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EXCLUSIVE: Ruth Negga on How Feeling Alien Inspired Her Oscar-Worthy Performance and the Power of 'Loving'

by John Boone 1:45 PM PDT, November 03, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

Ruth Negga may go from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the Academy Awards, which is no easy feat even for a Marvel superhero. The 34-year-old actress may be most recognizable for her comic book fare -- she also appeared in Warcraft: The Beginning and currently stars on AMC's Preacher -- but that very well may change because of Loving, a small, quiet film centered on the landmark court case that legalized interracial marriage. The film isn't actually about the case, though, it's about the Lovings behind Loving v. Virginia. What does it mean to her to get Oscar buzz for this movie?

"That people will know who Mildred and Richard Loving were," she explained. "It surprised me that more people don't know about them, because I think they're a couple that America should be extraordinarily proud of. The world should be proud of."

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Director Jeff Nichols echoed a similar sentiment during a sit-down with ET's Courtney Tezeno. "This is a story that needs to be on the lips of most Americans right now. It is a part of our American history," he said. "Not our Civil Rights history -- this is part of our American history. People need to know about it. They need to be reminded of it."

In less deft hands, this film easily could have taken a turn for melodrama. However, Negga plays Mildred wide-eyed and breathy, while Joel Edgerton plays Richard strong and silent, making it all the more powerful when their voices are heard at last. The type of hatred and bigotry the couple faces looks practically ancient when it plays out onscreen, but the movie has never felt more relevant.

"Look, it's obvious--" Nichols began, before correcting himself. "It should be obvious to everyone that we are in the midst of very, very crucial debates and conversations about equality right now. It us up to our generation to hold equality up as an idea and say, 'How do we want to be remembered in 10, 20, 30 years when people look back? What did we do about this topic right now?' What Richard and Mildred do is they show us how to have this conversation. They show us that there are people at the center of this."

Edgerton agrees. "This movie shouldn't exist. This movie should be a short film about a guy getting down on one knee in a field and asking, 'Will you marry me?' Then roll the credits!" he joked. "Thankfully the movie does exist. The fact that it does exist says something about where we are, how the world is and how we keep butting up against these same issues."

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Photo: Focus Features

The film as a whole should and likely will find a home in the Best Picture category, but it is Negga who delivers Loving's standout performance. With Viola Davis going Supporting for Fences, Negga's first Best Actress nomination is now simply a matter of time. Nichols recalled to ET that Negga was the first person who auditioned for the role, which he calls "the greatest luck imaginable."

"It's as if this angel dropped out of the sky that was Mildred Loving," he remembered. "Ruth embodied all that and more. She embodied the spirit, this kind of glow. It's undeniable when you watch footage of Mildred."

The story of the Lovings rang particularly true for Negga, who was born in Ethiopia to an Irish mother and Ethiopian father. She was later raised in Ireland, though on this day, she wore a T-shirt that read, "Une Femme Françiase."

"My whole life is an interracial relationship!" she exclaimed with a laugh. "It's inescapable. I am who I am. And it's not something extraordinary, because it's my normalcy. For someone else it might be extraordinary. It's other people who tell you you're different. I think [this movie] resonated because I don't think we often see ourselves reflected in society and a lot of people of mixed heritage said, 'Thank you, because you are bearing witness to a story that isn't always told.' We all have as much right to take up our space in the world as one another."

"People think we're unusual. To you we might be, but to us, we're just normal old us," she added before chuckling and giving a slight shrug. "I think that is important, to not make people feel alien. Because we're not."

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