“I haven’t necessarily had the privilege of being cast as the hero,” Zawe Ashton said. “And that’s OK.”
This was on a recent steamy afternoon, and Ashton, 37, a star of the Regency-era romantic comedy “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” had cast herself in the role of a woman eating a hurried lunch at the New York office of a film company before heading to the airport. Low-key glamorous in bare feet, a black slip dress and a sweatshirt that read, “There Are Artists Among Us,” she radiated a particular mix of seriousness, playfulness and a questing intelligence.
While the more gossipy corners of the internet know the London-born Ashton as the fiancée of the actor Tom Hiddleston — they met during a benefit reading of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” which they later performed on Broadway — she has been a professional actor since elementary school and a playwright since her 20s. She has devoted most of her career to playing and writing about outsiders. Julia, a Regency belle, wouldn’t seem to be one of them. Ashton disagrees.
“I think she is,” she said. “There’s something she’s not settling for.”
This probably explains why Ashton infuses Julia with a kind of wildness, a hint of waywardness under and around the sparkle. While the reviews for “Mr. Malcolm’s List” have been mixed, Ashton has earned raves. She dominates, a critic for The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “with her razor-sharp comedic timing ensuring thrilling delivery of her tart lines.”
Next summer she will appear in the Nia DaCosta-directed “The Marvels,” the follow-up to “Captain Marvel.” Reportedly, she will play the villain. And — after Ashton revealed her pregnancy during a recent screening of “Mr. Malcolm’s List” — at least one more debut is anticipated. Sensibly, she does not talk much about her personal life.
Over salad, she discussed period dramas, playing women on the edge and finding truth underneath the corsetry. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You look like you’re having so much fun in this movie. Are you?
I really am. We all really are. We filmed it in a very intense wave of lockdown in Dublin. Our only bonding time was on site, doing the work. We weren’t even allowed to go to a pub. So there was this really rewarding element of coming together in group scenes and working off each other and understanding each person’s unique rhythm. That’s where some of the comedy is coming from, certainly where a lot of the flirtatious energy is coming from.
You haven’t done many period pieces. Why this one?
The big conversation that’s happening now around representation in period drama is very, very real. The reality is you can be acting for a long time and not be called to that table. There’s a sort of indifference that turns into mystification that turns into sadness around that. This was the first period piece I’ve ever been offered. I had 24 hours to decide, and then it was sweatpants to corsets.
What can you tell me about Julia?
What I really loved straight off the bat is where we find her, which is coming out into her fifth season in society without having made a match. It has a little tinge of a woman on the edge. She doesn’t want to be a victim of that society, so she rages against the machine. She does some questionable things. But I hope by the end, she has this humbling redemptive moment where she does find a love match with someone who loves her for her flaws, rather than despite her flaws.
What unlocked her character?
One of the first things I had to do was tap into something very truthful and authentic. Freida [Pinto, her co-star] and I had conversations about picking up something that felt more culturally specific to us. That was a real breakthrough. That you can leave the Austenification behind and find something that chimes with your experience. Then we had an amazing historian. She was really helpful with stuff like how you would drink tea, how you would walk through the streets of London with a man that you’re related to or not related to. That led to the physical life and then costume, hair and makeup, stepping into a corset, stuffing into a bonnet.
Over the last decade you haven’t done many comedies. Why do a comedy now?
I joined a very intense movie club during the lockdown. We watched a movie every night and fed back to each other at the end of every Saturday with Sundays off. We went really high and deliberately quite obnoxious — Bergman, Tarkovsky, Rohmer, Bresson. There was a catharsis there, but I definitely have been looking to escape much more through the work I’ve been doing, the people I want to inhabit.
Your next project is “The Marvels.” Was a superhero project another escape?
I was moving away from acting for a lot of the past five years or so. I did “Betrayal” here in New York without representation [an agent], and, at the end of that, I signed up with some people and I said, I don’t necessarily want to start feeding the machine. I would like to just meet with first-time female directors, or fledgling female directors, specifically directors who are coming from underrepresented backgrounds in our industry. Emma Holly Jones, who directed “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” being one of them. I got set up on a call with Nia DaCosta where we really connected. It was just a seeing of souls. And on the other side of it was a phone call asking me to be part of her new job.
Rumor has it you’re playing a villain in that film. Or maybe you’ve complicated the idea of a villain?
I don’t really know any other way of going about it, to be honest. I have to start with something real and emotional and authentic and build out from there. I have to understand the deeper meaning in my head.
I read about your engagement to Tom Hiddleston. Is it true you met doing “Betrayal”? Because the marriage in that play is not a good marriage!
Oftentimes, the most distressing, deep work has the happiest companies. The play was called “Betrayal.” But the play behind the scenes was absolutely reliable.
Well, I’m still hoping that your marriage works out better. It’s funny, you’ve been in this business for nearly 30 years, but when I Googled you, the top results all had to do with your personal life. What’s it like to experience this kind of scrutiny?
As a woman in this industry, you become quite attuned to your identity as an artist shifting in proximity to different people. That’s not specific to dating someone. If there’s a conversation I would have off the back of this question, it’s really about letting women in this industry know that whatever point of career that you’re in, shore up your identity and reason for being, because people will project onto you in the most intense way. When that happens, you have to have an internal anchor. You have to be delighted and joyful in the work that you do. I’m not here to be a victim of projection. I’m here to continuously grow as an artist.