Misfits actress Ruth Negga stars in a powerful new drama, Shirley, about the Welsh diva Shirley Bassey (Thursday, September 29, BBC2 & BBC HD) for the BBC’s Mixed Race season. A busy Ruth, 29, took a brief break to tell TV & Satellite Week about playing Shirley and her own experiences of growing up in a mixed race family.
Did you know much about Dame Shirley before you were cast?
“I was aware of the modern Shirley. But I didn’t know anything about her early life or her early songs – the pre-Goldfinger era. I don’t know how many people really are. But I’m a huge fan of her voice.”
What sort of research did you do?
“I only had eight days to prepare for the role. There’s not much footage of her early days. So I lived, ate and breathed Shirley for eight days. I’ve never immersed myself in a role so quickly and so deeply. I tried out the accent a few times, but I was a bit worried when my Italian flatmate thought I was playing an Italian.”
Apparently Shirley Bassey has had no involvement in the project. Do you think she’ll like what you’ve done?
“In a way it scares me that she might watch it and think: ‘Who’s this girl? She doesn’t look anything like me?’ But we’ve created a story which is really touching and really moving. We’ve tried to explain her rise to fame in a sensitive way without being sycophantic and without making it cheap and trashy. I’m very proud of what we’ve done. It’s very affectionate, I’d be surprised if she hated it. If I let myself be daunted by how she’d react it would have paralysed me.”
What impression did you form of her from your research?
“Like a lot of talented singers she comes from a difficult background. She grew up in an extremely poor but hugely vibrant area of Cardiff called Tiger Bay. It was one of the only mixed communities outside London at the time and she came out of that energy. To become the international superstar that she did was quite exceptional. She was definitely a groundbreaker. A lot of women performers of the time were pretty and delicate. Her shows weren’t pretty. They weren’t ugly, but her performances were violent. She lived the pain and the joy in her songs.”
How close do you think you get to playing the real Shirley?
“I’ll never be able to do her perfectly. My real worry was that it would look like a parody. Most of the good biopics give you an essence of the person, and that was what I was aiming at. I remember watching the Tina Turner film What’s Love Got To Do With It. I totally believed that Angela Bassett was Tina, even though they don’t look physically the same.”
The drama is showing in BBC2’s Mixed Race Britain season; was racial prejudice a big part of Shirley’s story?
“I think Shirley experienced some prejudice in primary school, but she was quite tough. She always specified that she didn’t have a problem with being mixed race. But I don’t know whether she was just down-playing it. It must have been difficult.”
You’re of mixed race origin yourself. Has prejudice been a problem in your life?
“No – I was born to an Ethiopian father and an Irish mother. I was lucky I grew up in an area of Ireland where there weren’t many black or mixed race children. But I never had any hassle – maybe I’ve blocked it out, but I don’t think so. In fact I was treated in a very special way. My family very much adored me and at school I was an object of fascination.”
You’re currently about to appear with Misfits’ Robert Sheehan again on stage in London, how’s that going?
“This is my third time working with Robert; as well as Misfits we did an Irish series called Love Hate. He’s fantastic, he’s got phenomenal energy. It’s a funny thing but Lesley Sharp, who plays Shirley’s mother in Shirley, said to me one day that I reminded her of somebody, but she couldn’t remember who it was. Then when she saw a picture of Robbie in a newspaper, she said: ‘That’s it. That’s who you remind me of.’ I found that a bit disturbing.”