One house affects four lives in the adaptation of JP Delaney’s novel, The Girl Before.
Ahead of the series’ HBO Max bow (it premiered late last year on BBC One), Shadow and Act spoke to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Jessica Plummer and Ben Hardy about the depths they had to go to access the traumatic centers of their characters.
Mbatha-Raw, who plays grieving mother Jane, said that her character is “going through a lot” when we first meet her in the series.
“She’s been through this very traumatic stillbirth experience and it’s really looking for a fresh start and somewhere to still all of her emotions. So when the house on Folgate Street comes up, I think for her, it’s just an opportunity to find a sanctuary,” she said. “It is a heavy place [where] she begins [emotionally] but what I like about her trajectory is that she gains power. She gets her power back as the story goes on. I think by the end, we’re left with a sense of hope for her, for her healing, which was really worthwhile for me.”
Mbatha-Raw said she did a large amount of research to get in the mindset of someone like Jane, including learning from first-hand accounts of traumatic births.
“We did some research in terms of the stillbirth aspect of the story, working with Sands [Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity],” she said. “And I spoke to a bereavement midwife and a therapist. Also, a friend of mine generously shared her own experience of having stillbirths. So we were all very conscious that it’s such a sensitive subject. But we wanted to do our best to honor it as authentically as possible within the genre of psychological thriller as well.”
Mbatha-Raw said that a lot of the prep work for the series happened over Zoom with director Lisa Brühlmann “shaping the script” along with input from Mbatha-Raw as associate producer and Delaney. She also said that she was fortunate to have already worked with Oyelowo on projects like Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time.
“Luckily, myself and David already had a shorthand, because we worked together before,” she said. “So, so that was a nice part of the preparation, to know that you are going to be on set with someone that you already have.”
Oyelowo’s character Edward, the enigmatic architect of the Folgate Street house, is also facing his own grief, but his search for emotional sanctuary is much more denigrating to others. His journey to let go of the past includes re-enacting the past with a mental compulsion called repetition compulsion. While Edward’s is extreme, repeating the past isn’t completely unusual if you take, for instance, the different ways the “bargaining” phase of grief can play out.
“I’m actually glad you said that about how it’s not unusual because he is to an extent, in terms of having repetition compulsion, going back to a moment of trauma and trying to relive that sort of psychosexual drama through other people. But you know, what I’ve just described, a lot of people do to a greater or lesser extent is the reality, to be honest,” he said. “One of the main things that drew me to this is just [that] I haven’t been afforded this kind of character before, someone who is equal parts attractive and questionable, someone who is controlling. But that degree of control provides a sanctuary for the two main protagonists of the show.”
He said that even though Edward’s problems with control are evident, he is clearly struggling with his grief and trauma from his past.
“…There’s a lot going on with the character and the trauma that he has in dealing with the loss of his family, which is why he is playing out this sort of repetition…to try and find what he had with his wife again, in having these relationships with women who are reminiscent of his wife. So, [he’s] relatable, but also quite extreme in terms of who he is and what has been played out around him.”
Plummer and Hardy supported Mbatha-Raw and Oyelowo in the series as the first couple to enter the Folgate Street house, Emma and Simon. Again, these characters also endured some trauma, since trauma is what brings people to Folgate Street. The two talked about what it was like delving into their characters’ psyches.
“The prep work is like the juicy bit for me…you know, piecing bits of the puzzle that you don’t necessarily have answered from the script is like the fun bit, um, worked really closely with our director, Lisa Brühlmann,” said Plummer. I didn’t actually meet anyone in the flesh until we started shooting. So everything was done remotely over Zoom. I’ve worked with an amazing acting coach, Giles Foreman, who was incredible. He gave me loads of really helpful techniques that I used during filming and also a therapist that I think supported everybody actually within the storyline.”
Plummer said how with everyone’s characters being “tragic,” the therapist truly helped the actors find their center with their characters and with themselves.
“Everyone’s going through something traumatic and it was so much fun [to play the characters],” she said. “And then you get to bring it to light with all the cast members and now [to] be able to sit back and watch what we made together, I feel incredibly proud and honored to be a part of it.”
“As an actor, it was interesting for me to be able to play this character that is also almost playing a character, like all the different layers to Emma,” she said regarding the challenge of bringing Emma to life. “It was definitely a challenge, but something I was excited by. Also, I think I felt a responsibility to be able to play a person that’s gone through these things realistically for…people that have been in that situation.
“Luckily, I had huge support from so many people and was able to do that comfortably and feeling safe within myself as well, because obviously I am going to a place in order to access those emotions. It was tricky, it was exciting, it was great. It’s been my favorite character to date I’ve ever played.
Hardy used journaling to get into his character, Emma’s boyfriend Simon, since he has a large arc that takes place over three years within the storyline.
“It…was rewarding charting his journey, you know, spanning across the three years,” he said. “I find that really interesting, doing some kind of journal entries across those three years to see how he ends up getting to where he gets to from where we first see him.
“He takes quite the journey and becomes a very different man,” he continued. “I found it interesting, kind of plotting out, how that happened and figuring that out and trying to find out the truthful way of portraying that.”
Simon might be the most dangerously naive of the four characters since he put his girlfriend on a pedestal. His idealistic views of Emma’s perfection were destroyed when Emma suffered a severe sexual trauma. Simon’s tragedy is that he tries to rationalize it in a very emotionally immature way.
“I’d say Simon isn’t really equipped to deal with the situation and he deals with it in totally the wrong way. He kind of makes it about himself, not deliberately, but he struggles a lot with what’s happened to him and how that impacts him,” said Hardy. “He has a very idealized, almost fantastical view of their relationship and of her and these areas as perfect, because this is maybe as close as a hundred percent [as he’ll get]…but his thoughts damaged that and ruined that and that’s ruined this fantasy for him and he finds that hard to take.”
He finds it hard to take [Emma’s trauma], and Emma hadn’t told him about it. So, he makes it about himself. So, you know, I suppose the challenge for me was finding the logic behind playing that and seeing the rationale in that,” he continued. “I think he feels challenged on some kind of primitive level. I don’t agree with it, but I was trying to find a key into someone who was dealing with that in such a really, when you look at it objectively, a very inconsiderate way.”
The house on Folgate Street is a character in itself because it is clearly a symbol of–and a refuge from–grief. Plummer and Hardy talked about how their characters react to the house and develop their own relationships with it.
“I think for Emma, the house…is a place of safety. It is a place where she can feel like this is my fresh start in order to fix herself in order to heal herself in order to escape the things that have happened to her,” she said. “Even though she becomes frustrated with the house near the end, she still doesn’t leave. It’s almost like an abusive relationship…you know, maybe it’s time to move on from, but I think she felt like it was the last thing she had left. She was incredibly attached to the house. I think for her it represented change and she so desperately wanted to change and maybe fold herself into believing that she had done. Um, and didn’t want to let that go.”
“This is Simon’s point of view, but he’s grieving the loss of his relationship. And the relationship for him was everything,” said Hardy. “That’s his version of grief and that’s something that ultimately becomes unbearable for him and he can’t deal with it. It kind of sends him mad…and he ends up making some very, very terrible decisions in the name of love, supposedly, but some kind of warped love that he’s grieving. It’s more of an obsession than love.
The Girl Before is now streaming on HBO Max.