Ruth Negga sits cross-legged on a plush chair on the balcony of a West Los Angeles hotel, trying to define the whirlwind journey last year that took her from shooting in dusty, barren New Mexico landscapes to hobnobbing with A-listers in Beverly Hills. The words are not coming easily.
“It’s really hard to say how all this has affected me, it’s so hard to digest,” Negga says quietly, her eyes focused on the ground. “I still have not had a lot of downtime to process it. Maybe at some point soon it will descend on me when I have a few quiet weeks at home.”
The petite half-Ethiopian, half-Irish actress notched both big screen and small screen triumphs, playing distinctive women who could not be more different. The characters were so dissimilar in appearance and personality that a close look was needed to recognize they were being played by the same person.
Negga’s work in AMC’s supernatural romp “Preacher” and the critically acclaimed feature film “Loving” showcase her talent for playing powerful, complicated women who are fearless in the face of fearsome adversaries, whether it be the undead or bigoted sheriffs.
Her portrayal of the take-no-prisoners Tulip O’Hare, who only needs a few food cans from the kitchen to make an impromptu bazooka, was one of the highlights of the first season of “Preacher,” the adaptation of the outrageous and bloody comic book series. Chronicling the misadventures of Tulip, her conflicted “preacher” boyfriend Jesse Cutler (Dominic Cooper)— the Clyde to her Bonnie — and a cheerful Irish vampire named Cassidy (Joe Gilgun), “Preacher” returns June 25 for a second season.
But it was “Loving,” the film based on the true-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who made American legal history with their U.S. Supreme Court case challenging anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia, that really put her in the Hollywood spotlight. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan characterized Negga as “luminous” and “transcendent” in the movie.
Negga’s performance of the soft-spoken but strong-willed Mildred Loving scored her an Oscar nomination for lead actress, putting her in the company of veterans who include winner Emma Stone (“La La Land,”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”), Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”).
Negga, who previously had smaller roles in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” and “World War Z,” says playing Tulip and Loving fit in to her desire to play a wide range of characters. She has said in the past that she has rarely used her own voice when taking on a role.
“In my career, I’ve always needed to seek out variety,” she said, a trace of Irish brogue in her voice. “It’s what I’ve always done for my own artistic interest. I’m very specific about my ambitions.”
And although they are completely different, the characters are bound by their determination to be formidable against considerable odds.
Says Negga, “I’ve always been interested in ‘the other’ — maybe because I’ve always been ‘the other’ wherever I’ve lived. I’ve had an interest in what is perceived as ‘the other,’ and that has given me empathy for that kind of person.”
Tulip, Negga says, “is very distinctive from any portrayal of a woman I’ve ever seen before. A lot of actresses are hungry for that kind of complexity. She’s volatile, but also vulnerable. She’s kind, but she’s also sharp and quite cutting. And the action scenes are so much fun!”
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the creators of “Preacher,” say Negga has far surpassed their initial vision.
“We wanted a character that was at once confident but also unhinged, vulnerable, dangerous and funny,” Rogen says in a phone interview. “Ruth makes it all effortless.” Added Goldberg: “Ruth has that thing that shines. When she turns it on, she really becomes a different person.”
In a separate interview, Cooper says he and Negga, whom he knew before they were cast in “Preacher,” have an electric chemistry: “We’ve lived through a lot of the emotions that we play on the show. It allows for a high level of trust and much better performances.”
As for playing Mildred Loving, Negga says less was more in conveying the emotion and pain of Loving’s plight. Her eyes and facial expressions communicated both Loving’s joys and determination in seeking justice.
“I really felt like [co-writer-director] Jeff [Nichols] had written a script where language was enough,” says Negga. “I don’t know what else Midred would have said. Sometimes, when you abandon language, there’s a way in for truth. A lot of feeling can be conveyed by expression.”
She also gave high praise to costar Joel Edgerton: “I can’t separate my performance from him. So much of what I was doing was reacting to him. Our main responsibility was to Richard and Mildred. That locked us into a trust.”
The Oscar campaign frenzy following the nomination was chaotic “because I was balancing that and ‘Preacher’ for a while at the same time. But I really tried to enjoy the achievement for both the film and myself. All that stuff can be quite intimidating, but the other actresses were all lovely, normal human beings. It was a very supportive atmosphere.”
One clear highlight came when Streep gave a shout-out to Negga during her politically charged speech when she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony.
In noting the diversity of the audience, Streep said, “And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and raised in Ireland, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia.”
“That moment was incredible,” Negga recalls. “ I wasn’t expecting that. Meryl is the finest actress in the world, and for her to mention me was just extraordinary.”
Rogen and Goldberg said that the coming season of “Preacher” would be particularly harrowing for Tulip. “She’s in for a rough ride,” Rogen said. “Tulip can take on anything, and there will not be repercussions. She’s going to see what that kind of lifestyle can do.”
Negga says she’s up for the challenge: “I love doing it. It’s a fantastical world.”
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)