Ruth Negga, currently starring as Ophelia in the National Theatre’s Hamlet, shares the trick of making everything look easy with Matthew Amer.
There cannot be many actors who are offered a plum role at the National Theatre without having to audition. Those that do are normally household names, at the very least among regular theatregoers. Helen Mirren, Simon Russell Beale, Zoë Wanamaker; the stars around which productions are built.
Most recently Rory Kinnear found himself in that illustrious category, uniting with National Theatre Director Nicholas Hytner to bring Hamlet to the South Bank. Yet it was not only Kinnear who walked into a leading role in that production, but also his less well-known Ophelia, Ruth Negga.
Maybe the most surprising aspect of this casting tale is that Hamlet will be only Negga’s second production at the National. She clearly did enough in her first, Phèdre, in which she gave an Ian Charleson Award-winning performance opposite Mirren, to merit Hytner’s high opinion of her.
If such an act of trust and respect is a confidence booster for the young actress – Negga is not yet 30 – she does well to hide it. There is no sense that she has achieved anything yet, no airs and graces. Instead Negga cuts a fragile, doll-like figure, unwilling to entirely believe in her own talent, happier to continue studying those actors around her.
“I used to come into rehearsals just to watch her,” she says of her time working with Mirren. “Come in early, stay late.” She laughs at the suggestion that some would call that type of behaviour stalking, but is quick to explain how much she learned from the theatrical dame whose hard work behind the scenes allowed her to “make it look easy” when she took to the stage.
“I literally have to have buckets off stage just in case”
One could say the same of Negga’s burgeoning career, which has already seen her take leading roles in TV series Five Daughters, Personal Affairs and Criminal Justice, wow director Neil Jordan so much that he rewrote movie Breakfast On Pluto to include her, and receive a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for her performance in 2003’s Duck at the Royal Court.
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1982, and spending much of her childhood moving between Ireland and England, Negga had her heart set on a life as an actor from a very young age. “I think it was very naïve that I assumed I would get into drama school and I assumed I would get work,” she says, “but it wasn’t in an egotistical way, I just worked very hard.”
The soft Irish lilt that drifts in and out of Negga’s speech allows her voice to float like a calm summer breeze through a field of shamrocks, belying the determination and hard work that have culminated in portraying Shakespeare’s “notoriously difficult” heroine on the Olivier stage. “I’m nervous, tired and terrified,” she admits as we chat during the final week of rehearsals. “I’m sickened with the nerves. They never go away. I literally have to have buckets off stage just in case.”
She and the rest of the cast have had the luxury of seven weeks rehearsal time to hone their production. “It’s Nick [Hytner]’s Hamlet at the National; I think he wanted to get it right,” she says of the extended time scale. Though it is unlikely that anyone will admit it, there must have been extra pressure following a spate of headline actors taking on Shakespeare’s most testing role over the past year or so; David Tennant and Jude Law in London, and most recently John Simm in Sheffield.
“It’s Hamlet,” Negga replies. “It’s been done by all the greats many times before. There’s always these nervous feelings that there’s going to be comparisons, but you have to put that out of your head otherwise that would paralyse you into not being able to do it at all.”
The production will keep Negga gainfully employed well into 2011, playing at the National before heading off on a UK tour and a trip to Luxembourg. In addition, more people will be able to enjoy the show – which garnered a rash of four and five star reviews when it opened earlier this month – when it is screened in cinemas as part of the theatre’s NT Live scheme on 9 December.
“The human psyche’s interesting, but I’m not bothered about footballers’ sexual exploits”
The innovative scheme sees productions at the National Theatre filmed and broadcast live in cinemas across the UK and worldwide, expanding the reach of the National’s work as never before.
Hamlet will be the second time Negga has been part of such an event, following the successful screening of Phèdre, which, though she has not seen the film herself, led to a glut of emails offering thanks and praise for the performance.
“I think you don’t do anything differently,” she says of the art of simultaneously performing for a packed auditorium and to cameras. “You don’t change your performance in any huge way, but because you’ve got close ups you can maybe take things down a whisper; the whole point is that it’s a stage play and you have a live audience so you can’t just play for the cameras. I think it was one of the best performances we ever did [of Phèdre] because we were all so terrified. You could cut the tension backstage with a knife, I swear to God.”
It is hard to pin down exactly when Negga left Africa for a life hopping between Ireland and England. She does not know – she was a young child at the time – but neither does her mother. While for many the nomadic lifestyle might have been detrimental, Negga doesn’t think it has done her “any damage. Maybe it’s informed why I’m an actor. I like the fact that the job ends and that you go on to do something else. That terrifies some of my friends. I don’t really like being tied down. Also, you do become a chameleon when you have to continually make new friends. You go to a new school and you observe first and you try and make yourself fit in, which is what acting is. It’s not a deliberate premeditated thing, it just becomes part of your personality.”
Possibly what Negga achieved as a child was not basic mimicry, but an understanding of how people work, which, if it is not stating the blindingly obvious, is a handy skill for an actor to possess. Yet this understanding does not roll out to the entirety of the modern world. Technology leaves her cold – “I’m not on Facebook, I’m not on Twitter, I don’t have an iPhone, I can barely work my computer” – as does the obsession with celebrities and the intimacies of their lives. “Humans interest me and human motivations,” she explains, “but not necessarily specific people and who they might and might not be sleeping with. The human psyche’s interesting, but I’m not bothered about footballers’ sexual exploits.”
I suspect that with the time she spends studying her colleagues and other actors, Negga has little time for catching up on Facebook photos or the Twitterati. Her infectious smile hides an actor committed to learning from the best. When we talk about film work, she explains the “camera can pick up your thoughts”. I am a touch sceptical about the idea from a purely technological point of view, but Negga won’t be put off. “Juliette Binoche,” she argues, “I can see her thinking. It is possible, but you have to work at it, you have to work. It’s not just about facial expressions, but absolute commitment and connection to the scene and what you’re doing. She makes it look easy.” It is, once again, the trick that Negga is achieving with her career. We just see the success, not the hours of training, research and learning that have put her there.