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‘Loving’ tells the story of the couple who successfully fought to legalize interracial marriage

Ben Rothstein

Ruth Negga as Mildred and Joel Edgerton as Richard in “Loving,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols.

By Loren King Globe Correspondent 

TORONTO — The aptly named Mildred and Richard Loving were an ordinary couple thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight because of their marriage. To play them, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton not only had to embody these real-life individuals, they had to create a union and partnership.

In writer-director Jeff Nichols’s film “Loving,” which opens Friday, Mildred Jeter (played by Negga, who is of Ethiopian and Irish descent) and Richard Loving (Edgerton, who is Australian) are childhood sweethearts in Virginia — she was African-American and Native American and he was white. They married in 1958, in the District of Columbia, because interracial marriage was a crime in Virginia. On a visit back home to see family, the Lovings were arrested, jailed, and banned from the state. They filed suit and, in a unanimous decision in 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that because marriage was a fundamental right the state could not prohibit people from marrying because of their race. Loving v. Virginia became a landmark decision; it was cited in the arguments to legalize same-sex marriage.

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Besides Edgerton swapping his Australian accent and Negga her Irish lilt for rural Virginia accents, the actors faced the challenge of depicting the Lovings’ “supportive dance of love,” says Edgerton. Both actors were interviewed separately at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

“I think Richard would have fallen down rather than simply being eroded and weathered by that storm,” Edgerton says. “He would have fallen without the strong spine [Mildred] had.”

The Lovings weren’t activists. Nichols’s film shows their working-class community in rural Virginia as a place where whites and blacks lived, ate, raced cars, and raised families alongside one another. Richard, a car mechanic and bricklayer, was the son of the local midwife; Mildred hailed from a large, supportive family.

“People tell me they love that family and wish we still had communities like that,” says Negga. “It’s what gives people the strength to go out into the world: a family and community holding them up, buoying them.

“There were many small towns in America that were cordoned off from the bigger racist attitudes. People were living side by side very peacefully and respectfully. Jeff shows that America wasn’t just a place of conflict,” says Negga, a stage actress relatively unknown in the States. She plays Tulip O’Hare on AMC’s “Preacher” and portrayed singer Shirley Bassey in the 2011 BBC biopic “Shirley.”

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After the Lovings moved to Washington to raise their three children, Mildred’s sense of displacement led to increased outspokenness about the law that kept her family from returning home. She wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who referred the case to the American Civil Liberties Union. The media picked up on the story — Micheal Shannon plays Life magazine’s Grey Villet, who’s sent to photograph the couple at home — and the Lovings became a cause célèbre.

For Mildred, it was always about home and family, says Negga. “I think [living in Washington] was a period of depression for her. It would have been like taking a limb or cutting away a bit of her soul. I’m half Irish and for us as well, home and the land are big themes in our literature and our filmmaking. Jeff is continuing the theme that where you feel the earth [that] is your home. It was for her, most definitely.”

Both Richard and Mildred are now dead, but Edgerton and Negga had one invaluable source to draw from: the 2011 documentary “The Loving Story,” directed by Nancy Buirski. Edgerton, whose many roles include Boston native and former FBI agent John Connolly, in “Black Mass,” was particularly grateful to have the taciturn Richard’s speaking voice.

“Richard hardly says anything even in the documentary, so I had to paste this stuff together and just listen to it over and over,” he says. “Then I rolled it out on set as nervously as you do; the same as I did [with the Southie accent] on ‘Black Mass.’ Jeff said, ‘I’ve got just one note for you. I want to be able to understand you less.’ You could say [Richard] had a Southern accent but that’s not specific enough. You could say a Virginia accent but that’s not specific enough. It was singular to him, and luckily we had access to that. The milk-and-honey dignity of Mildred’s voice is specific, too, and Ruth really nailed that.”

Negga, who’s considered to be on the short list for a best actress Oscar nomination, tears up during the interview when she says she has “already been gifted, personally” by playing Mildred and getting to know her surviving family.

“She’s my hero. But what’s important is that people are coming out of this movie genuinely moved because what they see is kindness. In many ways, [Mildred] would have been uncomfortable [by the attention] but their legacy is important,” she says. “I think schoolchildren will know their names.”

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.