By David Templeton
“Having so much archival material to draw on, that was such a blessing,” says Ruth Negga (Preacher, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who plays Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols’ beautifully crafted drama Loving, the story of Mildred and Richard Loving. It was their marriage, declared illegal in the state of Virginia in 1958, that led to the U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal across the United States.
The film, directed with grace and subtlety by Nichols (Midnight Special, Take Shelter), was screened to raves and tears during last month’s Mill Valley Film Festival, and is now playing at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. On closing night of the fest, Negga appeared with co-star Joel Edgerton (Black Mass, Zero Dark Thirty, Kinky Boots), eager to talk about the film that tells a story very few Americans are aware of.
“Having historical footage is sort of a double-edged sword,” says Edgerton, who wielded an actual double-edged sword as Sir Gawain in 2004’s King Arthur. “Having access to film of the people you’re playing, in some ways, creates a certain sense of ease, because you can, you know, just copy what your character looks like and sounds like. But it also provides a singular challenge, because having the footage makes you put more pressure on yourself to create that specificity.”
“Absolutely,” Negga says. “You’re playing a real person, who might still be alive, who people actually remember. It’s an enormous amount of pressure to try and copy them exactly.”
Edgerton captures Richard Loving’s soft, Southern drawl, a bit of a surprise given that he employed a British accent while playing an Egyptian Pharaoh in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
“Jeff [Nichols] was definitely trying to strike a sense of authenticity and truth in this movie,” Edgerton says. “That was the mission, so there was no question that we’d use whatever tools we had access to, to try and look and sound and act as close as possible to the way Richard and Mildred really were.
“For me, the key to Richard was his posture,” Edgerton continues. “Watching that footage, seeing the way he carried his body, I was able to explore what that said about him emotionally. He was someone who felt weighed down, a quality that might have come from his job as a bricklayer, where he literally was weighed down carrying loads of bricks all day. But it also said a lot about his solidness and consistency, his rigidity and combustibility and the pressure-cooker nature of having to hold in his frustrations and emotions.
“And watching the footage of the real Mildred,” he continues, “you can tell so much about the dignity of the woman by studying the way she held herself.”
“It’s such a lucky thing to get to play someone so honest and lacking in affectation,” Negga remarks. “We spend so much of our lives masked, don’t we? As actors, we certainly do. So I think the reason people are responding so deeply to Mildred is that there’s a real integrity and truth to her whole being. There’s no facade to her.
“It was also lovely to play someone so genuinely good and soulful,” she continues. “I felt a very strong sense of warmth playing her. I loved every minute of it.”
In the film, as in real life, Richard and Mildred were married in Washington, D.C., where it was legal. But in Virginia, where the threat of violence hung over every challenge to the social norms of bigotry and so-called “racial integrity,” the Lovings were arrested, jailed and threatened with long prison sentences if they didn’t leave the state immediately. They did, painfully separating themselves from their families for several years.
After Mildred sent a letter to Robert Kennedy, and after accepting the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, it still took 10 years for their case to move up to the Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the court ruled unanimously that the Loving’s marriage was legal in Virginia, and anywhere they might choose to live in the U.S.
Negga says that playing Mildred’s gradual emergence as a woman of action, motivated by love and justice, was exhilarating.
“We get to see her take control of the dance, don’t we?” she says. “I think what it is, is that she begins to take more autonomy over her life, and that’s something we all enjoy, if we’re lucky enough to get to do that. What she’s striving for is to do what’s right for her family, her husband and her children. That’s the motivation for all she does, and along the way she realizes that this is bigger than just her and Richard and their children.
“That’s an amazing thing,” Negga says with a smile, eliciting the same expression from Edgerton. “When you realize that your actions can change the world for the better.”
“I love that,” Edgerton says with a nod. “Here are two people who are limited, at first, by the perimeter of their lives, butting up against laws and rules that they know are unfair, but feel powerless to fight. It’s Mildred who is finally able to see beyond the fence, to the world beyond.
“She’s the spine of the couple,” he says. “Without her, Richard—this decent, decent man—would have crumbled. She’s amazing, I think.”
“I think they both are,” Negga adds. “I think they needed each other. They are, to me, the perfect love story. And love, well, that’s always an important story to tell.”