Zawe Ashton's character in "Mr. Malcolm's List," a Regency-era period piece out July 1, is an accidental matchmaker.
After being spurned by Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), a gruff and exacting bachelor, because she doesn't strike off all the characteristics on his "list" of qualifications, Julia concocts a scheme to get revenge. Then Mr. Malcolm and Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), the woman Julia taps for her plan, end up developing genuine feelings for each other.
In real life, Ashton says she's a better matchmaker than her "Mr. Malcolm's List" character — because her pairings are deliberate.
"I'm quite a good matchmaker," Ashton said. "I have an eye for finding people who complement each other very well. People go, 'Oh my God, are you sure that's going to work?' I just always have a sixth sense about opposites attracting."
So far, Ashton's matchmaking skills have been limited to the professional realm, connecting producers with directors or actors with writers. She has not made a romantic pair — or, as she put it, she hasn't yet.
"Mr. Malcolm's List," which was first a 2019 short film featuring most of the original cast, is all about the unpredictable nature of connections, the very thing Ashton bets on when she makes her matches. Sometimes, as the film shows, the person you expect to like isn't who you want.
Mr. Malcolm's courtship strategy is guided by the list of 10 qualities he needs in a woman. The list, written to attract the right person, also keeps the grumpy bachelor from opening his heart: After a single transgression, a woman (like Julia) is nixed.
"(The list) becomes this metaphor for him. Finding his vulnerability, letting his guard down and opening up to true love," Ashton said.
Ashton, on her end, doesn't believe in having any set characteristics in mind during one's journey toward love.
"I'm a very list-free person. I genuinely believe that you have to be open to the human vibrations when it comes to making a match for yourself," Ashton said.
That said, if Ashton had to make a list, she can name the single essential quality you'd find on it.
"I've said this over and over again, but it would be kindness," she said.
Ashton met her fiancé, Tom Hiddleston, while co-starring with him in the Broadway show "Betrayal." Hiddleston confirmed their engagement in a 2022 interview with the L.A. Times, saying, "I'm very happy."
The couple also is expecting a child. Ashton debuted her baby bump while walking the red carpet for "Mr. Malcolm's List."
With "Mr. Malcolm's List," Ashton — who has starred in contemporary shows like "Fresh Meat" and dystopians like "The Handmaid's Tale" — said she feels she's "found her era."
But while period pieces have always been possible, movies like this are a relatively recent phenomenon. "Mr. Malcolm's List" was first a 2019 short film starring most of the original cast, though Ashton's character was played by Gemma Chan. Then, the 2020 mega-hit Netflix series "Bridgerton" envisioned a Regency-era England where people of all races mingled on the ball room floor.
Other inclusive period pieces have followed suit. Jodie Turner-Smith played Anne Boleyn in a miniseries; Dev Patel played David Copperfield in a movie. Jane Austen gets a diverse remix via the upcoming "Persuasion" adaptation.
Growing up on a diet of classic novels, Ashton always could always imagine herself in the heroine's position. It was pop culture that told her otherwise.
"My imaginative space only closed up when I saw that what was happening with these pieces interpreted by Hollywood."
"My imaginative scenes was always wide enough to cast myself in the stories as I read them. My imaginative space only closed up when I saw that what was happening with these pieces interpreted by Hollywood. So the fact that we're opening these up to imaginative, true imaginative interpretations now just makes sense, especially considering lots of the source material," Ashton said.
Watching the performances from Pinto, Dirisu, Ashley Park, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Theo James and more in "Mr. Malcolm's List," audiences may wonder what took so long for actors to be cast for their talent and chemistry, not only for their "period-appropriate" appearances. "It's a no-brainer," Ashton said, of this new era of color-conscious casting.
"Mr. Malcolm's List" also delivers on the romance front, guiding both Selina and and Julia toward matches — and proposal scenes — of their own. In Captain Henry Ossory (a mustachioed Theo James), Ashton said Julia finds someone who "loves her for her flaws rather than despite them."
"It's something I don't think she was ever expecting," Ashton said. It all goes back to what Ashton's own guiding philosophy when it comes to love: "Being open to the human vibrations."