Zawe Ashton is back in her favorite city, New York, sitting in a room at the Plaza Hotel having just finished a long day of interviews. Her latest film, the Regency-era rom-com “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” will open in the U.S. on Friday (at the premiere on Wednesday she’ll reveal to the world that she and her fiancé, Tom Hiddleston, are expecting a baby), before an August premiere in the U.K., but she’s relishing this moment in the Big Apple, marveling at the film’s birth.
“It’s surreal that it’s coming out at all,” Ashton says, feet tucked underneath her as she sits on the room’s bed. “This film is a low-budget film; it was a labor of love for so many people. Everyone who came aboard did it for the passion, not for the paycheck. And so I knew that we’d made something really lovely, but I didn’t ever expect that we’d be here in New York with the costumes displayed at Saks Fifth Avenue and there being this kind of real buzz around it, you know? It’s lovely.”
“Mr. Malcolm’s List,” which was shot in Dublin during the second lockdown of 2021, is in many ways a little movie that could; it originated as a proof-of-concept short film a few years ago but struggled to find funding to be made into a feature. Then came “Bridgerton” and everything changed.
“I think that created green lights going off across so many different production companies and [‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’] was one of them,” Ashton says.
She was a last-minute addition to the casting, after a few other actors dropped out due to scheduling.
“I got a phone call saying, ‘there’s the script from ‘Mr. Malcolm’s List,’ it’s part of this exciting new wave of Regency work and they need an answer by tomorrow morning,’” Ashton recalls. “It worked really well for me because I’m prone to overthinking and I just had to zone straight in on all of the very primal elements of the project. And the meeting of rom-com and Regency romance, two genres that I love, the intersection of the two of them is even more delicious. The character, the ensemble that was assembled, the opportunity to amplify a first-time female feature director were all green flags. And so in 24 hours I was headed to Dublin.”
While doing a Regency film might seem like a given for a British actor, Ashton says it’s not been the case for actors of color until recently — and she’s been eagerly awaiting her chance.
“I grew up like so many British people reading and studying the Jane Austens and the Brontës and the Dickens of the world, and those landscapes are part of your DNA in a way, and you do imagine yourself inside of those roles and inside of those landscapes. I was always aware that there was a real chasm between where my imagination could go and where the scope of the filmic interpretations were,” she says. “So it’s always been quite sad that I’ve never really been invited to the table to partake in the Regency-core and the period drama scene that dominates so much of our TV and film in the U.K. I don’t know, if it takes a lockdown and Shonda Rhimes to change that, then fantastic.
“But I think it was already starting to change,” she continues. “I had really enjoyed ‘David Copperfield’ with Dev Patel. I was extremely excited to see Jodie Turner-Smith taking on a role like Anne Boleyn, and now we have ‘The Gilded Age.’ So there were rumblings, but you need the juggernaut. It’s like with ‘Black Panther,’ we hadn’t necessarily seen a huge Marvel movie with that level of representation and the fact that it not only was a wonderful story, but it made money has opened so many doors. It’s a shame we’ve all had to wait so long. I know myself, Freida Pinto and Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, who were all in the movie and it’s our first ever period piece, all feel the same: there’s a sadness in it having taken so long, but also a real pride in being able to create this work now.”
Her character, Julia, is one you can’t help but root for, even as she makes several less-than-earnest choices along the way. Ashton delights in playing an antihero, she says, and will once again take on the trope when she makes her Marvel debut next year in “The Marvels,” playing the villain in the Nia DaCosta-directed film (the first Marvel movie from a Black female director, who will also be the youngest Marvel director ever.)
“I’ve loved it. I’ve loved every single second. I did not expect it to happen,” Ashton says of joining the Marvel world. “It came out of an opportunity inspired by a real connection with Nia DaCosta, again another fledgling female director. And I just had an intentionality, I think from the end of 2019 where I just thought, ‘I just want to be of service as much as possible in my work. And one of the ways I can do that is to amplify fledgling female filmmaking talent.’”
She and DaCosta Zoomed at the height of the pandemic and bonded, oddly enough, over their love of period pieces and Jane Austen.
“I just threw everything at it,” she says of the role. “I don’t have any expectations of what it will or won’t be. I just know that I’ve played the female antagonist in a fantasy movie. And that feels like a real tick off the bucket list. And I’ve helped the first ever Black woman direct a Marvel movie. And that feels satisfying enough for now, you know?”
And playing a Marvel antagonist is rather fun, it turns out.
“It’s such a theme in my work: I’m never the romantic lead, I’m always just like the edgy one on the side,” she says with a laugh. “I love it. I love an antihero’s journey. I’ve always been drawn to those characters in literature and in film, and in art generally. I would prefer to love someone despite their flaws than be led into the more obvious likable characters. And to play, you get to leave your ego at the door. You get to not worry about being liked. You get to just really play the truth of someone’s experience, and people are messy. Life is messy. I feel like a real sense of achievement if I’ve managed to create a character with deep flaws that people still end up rooting for.”
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