When asked where she will put her Oscar if she wins, actress Ruth Negga knows she needs to give it to someone with a good head on her shoulders: her Solo Mom, Norra. Nominated for best actress for her portrayal of Mildred Loving in the film Loving, Negga told E! News that “I’d give [the Oscar] to my mom because she keeps all my stuff. . . . I’d have to because I travel so much so I just leave things. My Oscar would [probably disappear]. Someone responsible has to be in charge!”
Negga was born in Ethiopia, her doctor father’s homeland. Mom Norra was an Irish nurse; the couple met at Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa. When political violence broke out in the country, four-year-old Negga and her mom moved to Limerick, Ireland, and they waited for her father to join them. “We were going to go to America,” Negga told Vogue in late 2016, “but my dad didn’t get out in time.” When Negga was seven, her dad died in a car accident. “We found out in a letter and a phone call,” Negga said. “This was 1988. There wasn’t any grief counseling for kids.” Overnight, Norra became a Solo Mom, and though devastated (Norra never remarried), her mom, Negga says, is a “survivor. Very like Mildred,” she adds, referring to the woman she portrays in Loving.
Negga says that her parents didn’t encounter prejudice from being in an interracial marriage, but she herself was informed in interesting ways by her folks’ union. “Partly my feelings of difference were down to having parents of different races,” Negga told the Guardian in 2016. “I had quite a scattered childhood. I was Irish in London, because I had my secondary school education there. I never really fit anywhere. I didn’t feel it was a negative thing and I was never made to feel different—I just knew I was.”
When Negga was 18, she and her mom traveled back to Ethiopia to visit Negga’s father’s grave. It wasn’t an easy trip. In fact, all return trips to Ethiopia since have been a challenge. “I find it difficult because it was an abrupt sort of ending to a lot of my life,” she told Vogue. “I’m always very careful to say I’m Irish-Ethiopian because I feel Ethiopian and I look Ethiopian and I am Ethiopian. But there are 81 languages in Ethiopia, and I don’t know any of them.”
The question of identity is one that seems to fascinate the actress. “People have always made assumptions about me,” she has said. Her interest in perception and identity perhaps helps to explain why, in the roles she chooses, she is drawn to marginalized characters. “History is written by the winners,” she told the Guardian. “My job as an artist is to speak up for those who might be perceived as the losers. . . . There are a lot of heroes who don’t have loud voices.” For Negga, one of those heroes is Mildred Loving, a black woman who was jailed by the state of Virginia for marrying her partner, Richard, in 1958. Richard was white, and Loving fought quietly but persistently against antimiscegenation laws. “Mildred shied away from the spotlight completely, but she changed the course of American legal history,” Negga said. “All she wanted to do was marry the man she loved. It took nine years. Can you imagine taking on the might of the American legal system? They were poor and fairly uneducated, but they just wanted to be with one another.”
Negga herself has been with Dominic Cooper since 2009; the two actors met while playing Greek lovers in Phèdre. The couple currently costar in the television show Preacher, an adaptation of the comic-book series of the same name, and Negga has said that their working pattern is “brilliant.”
As for the 89th Academy Awards? It’s a safe bet that Cooper and Solo Mom Norra will both be cheering Negga on when the best actress award is announced February 26.
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