Zawe Ashton on playing a Regency Bridget Jones in ‘Mr. Malcolm’s List
Five years ago, Zawe Ashton considered leaving the theater. Then she landed the female lead in “Velvet Buzzsaw.” Her Broadway debut in “Betrayal” followed, as did a role in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and a top-secret role in the “Captain Marvel” sequel “The Marvels.” She can next be seen in the Regency era romantic comedy “Mr. Malcolm’s List”, based on the novel by Suzanne Allain and directed by Emma Holly Jones. Ashton plays Julia Thistlewaite, who is rejected by the eligible bachelor of Sopé Dìrísù, Jeremy Malcolm, for not meeting the requirements on his list for an ideal bride.Julia enlists her old school friend Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto) for justice during the July 1 outing of Bleecker Street .
How does “Mr. Malcolm’s List” reach you?
I was quietly minding my own business early last year and my friend texted me saying, ‘Please watch that new show, ‘Bridgerton’. want to do research for film lovers. I want to be that person watching the Bergman or Cassavetes or Agnès Varda box set! But she begged me to watch it, and I’m so glad I did. Like everyone else, I fell head over heels in love with it and was so refreshed by the approach and the Shondaland of it all. I sent my agent and my manager an e-mail saying, “Put me in a corset, as soon as possible.” And my manager wrote back to me and said, “It’s so weird because there’s actually something simmering right now; pay attention to your inbox. Lo and behold, someone pulled out of this movie. That’s usually how I get a gig. I have absolutely no ego about it.
What were your immediate impressions of the script?
It was undeniable. And there was this era that I always wanted to be a part of and never understood why I couldn’t. There was also a first-time female director, which I’ve been committed to for the past few years by actively trying to help amplify those voices and the movies that mean something to me. And I loved my character, Julia. She’s like a Regency Bridget Jones when we meet her – I don’t know if the pressure will let up in terms of finding that match. There was something so contemporary and relatable about her as a woman.
Well, according to Mr. Malcolm, she bats her eyelashes too much. But other than that, she’s pretty cool.
It was actually a very difficult scene to do, because we wanted to be really naturalistic with makeup all the way and false eyelashes didn’t exist at the time. So if you want me to act with lashes, you’re gonna get it.
You have probably learned a lot of new skills.
I feel like I could offer my services now, to any drama school student who might need some guidance on Regency acting. There will be things that you didn’t expect will happen: eyelash play, boob play, horse play. Luckily, there really were some fantastic learning curves. And I feel so lucky to have just done a project where I learned a whole new skill set.
I heard everything you said, but my mind is still stuck on one thing, and that’s that you need to continue on “Bridgerton”. Can I create a hashtag?
Let’s start the campaign now, shall we? Let’s register the domain JenelleSaysZaweForBridgerton. I would love to, not only because I’m absolutely obsessed, but obviously there’s a huge conversation we have about how we refresh this genre for the screen. It’s so funny that friends of mine, contemporaries, have suffered from what they call “cap fatigue” because they’ve been in so many period dramas. But I am the opposite. I would love to just do period dramas or comedies and get to that tired place, because I love it.
I think the hashtag is #MoreBonnetsForZawe.
I mean, the experience of putting one on for the first time was so emotional, if you can believe it. Because again, you don’t realize you haven’t done something until you’ve done it. I remember the first time I went for a fitting and they put a beanie on me and I was like, “Wow, that’s cool. I’m now in the movies I’ve watched all these years.
This whole cast is so phenomenal and you all work so well together.
I did a series with Freida Pinto called “Guerilla” and she remembered me and kind of suggested me. I’m so glad we were able to do this because having two women of color at the center and being able to work on this beautiful friendship was so satisfying. Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù is one of the most electric screen presences I’ve seen in a long, long time. Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays my cousin, was such a delight. A friend texted me and said, “You will literally be best friends by the end of the movie” and we literally got on like family from the moment we met. Theo James and I have been in the same orbit for years and working with him has been such a joy. He’s such a funny man and it really helped to have that laugh offstage too because I’m doing the romantic scenes that were really difficult for me.
I mean, they say the things you struggle with in life are the things you struggle with as an actor. And I’ve never been a very successful attractive person. I’m that girl you think, “She doesn’t like me.” Or you think, “Oh, what a sweet, clumsy human being. At some point, did she bat an eyelash at me? And so getting into a romantic space, and kind of having that script, was quite difficult, and I loved doing that. But it was, again, a new skill that I needed to perfect.
You’ve done a lot of serious drama lately; how was it to lighten up?
So incredible. I showed my father an excerpt from part of the film and he said to me: “You are making a film where you smile!
You shot this before joining the MCU with the ‘Captain Marvel’ sequel ‘The Marvels’. I guess you can’t say anything about this movie yet?
I can’t, I can’t say a single thing. Other than that I had the best time. And Nia DeCosta is one of the star directors we have. She’s so precious and special and the doors she’s going to open – that she already has – are extremely, extremely exciting.
You actually dressed up as Captain Marvel for Halloween in 2019 – did Nia see that?
(Laughter) If she did, she didn’t say anything. You know, I had met her about a super low budget play just when the pandemic hit and we were getting along like a fire house. ‘Candyman’ hadn’t been released yet, but we knew each other well enough – I had seen his brilliant debut feature ‘Little Woods’ and was really impressed and thought, ‘I would like to work with this woman one day .” So it was just a meeting of minds, the vision of souls and she decided to take me on one of the greatest journeys she could take.
Have you ever thought about the fact that five years ago you thought you were leaving the company?
Absolutely. And I keep trying to do it, which is silly. It’s like one of those hysterical tantrums you throw when you’re a child: “I’m leaving! And everyone says “Oh”. But each time I tried to quit, I was pulled back closer to my true purpose which I felt I was missing slightly. I was drawn to Dan Gilroy with “Velvet Buzzsaw” and I was drawn to “Betrayal,” which is a life-changing piece, and I was drawn to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a show that I hoped has existed since I was 18.
What you didn’t know about Zawe Ashton
Born and Raised: London
An early start: From the age of 6, she attended the Anna Scher theater school and was part of the National Youth Theatre.
The pen is more powerful: Her work as a writer includes the fictional memoir “Character Breakdown” and the plays “Harm’s Way” and “For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad”.
Subscribe to Variety newsletters and email alerts!