power and status quo actively work to erase facts. So I’m interested in how stories that we’re not familiar with contribute to our understanding of the present, and Loving and Passing, obviously, are very much a part of that. I just find it fascinating to imagine women who look like me living in a time when all their options were severely limited. It’s also a real sort of learning curve for me. I recognize how far we’ve come and how far we’ve got to go and how progress is not linear and how much I am actually grateful to women like Mildred [Loving], Clare, Irene and indeed Nella Larsen for speaking up and telling their stories. Otherwise, I don’t think we’d have had these stories. So it really is women like Nella, who write fiction, and women like Mildred, who live their truth in reality which spurs my interest in these stories.
Actor-directors like Rebecca can sometimes be very careful with their performance direction. Since they speak the same language as you, they don’t want to overstep by being too specific. So did you notice Rebecca picking her spots rather carefully in this regard?
I’m going to steal that way of putting it, thank you, because it’s a very good way of putting it. Yes, the thing is, Rebecca lived with this story — and the need to tell this story — for 13 years. It really was a need given the way she experienced this. It was a calling and a need to bear witness to this story and to show the world this story and to introduce most of the world to this story. And because she’s also an artist, she storyboarded the entire film. Sometimes, with my character work, I look for quite a lot in images, and she does too. So she was very specific, even down to some of the framing with Tessa and I, like moving our shoulders and our heads so that we’re both choreographed in such a way that tells a story in one frame, which is really exquisite. So that was really beautiful and lovely to be a part of, but also within that tight choreographed framework, she understood that both Tessa and I had such a deep connection to our characters and each other’s characters. I think she instinctively knew when to nudge and when to just let it unfold, so that’s where her talent as an actor-director was quite clear.
In March 2022, you’ll be making your Broadway debut alongside Daniel Craig in MacBeth. When the news was announced in September, had the two of you already started rehearsals?
No, I’d met Daniel Craig for a publicity photoshoot. It was only half an hour, but he was lovely. I’m assuming all of this by the way, but I think Daniel Craig goes out of his way to make people feel super comfortable. A lot of super ultra famous people do that — the nice ones, anyway. (Laughs.) So it felt kind of like, “Oh! I feel like I’ve known this man forever. He’s my pal now,” which is probably really dangerous for him to make people feel like that. (Laughs.) But he’s just a lovely human being, and consequently, in November, the entire cast actually sat down with Sam Gold, the director, to just meet and work through the play and talk about its place in history and its relevance now. So it was all of that lovely stuff in preparation for getting it up and on the floor in February. [Writer’s Note: The play will begin performances at Longacre Theatre on March 29, 2022 and officially open on April 28.] Oh gosh, so nervous.
I recently saw Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of MacBeth, and that material has always felt like the ultimate test for an actor. And such challenges seem like they’re essential in order to avoid complacency as an actor. But at the same time, the really challenging work appears to be made less frequently now, at least at the major studio level, so you probably have to seek it out.
I think there’s quite a bit of challenging work, but they’re little foreign films. Well, foreign to us, anyway. Titane just won the Palme d’Or, which is a bit challenging. Drive My Car is challenging. So I think they’re being made, but maybe it’s just my narrow focus. But yes, I think any artist wants to be challenged or knows they should be. (Laughs.) Sometimes, one is a bit resistant, but the recipe will always stay the same. You plus challenge equals some sort of progress. Even if you fall flat on your face, something has moved forward or something has expanded for you. And to me, that’s the most exciting thing. Even if you feel you fell or you didn’t do the job, then you can’t really look at it as a failure. You can look at it as another string to your bow in a way. So learning experiences are valuable on some level. But yeah, the challenge is the point. Obviously, there are other factors, but for me, it’s wading into the unknown. The abyss is terrifying, but it’s also very freeing. It piques my exploratory nature because my everyday life is not exploratory at all. I’m not a daredevil, let’s just say that. But I really enjoy having the opportunity to discover unexpected things in unexpected ways, and that’s what being an artist is. If you put that together with skill, magical things can happen.
Do you miss having [Preacher‘s] Tulip in your life every year?
Yes, I bloody do! I miss her so much. She buoyed my heart. I love her. I love that woman. I love that woman because, sometimes, characters allow you to explore parts of yourself that you may not be too proud of or parts of yourself that you may want to make bigger or smaller in your life. Anything, really. And Tulip did that for me in some way. I haven’t figured it out yet, but her honesty — and her tenderness that she’s sometimes not even aware of — are why I love her. My kind of heroes are the people who aren’t really aware of their greatness and their brilliance, but are actually much more self-aware than you would think. What a thrill. God, I was lucky to play her. What a great role.
In 50 years, when you reminisce to your family about Passing, what day will you tell them about first?
Aww, thanks for giving me another 50 years. I really appreciate that. (Laughs.) What will I be reminiscing about? Well, I’m already doing it. Even now when watching it, I’m going, “God, I got to be in this film.” That’s what takes the edge off of watching yourself because watching yourself is such a pain in the hole, really. But you kind of have to quiet down that ego because you think, “No, I want to enjoy it as well. I want to enjoy it.” Because of everyone’s contribution, I don’t want to just be self critical and get in the way of my own enjoyment of the film as a whole. And once you make that decision, you can watch it with a bit more, I suppose, forgiveness for yourself. So you’re just going, “Dude, I got to make this film with Rebecca and Tessa and André [Holland] and Bill and Alexander [Skarsgard] and Marci Rodgers and all of these people that fucking loved this novel so much.” This is heart work. This is heart-and-soul work, and we got to do it. Then people watched it and they loved it. And they were introduced to Nella. And with Loving, people got introduced to this couple, Mildred and Richard [Loving], and they fell in love with them. And they changed the constitution of the United States, and I got to play Mildred Loving. That blows my mind now, let alone in 50 years. I’m often a cup half-empty kind of person, but not when it comes to the roles I’ve been able to play. I’ve been able to play Hamlet twice, Ophelia and now Lady Macbeth. I’m very, very, very lucky. So I’m sure in 50 years — please god, if I last that long — that I’ll be feeling just as lucky.
Passing is now streaming on Netflix.