Girl power

Girl power

By Michael Pickard
December 17, 2021

In production

The Girl Before star Gugu Mbatha-Raw and executive producer Eleanor Moran take DQ inside the making of this psychological thriller and reveal how the actor helped to cast the miniseries in her first producer role.

Having cemented her star status in the US with recent turns in Apple TV+’s The Morning Show and Marvel Studios’ Loki, British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw now returns to the UK to headline the BBC’s dark psychological thriller The Girl Before. The four-part miniseries also marks her first screen credit in a producer role.

Based on JP Delaney’s novel of the same name, the show stars Mbatha-Raw as Jane, who gets the chance to move into a beautiful, ultra-minimalist house designed by enigmatic architect Edward (David Oyelowo). There’s just one catch: the occupants must abide by his list of exacting rules.

As she settles into her new surroundings, Jane starts to feel the house changing her in unexpected ways. But when she makes a shocking discovery about the previous occupant, Emma (Jessica Plummer), Jane is forced to confront unnerving similarities between them. As the two women’s timelines interweave, Jane begins to question if her fate will be the same as the girl before.

Coproduced by HBO in the US and distributed by ITV Studios, the series comes from producer 42 (The English Game, Watership Down) and is written by Delaney, with Marissa Lestrade (Deep State 2) co-writing. Lisa Brühlmann (Killing Eve) directs.

It was around September 2020 that Mbatha-Raw first read early drafts of the first two episodes and became the first actor attached to the project. She was also invited to become an associate producer, a role that included participating in Zoom meetings discussing script development and casting, making her “part of the conversation” for the first time.

The Girl Before stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jane

“For an actor, it’s often really about point of view and being able to shape the story a little bit,” Mbatha-Raw tells DQ. “Starting out in a career in acting, you just want to get work and get experience. I’ve done quite a bit now in different mediums and different genres so, for me, it was really about stretching my muscles and taking a view of the project from a more 360 dimension.

“Acting can be so focused on one character, and I’ve always been interested in what projects have to say, what they’re about, what the messaging is and how you get there. This was the first opportunity that came along and I’m very thankful to 42 for being so inclusive and inviting me to be part of these conversations because it’s been a great learning curve.”

As well as being a “gripping” psychological thriller, The Girl Before stood out to Mbatha-Raw thanks to the fact it has two female leads, with Jane and Emma sharing screen time as the story pivots between two timelines set three years apart. The use of a split screen often highlights the similarities between their experiences living under Edward’s roof.

“It is quite unusual for this genre to have two equally meaty, challenging, complex women who are front and centre of the story,” she notes. “That really caught my attention initially, in the structure of the story and jumping back and forth in different time periods between Emma and Jane. But I love the fact they were both strong, complex characters to play. You don’t always see that in the psychological thriller genre.”

Keen to challenge herself in new genres, Mbatha-Raw had never done a psychological thriller before and, on a practical level, she found comfort in being part of a show in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, having been working in the US for several years.

The series also stars David Oyelowo as Edward

“I haven’t really worked with the BBC since Spooks and Doctor Who, nearly 15 years ago, so it’s been a long time,” she says. “Obviously, to have a juicy lead to come back with was really exciting.”

The themes of minimalism will be relatable to anyone who has watched Marie Kondo’s Netflix series – though far from demanding his tenants simply declutter their lives, Edward’s exacting rules exert an air of control over both Jane and Emma as the house takes on a personality of its own.

“The house is almost a representation of his mind in some respects. He is a perfectionist and controlling in how the tenants operate in his space,” Mbatha-Raw explains. “I thought that was a really interesting theme. Also, all of the characters go through different traumas and deep emotional experiences. As well as being this glossy, edge-of-your-seat thriller, it’s also grounded by these very relatable traumas that people have been through. There was a lot there to get my teeth into you. I love the fact it showed how the house, in some ways, became a vessel for healing, especially Jane, for her to get her power back, after having this deep grief.”

When viewers first meet Jane, they are unsure of her backstory. But it soon becomes clear she has recently lost a baby and is looking for a fresh start – one she finds in Edward’s house.

“She’s ambitious, she’s professional, she’s quite contained. Initially when she meets Edward, there is an intellectual spark between them. And then, later on, they bond over their loss because Edward has also lost his child and his wife,” says the actor, whose credits also include Black Mirror episode San Junipero.

Jessica Plummer plays Emma, the titular ‘girl before’

“That’s the point at which we meet her. She gets drawn into the house and drawn into the strangeness of Edward. She’s intrigued by him, she appreciates his genius, his perfectionism and the minimalism. There’s something about it that she finds soothing in a way, but it becomes a little bit disturbing as things go on.”

After reading those early script drafts, Mbatha-Raw sat down with Delaney’s novel, which has sold more than a million copies since it was first published in 2016. Her conversations with him and Lestrade centred on ensuring the female characters felt as three-dimensional and as grounded as possible, despite the heightened reality of the house. She would give notes and read new drafts as they were completed.

Then when it came to casting, she worked with casting director Amy Hubbard (The Outlaws, Honour) to look at potential actors for the series. The role of Emma was particularly specific as, for reasons that will be revealed in the story, the character needed to have a passing resemblance to Mbatha-Raw’s Jane.

“It was wonderful to be a part of the process of finding our Emma and finding Jessica, who’s just so perfect in the role,” she says. “She has such great energy and also emotional depth that resonates with the character.”

As for the role of Edward, Mbatha-Raw had previously worked with Oyelowo on 2018 feature The Cloverfield Paradox and so let him know he would be receiving the scripts and told him how he would be great as the character.

Eleanor Moran

“It’s nice to be at the stage where you can reach out to a peer in that way and hope they will be interested in the project, while also knowing it was going to be something hopefully challenging and different from anything he’d done before.”

The rights to the novel were previously held by director Ron Howard (Apollo 13) with a view to a feature adaptation. But when they became available again, 42 snapped them up and developed the miniseries for a year before it was greenlit by the BBC last Christmas. HBO Max then signed on as the US partner.

Executive producer Eleanor Moran, head of TV at 42, points to the story’s heightened yet emotionally driven premise as something that sets it apart from other psychological thrillers.

“The book is brilliant, but having the four-hour serialised format really allowed us to dig into those characters,” she says. “Having an actress as accomplished as Gugu playing Jane, she brought an enormous amount to it and made fantastic suggestions. It’s probably more of a character study than the book is. JP was incredibly collaborative and not too precious about changing his work, which was wonderful.”

Moran was a junior executive at the BBC when she first saw Mbatha-Raw on screen in spy drama Spooks, and has since tracked the actor’s career across the Atlantic. During lockdown, she caught up with The Morning Show and was hugely impressed by her turn as Hannah, a talent booker who is central to the series’ sexual abuse storyline. Moran and director Brühlmann agreed Mbatha-Raw would be a “dream” casting choice, and once she joined “it was full steam ahead.”

As a producer, “I felt like [her] having the opportunity to shape it with us would be really advantageous,” Moran says. “It was a really fruitful experience. It was in no way just an empty offer. We really got into the weeds together, and she had amazing input into the script. She and Lisa worked really closely together in pre-production too, and she was also fantastic with the casting. I don’t know if we would have got David without her being such a fantastic producer with us.”

Mbatha-Raw admits it was “strange” being on the other side of the casting process, which she says forces you to define what a project really is as you choose which actors will bring each character to life.

“In a way, it’s not just about talent, it’s about the tone and the energy that people bring,” she notes. “That was fascinating to me because there are any number of people who potentially could have played these roles, but you really have to define the balance of the casting. That’s a real skill, and I really respect casting directors for that, especially with an intimate piece where it’s almost a quartet. The balance of everybody is as key as how talented or right for the part one person is. Once you have one piece of the puzzle, you’ve got to make sure that the rest really fits tonally as well.”

The Girl Before debuts on BBC One this Sunday

Brühlmann brings a sleek visual style to a series that could have looked cold and sterile, such is Edward’s focus on minimalism. Instead, the house is often warm and inviting, with Jane and Emma able to set its different ‘moods.’ The interiors were created by production designer Jon Henson and built in a warehouse, while the front of the house was constructed on a real street in Bristol, which serves as the backdrop to the series.

“What JP would say is the house is Edward’s brain made concrete,” Moran says. “For all the scenes where Edward isn’t there, the house stands in for Edward. What we wanted to do was find both that minimalism and that wow factor, for it to be an inviting space and also a space that can have different moods. The house does feel different in different scenes, and it goes from being a haven to being more of a prison. The house has its own emotional arc.”

Though Mbatha-Raw will “always be an actor first” and was careful to protect that creative space during filming, which took place from March to June this year, she is continuing her journey as a co-executive producer on Surface, another psychological thriller produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine for Apple TV+. She recently completed filming in Vancouver.

“That show is eight episodes so it’s a little bit bigger, a little bit more of a time commitment, and we’re actually in post-production on that show now,” she says. “I’m looking at cuts of the pilot and the first few episodes and going through with notes on the edit, which I didn’t really have as much time to do on The Girl Before because I was shooting Surface. It’s about protecting your creative energy and the bandwidth that you have when you’re on set. But I’m really excited to be an executive producer on Surface.”

Before that series launches, The Girl Before promises to be “an edge-of-your-seat, gripping thriller” that Mbatha-Raw believes is quite different from anything else on television in the run-up to Christmas.

“It asks the audience a really interesting question – what would you do in this situation if you were offered the chance to live in this extraordinary house, but you had to live under these extraordinary rules?” Moran adds. “I also hope they will really empathise with Jane and Emma and go on the journey with them.”

But as one of the biggest fixtures on the BBC’s festive schedule this year – it launches this Sunday on BBC One over consecutive nights and BBC iPlayer – it’s notable that there’s not a bauble in sight in The Girl Before.

“I can’t even imagine any Christmas decorations. Edward would have an absolute fit,” Mbatha-Raw jokes. “If he can’t handle any books or cushions in the house, Christmas decorations are definite no-no!”

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