When husband and wife Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested in Virginia in 1958, it was because he was white and she was not. Their decade-long legal battle to live as an interracial couple in their state, and their life together, is the subject of Jeff Nichols's film, Loving, for which the Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga, who plays Mildred, was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar on Tuesday. Her sensitive portrayal and easy chemistry with co-star Joel Edgerton was the talk of the Cannes festival last year, where the film's premiere ended with a long, rapturous standing ovation. As memory serves, Negga, who is also one of the best things about the AMC series Preacher, walked into the screening a virtual unknown—and out of it a star.

What was the first thing you auditioned for that was a professional job?
Lolita, in a stage adaptation of Lolita at the Peacock Theater, which is at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. I got the part.

How old were you? Were you like a Lolita?
I was two. No, I was an older Lolita, 21, 22 at the time. I had just left college.

Were you nervous?
I was terrified, but nothing is more terrifying than drama school, so I was ready.

Did you want to be an actress your whole life? Were you a theatrical child?
I think I was a melodramatic child, but I just loved movies. I loved storytelling and the idea that I could be part of this world and disappear into many different worlds. I was drawn to it from a very early age.

What was your favorite movie growing up?
Oh gosh, there were so many. Um, off the top of my head, Labyrinth [1986] was a big influence on me. I was very drawn to those sort of fantastical worlds.

You like David Bowie.
I love David Bowie, very big fan.

Were you familiar with the Loving case or did you first hear about it when they sent you the project?
I knew about the Loving story. I had an interest in American history since I was quite young. I'm just fascinated by this country. But I didn't really know about the people behind the case until I read Mildred Loving's obituary. Then I discovered some of Nancy Buirski's documentary [The Loving Story].

Did you put yourself on tape or did you audition in real life?
I went into a room with Jeff [Nichols, the director] and Sarah [Green, the producer] and Francine [Maisler, the casting director]. I think it was important because Jeff wanted to meet actors to get a sense of them, not only what we could bring to the character.

He said when you walked into the room he knew immediately. Did you have that same sense when you read the script? Because you're so unbelievably right in the movie.
Well, when I read Jeff's script I was struck by its beauty, its simplicity, but also its power. And I was struck this woman. I felt like I was on a mission to get this part. But I was very nervous. I usually don't go into auditions in character but I knew that in order to do my best I had to sort of disappear into Mildred.

You went and bought a dress?
I can't actually remember. I think I wore a summer dress, something akin to that. I didn't have time to go shopping for a dress because I had just spent so much time preparing in my room. But I knew that coming in the door as this woman would have an impact that I needed in order to convince Jeff and Sarah that I had the chops to play her.

And what was Cannes like for you?
Cannes was extraordinary. It was the first time I had been to the festival, the first time I had been on the Croisette. It was a very surreal experience to be in this place, which I had seen on television and in photographs for so many years. It was thrilling, you know, walking up those steps.

I was there. You sort of walked up one person and walked down another. It was kind of transforming, that whole experience.
Well, I walked up in full make-up and then I walked down with mascara dripping.

You had like a 30-minute standing ovation, so I mean there was a lot of emotion there.
Yeah, at the end the cameras, you know, film you. And after a while you're thinking, "Uh, I need to blow my nose before it drips all over my frock."

So what movie makes you cry?
My movie. I do get very choked up when I watch it because it is a very moving, wonderful film. And the ending is a very special moment for me, an homage to this couple.

Who's your cinematic crush?
Mmm, Bette Davis is my cinematic crush. I love her.

Any particular film?
All About Eve. But all of them.

Do you remember when you first saw it?
Yeah, I was a teenager and just astounded by the comedy, the fine acting throughout. The story is just extraordinary, and it's all about the theater. I found that quite interesting.

And we've all known a few Eve Harringtons.
And if you haven't, you're probably the Eve Harrington.

Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?
I think all the dressing room scenes are just fantastic because they're so familiar to me. You really can smell the grease paint off that film.

What's your favorite love scene in a movie?
The Bodyguard is a really romantic film. That always leaves me weeping. That was a big hit in our family. I also love Betty Blue. I think that's a beautiful film.

That's quite sexy.
Yeah, that's a very sexy film.

What's your pet peeve?
You know, I really resent people being late—until I'm late. And when you're on stage, the blue screens you can see in the audience. I probably shouldn't be thrown, but I do get thrown by things like that.

What was the wildest thing you ever did in school?
I wasn't wild in school. I left that till a bit later. I was very impatient as an adolescent to get that bit over and done with so I could go to drama school. I used to spend a lot of time in the library reading Sight and Sound and trying to learn about the movies. I think I spent my adolescence preparing for adulthood, which sounds like a waste now.