Art Talk with Actress Ruth Negga

By Rebecca Sutton
Woman with close-cropped hair in shadows wearing a suit jacket and staring at the camera

Ruth Negga. Photo by Chris Sutton

Remember a time when we still had live theater? Neither do we. And yet, just a few short weeks ago, Hamlet ran at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. The titular role of the Danish king was played by Ruth Negga, who starred in the production’s original run at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Best known for her portrayal of Mildred Loving in Loving, which earned her  Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, Negga garnered similarly high praise for Hamlet, with the New York Times raving that “the double-sidedness of this most complex of Shakespeare’s heroes has rarely been better served.” Negga has also starred in TV series such as Preacher and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and films such as Ad Astra and Iona. We recently spoke with the Irish-Ethiopian beauty by email about her experience playing Hamlet, and what sort of roles she is drawn to as an actress.

NEA: Congratulations on wrapping Hamlet. How did the New York run compare to when you played the role in Dublin?

RUTH NEGGA: I was a bit more ready even though we only had three weeks of rehearsals after 13 months after we closed the Dublin run. I was unprepared for the first even though I thought I was ready. I wasn’t fully prepared for the overwhelming nature of it. That sounds silly because it’s Hamlet, but nothing prepares you for the emotional, physical, and mental cost. There are a lot of “territorial pissings” surrounding the famous roles.

NEA: I read that when you originally were offered the role of Hamlet, you turned it down. Why, and what made you come around?

NEGGA: Ego, probably. A lot of it was the idea that it had never occurred to me that it was a possibility, and then being asked I was sort of angry with myself that I’d just ‘naturally’ ruled myself out. I’d eaten the [BS] and drank the Kool-Aid without even realizing. Why was this never a possibility? I assumed and ingested something that perhaps I cannot do this. Then came the reality: I can—I can at least give it a kick. I’ve never been so terrified. I was sick all the time. But I wanted to see what I could bring to it.

NEA: In the past few years, you’ve become an international beauty and fashion icon. Is it strange then to slip into a male role, or maybe a relief to experience a gender generally subjected to less scrutiny?

NEGGA: I have? Look when you’re a hot property for about ten seconds, you’re a hot property. Then...who knows? You have to be very wary and canny but also enjoy as much as possible.

NEA: How is it different for you when playing a role like Hamlet that has been around for centuries, versus playing a role that you originated?

NEGGA: Scarier. At first, there is a legacy to contend with. I know I will piss people off instantly by the very nature of me taking on the role, but that’s like grist to the mill. It makes me even more energized to do it! It’s been that way my entire career.

NEA: In general, what sorts of roles are you drawn to?

NEGGA: Contradictory characters that I don’t get bored by and that I have to sort have elasticate my mind around. Like I have this feeling—I’m not sure I can add this person up. The math doesn’t make sense. But have you met human beings that don’t make sense? Yes, you and I have.

NEA: Is it more appealing when a character resonates with you personally so that you might have experience to draw from, or do prefer roles that feel like a completely foreign journey?

NEGGA: I’m not sure. I feel that I’m an empath. I’ve read I might be one, but who knows. There’s a thrill in playing people that maybe are the shadowy side of yourself that you don’t get to play. [I’m drawn to] that sort of role—people that you may not understand, but want, or you admire, or detest, but yet you want to find something in them that will make an audience tick.

But then there are those roles that seem so distant, and after [you play them] they feel fused and enmeshed that you’re not sure if they haven’t been a part of yourself all along and you just didn’t know.

NEA: You’ve been outspoken about the challenges that women face in Hollywood. Tell me what your experience has been like, and how you’re hoping to change the situation for future actresses?

NEGGA: I have, but I’ve only ever just told the truths of my experiences. I have been bullied and made to feel small; that wasn’t and isn’t unusual, unfortunately. But I was never targeted in a way that others have revealed. Thank God. Those stories break my heart.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process when preparing for a role?

NEGGA: Sit with script stare into nothing and sit and just sort of disappear. Untether a bit.

NEA: Does this process differ when it comes to a stage role versus film versus television role?

NEGGA: The only difference is the voice. You have to reach the gods in theater otherwise there’s no point.