Within hours of premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Jeff Nichols’ Loving has instantly cemented itself as the year’s first bona fide Oscar contender. The early Monday morning press screening for the film ended with sustained applause, which intensified when the names of actors Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton were shown onscreen in the end credits.
Negga and Edgerton play the real-life Virginia couple Mildred and Richard Loving, who in 1958 were arrested in their bedroom for the crime of matrimony. Mildred was black and Richard was white — and that was indeed illegal at the time. And, in fact, it remained so until 1967, when the Lovings changed that, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision by the justices, the couple’s arrest was ruled unlawful, along with all state prohibitions against interracial marriage.
According to the first wave of Cannes reviews, Edgerton, well regarded from his movie roles in The Great Gatsby and Black Mass, delivers a sensitive, almost mute performance as Richard. More than one observer compared his work to Heath Ledger’s in Brokeback Mountain. Negga, the Irish-Ethiopian actress best known stateside for her role on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and soon Preacher), is the more flinty and dynamic of the couple. And her performance, so far only seen by a handful of press and festival audiences, has instantly made her a favorite for next year’s Best Actress Oscar.
Loving opens in November from Focus Features; see the film’s first official poster below. Negga spoke to EW recently about her experience making the film.
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction to reading the script for Loving?
RUTH NEGGA: It was a really lovely, lean, sparse script, and one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in. An absolute privilege and a pleasure. Yeah, I can’t wait for people to see it because there’s a National Loving Day on June 12, but I don’t think their story has got the amount of exposure that I think it deserves. After that landmark ruling, they just wanted to live their lives as quietly as possible. But I think it’s time to celebrate that. I think it’s time to celebrate them and what they achieved and, you know, it’s also just a beautiful love story, the most beautiful love story that’s ever been told, to be honest.
Tell us about Mildred Loving.
Well, she and Richard got married in ’57 and the state of Virginia, like a lot of states actually, deemed the marriage to be unlawful, under the Miscegenation Act, which mean that a white person couldn’t marry a black person. So, they were banished from their home and had to go and live in Washington. And they tried several times to come back but they were hounded by the local police. And they were both country people from a very small town in Virginia called Bowling Green and basically they just wanted to be married, live their lives, have children, and be surrounded by their family in this place that they grew up. They wanted a very simple life but they wanted to be lawfully married because, why not?
How did they end up taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court?
Someone said, “Why don’t you write a letter to Bobby Kennedy?” And so she did. And Bobby Kennedy referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, and two lawyers took up their case and it took them nine years but they overturned the law, which had a domino effect. But it took quite a few years in some states, actually. I was very surprised at how late it took to repeal that law in some states.
There were not two people who set out to be civil rights heroes, were they?
Yes, it’s quite an extraordinary tale, because they were kind of people whom one would assume no one would listen to them. They were poor, relatively uneducated. Mildred was a bit more educated than he was, but I think everyone else underestimated their tenacity, their belief in themselves, their love for each other, and their respect for each other.
Mildred passed away some years ago. What kind of research did you do for the role?
Well, I was so lucky because one of our producers, Nancy Buirski, she made a beautiful documentary for HBO a few years ago called The Loving Story. Amazing footage. Nancy found all this footage and put it together along with contemporary interviews with Peggy Loving, their daughter, who is still alive and I believe saw the film recently and gave us all her blessing, which was very important.
So watching the documentary must have been helpful.
Absolutely. It’s a fascinating documentary. But to be honest, there wasn’t that much beyond that, which I was really surprised at. Seven years after the ruling, unfortunately, Richard died in a car accident. Mildred survived but she was quite reluctant to do interviews, she sort of wasn’t a big fan of the limelight, which makes the story all the more extraordinary, you know. Even though they didn’t really want to be in the spotlight, so there is not too much of footage of her.
It would be nice to say that this is just an historical story. But would you agree that it has a lot of resonance for today?
Gosh, yes. Especially in my own country, Ireland, we had the same-sex marriage referendum last year, and it passed easily. Equality in marriage is still something that should be discussed, it’s a conversation that should be kept alive, so I definitely think it’s hugely relevant. People who are worried that no one will listen to them or that they don’t have a voice, it just goes to show: everyone has a voice and everyone has the potential to, gosh, change laws.
—Reporting by Clark Collis