Ruth Negga, a star without a label

Article published on Dec. 2, 2006
Article published on Dec. 2, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The half Irish, half Ethiopian Ruth Negga, 23, burst onto the cinema scene as an emotional and promising talent during the 2006 Berlin Film Festival

Seville, 4 o’ clock. Laden clouds and a rather unpleasant temperature. For some people, it’s time for afternoon tea. Here, it is the moment chosen to present the tenth generation of ‘Shooting Stars’. These are the promising young talents of European cinema, presented every year by the European Film Promotion office at the Berlin Film Festival – funded by the European MEDIA programme – under the auspices of the European Cinema Festival in Seville, held 3-11 November. They have come from the four corners of Europe, from far-flung points such as Estonia or Bulgaria, as well as countries including Finland, Switzerland and Portugal, with the goal of promoting themselves at the festival.

Ruth Negga, an Irishwoman, is part of this promising generation of European big screen stars. Living in Dublin, Negga, a mixed-race girl with dark, curly hair, took a BA in Acting Studies from Trinity College. She has already garnered critical praise for her work in classical, as well as contemporary, drama. Talking about the theatre, she says, ‘they pay you like shit and it requires total commitment, mentally, physically and emotionally.’ Born in Addis Ababa, to an Irish mother and an Ethiopian father who she lost in a car accident when she was just seven, she decided not to spend her whole life empty-handed.

Knives, forks and awards

At 20, she was nominated for the Oliver Awards. ‘When I found out that I hadn’t won, I took the cutlery from the gala dinner home with me,’ she remembers with a mischievous smile. When asked about the land of her birth, a place she left when she was four, she says, ‘In Ethiopia, poverty is destroying everything. You can smells and feel the abject poverty.’ She adds that she does not understand, ‘how we can carry on sitting in our middle class houses, watching the TV without doing anything and even worse, criticizing people like Bob Geldof and his campaign to help Africa.’

Because of her dual cultural background, she has maintained great artistic freedom. ‘For the moment, I don’t have to worry about people trying to fit me into a box. Up until now, there were no mixed-race roles in Ireland. It’s not like in the UK, where these roles do exist and then you are typecast from then on.’

The social drama, ‘Capital Letters’, by Ciaran O’ Connor, was the movie that started Negga’s big screen career. She took on the role of Taiwo, a young illegal immigrant constantly on the run. She also appeared in Billy O’ Brien’s ‘Isolation’, and in other secondary roles. Appearing in the theatre is very different to going in front of the cameras, she says. ‘In front of the cameras, it’s much more difficult, as you have to manage various technical details. You have to get used to close-ups and all the equipment following you around.’

Today, Ruth Negga is in Seville to represent the film ‘Breakfast on Pluto’, made by her fellow countryman, Neil Jordan. The director, 56, does not skimp on his praise for the young actress. ‘I didn’t know much about her when she came to the casting, but the moment I saw her act, I decided to change the script so that she could appear in the movie,’ he said.

Garnering ‘European Oscars’ nominations

I ask Negga to tell me about her expectations here in Seville. ‘You get to know a lot of interesting people and this makes you think. It’s useful for them to talk about us and this is an opportunity to support a new generation of actors,’ she reflects, with the aide of an interpreter. A line that usually comes up in her interviews is repeated again: ‘in the acting world, you have to get a bit lucky and be in the right place at the right time.’

In ‘Breakfast on Pluto’, nominated in the best film category by the European Cinema Academy, Negga plays Charlie. The film tells the story of a young orphan who likes to dress as a woman and who goes to London in the seventies to look for his mother. He ends up getting involved in an IRA terrorist plot. This is an original film, somewhat kitsch, mixing couture and glam rock. Neil Jordan, the director, has compared it with Voltaire’s ‘Candide’, since, ‘the protagonist thinks that everything will always turn out OK but then starts realising that everything does not always work that way.’

‘I am so happy, I can’t move! It’s a film that touches your heart. It has a wonderful script! It also has a great cast of Irish actors,’ exclaims Negga, referring to Liam Nelson or Stephen Rea. On the virtues of working in Hollywood and Europe, Negga’s smile stays on her face. ‘English-speaking actors look to the US market. I don’t think that should always be the case,’ she says. However, she has said before that she decided to be an actress after ‘watching American movies like ‘The Bodyguard’’.

‘I’d love to work with Almodóvar’

Encouraged by her enthusiasm at being in Spain, Negga confesses her admiration for European directors and says that she would like to collaborate with giants such as Almodóvar. ‘I know that everyone says so, but his films are a true celebration of women.’ Clearly impassioned by the prospect, she continues in her admiration for him. ‘The major roles are for women and that’s very interesting, as there are no clichés. He’s breaking the mould.’ She also likes films such as ‘Jamón, Jamón’, she says in Spanish, without realising that she has confused the directors. When a photographer corrects her and tells her that it was made by the Catalan director, Bigas Luna, she blushes, putting her hand to her mouth and apologising for her mistake. Worse ones have been made before with actors, titles and scriptwriters who can often be no more than fleeting fads. Ruth Negga is hoping that she will not be one of them, and is certain to remain in the public eye for years to come.