‘Preacher’ Star Ruth Negga on the Violent New AMC Series and Playing a Charming Criminal
Ruth Negga appears opposite Dominic Cooper in this summer’s Warcraft, but before then, you can see the pair’s chemistry at work in Preacher, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s new AMC series based on Garth Ennis’ classic graphic novels. We had a chance to speak with Negga about her role as the impossibly charming Tulip O’Hare, the joys of playing such a complex character, and what we can expect from the series following its May 22 premiere.
In Preacher, Negga plays Tulip, the ex-girlfriend of Cooper’s Jesse Custer, a man with a troubled past who returns to his small hometown to take up his father’s position as the head of a local church. Tulip’s particular set of skills are on full display in the wildly entertaining pilot episode, which offers just a taste of the absolute madness to come. Following our chat with Dominic Cooper, we spoke with Negga about the season premiere:
As a fan of the comic, I found the first episode to be very impressive. The casting is great, the characters are just as compelling on screen, and the tone is just perfect.
The thing is, this was made by fans, and I know that sounds dull — everyone’s already said that. I am so excited to see, I mean, I’ve seen lots of stuff we’ve done, but the fans were giggly — so giggly — about it today. We’re laughing our tits off, actually, to be honest, because it was so perfect. There’s so much going on. It’s so juicy and sumptuous. You see things that you might’ve missed before, and it’s exciting. We’re excited for everyone involved because it’s just such a brilliantly written show.
It is. It’s very well-written.
And it’s just really good fun. And it’s not just fun like, surf is fun. People have these ideas about comic books and their adaptations, as flashy and sort of surface-y broad strokes-type projects, but they’re not, really. This certainly isn’t. There’s a lot going on and many little parts here, and things tie into the next episode and it’s complex in a really exciting way.
Everyone asks if the actors read the comics before they were cast in the adaptations. Dominic Cooper gave me the common answer, which is that he read them after. Was that also the case with you?
It’s like the chicken and the egg now. I was familiar with them, and I might have read some of them. I had a lot of comic book nerd cousins, so I’m sure I had. But as soon as I read [the script] I thought, oh, I’ve got to get my hands on these. And there I was at four in the morning, like [gasping], I’ve got to find out what happens! They’re a binge read.
Tulip is amazing, and when I read the comics, I knew I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. I’m 30 now, and I just watched the pilot and I still want to be Tulip when I grow up.
You bring so much charisma to the character, and when Tulip first shows up in the pilot — despite what she does to that guy — you just instantly fall for her.
You know what I love? Those awesome actors who were the kids making the bazooka with me, I actually got a bit teary when the camera holds off and [the little girl] sees this amazing woman, and I thought, “I hope she grows up to be a gun-toting heroine like Tulip.” There’s something about her that’s just so…that not-give-a-fuck attitude is always — it’s a present given to men, isn’t it? Women always have to have this soft, maternal, sort of, I don’t know, moral center.
We’ve typically seen a lot of movies and shows that take women’s strengths, like empathy, and turn them into weaknesses.
It’s two-fold, isn’t it? You can be all of those things because I think Tulip is empathetic, you know? She is emotionally considerate, definitely for those kids. I mean, in her own twisted logic she says — after they see her, like, shoving a corn cob down a man’s throat — she says, “Yeah, but he was a bad man.” I don’t know why women aren’t allowed to have the same sort of breadth and scope and flaws of men. It kinda nags at me, you know? You want to see a realistic reflection of something on screen, you want to see something that makes you go, “Oh, it is okay to be looked at,” or “I see a similarity there.” I do think it is getting better and better, but so much of our opinions are formed by what we watch and read that I think it can sort of get skewed by these unrealistic portrayals. It’s important for these guys and me to have a woman who can be feminine and be a gun-toting assassin. They’re not two mutually aspects of someone, are they?
No, not at all. Our first impression of Tulip is of someone who is tough and self-sufficient, but there’s also a distinct sensitivity there.
She’s wounded. And that’s what I love about Tulip. She’s the most explosive person I’ve ever read or seen. And it’s her one recurring thing is that she’s a volatile human being, but nothing she does is out of sadistic need to hurt anybody. I genuinely think she is bound to the scales of justice. She’s out to get what she wants, but like I said at the Q&A, she’s a vigilante of sorts. She has her own sense of what is right and wrong.
We see that in your first scene, which gets a little graphic. The pilot as a whole has some surprisingly gruesome stuff, and I asked Dominic how much more crazy the series will get…
Oh, yeah? I wanted to ask you about it because he seems like he might be more squeamish, so maybe he’s exaggerating.
Oh no, it’s graphic. I don’t know what people are going to make of it. I’m sure we’ll get, like, picketed. You know, violence in film and television is an ongoing conversation and I like eavesdropping on it, but I’m never sure what my opinion is. I like watching creative violence, but I don’t know. There’s also humor to this violence, and the humor is unexpected.
There’s also a fine line between devious, entertaining mayhem and the sort of mean violence that’s just unpleasant to watch. And Preacher falls on the right side of that line.
That’s an excellent way of putting it. Can you just pretend that I said that?
Sure! I’ve just been thinking this because I watched a horror film the other night that didn’t navigate that line very well.
Something like that.
I just feel deeply unreal. I’m sure they’re good movies, but I can’t see the wood for the trees there because with something like that I just can’t bear it. There was a really interesting film, but it troubled me deeply. Wolf Creek, did you see it?
I still haven’t seen it!
Oh, you haven’t watched it? You can’t un-see that shit.
I kind of like those kinds of movies, though, when executed properly.
I mean, that theme is in the [Preacher] comic, though, isn’t it? Eugene [Arseface] has that whole thing with Nirvana.
And the show does a great job of making him empathetic. In the comic he’s always sort of the butt of the joke, literally. But when he’s introduced in the pilot you immediately want to hug him and find out what happened to him.
Wait till you find out…
Well, I mean, we know.
[Laughs] Right, right.
And he’s another character who displays strength despite how wounded he is. We were talking before about strong women — I almost said “strong female characters,” but I hate that term.
I fuckin’ hate it, too.
It’s very reductive.
Right, it’s very one-sided. Like, non-three-dimensional. There’s ONE dimension there and that’s it. And it’s like you were saying about strength. What is strength, you know? What is the nature of strength?
It’s many different things.
I don’t really know how strong someone is if they’re compelled to a life of violence. Is that strong? No. That’s damaged.
I don’t think she’s weak. But her behavior is a reaction to her own weakness.
Yeah, because you know, this isn’t a show that’s just like, yeah, girls kick ass! Girls can also kick ass! It’s deeper. There’s so many interesting questions about violence in the show. As Jesse’s seen with our nature, you know, it’s like, can we change our nature? Is it possible? Jesse’s on a road to redemption, and this [scene] in the bar, it throws him because he thinks, “Gosh, will I ever escape my past? Can I be redeemed?” I think that’s an ongoing question for both Jesse and Tulip throughout, and it’s a question that will be addressed.
That’s addressed directly in the pilot when Tulip wonders if there is an act that is ultimately unforgivable.
You guys are going to be doing some pretty unforgivable things. Maybe for six or seven seasons.
Oh, I hope so. We have that oscillation between deep affection and utter dislike for every single character. One minute you’re like, [mock cheering] yeah! And then it’s, “Well, that’s not terribly cool. I don’t think I like that about you.”
But TV is a great place to explore that spectrum.
Yeah. Isn’t that what Viola Davis said, when she won an award recently? She said, “Thank you for letting me play this messy, complicated, not-terribly-nice-sometimes human being.”