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‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ Stars Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Freida Pinto Want to Redefine the Regency Romance

Diverse casting is now a staple of the genre, as the leads of the winning romance discuss with IndieWire.

A man in a top hat and woman in a dress and bonnet stand next to a horse; still from "Mr. Malcolm's List."Bl

“Mr. Malcolm’s List”

Ross Ferguson/Bleecker Street

Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù never really cared for the Regency era. The British Nigerian actor grew up on sci-fi and fantasy, watching and rewatching “Lord of the Rings” with his father, and was not particularly drawn to period dramas. To prepare for “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” in which he plays the titular choosy bachelor, he dove into the genre.

“It’s a really enjoyable period of history and really enjoyable time in England, but I was like, ‘Why have I not connected with this much beforehand?,'” Dìrísù told IndieWire in a Zoom interview. “It was because of the absence of people who look like me. I don’t think I was conscious of that as a decision when I was younger. As a family sitting down to watch movies, we didn’t know that’s why we weren’t watching them, but in hindsight I can’t help but think it was a factor. So it’s really wonderful to be a part of a project that will hopefully change that for lots of different global majority families across the world going forward.”

Several thousand miles away in Mumbai, India, a young Freida Pinto was experiencing nothing of the sort. As an English literature major at St. Xavier’s College, Pinto was well-versed in Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and every major TV show or movie based on Regency-era texts. She never saw actors that looked like her in those adaptations, but her surroundings made all the difference.

“It wasn’t jarring to me,” Pinto told IndieWire. “I grew up in India where everyone looked like me, and so none of us were told, ‘You can’t be this’ or ‘You can’t be that,’ because who are they comparing us to?”

That made it easy, Pinto said, to picture herself in a Regency role. She loved the courting, the costumes, “the spiciness of the women,” and writing that felt far ahead of its time. When “Mr. Malcolm’s List” came along, it felt like “pure manifestation,” and not something she needed to explain as an actor of color.

“When I started hearing the experiences of my co-stars, I realized that for them, they almost have to jump that double hoop of justification that they had to justify their presence in this film,” Pinto said. “My childhood didn’t give me the opportunity to justify it. My childhood told me that I was right to play this part, and so I just went with it and embraced the feeling.”

A man and woman meet outside in a garden, silhouetted by moonlight; still from "Mr. Malcolm's List."

“Mr. Malcolm’s List”

Bleecker Street

In the film, Pinto plays Selina Dalton, the woman who catches the eponymous Mr. Malcolm’s eye after he rejects her dear friend Julia (Zawe Ashton) based on an ironclad list he has of requirements for a wife (Julia, it seems, does not meet them). It’s based on the popular novel of the same name by Suzanne Allain, who wrote the script, which director Emma Holly Jones adapted into a 2019 short starring Pinto and Dìrísù.

“After we released the short, I remember seeing a tweet from this woman who loved to cosplay Regency era,” Dìrísù recalled. “She felt inauthentic because she was a woman of color, and she never saw herself in those films, and she was so grateful to our production because it gave her more freedom to just be herself. That, more than anything, has been the spur that’s pushed me forward on this project. That was before ‘Bridgeton’ came out, before it was really a public commodity. Her one response to our short film has made a world of difference, and I hope it will continue to for lots of other people who saw that film.”

And it’s not just fantasy. Black and brown people were very much present in 19th-century England, Pinto points out, but rarely given the chance to participate in this kind of fun and frivolity within a period film.

“Stories about love, falling in love, being jilted, feeling vengeful — this is not just story traits that are reserved for just one group of people, one skin color,” Pinto said. “We all feel it. We all feel the highs and lows of love. We all feel the butterflies in our tummy when we have someone charming in the room.”

Dìrísù reached the same conclusion after his pre-production Regency binge. “Love isn’t repetitive,” he said. “Each of those stories were slightly different, even if it was a different production of the same story.” Among the films he watched was Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice,” as strong a case as any for why the same story doesn’t grow stale when made with a fresh eye.

“I hope that people don’t just see this as a trend,” Pinto said of diverse depictions of this era. “With what ‘Bridgerton’ has done and with what with what ‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ will do, I know that there are some people talking and thinking of it that way, but I hope that as more of these productions come to fruition, that we buck that conversation completely.”

A Bleecker Street release, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” will be available in theaters Friday, July 1.

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