Priscilla-Jean Henrietta O’Hare—you can call her “Tulip”—tears into the pilot of AMC’s Preacher like a bazooka-powered deity of love and destruction. She outguns two hitmen in a high-speed shoot-’em-up, turns cornshine and toy soldiers into a deadly explosive, then obliterates a helicopter full of enemies in an earth-shaking showdown.
She’s a criminal, the violent kind, back in her dusty Texas hometown to find her ex-sweetheart (the preacher Jesse Custer, played by Dominic Cooper) and tempt him back to the wrong side of the law.
Yet thanks to the magnetic Ruth Negga, Tulip is also much more. She’s powerful and vulnerable, funny and sweet, a little bit mad, and effortlessly stylish. She’s Beyoncé in her “On the Run” video crossed with Tony Scott’s True Romance star Alabama—an aspirational anti-heroine, the kind who spellbinds you all of six minutes after she roars onscreen.
The pilot’s directors, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (This Is the End, Pineapple Express), seem well aware of their leading lady’s charm. Just before Tulip careens away in her getaway car, they pan the camera to an awestruck little girl who calls after Tulip in stunned delight:
“That’s what we were hoping the audience would be feeling too, that wistfulness,” says Negga, curled up by a window inside New York’s The London hotel. “With the humor being that she’s just created carnage and murdered a few people and felled a helicopter with a bazooka. It’s the juxtaposition, isn’t it? The ridiculousness of it.”
Preacher thrives on juxtapositions, gleefully blending blasphemy and humor at every turn. (The pilot got early buzz for blowing up priests and religious leaders, including Tom Cruise.) At the center of the show’s twisted worldview of Americana and violence is the legendary trio from writer Garth Ennis’s beloved ’90s comic book: the tortured Jesse, an Irish vampire named Cassidy, and Tulip.
When we meet the onscreen version of Tulip, she’s clearly (if sullenly) still in love with Jesse, a man determined to break clean from the sins of his past and atone in his new life as a preacher. (Small-town politics, the literal force of God, and his own incompetence make this all but impossible.)
He rejects Tulip again and again, yet she sticks around, determined to lure him back for one last hit job. She may not need Jesse, but she wants him, pride and rationality be damned.
In other words, it’s love as insanity, per usual.
“That’s what’s important to all of us, was that she is allowed to be human,” Negga says. “I think there’s a tendency to need our heroes to be perfect and that’s just not reality. It’s not the human story. It’s not the nature of our existence. We’re all deeply flawed.
“I think that’s why people have responded to her,” she continues. “They see that she is wounded. But she doesn’t let that define her or become her shtick. Deeply wounded or damaged people can also have warmth and kindness and be tender or be angry. She escapes definition and I love that. We’re all trying to define each other, aren’t we? And I think that only makes us smaller and diminishes us as human beings.”
A man may be Tulip’s mission, one she pursues with messy, reckless abandon, but the mission never diminishes her character. While fashioning a bazooka out of household objects, Tulip shares her feminist philosophy with a little girl and boy, the latter of whom asks why no man is around to help her.
“A woman needs to know how to be strong. Stand on her own,” Tulip says. “Of course, boy or girl, if you’re lucky enough to fall in love you have to be even stronger. Fight like a lion to keep it alive, so that on the day your love is weak enough or selfish enough or freaking stupid enough to run away, you have the strength to track him down and eat him alive.”
It’s that madness and empathy that Negga hopes “gains a place in people’s hearts” for her version of Tulip, a modernized update on Ennis’s comic book femme fatale. On the page, Tulip is a more hapless, tragic figure (not to mention white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed). The one Negga brings to the screen, meanwhile, is decidedly empowered.
“We wanted to bring out her ability to stand alongside the two guys and have equal footing,” Negga says. “In the comics, she starts off rather timid and sort of in the background. But the tragedy of Tulip will be explored more and more throughout the season—her history and how aspects of her childhood damaged her.”
Compassion is a running theme in the Irish-Ethiopian actress’s latest work. She’s in New York just a day after garnering Oscar buzz at Cannes for her role in Loving, director Jeff Nichols’s true tale of the Virginia couple who defeated state bans on interracial marriage in a landmark Supreme Court case.
Negga’s role as Mildred Loving, the black and Native American woman who was arrested in her bedroom with her white husband just a few weeks after tying the knot, has already made her a favorite for next year’s Best Actress Oscar according to pundits—a development that Negga can only describe as “surreal.”
“It’s just a beautiful film. It’s beautiful,” she says, nervously laughing off the Oscars predictions. “It’s nice that people have responded. And it’s nice that that story has resonated. Hopefully this will all introduce Mildred and Richard to people who are unfamiliar with them and their story. We wanted to honor them, and I completely fell in love with them as people.”
But until Loving hits theaters later this year, it’s Negga’s role in Preacher that is building stateside “breakthrough” buzz for the 35-year-old actress. She’s the high-profile culmination of Negga’s genre-heavy career, from the Inhuman Raina on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD to the queenly Lady Taria in this month’s would-be blockbuster Warcraft.
And it’s in Tulip that Negga places her trust, not only for her career, but for “the world” and its sense of empathy.
“I hope [audiences] will be riveted by her, to be honest,” she says. “I think the great thing about Tulip is she generates compassion. And that’s a lovely thing to do. That’s what I hope happens to the audience when they watch it. ’Cause that can only be a good thing for the world. We need to be much more compassionate with one another.”