Trinity Law Society (LawSoc) welcomed Ruth Negga to an intimate crowd in Regent House today, to receive the Praeses Elit award. The Academy Award-nominated actress is a Trinity alum herself, born to Irish and Ethiopian parents and raised in Limerick. Negga discussed her career as an actress, her upbringing and identity, and the philosophy she brings to her roles, both past and future.
“Soon after she began to speak, it became apparent she embodies the definition of eloquence: a husky, soulful voice with the only hint of her Irish adolescence in her softened consonants.”
Dressed loose and stylishly, Negga entered the room with a sense of presence drifting from her small and elegant stature. Soon after she began to speak, it became apparent she embodies the definition of eloquence: a husky, soulful voice with the only hint of her Irish adolescence in her softened consonants. Poised on a chair, in her philosophical manner, she began by reflecting on what acting embodies. For Negga, theatre is “an unveiling of our light and our darkness”, a tradition of storytelling inherent to the human condition that allows us to, though it might seem contradictory, “speak [our] truth”. Her passion for what she does was evident, but she acknowledged that the world of acting is at the mercy of a “huge amount of luck” rather than talent. Though she still doubts her abilities, to have made it this far requires “a pile of steel strength within yourself” and her advice is to “own your space” unashamedly.
When asked about the difficulties of her career, Negga responded that the most challenging aspect was the training she received within the Samuel Beckett Theatre of Trinity. The years spent behind the walls of the Front Arch she loved to walk through were “very happy, very intense”, forcing her to “explore what it is to be human”, fuelling her thirst to tell stories and experiences.
“My Hamlet is being devoured by the same existential questions any man has.”
On the topic of how her mixed-race identity played into both her time within an overwhelmingly white Trinity and 90s Ireland, Negga claims she was a “mistress of concealing [her] own identity”, becoming “territorial” about who she was in a climate where people of colour were assumed to be homogenous in who and what they were. Her life has largely been as an outsider, “as most artists are” – an “oddity” being brown rather than black in Ethiopia, brown rather than white in Ireland, and being brown and Irish in London. Negga refused to see this as a negative, and rather reflected on the changing society in Ireland, which she watches “with pride from afar”, and was enthusiastic upon hearing of the establishment of the Afro-Caribbean Society and higher numbers of black Trinity students.
Negga’s progressive identity and philosophy has transcended into her work: her Oscar nomination was for the role of Mildred Loving in the film, ‘Loving’, centering on the US Supreme Court case that led to the legalisation of interracial marriages in southern states. In her words, “the American knowledge of the couple is sparse…I appreciated cracking it open to people”. The idea of “speaking your truth” has also spilled into her newest project: starring in ‘Passing’, an upcoming film depicting the practice of paler people of colour in the south of the US migrating up north to “pass” as white to escape the racism they faced. Based on a book by Nelly Larson, Negga will explore the “deep inhumanity” of living an “untruth” in her role. She claims media has a “fixation on the black body as a figure of pain”, but is slowly opening up. Nowhere is this more clear than in her role as Hamlet, currently playing in the Gate Theatre. Far from hovering over the subject of her identity in the role, Negga’s feelings on the matter summarise much of her outlook on life, acting, and the human condition: “My Hamlet is being devoured by the same existential questions any man has.”