The Girl Before cast joined us for a Zoom interview to discuss filming the stylish and chilling psychological thriller on BBC1 and HBO Max.
The four-part self-contained drama stars David Oyelowo as successful architect Edward Monkford and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as bereaved businesswoman Jane Cavindish, while former EastEnders stars Jessica Plummer and Ben Hardy star as Edward’s tenants, young couple Emma Matthews and Simon Wakefield.
Here, they reveal secrets from filming and explain what viewers can expect when the new four-part series airs on BBC1 over four consecutive nights from Sunday, Dec. 19…
‘The Girl Before’ cast interview: Setting the scene…
With the London property market what it is, top tier architect Edward Monkford should have no problem letting out One Folgate Street, his minimalist, museum-like house with a surprisingly affordable rent. Edward, however, isn’t looking for an ordinary tenant in The Girl Before…
Edward designed the impressive property and insists that it must be lived in as he intended. This means following hundreds of non-negotiable rules – including no pictures, ornaments or books – and filling out an involved questionnaire peppered with moral headscratchers such as, would you sacrifice yourself to save ten innocent strangers?
“When the scripts came in I literally did not move until I got all the way through. I was completely compelled and intrigued,” says David Oyelowo, who’s starred in Spooks, Star Wars: Rebels and Les Misérables.
“I called my friend, architect David Adjaye, and asked him about high-level architects. What does it do to your personality to drive around and see giant buildings that came from your head? There’s a god complex that goes with it.”
The arrival of Jane
In the opening episode of the four-part thriller a personal tragedy brings businesswoman Jane Cavindish onto the rental market. Impressed by the space and eager to let go of her past, she moves into the impersonal property.
As the first person in three years to pass Edward’s exacting selection process, Jane quickly becomes intrigued by his unrelenting intensity.
“Jane’s been through this life-changing grief, so she sees the house as a fresh start and a calming place where she can heal,” says Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who’s starred in Spooks, Doctor Who, The Morning Show and Loki. “She uses the house as a cocoon.”
Initially Jane’s unfazed by Edward’s non-negotiable rules and the automated housekeeping system that dictates everyday life, including bedtime and brushing her teeth!
“There’s an intellectual spark between Jane and Edward,” says Gugu, 38. “She is curious about the OCD elements of him, and there’s a deep connection when they talk about their pasts.”
Emma – the girl before Jane
The atmosphere takes a darker turn when Jane makes an unnerving discovery about the death of previous occupant Emma Matthew, who lived there with her boyfriend Simon Wakefield three years previously…
“Edward’s literally saying the same things to both women as he’s building these relationships,” says David, 45. “He has certain lines he uses, certain places he takes them. The juxtaposition is super creepy.”
Based on P.J. Delaney’s bestseller The Girl Before parallels Emma and Jane’s experiences, revealing sinister patterns, as Edward gets more involved in their lives.
“I didn’t read the book. I made that mistake on The Last King of Scotland. I read the book and the character I played was so different, it was torture for me!’ reveals David.
“I read it after I got the part,” says Ben Hardy, who’s starred in EastEnders, X-Men: Apocalypse, and The Woman in White. “I wish I had read it before the audition, but I didn’t have time and I did a little Wikipedia search. So, sadly, when I read the book, I already knew what was going to happen, but I still really enjoyed it… it got under my skin!”
Compelling TV viewing
“The script was phenomenal,” says Jessica Plummer, who has starred in EastEnders. “I read it all in one sitting. Normally, my attention span isn’t that great, but I was completely absorbed.”
“Yes, you feel compelled to know what happens next,” adds David.
“I’ve never done a psychological thriller before… to be a part of something like this, really keeps you guessing,” says Gugu. “All the characters are so layered. Everyone’s got a complicated backstory or is struggling with different psychological and emotional issues. It’s really refreshing and exciting”
The setting: A real property? A set? Both?
“It’s a combination. I don’t want to spoil it too much. A lot of the interior was designed especially. The exterior – the magic of television! – is somewhere else,” reveals Gugu. “For me, walking onto the set for the first time really was a ‘wow’ moment. The production designer did such an incredible job. It gave me chills to actually step into that space.
“How we use that space in the different time periods, can really change mood and energy as the story changes.”
“The house absolutely dictates how Ben, Emma, and Jane engage with it,’ agrees David. “I got a real sense of Edward after walking onto the set.”
“Walking into One Folgate Street and seeing the set was breathtaking,” says Jessica, 29. “It was probably my favorite filming location. It did feel the same way as my character described it – like a fortress. I felt so safe, relaxed, and comfortable there. We were a small cast, and we were quite close – especially with the crew.
“But, as much as One Folgate was my favorite place to film, it was very cold there. It was a warehouse, not a studio, so there were no radiators. You could see your breath in front of your face!”
Unnerving the cast
Edward’s rules, regulations and manipulations are unsettling to watch as a viewer. But how did the cast feel?
“I find the questionnaire really interesting,” says Ben, 30. “It is such a clever device. It brings you on the journey with the characters, it involves you – what would you do in this situation? Could you fit into this house? It’s very inclusive and subconsciously drew me in.”
“Emma uses distractions as a coping mechanism,” hints Jessica. “She wants to put to bed things that aren’t working anymore and reinvent herself all over again. The reason why she does that is interesting…”
“I was unnerved by the moment where I had to admit that I am in some ways – only in some ways! – similar to my character,” laughs David. “I’m quite anally tidy and I married someone who went by the name ‘messy Jessy’ growing up. There is a moment that juxtaposes both Jessica and Gugu’s characters in the first episode. Gugu’s character is hanging her clothes up neatly. Jessica’s character is just throwing hers in. I am definitely ‘the carefully hanging my things up.’
“So, there were moments where Edward Monkford would say things and I would find myself going, ‘Yeah!’ And considering how questionable he is, it was unnerving anytime there was an overlap!”
Jane and Emma’s characters exist in different time periods, so what was it like for the stars of the show when they’d cross over behind the scenes?
“Whenever we would see each other on set in costume we’d always get a bit freaked out, because we’d be like ‘this shouldn’t be happening,’” says Gugu. “It was a strange, surreal moment!”
“This is a funny thing to admit, but I would find myself feeling like I was having an affair by talking to one or the other because of the nature of what we were shooting,” says David. “My character is literally saying some of the same things, as he’s courting these women and building these relations. It was a very odd thing.”
Could ‘The Girl Before’ stars live in One Folgate Street?
“I couldn’t handle being observed and having to fill out the questionnaires. But in terms of the minimalist design, I think I would really enjoy that. Nothing on the walls and completely bare Spartan living is up my alley!” says Ben.
“I don’t think I could, it’s just not cosy,” says Gugu “I like somewhere with a bit of soul. I feel like it might be fun for a week or a holiday or to have a party there, but actually to live, I wouldn’t be able to. I like stuff!”
“Yeah, I agree,” says Jessica. “As a holiday I would enjoy it. One thing that I think I could quite like, because I’m really indecisive, is someone timing how long I need to brush my teeth and when the light should go out because it’s bedtime. I could get with that!”
“I think it might be fun for a sexy weekend. But that’s about it!” agrees David. “I mean, where are the doors on the shower for goodness sake? You can pretty much see someone having a shower from the kitchen. No one needs that! And we never found the toilet, by the way. Edward basically decided that is an unessential part of life!”
Is Edward an eccentric genius or a dangerous control freak? And is Jane in danger of suffering the same fate as Emma?
The Girl Before airs over four consecutive nights on BBC1 from Sunday 19 December until Wednesday 22 December at 9pm nightly.
The Girl Before will air on HBO Max in the US, although we don’t know when the show will appear on the streaming platform just yet.