In a time where color-blind period dramas like Netflix’s Bridgerton and AMC+’s Anne Boleyn have become all the rage, it seemed the perfect moment for first-time feature filmmaker Emma Holly Jones to present a fun and refreshing twist on the Regency era rom-com Mr. Malcolm’s List. Based on Suzanne Allain’s 2009 novel of the same name, the film sets a scene in 1818 during London’s social season. There, you’ll find the town’s most eligible bachelor, Mr. Jeremiah Malcolm, played by Gangs of London star Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù. As a man set to inherit a sizable fortune and estate, Mr. Malcolm is cautious when it comes to his suitors and decides to create a list of requirements for his potential mate. Unfortunately for Julia Thistlewaite, played by The Marvels star Zawe Ashton, passing Mr. Malcolm’s test of strict standards is simply “impossible.” Mr. Malcolm’s inevitable rejection leads Lady Thistlewaite to exact revenge, enlisting her childhood friend, Selina Dalton, played by Frieda Pinto, to hopefully make a fool out of the arrogant bachelor. EBONY spoke to Dìrísù and Ashton about their leading roles and their take on the clever rom-com.
EBONY: Sope, what interested you in this particular script and the role of Mr. Jeremy Malcolm?
Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù: I was surprised that they were looking at me as a Black man to play an earl, or the son of an earl, who was the romantic lead of a period film. I was like "this is not how it runs; we haven't ever done this before." So, I was pleasantly surprised. But as soon as I knew it was real, I was like, "Yeah, 100 percent I want to do this. I'm in.” These opportunities [have] not been afforded to the global majority of actors very often. And so, I wanted to be at the forefront of that and hopefully I did a good job.
Zawe, I read that your love of Bridgerton sort of made you ripe for the role. Can you talk about that connection and your love of period dramas?
Zawe Ashton: So I had indeed watched the first season of Bridgerton. Regé-Jean Page is someone I knew right at the beginning of his career. Ten plus years ago we met on a show that I was doing in the U.K., and he was just the sweetest, most hardworking young actor and was aspiring to [do] more. We stayed in contact, and I said, “If there's any way I can help you through this journey—having just been to drama school and feeling quite lost and disempowered [at times].” I thought to be a bit of an ear for this young person—be the sensei that you never had, sort of thing. And we kept in contact. I was in touch with him when he was applying for a visa for America and [then] I didn't hear from him. And, suddenly I saw him on Bridgerton and I'm like, "He's the Duke! He's the Duke! This is the guy. He's the Duke." Like, just the rush of pride that I felt—not only because of that personal connection, but also because of seeing him as the romantic lead in that genre, in that space. I had such a head and heart explosion. The proof of concept short film for Mr. Malcolm's List actually precedes Bridgerton, [which] I wasn't aware of. So, when I sent my team this message saying, "I just watched Bridgerton get me in the corset ASAP. The pendulum is swinging, the doors are open [and] representation is coming to this genre." They said, "Well, there is a piece [called] Malcolm's List that has been on the boil for a while." And the rest is kind of history at this point.
With that said, how amazing was it to be in this period drama where people of color are at the center of the film?
ZA: I grew up reading Jane Austen and I grew up reading the classics and never did I not see myself in them. It was only when they started to get made into films that I was like, "Oh, I guess I'm not so much here as I am in my imagination." And that's always been a really sad fact, from my perspective, not only as an avid reader, but as an actor, too. It's always felt like the strangest thing not to be invited to that table. And so, I just feel my best as an actor when I'm resonating not only with the creative material, but when there is an intentionality—or a needle—moving element to the work that I'm doing. And I know Frieda [Pinto] feels the same. And so when I was cast, we kind of came together on this journey. And having this conversation about the responsibility that we suddenly felt, we had to be two women of color, in this space, representing this sisterhood of friendship that we don't often get the chance to see. I think our heads and our hearts exploded with the opportunity, and we felt that responsibility. But we also felt a responsibility to ourselves [to be] as authentic as possible and not [to] become palatable or cute.
And how was this experience for you, Sope?
SD: I had done historical pieces before, but [I had] always played a character who had been affected by colonialism. Either they were a former slave [like] in The Mill, one of my first TV projects, or they experienced a lot of racism like in The Halcyon, another one of my TV projects. So the opportunity to play someone who was not burdened by oppressive whiteness was a joy. My goodness, it was a joy. And [if it were up to] me, I would love to do another romantic comedy. I would love to continue to diversify the projects that I do in my career. But yeah, I'm glad that now that the door has been kicked wide open, they can't close it again. Because we have projects like Bridgerton and Persuasion and The Personal History of David Copperfield and now Malcolm's List. This conversation will continue to go on and on and on. And I think, also, it's what the world wants. Even if you just talk about business numbers—[although] we don't know what Mr. Malcolm's List is going to do yet—we know that a lot of those other projects were really successful because the world wants to see themselves reflected on the screens and in entertainment that they watch. So let's give the people what they want.