Zawe Ashton On Mr. Malcolm's List, Theo James, And Onscreen Diversity - Exclusive Interview

If you've been living for the 1800s drama resurgence that we've been experiencing as of late, then do we have news for you. A whole slew of us Millennials and dark academia-obsessed Gen Z'ers will tell you that "Pride and Prejudice" — the Kiera Knightley version — has been on our watch list for years and that "Bridgeton" was a welcomed addition to our repertoire of historical drama watching. While we're waiting for Season 3 of the immensely popular Shonda Rhimes show to drop, the folks over at Bleecker Street and Universal Pictures have heard our pleas and are gearing up to release the highly anticipated 19th century romantic comedy, "Mr. Malcolm's List." 


Set in 1800s England and the high society environments that came with the time, "Mr. Malcolm's List" follows the highly eligible Julia Thistlewaite in her quest for love. When shunned by the season's catch, Mr. Malcolm, Julia sets her own plan in action to strike back. Drama, love, heartbreak, and amazing clothing ensues.

For any "Bridgerton" gals out there, you know that being out for another social season, let alone a fourth, is bad news. While the young Julia made a promise to herself to marry for love, her quest is anything but easy. If you're nodding your head in a "I know what that feels like" kind of way, then this film is absolutely for you. Did we mention that Julia is brought to life on screen by the absolutely dazzling Zawe Ashton? Talk about icing on the cake.


Ashton is as lovely in person as you would think. Charming, humble, and immensely funny, the Marvel newcomer and fiancée of the dapper Tom Hiddleston is taking the entertainment world by storm, and "Mr. Malcolm's List" is sure to be a hit. Ahead of the film's premiere, we sat down with Ashton for an exclusive interview where the actress dished about "Mr. Malcolm's List," much needed diversity on screen, her co-stars, and more.

What initially attracted Zawe to Mr. Malcolm's List?

I loved ["Mr. Malcolm's List"]. It was so entertaining, so witty, [and] so funny. I'm a big "Pride and Prejudice" [and] "Bridgerton" gal, so it was up my street.

I'm so glad. Honestly, thank you for saying that. We are at the beginning of hearing people's responses, so it really does mean a lot, so thank you.


I want to dive into it because we've seen such a resurgence in period dramas lately, but this film brings such a needed diversity to the era, to that timeframe in history. What about this project, with that in mind, and revisiting this time era excited you as an actor?

It was an opportunity to live out all my imaginings as an avid reader as a child. You are reading Jane Austen, and you are reading the Brontë sisters, and you are injecting yourself into those stories — Shakespeare, the same.

To finally find a moment where you're invited to the table to embody something — it's not only Regencycore, but it also has this very contemporary edge to it. It's a blessing, and it's so much fun as well as being this wonderful, serious commitment to the way that we want to see the genre transforming from now. It's got a real duality to it and I'm so happy I got to be a part of it.


It's such a retelling of a period of history that so many of us love the romanticism of, but that diversity really was lacking. It's wonderful to see it played out on screen in such a different way.

Thank you, and I feel especially proud of this because the protagonists, like the Julias, like anti-heroes, are of color and they're coming up against the romantic leads who are also of color. It's not just representing one type of character or one personality type. Everyone is coming up against each other and creating the emotional landscape. That isn't something that's always been given to you as the heart of the story, as an actor of color in this genre, sadly. As you're saying, we're seeing that finally changing, which is good.

Zawe reflects societal expectations women face, both on-screen and in life

We really see Julia at such a crossroads at the beginning of the film. In the first few minutes, you feel the pressure that she's feeling from society, having been out for four seasons. I can't even...


You love that, she's like the Regency Bridget Jones. I love it.

Oh my God, and from Mr. Malcolm specifically, I think of when they were at the opera and I could feel her stomach drop in that moment. In what ways did you sympathize with her and understand the pressure she was feeling, but also that social humiliation that she experienced as well?

Even you talking about it, she's so hugely relatable. That's what came off the page when I first read the script. I thought, "This is a woman who wants to stay true to her desires." She's made this pact with her childhood friend to marry for love, and yet society's expectations are starting to close in on her. Her mother is starting to close in on her.

Hold on a minute — this doesn't feel like it's [restricted] to the 19th century. I feel like we can absolutely lift that storyline in those expectations for the present day. I felt for her hugely, and especially in those opening scenes with Malcolm, where she is trying so hard to be everything that she's not.


What I also really loved about her is she's a high society woman who makes huge mistakes. She's deeply flawed, and it's her flaws that actually lead her to finding her true love in Theo James' character, Henry Ossory. That was a lovely end to the journey that I didn't expect to happen. [It] feels like such a good message for our times — find a guy who wants you for your flaws rather than despite them.

The actor challenged the status quo

To get into that, with such a list of specifications – just the line of Malcolm's complaint about not liking Julia's eyelashes. I was like, "Oh my gosh". And...

Come on, dude.

...down to your own line in the film. At one point you said, "A gentleman doesn't like a lady to be more intelligent than he is. A wife with a mind, god forbid."


I absolutely love that line.

I want to get your thoughts on that. It's such expectations that women have carried forever, and as you said, the setting of this film, the 1800s, feels very relevant to today.

I'm so glad to hear you say that. Honestly, I love those lines and I loved Julia's courage of her convictions and her modernity in that space. She's challenging the status quo in so many different ways, especially when it comes to the expectations on women, and love, and romance, and matching up, and domestic life. She really is a very modern character.

I know exactly what you mean when you hear those lines said in this genre, they really ping out. You can relate them quite easily to today, and that was a real pleasure. The men in this film were completely on board with all of that as well. The depiction of a female friendship at the center of this story also feels so relatable.


It feels authentic, seeing the complexity of it. I loved getting to sink my teeth into their story.

I'm so glad, because we haven't spoken to many people about how they've enjoyed the film. I'm like, "[You] liked it, oh my God!" I'm behind myself answering your questions going, "Oh my god, [you] really liked it. This is really..."

Zawe dishes about working with Theo James and a standout ensemble cast

I'd love to chat about your dynamic with Theo James' Henry and that love that developed between Julia and himself. What was it like not only working with such a great ensemble cast, but allowing Julia to fall for someone that she clearly didn't anticipate?


I loved it. This ensemble cast brings me joy even thinking about them. It brings a real spark in my heart and a real smile to my face because we genuinely had such a wonderful time. Theo is the biggest quirk step. His roles are so intense and then you meet him and he's like Comedy Central. He's a very gifted comedian in life and on screen, but also is so able to portray that lovely, complex, romantic element too. So many of our scenes were built on basically trying not to laugh at each other, which is something [you might experience] on a date. You love that.

You're feeling that spark. I feel like there was a lot that we had for free between us that has come to the screen. It was so nice to play the anti-love story. The [enemies] becoming lovers trope is hugely enjoyable, and the mustache is irresistible.


Bleecker Street will release "Mr. Malcolm's List" in theaters nationwide on July 1, 2022.

This interview has been edited for clarity.