About halfway through the pilot episode of Preacher, AMC’s TV adaptation of Garth Ennis’s popular comic book series, I sat up and took notice. "Who is that?" I wondered, as a young woman fought off assailants in a car barreling through a cornfield, then holed up in a farmhouse and taught some kids how to make a bazooka out of coffee cans.
"That" was Ruth Negga, who was born in Ethiopia and began her career in Britain. She’s since become a sort of under-the-radar success in American movies and TV shows, popping up in an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recurring role here and a supporting part in Warcraft there.
Preacher, however, marks her first big role. She plays the wildly entertaining, highly adaptive Tulip, a woman who’s never met a deadly situation she couldn’t immediately devise a plan to escape from. Within the world of the show — which centers on a small-town preacher who’s gifted with the supernatural ability to make anybody do what he commands — Tulip is one of the few non-supernatural characters. However, she’s usually the biggest personality in any given room, all smiles and confidence.
Tulip seems to presage bigger things to come for Negga. This fall, she’ll star in Loving, director Jeff Nichols’s period film about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who got married in 1958 and spent the next decade fighting to have their marriage recognized as a legal by the state of Virginia. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court and ended up striking down all laws against interracial marriage.
In person, Negga is quick with a joke and a thoughtful response. She teared up when we talked about Mildred, and obviously admires Tulip’s larger-than-life quality. We discussed everything from what she would do if she had the powers seen on Preacher to whether she thinks Tulip could make it in Hollywood.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Todd VanDerWerff: Tulip is often the most energetic person in the room, the one with the most vitality. But she’s also one of the few people on Preacher who’s not supernatural, who’s not a vampire or an angel or whatever. How do you keep yourself the center of attention, in terms of physicality?
Ruth Negga: We're buoyed by a really great script and really amazing directors. Being faithful to all those things, I think that's actually fun.
Oftentimes women, especially petite women, are used to not taking up all the oxygen in the room. So it was kind of a relief to take up all the oxygen in the room and turn things on their head. I don't think Tulip sees herself as a wallflower. She sees herself on an equal footing with anybody out there.
She probably is on a mission to balance the books, I suppose, in terms of expectations of who she should be. That refusal to buy into those expectations makes her a joy to play.
TV: She could walk into any situation, no matter how dire, and say, "Okay, I'm going to survive this. I have my plan exactly." What's fun about playing that kind of person?
RN: Given her circumstances and aspects of her past, what I admire about her is at some point she just said, "You know what? I'm going to have to look after myself, and by any means necessary." That survival instinct just kicks in. You see it every day in the news, don't you?
That, to me, is really admirable and extraordinary. I often feel very moved by her ... God, there must be a better word than pluckiness! [Laughs.] It essentially is that. I think she's quite inspirational in that sense. She won't be cowed.
There's something about people who get knocked down and get back up again, you know? You see it in the boxing ring, don't you? I'm always cheering for the underdog. A lot of people are, and I think that's why people connect with her, is that she is the underdog. She's doing a really good job of fighting her way out of that label.
TV: Did you read all the Preacher comics?
RN: Yeah. It was amazing. Didn't sleep for about two days. They're beautifully made, beautifully written, and really, really intelligent. I was blown away.
I've since read others of Garth's comics, and he has this way of just being so cheekily subversive. I suppose he's an agitator. He's encouraging you to really have a good old think about humanity. What we're doing. Why we're here. Are we doing a good job? Nope. [Laughs.]
TV: How does reading that background material help you hone your performance?
RN: It's great because it informs you of the world and the kind of genre you're working in, which is this heightened Twilight Zone of a universe.
As far as performance, I don't know. I was saying earlier to someone else that I don't really have a step-by-step for every job. Each character requires a different sort of attack.
For Tulip, it was very much her physicality. Really owning her space, as a woman and as being quite petite and small. How maybe you would walk and instead of hugging the side of buildings, you should take up the whole space. Being vibrant with her physical energy. Just things like that.
TV: You also get to do some fighting and action sequences. Is that process fun to work through?
RN: I'm useless at fighting! I went to some Krav Maga lessons. That was awesome. Vivian [Cannon, Preacher’s executive producer] actually does Krav Maga at her own studio. It's amazing. Calling it street fighting is actually doing it a disservice. It is basically self-defense for the street. I know loads of women who do it because it's literally self-defense, whereas street fighting's more scrappy.
I think that's where [Tulip’s] form of violence comes from, is literally defending herself. I don't think she grew up going, "Yeah, I'm going to create mayhem with my fists." It's that kind of pure survival fighting.
In terms of actually doing it, we had a great fight coordinator named John Koyama. Genius. He and his team basically choreograph it, and then we bring out the mats, and then they teach you on the mat. I love it, because it's like dance. It's just so much fun.
TV: Tulip herself is a performer. She plays a role in certain situations, like when she’s pulled over for a speeding ticket and essentially acts her way out of it. How do you think Tulip would fare in Hollywood?
RN: Not good. I think she's too truthful. [Laughs.] I'm joking.
I think the great thing about her is that nothing is premeditated with Tulip. She's so good at thinking on her feet. Again, it goes back to circumstance. Why is she that way? We all create backstories for our characters and imagine them in different situations in their previous lives, and for me she's always trying to get herself out of trouble, or out of sticky situations. You become quite good at using any means necessary.
That's what she relies on. It's actually survival. I don't think she thinks of it as acting or being Wile E. Coyote. I think it literally is her second nature to get out of slippery situations.
TV: She really reacts differently to people who call her Priscilla-Jean [the character’s birth name] versus people who call her Tulip. What would you say are the two sides of her personality, as represented by those names?
RN: We start off as really vulnerable things. Then life teaches you to develop these different armors and hard shells. I think that's what's happened with Tulip. Who we are, essentially, is not always who we present ourselves to the world as.
There are things to be minded. You've got ego and fragileness. We develop these hard shells, and then you spend the rest of your life trying to get rid of this armor that you've created. Physically, when I see [Tulip], it's kind of this chrysalis. She sometimes lets people in, especially Jesse, but she can completely shut down again, because it's quite dangerous, isn't it? Being vulnerable like that.
The interesting thing is that you can see her sometimes maybe break that down, but it comes back up again. That's the game we all play. It isn’t necessarily a linear evolution of like, "Oh, and now I'm the beautiful butterfly." That's not what happens.
TV: Given that it’s Loving Day [when we’re conducting this interview], I’d be remiss in not asking you about Loving...
RN: It's ironic, isn't it? That it's Loving Day and what happened this morning in Orlando [the Pulse nightclub shooting].
TV: That’s a much quieter tale than Preacher, and you must have worked on these two projects quite close to each other.
RN: Very close.
TV: Was it tricky to move between the really over the top with Preacher and the more grounded and quiet with Loving?
RN: To be honest, as an actor it's a gift, because you get to explore those ideas. Mildred and Tulip, at their real essence, are quite similar in that they're dealing with a world that sidelines them consistently, for various reasons.
In their different ways, they're on a quest for actual justice, and to be heard, when a lot of people don't want to hear them and want to drown out their voices. It’s about approaching them as human beings, but then using all my kit bag as an actor to build their different stories.
I mean, with Mildred, I always burst into tears because I adore her so much. I spent a lot of time being quiet when preparing for Mildred, because they're a quiet couple. Also studying Nancy Buirski's footage [from Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story], studying her physicality and the tone of her voice and the physicality of that era as well.
You can prepare all you want, but you're really looking for the magic to happen between action and cut. You have to give it up to the ether, I suppose. Also, the director, Jeff [Nichols], is just a dream to work with. He understands actors innately.
It has to be said: There's a lot of people around you who have contributed to what's going on in that little screen, that frame. There's directors. The costume designer. Your makeup and hair people. The props. The world that is created. These are all essential contributing factors, so it's not really about performance in isolation. It is incredible. It is really a joy when you work and come and see it. It might sound cheesy, but it is a privilege.
TV: If you were somehow gifted the power to make people do whatever you told them to do, what would you use it for?
RN: It's the strange nature of power, isn't it? Why is it always that when people get it they're drawn to using it for strange ends?
We've been trying to explore that for centuries. Shakespeare explores it all the time. Why, whenever someone gets power, do they just want to play a god? I don't know. I'm human, so we all have that weird flaw. There are those, though, who get power who generate compassion — like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela.
We're not all bad.
Preacher airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on AMC. Watch previous episodes on the network's website.