IT’S A BRIGHT DAY in Los Angeles, and I’m sitting in a plush hotel lobby talking to the actress Ruth Negga about what it feels like to desire something you can’t have. At 40, she slots herself within a group of Black actresses who have perhaps had to “fight harder, wait longer, be more available” in order to clear a path for multidimensional roles. She feels she has sacrificed, missed weddings and funerals, put her personal life on hold. Then again, she counters, she still believes there’s “something exquisite” about longing— about not getting what you might think you want. She’s got an amused, faraway look in her eyes now, as if she has remembered an ancient joke about the nature of existence. “We do forget that, don’t we?” she says. “After a certain amount of money … you might become unfulfilled. Then you find yourself building penis-shaped rockets. And everyone, we’re looking at them going, So you’ve destroyed the earth and you’re having a big swinging mickey flash up in the fucking atmosphere. Great. Good for you. ”
Negga is a star you’d likely recognize as such by aura, if not by name. Her face, all eyes and angles, could command a silent film; in her selection of parts, she can seem to be a single-minded dramatic artist. Her turn in the 2016 biopic Loving as Mildred Loving—the Black American woman who became a somewhat accidental pioneer in the legal protection of interracial marriage— earned Negga, a relative newcomer to Hollywood, an Oscar nomination. Last year, she played Hamlet in a buzzy production staged at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn— an “emo dreamboat,” as one headline put it. Her latest project is Passing, an elegant, chilling film based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, in which Negga plays a woman who has chosen to pass as white. Yet there’s mischief and inquisitiveness, a hint of screwball timing, evident in all her performances. “Every day when she was on set and would come into the makeup trailer,” her Passing co-star Tessa Thompson tells me, “something energetically would change—just because she would come in and, like, say something incredibly funny.”
When we meet, Negga says she is in the middle of watching a spate of decidedly light fare. She mentions the Irish comic Dylan Moran and his TV series Black Books: “It’s like if Beckett was writing a sitcom.” She’s watching Mindy Kaling’s teen rom-com series, Never Have I Ever, and the new Fear Street. The sight of brown and Black people performing goofiness, rebellion, and ordinariness, rather than the old types—the figures killed off first, the credits to their races—well, it conveys a sort of freedom, she says. She would love to do comedy someday. “But I’ve got such a tragic face,” she says. “I do all the tragedies.”
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