“The Girl Before” is a 4-part series that follows Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young woman who falls in love with a beautiful, ultra-minimalist house designed by an enigmatic architect (David Oyelowo). There’s just a catch though: the occupants must adhere to several strict rules (no shoes, no smoking, no objects on the floor, etc.) and frequent inspections.
Jane starts to feel the house changing her in unexpected ways, but when she makes the shocking discovery about her predecessor, Emma (Jessica Plummer), she’s forced to confront unnerving similarities. As the two women’s timelines interweave, Jane begins to question if her fate will be the same as the girl before.
Emmy-nominated actor David Oyelowo plays Edward Monkford is an obsessive perfectionist that the slightest flaw in his surroundings causes him almost physical pain. His grief has manifested itself into the extreme minimalism present in his architecture and every other aspect of his life. Edward is completely ambiguous – is he dangerous, or merely damaged? A victim, or a killer? Whatever the truth, he’s a tragic figure doomed to repeat the same cycle of behaviour over and over again, unable to move on from his past.
Q: What made you get involved with this project?
DO: My involvement with “The Girl Before” came about partly because of my friendship with Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She and I have known each other for over 10 years now and this may be our third or fourth thing we’ve done together. It was actually a phone call from her saying that she was doing this show “The Girl Before”. It was clearly one she was very passionate about, and she gave me the heads up that some scripts are being sent my way and she sort of had me at “I’m doing it!” i.e. she’s doing it. The scripts were fantastic, and I could see why she had been really drawn to it and the character was the likes of which I hadn’t played before. You know it’s that rare thing where every box was ticked but yeah, she was the first instigator of me being in this show.
Q: You mentioned and touched upon the unique proposition of playing a character like Edward – was there anything in particular about his journey that you wanted to explore?
DO: It’s going to sound odd, considering his questionable nature, but one of the things I was drawn to with “The Girl Before” is that there are things about Edward Monkford that I relate to. He is a perfectionist, very particular about certain things. I like to think that I’m a milder version of that, though my wife may beg to differ. But he also has this fascinating condition called repetition compulsion. In speaking to some therapists for research, I found that we all have a certain degree of this going through life and either making the same mistakes or making some of the same choices – basically habitually finding ourselves in situations that may or may not be healthy for us. And you know, I just found all those elements of him very human, but it’s sort of turned up to a hundred with him.
So, he’s sort of an exaggerated version of things we all have. It was intriguing to explore that, but then also the concept of this guy who is trying to control his life, manipulate his life, be fully in the driving seat of his life to a very unhealthy degree. I think that is something that, if we care to admit it, more of us have than not. And so, to see it in a show like this where it’s a thriller, where it’s about relationships, where it’s about the psychology of people and relationships within that as well, is fascinating.
Q: This property at One Folgate Street really does feel like an integral character of the story – what was your first impression of seeing this work?
DO: It’s one thing to read something and it’s another thing for it to meet your expectations and maybe even exceed them. I mean, it’s not a house I would choose to live in –it’s quite austere, you may even argue cold. But it is remarkable in its design, layout, and feel. You walk in, and it elicits a feeling. And that’s something that is very prevalent in the show. For Gugu’s character and Jessica’s character, it’s about how this house changes people, manipulates people, embraces people and it’s designed to do that. It’s one thing to write that and it’s another thing to actually see it manifest. And so, it’s incredibly impressive – I find it a bit much for me I’m glad to say. But for Edward Monkford, who I play, I think it’s pretty perfect.
Q: Following on from that, what is the one thing from One Folgate Street that you would want to incorporate in your own home?
DO: The atrium with the tree in it, I think is pretty beautiful. I love it when you can combine beautiful architecture with the outdoors, integrated in a way that’s virtually seamless. We do a lot of that in this show actually. My offices – Edward Monkford’s offices – do that to a certain degree. The therapist’s office has a wonderful feel – the combination of concrete, glass and nature I find very pleasing. If I could transport the atrium into my home – that would be the thing I’d take. Please make a call and see what we could do.
Q: Now, finally, house rules require residents to move in with only essential items. So what are the three essential items that you can’t live without and why?
DO: The three things I can’t live without…. Well, Facetime on my phone. When I think of growing up and the lack of mobile phones- I had times where my dad was working in Nigeria, and we were living in the UK and we could only communicate by letters or maybe the telephone. But I travel a lot and just being able to see my kids everyday – even when it’s on this device is huge. You don’t have that thing where you haven’t seen them for weeks and like “oh my goodness, you’ve grown!” or “oh my goodness, you look different!”. You get to see them every day. That is something I could no longer live without.
We’re now just coming out of lockdown where gyms were being closed and again, with travel, you know with staying healthy, staying fit, staying active. My jump rope is something that follows me everywhere and that’s good cardio no matter where you are. It’s a bit weird in hotels when you are making the jumping noise, but I do it anyway. And then what would the other be? My passport – like I say, I move around a lot and without that, it would be a pretty challenging thing to do.
Images and transcript by HBO GO.