Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star in Jeff Nichols' Loving as Richard and Mildred Loving, a husband and wife whose interracial marriage is deemed illegial by Virginia law. With help from the ACLU they take their case all the way to the Supreme Court to fight for their right to love whoever they want and in the process, will alter American history. Shakefire sat down with Edgerton and Negga to discuss coming aboard the project, the timeliness of its story, and walking in the shoes of two real life people.
Shakefire (SF): What was it like embarking on this journey and capturing an important part of American history but a story that isn’t widely known?
Ruth Negga (RN): Well I was excited because Jeff’s script was so beautiful. I just knew that this would be a brilliant piece of work. I knew that from that it would sort of introduce this couple to the many who don’t know about them, which I think is something that is long overdue.
Joel Edgerton (JE): I think in that same regard that there was an incredible feeling like we had something very important, a story that very important and precious to tell, even though it wasn’t as widely known as it should be but maybe in the aftermath it would be. We’re approaching playing real people and Jeff was really striving with everybody across the board to achieve this level of authenticity and accuracy and to tell a true story truthfully. Yet there was luxury in knowing that we were opening up this story to the world and there was no real pressure like everybody was like, “We know them so well, but now how are they going to play them?” And at the same time we had access to this great footage from Nancy Buirski’s documentary in order that we could at least go on that journey with Jeff to try and strive for that authenticity.
SF: What was the casting process like for the film?
JE: I’d work with Jeff before. I worked with him on Midnight Special, and that conversation about this kinda happened towards the end of that shoot when he let me know about it. That’s when I first became aware of the couple by watching the documentary. For Ruth, it was a different story.
RN: I auditioned. A casting director named Francine Maisler put my name forward to Sarah Green, who’s a producer, and Jeff, and they invited me to audition for it. Jeff sent sides, pages of certain screens, and they also sent Nancy’s full documentary. And I just studied it. I poured over the documentary footage and quite unsubtly just tried to adopt her physicality. She had such a spirit, like a strong spirit, that I just thought was very important to try and capture that rather than an imitation or something like that. So I went in a read for them, but it was a while before I found out. I auditioned two years before we started filming.
SF: How was it looking at racial unrest today unfold as you’re in production? What did that do with you working on a movie where this is the kinda story you’re telling and yet you’re also seeing it on television today.
RN: I think it didn’t alter the nature of our performances or the script or anything, but I think it’s relevant because it’s the circumstances in which you’re filming. You’re aware that it’s going on. I think that we all felt that this film would have something to contribute to the conversation. Important, you know. I think the unified quality of this film is their love for each other. That’s universal. That transcends everything. When I see people come out of this film I can see that they’ve been touched by this couple. There’s this sort of radiance that they give out from the screen. For me, there’s this one point in the film that they ask, “How do you feel about this? outside the court, and she says, “I feel hopeful.” So moving. And I really felt that when we were filming this. I felt this is necessary. In this world of cynicism where we’re all retreating from one another, fear, and outrage, and unwillingness to investigate the other or make friends with the other, it’s necessary.
JE: I also think that when the debate is so volatile and when voices are very loud then the other voices are not heard and in order for any conversation to land and be lasting, sometimes it needs to be generated from a very simple place. There’s something about entertainment that in many ways you can argue doesn’t really move the needle much, but at the same time, I heard one friend say once that even if one person comes out of the cinema and it changes their thinking then maybe it’s worthwhile. There’s something gentle about this story in its telling and nonviolent, which is also probably why the story has gone so under the radar. Yet there’s something so violently oppressive about a nine year struggle to have freedom. Even if it’s a mini-shift it’s been worth making.
SF: What was it like shooting the film in Virginia?
JE: It was great. We went there a few weeks early but I’d never been there before.
RN: Neither had I. But Jeff invited us out for a couple of weeks to drive around and get a sense of the landscape and nature. That’s a very important thing for Mildred as well; the land, the earth literally where she was born and bred. You see that melancholy descend on her when she has to leave, and she’s essentially expelled and has to live in Washington. For her, that was a huge wound leaving. It’s her home. Being expelled from your home for wanting to marry the person you love and want to raise a family with; it’s extraordinary, isn’t it? So I think it was important for us to get a sense of place. So we did that. We visited the graves. We spent a lot of time molding these people. It was very helpful.
SF: What was it like getting to work in the same places they experienced themselves, knowing that they’ve been there before?
RN: Well beyond lending a sort of authenticity, I think we absorbed a certain energy, especially from the jail cell, which we went to which was tiny. It was literally a box. I felt like it helped with a sense of “it was real.” That’s what you have to keep reminding yourself. This is a movie but this was real. These were all my touchstones. I think it fed unconsciously into our performances.
JE: I think I had that experience when Jeff took us to the gravesites of Richard and Mildred and even though we weren’t shooting there there’s an undeniable, very palpable, goodness that comes out of the place when you’re shooting the movie, particularly for something like this. Just going there that day did something for me to seeing Ruth and me in the cemetery right where Richard and Mildred were buried. Seeing how connected to the story and emotionally connected she was too, it bring it very much into reality for us. And also knowing that these places were still there and these building were still there and even though there are certain things that the towns do to kinda go, “Well let’s not build too many new buildings here and the courthouse is fine so let’s just keep using it.” It’s so recent, this stuff! Not only is that so recent, but everything that’s going on right now sort of brought it all home in many ways. That then was now, and now is then. We’re still making the same mistakes. So this in many ways, you look at it and go, “Oh yeah, it’s a nice historical film,” but it’s not really. It speaks very loudly right now, too. Those places help sort of cut out the 50 years that have happened since and bring it closer to now.
Loving is now playing in theaters nationwide. For more, read our interview with director Jef Nichols.