Five years ago, Zawe Ashton was considering leaving acting. Then she landed the female lead in “Velvet Buzzsaw.” Her Broadway debut in “Betrayal” followed, as did a part on “The Handmaid’s Tale” and a top-secret role in the “Captain Marvel” sequel “The Marvels.” She can next be seen in Regency-era rom-com “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 Sopé Dìrísù’s eligible bachelor Jeremy Malcolm for not meeting the requirements on his list for an ideal bride. Julia calls upon her old school friend Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto) to deliver justice in the July 1 Bleecker Street release.
How did “Mr. Malcolm’s List” find its way to you?
I was just quietly going about my business at the beginning of last year and my friend texted me going, “Please watch this new show, ‘Bridgerton.’” I was like, “Well if I’m going to be binging anything, I want to do some cinephile digging. I want to be that person who watches the Bergman or the Cassavetes or the Agnes 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 of it and the Shondaland of it all. I sent my agent and my manager an email saying, “Get me in a corset, ASAP.” And my manager wrote back and said, “That’s so weird because there’s actually something kind of cooking at the moment; look out for your inbox.” And lo and behold, someone pulled out of this movie. Which is usually the way I get a gig. I have absolutely no ego about this.
What were your immediate impressions of the script?
It was undeniable. And there was this era I’ve always wanted to be a part of and never understood why I couldn’t. There was also a first-time female director, which is something I’ve been committing myself to these past few years in actively trying to help amplify those voices and the films that are meaningful to me. And I loved my character, Julia. She’s like a Regency Bridget Jones when we meet her – not quite sure if the pressure is going to let off in terms of finding that match. There was something so contemporary and relatable about her as a woman.
Well, according to Mr. Malcolm, she does flutter her eyelashes too much. But other than that, she’s pretty cool.
That was actually a really hard scene to do, because we wanted to be really naturalistic with makeup all the way through and false eyelashes didn’t exist then. So if you want some eyelash acting from me, you’re going to get it.
You probably picked up a lot of new skills.
I feel like I could offer my services now, to any drama school students perhaps who need a few pointers in Regency acting. There will be things you didn’t expect to come up that will come up: eyelash acting, boob acting, acting with horses. Thankfully, there really were some fantastic learning curves. And I feel so lucky to have just done a project where I’ve learned a completely new skill set.
I’ve heard everything you’ve said but my mind is still stuck on one thing, which is that you need to go on “Bridgerton.” Can I start a hashtag?
Let’s start the campaign now, shall we? Let’s get the domain JenelleSaysZaweForBridgerton registered. I would love to, not only because I’m absolutely obsessed but obviously there’s a huge conversation we’re having about the way we are refreshing this genre for the screen. It feels so funny that friends of mine, contemporaries, have suffered from what they call “bonnet fatigue” because they’ve been in so many period dramas. But I’m the opposite. I would love to do just period dramas or comedies and get to that fatigue place, because I just 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 that. Because again, one doesn’t realize that they haven’t been doing something until they do it. I remember the first time I went for a fitting and they put a bonnet on me and I was like, “Wow, this is cool. I’m now in the films that I’ve watched for all of these years.”
This entire 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 sort of suggested me. I’m so glad we got to do this because to have two women of color at the center and be able to work on that gorgeous friendship was so satisfying. Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù is one of the most electric screen presences that I’ve experienced for a very, very long time. Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays my cousin, was such a delight. A friend texted me and said, “You two will literally become best friends by the end of the movie” and we literally got on like family as soon as we met. Theo James and I have been in a similar orbit for years and working with him was such a joy. He’s such a funny man and that really helped having that laughter offstage as well because I’m doing the romantic scenes which were really hard for me.
I mean, they say the things that you struggle with in life, are the things that you struggle with as an actor. And I’ve never been a very successfully flirty person ever. I’m that girl who either you’re thinking, “She doesn’t like me.” Or you’re thinking, “Oh, what a sweet, awkward human being. At some point was she batting her eyelashes at me?” And so to step into a romantic space, and sort of have that storyline was, was quite challenging, and I loved doing it. But it was, again, a new skill that I had to hone.
You have done a lot of serious dramas lately; what was it like to lighten up?
So amazing. I showed my dad a clip from some of the film and he said, “You’re doing a film where you’re smiling!”
You shot this before joining the MCU with the “Captain Marvel” sequel “The Marvels.” I’m guessing you can’t say anything about that film right now?
I can’t, I just can’t say even one thing. Other than I had the best time. And Nia DeCosta is one of the guiding lights of directors that we have. She is so precious and special and the doors that she’s going to open – that she already has – are extremely, extremely exciting.
You actually dressed as Captain Marvel for Halloween back in 2019 – did Nia happen to see that?
(Laughs) If she did, she didn’t say anything. You know, I had met her about a very low budget period piece right when the pandemic had hit and we just got on like a house of fire. “Candyman” hadn’t come out yet but we were familiar enough with each other – I’d seen her brilliant debut feature “Little Woods” and had been really impressed and thought, “I’d like to work with that woman one day.” So it was just a meeting of the minds, the seeing of souls and she decided to take me on one of the biggest journeys that she could possibly be undertaking.
Do you ever think about how five years ago you thought you were leaving the business?
Very much so. And I still keep trying to do it, which is silly. It’s like one of those hysterical tantrums you throw as a child: “I’m leaving!” And everyone’s like, “Oh.” But every time I did try to quit I’ve been brought back closer to my real purpose that I felt I was slightly lacking. I was pulled towards Dan Gilroy with “Velvet Buzzsaw” and I was pulled towards doing “Betrayal,” which is a play that has transformed my life, and I was pulled towards doing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a show that I have hoped would exist since I was 18.
Things you didn’t know about Zawe Ashton
Born and raised: London
An early start: From age 6, she attended the Anna Scher Theater School and was a member of the National Youth Theatre.
Pen is mightier: Her works as a writer include the fictionalized memoir “Character Breakdown” and the plays “Harm’s Way” and “For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad.”