Were Jane Austen alive today, she’d surely be first in line for a ticket to Mr. Malcolm’s List. Not only because it’s a Regency Era romantic comedy in the vein of her most beloved stories, but because it’s led by women in front of and behind the camera; Emma Holly Jones directs this original story from Suzanne Allain, who had turned her self-published novel into first a Black List hit and then a proof-of-concept short film. Among the feature film’s producers are Freida Pinto, who stars as the fetching Selina Doyle. Her romantic co-lead is Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù as the title character, a London bachelor with a stringent list of requirements for what he seeks in a bride. Delightful chaos and merriment ensues.
As Pinto and Dìrísù reveal to The A.V. Club, it’s no coincidence that the Mr. Malcolm’s List cast is made up of people of color, including Zawe Ashton, Naoko Mori, and Ashley Park. In the four years it took to become a feature film, the world collectively lost its mind for Netflix’s Bridgerton, another Regency-era drama populated with faces not historically associated with the period. Pinto and Dìrísù break down the challenges and joys of stepping into such roles—and what it represents for actors and audiences who look like them.
The A.V. Club: How were you both involved with the initial version of Mr. Malcolm’s List, which was originally done as a short film?
Freida Pinto: One of my producer friends had the idea that she wanted to produce [Suzanne Allain’s screenplay] as part of the company that she had set up. And Emma Holly Jones had just watched Hamilton and wanted to make this film look inspired by the casting of Hamilton. And so she was telling me about the film and that it was on The Black List for a while. And I read the script and immediately said I wanted to be part of it, because I grew up in India studying English literature and Jane Austen, the Regency period specifically. I always imagined myself as one of these ladies. But of course, film and television always told me otherwise. And there was no place for me in films like this. But so, of course, when the opportunity came along, it just felt like a natural part of the manifestation. And so we went ahead and made the short film as a proof of concept to drum up the right interest and get the right financiers.
Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù: It came out of the blue for me. I wasn’t aware of it when it was a part of The Black List. I was first contacted by my agent, by the casting director, Tamara-Lee Notcutt, who had compiled a list of people that she wanted to work with her and Emma. And they landed with me and then they were stuck with me, unfortunately!
AVC: Was there an expectation of it becoming a feature film? A proof of concept is never a guarantee, right?
FP: Exactly. We had no idea if it would happen or not. It was just something that we just had to believe. And I felt like it would be a no-brainer, I didn’t think it would take four years. And of course when the short film was released on Refinery29 and YouTube, it had such an amazing reception that solidified the world was ready for it. We just had to keep fighting the good fight.
AVC: A big question, but one especially suited for romantic comedy—what, to you, makes onscreen chemistry between two co-stars such as yourselves?
SD: I wish I knew and I think every casting director wishes they knew as well. Because when we worked together on the short, Freida and I spent a grand total of six minutes together the whole time! Because we weren’t shooting on the same day, and she came in just to shoot that one glimpse of them from afar. So we were not chatting in between takes and stuff. But I was like, “It’s Freida Pinto, oh my God!” I didn’t want to be this weird fanboy. [Laughs] But there’s something in that look between us that let Tamara and Emma know that we were definitely still the right people to go forward with it. And I presume if you’re asking this question, you’re saying that we do have some chemistry, which I’m grateful for. But I think in our experience, it was about having two people who were open to being vulnerable with each other and who trusted each other.
AVC: Freida, I’d love to ask about your work as this film’s producer too. What were the challenges of getting it made? Why did it take four years?
FP: It was a challenge to make this film because no one wanted to take a chance and see how magical it actually was. I mean, I’m sure right now, after Bridgerton, after this film comes out, a lot of people who said no to making this film are going to go, “Uh, what did we just do?” [Laughs] And it’s fine because, you know, they did not have the imagination or the risk-taking mindset to know what this would actually result in. This is why producing can be so challenging and so fun. Everything is a bit of a gamble and you just have to know that the quality of the product that you have is worth every little gamble you take. So with this particular one, I think the reason why it took a while was our first-time director was very, very accomplished already, very talented, but everyone needs a proof of concept beforehand. And then the cast was something that no one had ever seen before. And then, of course, in those four years, Bridgerton happens! And that completely gets people all excited and hungry for more material like this.
AVC: Sope, how would you describe Mr. Malcolm? And where does the character overlap with yourself?
SD: Jeremiah Malcolm is the second son of a second son of an earl, but that’s not the interesting part. Really it’s that he’s an eligible bachelor living in Regency London who’s looking for a life partner. But he has a certain set of criteria that she wants her to meet. And not everybody is too pleased with that, especially when they fall foul of it.
I think every time an actor reads for a part with their unique take on it, their instincts come obviously from their own disposition and what they’ve experienced in their lives. So it would be facetious of me to say that there’s absolutely nothing in Malcolm that we share. Firstly, we’re both of Nigerian descent, as is shared in the film. I think in my history when I was younger, there was a lot of trepidation about love and inability to trust. So I understood his reservations and anxieties, and I definitely experienced some of them when I was younger.
AVC: And Freida, how would you characterize Selina Dalton?
FP: Selina is of the country. And she hasn’t seen her friend Julia Thistlewaite [played by Zawe Ashton] for a very long time. She’s living the sort of mundaneness of the countryside, not a lot of excitement, not a lot of prospects. And she comes to the city because her friend Julia invites her, and immediately is thrown into this revenge plot, a ploy that Julia has in mind. And all of a sudden, her life is really exciting and complicated. Because she’s falling in love with this wonderful man.
One of the things I love about Selina is that she’s pretty steadfast in the things that she believes in. She stands her ground, she knows what she wants. And as much as she’s going along with the plan, she’s also able to let her friend Julia know when the plan stops feeling good because real emotions are getting involved. So I really like Selina’s quiet strength. She is, of course, the typical romantic lead who will fall in love, who will have a heart broken and fixed again. But side by side, there is a wonderful story of female friendships that plays a very important role in how we see Selina in this film.
AVC: As always with period pieces like this one, costuming is key. How did that affect your performances, and what research did you do to build this world? I heard that everyone read Jane Austen to help prepare.
SD: I read both Pride And Prejudice and Emma and I watched basically all of the films, both cinematic releases and TV films that were available, that I could find on the Regency Era. So yeah, I really did a deep dive. Also all of the social rules about how you greet people, where you should walk with women and the chaperones, the proximity, how to wear your hat. You can get bogged down in that a little bit. The film is not really about how people live their lives and the Regency period, it’s definitely a romantic comedy. But I was really a stickler for detail. There’s a game that Oliver Jackson-Cohen [as Lord Cassidy] and myself are playing in one of the first scenes of the film. And I learned the rules of it. I rolled the dice and when I rolled a seven, I was ecstatic because I knew that that meant something. Little moments like that, I think, are a key to embodying character.
FP: I read Austen, for sure. Yes, the preparation was key, obviously, in terms of understanding the mannerisms and—not so much historical accuracy, because really this film is about love and is a piece of fiction. We’re really just trying to marry Regency with ’90s rom-coms. But of course, there are certain things like mannerisms from that time period that you can’t fake. There is a certain way you hold the tea cup or your posture. So we spent some time with a historian to finesse those mannerisms. And I spent almost three months working on the dialect. Because I wanted it to sound inspired by my culture, but also she’s someone who was born and raised in England. And then, of course, Pam Downe, our costume designer, [drew] influences from my culture, like, for example, Selina’s paisley print.
AVC: When you set out on this career path, what kinds of roles were you hoping to play? Were a period piece or romantic comedy like this ever on that list?
SD: Absolutely not. There’s a saying that we adopt for children, that if they see it, they can be it. So unfortunately, I knew that [a period drama] was definitely something that a Black actor could play, but I didn’t think that a romantic lead was one. So when this opportunity came around, I jumped at it and I held onto it with both of my hands. Like I’ve said before, that there were a bunch of other projects that I could have done or opportunities that came around. But it was really important to me to make this film work. It was beyond my wildest dreams of what my career could give me.
FP: Yes. Stories that I imagined myself being in, the world that I see myself in, the way I want to feel represented—it’s not always going to be possible. I do understand that I am a minority at the end of the day, it’s not always possible for studio execs to see it, to have their imagination run so wild that they can go out there and create it. But meanwhile, my imagination is rife. My artistic ability to pull something off like that is now a skill that I’ve honed over time. And I have enough experience under my belt to know how to go out there and do it.
AVC: It’s telling, Freida, that you were envisioning yourself in these kinds of roles reading literature, but not watching film and television.
FP: Yes. And also, when I saw myself in those roles, I was growing up in a country, India, where everyone looked like me. So I wasn’t growing up in America or the U.K. where someone was categorically telling me, “You cannot be in a role like that.” If there was a school play or college play, I would easily play one of the Jane Austen characters, and another brown boy would play Darcy. And it was acceptable because no one was there to tell us—I mean, what are they going to say, that only white people can play these parts? There was no one to tell us that. So my imagination for the 16, 17 years that I went to school and college in India was ingrained in the thought that these characters could be played by me. So when [Mr. Malcolm’s List] was presented to me, it really felt like my imagination had earned me the right to be part of these films and that it required no justification.
AVC: Who are your favorite filmmakers? Anyone you’re dying to work with?
FP: Oh, yeah, I have quite a few. I would love to work with Wes Anderson. David Lowery. I’d love to work with Danny Boyle again someday. I’d love to work with a lot of female filmmakers that are just completely blowing my mind. Chloé Zhao is definitely right on top of my list. If there was someone I would like to work with next, it would be someone like her. And I’m enjoying Emerald Fennell’s work.
SD: My list is very long, I don’t think we have space for the long list that I could give you! I’m constantly watching films and looking out for new people ... I’ll tell you one that has changed my taste recently. I really, really loved watching Everything Everywhere All At Once. And as soon as I saw that film, I was like, I need to learn more about the Daniels. And I went back to their first shorts, and on the plane over to New York from London yesterday, I watched Swiss Army Man. I tell you, I will watch that film again and again and again. Because, yes, it’s silly and it’s ridiculous. But the Daniels reminded me what is possible on film, and that is everything.