Zawe Ashton on Bringing Her "Quirky" Love Story to Life in "Mr. Malcolm's List"

Zawe Ashton in Mr. Malcolm's List
Ross Ferguson | Bleecker Street
Ross Ferguson | Bleecker Street

Zawe Ashton grew up a lover of Jane Austen. Her gateway to the world of Regency romance? 1994's "Emma," starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the titular heroine.

"When you've loved a book and you see it being imbued with so much contemporary humor and with one of the biggest movie stars in the world at that time, it feels exciting," the actor tells POPSUGAR. It's appropriate that Austen's prickly Emma was Ashton's favorite, since her scene–stealing character in the Regency romance "Mr. Malcolm's List," Julia Thistlewaite, is, as she puts it, "so Emma-y." Plus, Ashton's middle name is Emma.

Ashton only had 24 hours to decide to sign on to the movie, directed by Emma Holly Jones (another Emma!) and based on the novel by the same name from Suzanne Allain, who also wrote the screenplay. "I read the script. It was the intersection of so many genres that I am passionate about, rom-com and this new wave of Regencycore that we're seeing," Ashton says. She fell in love with her character immediately. Plus, Ashton has a "very clear intentionality" about supporting first-time female and other underrepresented directors. It was easy to say yes.

Ashton explains about the film's premise, "We meet her four seasons into her unsuccessful matching with the husband. Just felt like something was very contemporary about meeting a woman at this point in life where society and her mother and all of this messaging is saying, 'For goodness sake, just make a match already, just marry yourself off.' "

But Julia, for all her wealth and snark, is still intent on marrying for love, a promise she made to her friend Selina (Freida Pinto) when they were young girls at school. "She's a woman who knows her own mind, and society isn't necessarily supporting that," Ashton explains.

"It's just so much easier sometimes when you don't have to carry the central love story. You can be much more quirky, maybe a bit more acerbic."

Once Ashton arrived on set, she says it was easy to form connections with the rest of the ensemble, who she calls "glorious." There was, of course, the challenge of getting to know people when COVID-19 restrictions demanded they wear masks and shields most of the time. But she says that they quickly realized they had a lot of connections, and with familiarity came "effortless" chemistry. Her favorite scene to film was the big dinner party, for which most of the cast was together. "All of that fizzy energy was just really palpable."

"You're not supposed to say that," Ashton admits. "You're supposed to say, 'I worked very hard to establish the connections. I was working hard to pretend that I liked Oliver Jackson-Cohen.' Actually, we became best friends on day one. And the only challenge that I saw presented to me was how I was going to keep a straight face in doing a film with him."

Jackson-Cohen plays Julia's cousin Lord Cassidy, and the two are a classic, catty pair of friends. "We are very much hoping for a spinoff," she jokes. "So if you could just start that campaign, that would be wonderful."

Ashton's onscreen love interest is Theo James as the dashing and slightly ridiculous Captain Henry Ossory; viewers might not even recognize him with his resplendent mustache. "I'm looking forward to people seeing the blooper reel so they can see just how hard it was to not break character when I was with him," she says. "He's got such a wicked sense of humor."

Theo James and Zawe Ashton in Mr. Malcolm's List
Ross Ferguson | Bleecker Street

"Theo's such a brilliant romantic, leading partner as well, because he was kind of the anti-hero," she says. "And it's just so much easier sometimes when you don't have to carry the central love story. You can be much more quirky, maybe a bit more acerbic. And that was just very, very fun to do with him."

The other relationship she loved playing out was that between Julia and Selina. "[It's] that push and pull friendship that has existed from childhood that feels so familiar and safe, that you can sometimes show up as maybe not the best version of yourself, but it will always hold you and sustain you," she says. Ashton explains that she's had similar "very long, fruitful female relationships" in her life.

Ashton hopes she's "quite different" from her character, though she loved diving into Julia's mind. "There's something about the way that she leans into high society," she explains. "Bless her, she's been really conditioned and trained to exist in that echelon of the world. And that was something that I really, really loved embodying and getting under the skin of. Because I personally am not about to go to the opera wearing a huge feather and have that be a status symbol."

Julia, she notes, also "finds it hard to let her guard down." "I don't struggle with that," she explains. "I let people in all the time. I don't have a guard. I need to build a guard. So it was very satisfying to play someone who has that edge to her."

Julia gets her happy ending, and it mirrors some big changes in Ashton's own life. On June 29, Ashton and her fiancé Tom Hiddleston went public with the news that they're expecting their first child. And her career keeps on rolling; in 2023, she'll appear in "The Marvels," the upcoming "Captain Marvel" sequel.

But it's not a happy ending for Ashton; she's just getting started.

"Mr. Malcolm's List" hits theaters July 1.