After seeing his last film, Zawe AshtonHer father turned to her in shock. “He looked at me and said, ‘You are smiling,“” she recalled on Zoom. She laughs, savoring the memory. “He just wants to see his little girl show some teeth and not be depressed, on drugs or on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”
Not that she has a problem with this summary of her roles. “Listen,” she exclaims. “You must have a lane, right?”
Ashton’s voice has been filled with a range of delightfully dark characters, though she is, in real life, contagiously exuberant, always one smile away from laughter. Ashton first broke on screen in the 2011 series Fresh meat (created by pre-Succession Jesse Armstrong) as Vod, a metal-loving drug dealer, who has followed over the years with roles as a hard-working aid worker in The Handmaid’s Tale and a chic and depressed art gallery assistant in Buzzsaw Velvet. On Broadway, she starred in a production of Harold Pinter Treason, act alongside Tom Hiddleston, her future fiancé. (The couple are now expecting their first child together.) Then there’s her work as a writer, penning plays like for all the women who thought they were crazy and the superbly titled fiction-as-memoir Distribution of characters. If his career was just a facial expression, it would be an elegant scowl.
But she changed course with Mr. Malcolm’s list, a frothy Regency-era romantic comedy now playing in theaters. Ashton plays Julia Thistlewaite, a lady who hopes to win the heart of the titular Mr. Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), a wealthy and respectable suitor. But when he rejects her for not meeting all the necessary criteria on her list, Julia decides to get revenge. She trains her friend Selina (Freida Pinto) by being the perfect match for Mr. Malcolm. Once Mr. Malcolm falls in love with her, Julia plots, she will ask Selina to reject him.
Ashton, as his father rightly remarked, plays the antagonistic role with comedic verve, having by far the most fun on screen. But she also grounds the role with a palpable vulnerability that quivers beneath her punch lines. In an interview with vanity lounge, Ashton talks about developing the role of Julia, why she almost completely quit acting and her next role in the Captain Marvel after, Wonders.
Vanity Lounge: Were you interested in doing a Regency era project before that? What was your level of interest in the genre?
Zawe Ashton: This is such a good question because it sums up both the passion I have for this style of film, but also the sadness that sums up my experience of this genre from an actor’s perspective. There has been a lock and key around like this. It felt so exclusive for so long. My level of interest is therefore high, but it has always been tinged with the question of why I or my contemporaries would never be called upon to take it up again.
You say there has been a lock and key around the genre is so appropriate. But now there is this wave of very cool and inclusive interpretations of regencycore, between The personal story of David Copperfield and Bridgerton—
We love regenycore as a term, don’t we? [Laughs.] My sister introduced him to me and I thought, YesI will use it!
It is so good! I was going to ask you if you were aware of this wave, but clearly you were.
Absolutely! You know, the call for historical accuracy is twisted all the time in these period pieces. All the time! Whether it’s the music or the costume or the hairstyle or the types of language, or even the score. Some of these instruments did not yet exist. There’s been this lie that you sit down to watch a documentary every time there’s a period piece and that’s just not true. You sometimes watch American or Australian actors play British monarchs. And yet, historical fact really comes into play when one suddenly tries to inject people of color into gender.