Zawe Ashton Is Having Fun Playing the Villain

After watching her latest film, Zawe Ashton‘s father turned to her in shock. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re smiling,‘” she recalls over Zoom. She laughs, relishing the memory. “He just wants to see his little girl show some teeth and not be depressive, or druggy, or on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Not that she has a problem with that summary of her roles. “Look,” she deadpans. “You have to have a lane, right?”

Ashton’s lane has been filled with a range of deliciously dark characters, even though she is, in real life, contagiously ebullient, always one smile away from laughter. Ashton first broke out onscreen in the 2011 series fresh meat (created by pre-Succession Jesse Armstrong) as Vod, a metal-loving drug dealer, following that up over the years with roles as a tough aid worker in The Handmaid’s Tale, and a chicly downcast art gallery assistant in Velvet Buzzsaw. On Broadway, she costarred in a production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, acting alongside Tom Hiddleston, her future fiancé. (The couple is now expecting their first child together.) Then there’s her work dela as a writer, penning plays like for all the women who thought they were Mad and the superbly titled fiction-as-memoir Character Breakdown. If her career alone was a facial expression, it would be an elegant scowl.

But she’s changed course with Mr. Malcolm’s List, a frothy, Regency-era rom-com now playing in theaters. Ashton plays Julia Thistlewaite, a lady hoping to win the heart of the titular Mr. Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), a rich and respectable suitor. But when he rejects her for not meeting all the necessary criteria on her list, Julia decides to get even her. She coaches her friend Selina (Freida Pinto) into being Mr. Malcolm’s perfect match. Once Mr. Malcolm falls in love with her, Julia plots, she’ll have Selina reject him.

Ashton, as her father aptly noticed, plays the antagonistic role with comedic verve, far and away having the most fun of anyone onscreen. But she also grounds the role with a palpable vulnerability that trembles underneath her pithy punch lines. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Ashton talks about crafting the part of Julia, why she almost walked away from acting entirely, and her upcoming role in the Captain Marvel sequel, The Marvels.

Vanity Fair: Were you interested in doing a Regency-era project before this? What was your interest level in the genre?

Zawe Ashton: It’s such a good question because it encapsulates both the passion that I have for this style of film, but also the sadness that encapsulates my experience of this genre from an actor’s perspective. There’s been a lock and key around this genre. It’s felt so exclusive for such a long time. So my interest level is high, but it’s always been tinged with a question as to why myself or my contemporaries would never be called to take it up.

You saying there’s been a lock and key around the genre is so apt. But there’s now this wave of very cool, including takes on regencycore, between The Personal History of David Copperfield and Bridgerton—

We love regenycore as a term, don’t we? [Laughs.] My sister introduced me to it and I was like, yesI’m going to use this!

It’s so good! I was going to ask if you had been aware of this wave, but clearly you were.

Absolutely! You know, the call for historical accuracy is bent all the time in these period pieces. All the time! Whether it be music or costume or hairstyle or types of language, or even the score. Some of those instruments didn’t exist yet. There’s been this lie that you are sitting down to watch a documentary every time there’s a period piece on and that’s just very much not true. You’re sometimes watching actors from America or Australia portray British monarchs. And yet, the historical factuality is really called into play when we’re suddenly trying to inject the genre with people of color.

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