Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù might not have been a Regency fan before “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” but the titular role in Emma Holly Jones’ project has him embodying a 19th-century romantic hero. After not relating to period romance because no one in it looked like him, he’s poised to change that experience for viewers around the world.
“I didn’t have much of a relationship before this project, and I didn’t know why,” Dìrísù told IndieWire. “I knew that Joe Wright’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was excellent, but I hadn’t seen it, and I really enjoyed sitting down and watching loads of them in a short space of time in preparation for the role. In those two weeks of isolation that we had when we first got to Ireland, I just threw myself into the period.”
Dìrísù found universality in the story and characters, redemption in the character of Jeremiah Malcolm, and endless hilarity behind the scenes. He’s still interested in sci-fi, fantasy, action — literally every genre and role he can get his hands on — but relishing this latest adventure.
“The themes of the film are quite universal — some of them which we’re experiencing now, like finding life partners and being socially anxious — all of those things that have existed throughout history,” he said. “But there’s definitely a specificity to that period that was interesting to explore and perform.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: What sort of response to you hope viewers have to “Mr. Malcolm’s List”?
Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù: I don’t like anticipating, just in case it’s not what I expect it to be, but I’m open to all opinions and experiences. I hope it’s entirely positive. More than anything, I just hope people will get to smile, get to enjoy, get to feel love through the screen when they’re watching the show. And if people can sit in a dark room for two hours and smile and laugh, or cry, then we’ve done our job and that will be the sum total of what I’d like for our film. Anything more than that as a bonus.
How did you find the right tone with this character? You don’t want to make him too unsympathetic.
I don’t think I was concerned about that. Watching Matthew MacFadyen’s performance [as Fitzwilliam Darcy] in “Pride and Prejudice,” the whole first half of the film, I’m just like, “This guy’s an asshole. Why do we care?,” and it seemed to work then! I don’t think you’ll ever see Jeremiah as an asshole. You can find him a bit curt or a bit dismissive, or maybe a bit defensive, not open. I hope that no one ever has really strong negative feelings towards him, because I don’t think he’s done anything wrong.
In being sympathetic towards my character, everything that he does is super justifiable, so I wasn’t concerned that he was in the wrong, because I don’t think he’s in the wrong. He doesn’t think he’s in the wrong either. And knowing the whole journey of the story, knowing the journey of a character, there is a redemption towards the end. Sometimes you have to start in a difficult place in order to earn the redemption, whereas if he’s too nice earlier on then nothing changes.
Freida brought up the rom coms of the ’90s and how this felt kind of like that. Do you have a similar feeling that you were pulling from different genres and not just making a period romance?
Yes. I think we laughed too much for it to feel too serious. In terms of the ’90s rom-com genre, Zawe [Ashton] and Freida [Pinto] had a lot more experience with that than I did. My dad and I just sat and watched “Lord of the Rings” and loads of action films. There’s definitely swathes of genres that I’ve missed out on, and that I couldn’t draw parallels to but I trusted them and I trusted Emma’s vision, and I just wanted to give them the best performance I could. I’m glad that it isn’t trapped in one niche of the entertainment industry. I’m glad it traverses lots of different genres, because then it can be enjoyed by more people.
Is there a moment that stands out to you particularly from filming?
It will be in the Blu-ray extras I’m sure: The outtakes of the auction scene. I can’t say any more, but I hope that the world gets to experience one of the most hilarious moments of my career so far.
What about a scene or beat from the film?
I think the ballroom sequence, and Amelia Waller’s music: The swell as Malcolm and Selena meet each other and dance with each other for the first time. I remember sitting and watching that and a smile growing on my face, being like, “Oh, this is working. This is great. This is making me feel wicked!” I know that the whole shoot was difficult and we overcame a lot of adversity, but sitting and watching that moment come to fruition and the grade and Emma’s edit and Amelia’s music and it all coming together in that moment, I was just like “Yeah, this is wicked. I’m really proud of this.”
Were there specific moments or roles that prepared you for this, or was it just a totally new experience?
It was a new experience. I was in “The Halcyon,” which was ’40s London and then I was in “The Mill,” my first ever TV show, which was 1820s or ’30s, but outside of London in the regions. So I’m not inexperienced when it comes to non-contemporary pieces of work, but I don’t think there is anything that’s similar to this job. I suppose that’s sort of what I want for my career. I don’t want to get caught in a genre or a time period, I’d love to keep finding new and exciting characters. Malcolm is my most recent.
Is there another non-contemporary role or era that you haven’t explored that you’d like to?
I would love to go into the future. I suppose I did a bit of that with “Black Mirror,” but that was more like a parallel present. The future is really interesting to me, like a sci-fi something and also super far back, like something with swords rather than guns, something in the gladiator realm or Ancient Greece or something Biblical. My horizons are broad and open. I’m looking forward to where the next opportunity is.
Would you like to do more action, sci-fi, or fantasy?
Oh, for sure, definitely. I hope it’s not a boring answer to say I want to do everything, but I do kind of want to do everything! I hope I never settle. I don’t want people to settle on me in terms of “Oh, that’s what he does. We know him from this.” I don’t want to know myself from anything either. I want to continue to push myself and find out where my limitations are and then hopefully break through them.
How would you feel about playing James Bond?
If I ever got the opportunity, it would be incredible! It is a bastion of British film culture. Every person that’s played that role is loved and celebrated and to be a part of that franchise, even if it wasn’t as the role of James Bond, would be incredible. What they’ve done with the films, especially in this most recent bunch with Daniel Craig, has been transformative for the franchise and the role. Let me not talk nonsense run in circles: It’s a really excellent franchise, I’d love to be a part of it in any way, but that is way outside of my realm of control.
How would you describe this film to someone to convince them to go see it?
I would ask them if they’ve ever been in love. And even if they hadn’t, would they like to know what it feels like? To hesitate and be unsure and then be vulnerable and laugh and cry and then find out — and hopefully there’s something in the words that I’ve just said that might pique their interest.
A Bleecker Street release, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is now playing in theaters.