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Freida Pinto brings Jane Austen-style film of her dreams to life in 'Mr. Malcolm’s List'

“My imagination was already rife with the possibility of playing these characters,” the actress said.
Image: Freida Pinto
Freida Pinto stars as Selina Dalton in "Mr. Malcolm's List."  Ross Ferguson / Bleecker Street

For actor Freida Pinto, getting cast in a "Pride and Prejudice"-style romantic comedy was in many ways the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. A longtime fan of both classic literature and British romantic comedies, she jumped at the chance to star in a project that was an ideal combination of both.

“When I first lived in London, I lived in Notting Hill, in part because of the movie,” the Indian star told NBC News of her all-time favorite rom-com, adding that she also always admired “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and various Jane Austen adaptations. “I can watch it over and over. I just love the dialogue, it melts my heart.”

Pinto’s new film “Mr. Malcolm’s List” — in which she serves as both the star and the executive producer — is a very proper historical comedy of manners that will likely instantly connect with fans of shows like the Netflix smash hit “Bridgerton.”

Based on the 2009 novel by Suzanne Allain, the film tells the story of the titular Mr. Malcolm, a very exacting bachelor in 1818 England with a long list of standards. Pinto — who first burst onto the scene with her star-making turn in the 2008 Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” —  portrays main character Selina Dalton, a sweet young woman from the country who is thrown into his path by her childhood friend Julia (Zawe Ashton), a wealthy heiress who has reasons of her own to take Mr. Malcolm down a peg.

“For me this movie is a mishmash of ‘Emma’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ and ‘Notting Hill’ –- which is my all-time favorite rom-com,” said Pinto, who added that she has watched all of the listed movies countless times. Pinto’s in-depth knowledge of Jane Austen — and particularly the deep and highly descriptive ways Austen wrote about women in the early 1800s — also provided crucial context as she brought Selina to life. “Of course I loved 'Pride and Prejudice,'” growing up, said Pinto. “And also ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ — I was really moved by the women in ‘Sense and Sensibility.’”

While there has been a recent push to diversify the world of historical dramas with more people of color, Pinto notes that she personally had always been able to envision herself in the world of Regency England, simply because she had always immersed herself in stories about that era. “I studied English literature in college and I grew up reading Jane Austen,” Pinto told NBC Asian America during a recent video call from her home in Austin. “My imagination was already rife with the possibility of playing these characters.”

Image: Freida Pinto
Freida Pinto in "Mr. Malcolm's List." Bleecker StreetRoss Ferguson / Bleecker Street

But while Pinto had always seen herself in Regency-era dramas, until recently casting actors of color in historical films and television shows was relatively rare, even though people of African and Asian descent have lived in the United Kingdom for hundreds of years. Pinto’s co-star Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, who is Black, noted the glaring lack of diversity in Regency dramas during a recent interview with IndieWire, noting that the reason he avoided the genre was “the absence of people who look like me.”

In addition to getting the chance to star in a historical drama that closely mirrored so many of her favorite stories, Pinto’s instant connection to the characters of Selina and Julia was also a big part of why she knew she also wanted to be an executive producer of the feature length project. “As a producer, I was lending my name hoping it would attract financiers,” she said, adding that a big part of her producing experience involved hoping “someone would take a chance” on a project she wholeheartedly believed in.

Some of the push and pull between the sisters in "Sense and Sensibility," can be seen in "Mr. Malcolm’s List" through the sibling-like relationship between Pinto’s serious and practical Selina and Ashton’s impulsive Julia. “I can’t wait for audiences to embrace Zawe’s character,” said Pinto of Julia, the misunderstood heiress at the center of the film who attempts to turn Selina into the woman of Mr. Malcolm’s dreams. Pinto and Ashton first worked together on the Showtime drama “Guerrilla.” “She, to me, is the heart of the story.”

Pinto adds that she is particularly proud that the on-screen chemistry of the cast — which includes actor Theo James and "Emily in Paris" cast member Ashley Park in addition to Dirisu and Ashton — was exactly what she always envisioned. Those tight bonds proved to be particularly important as the actors worked to film their scenes on location in Ireland in the midst of the pandemic and following heightened safety protocols. “There were so many moments of fun between the takes,” she said. “This is the dream cast that I always had in mind. It’s been such a wonderful journey.”

It’s also been quite a long journey. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” began as a short film that immediately attracted attention from historical drama fans when it was first released in 2019 through Refinery29’s Shutterbox project, which aimed to both spotlight female filmmakers and unconventional stories. 

While 2022 audiences may naturally think of "Bridgerton" when they see a diverse cast in a very proper English comedy of manners, director Emma Holly Jones has spoken about how her then-unusual approach to casting her historical drama was actually inspired by the blockbuster popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash Hamilton.

“It completely challenged my preconception of what a period drama could be. Where it could go as a genre,” Jones recently told The Hollywood Reporter about seeing Hamilton on Broadway. “I felt like of everything I had seen before, it started to put a lot into question.” Many of those preconceptions, she said, revolved around what a Regency hero and heroine were expected to look like on screen. Hamilton, Jones added, gave her the freedom to allow “my imagination could go wherever it wanted to go” when she began casting both the short film and subsequent feature.

But while “Mr. Malcolm’s List” preceded “Bridgerton” in many ways, Pinto says she and the rest of the cast fully embrace all comparisons to the now-beloved Netflix series. “It doesn’t matter who was first. If it hadn’t been for ‘Bridgerton,’ there wouldn’t be an audience for this film. We all end up helping each other,” said Pinto. “We are really happy for the phenomenon that is ‘Bridgerton.’”

Pinto is also grateful for the chance to bring audiences a story that is fun and upbeat at a time when the news often isn’t. “We’ve living in a time where every thing is so hard,” she said. “It’s nice to work on something so hopeful.”