David Oyelowo talks ‘The Girl Before’, directing and what fuels him

The Girl Before
David Oyelowo in ‘The Girl Before.’
Amanda Searle/ HBO Max

HBO Max has another thriller on its agenda for 2022.

‘The Girl Before’ starring David Oyelowo, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessica Plummer and Ben Hardy spans four episodes—and luckily in true suspense fashion, nothing in the show is quite as it seems. The story centers around a house built by Oyelowo’s character Edward, and it has many rules. No clutter, no kids, take questionnaire’s about yourself when prompted—and the list goes on and on.

Flashing between the present where Jane (Mbatha-Raw) moves into Edward’s house while simultaneously uncovering what happened to the girl who lived there before, Emma (Plummer), we also get flashbacks to see exactly what unfolded. And the timeline with Oyelowo’s Edward is eerily similar.

Each character deals with traumas in the show that inform how they interact, the mistakes they make and also the choices they make. And as audiences, we begin to uncover more and more throughout the twists and turns.

With directing alongside acting now under his belt (Oyelowo’s directorial debut, ‘The Water Man,‘ was released in 2021), the Oxford native has a new outlook on filmmaking. And he plans to carry that ideology in his production company with his wife, Yoruba Saxon (the name comes from an amalgamation of both of their heritages.) The future looks bright for the actor-director, but whether it’s acting in an HBO thriller or directing a movie for families, the goal is the same: To normalize the marginalized voice, and to bring people together.

What made you want to sign on with ‘The Girl Before’?

When my dear friend Gugu sent me the first two scripts just to see if I might be interested, I found myself so frustrated with her that she only sent me the first two. It was a complete page-turner and I didn’t quite know where it was going or how it was going to conclude. But, on top of that, the character of Edward Monkford was a character of the likes of which I haven’t played before. That’s always going to be attractive to an actor generally, but for me specifically, I literally always seek out those kinds of opportunities.

The Girl Before
David Oyelowo and Jessica Plummer in ‘The Girl Before.’Amanda Searle/ HBO Max

What were some of those characteristics of Edward that you had never played before?

He’s an incredibly controlling individual, but that need for control is tied to trauma. He’s also a brilliant architect, but he’s not a particularly well-rounded family man. And yet, what we are seeing in the show is his relationship with two women, especially when it comes to Jane played by Gugu—she’s looking for something long-term. In the case of Emma, played by Jessica, she’s looking for protection. She has come out of something devastating that has happened to her, and wrongly or rightly, she’s looking for a sanctuary—both in the place she is living and in the person who she is with. For both women, Edward presents shades and aspects of what they are looking for in terms of a more controlled environment and something more defined. But, he also fails them in that he is not someone who trusts as much as one might in a sustainable relationship. So, he’s a complicated human being—he’s equal parts attractive and repellent to these women.

Edward to me is like an onion, we peel back more and more about him as the show goes on. So what would you tell audiences to expect for what unfolds for him?

For Edward specifically and the show generally—nothing is quite as it seems. You sort of summed it up perfectly by saying he’s a bit of an onion that gets peeled back over the course of the four episodes, and that’s what four episodes affords you that maybe the film version of this wouldn’t. You get to sit with these characters a bit more and we get to have our perspectives and opinions about these characters circumvent, and we get to see them change our opinions as we go through. For me, when it comes to Edward, as I was reading it I myself could understand why he was making some of the choices he was. As time went on, even more so I could understand why he was making those choices, but those choices were still very intense, very controlling and very complicated—ill-advised I would say as well. So, two things are happening: You’re getting a sense of why he’s doing what he’s doing, but on the same token, you’re also scratching your head as to why he’s doing what he’s doing because of the effects its going to have on the people he’s engaging with.

The house seems to be an extension of Edward in the show. What part does it play in the story?

I would say that Edward as a character, probably about 20% of who he is as a human being is summed up by how much time is spent in that house. It’s why he as a character is never truly absent in this show, because so much of it plays out in this house of his creation. And not just this house of his creation architecturally or in terms of his design, but the way he sees the world [and] in terms of the questions his house asks of its tenants. The minimalist nature of that house and also the feel of it in its totality—it is both a sanctuary and a prison, it is both cold and in some ways comforting. It has all of those characteristics that he has as a person.

You directed your first film before filming ‘The Girl Before.’ Did the experience of directing change the way you see acting now?

It absolutely does. Directing is a 360, holistic experience of how to put a movie or TV show together, so what I have found is that I have a lot more understanding and empathy for what the director is going through. But also, you have more of a sense of how to get the Swiss clock working well. One of the joys of this for me is that I was very much invited into the script development process. I’m not a producer on this show, but because Edward is so present all of the time even when he’s not in scenes, we did a lot of work around the dialogue and where the scenes go and making sure nothing about the show feels sensational in a way that isn’t grounded—because you’re dealing with traumas in which, unfortunately, some of the audience will have experienced. So, [it] can’t just feel purely like a thrill ride. The show deals with some fairly heavy themes, so working with Lisa (Brühlmann) and Marissa (Lestrade,) JP Delaney and Gugu—we wanted to make sure it earns it dramatic chops. Those were things I feel like I was able to bring to the table.

The Girl Before
David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in ‘The Girl Before.’ Amanda Searle/ HBO Max

On the note of directing, how was your experience making ‘The Water Man’? 

It’s actually a beautiful thing to talk to you about it now months after it came out. Lonnie (Chavis) actually just got nominated for an NAACP image award, which is hugely well-deserved. It was very personal for me and it was very nostalgic as well. I loved watching those kind of films growing up and now as a parent, I was scratching my head as to why we weren’t seeing more films like this that the whole family can watch. Yes they are entertainment and fantastical and adventurous, but they also have themes that touch on some of the tougher things in life much like ‘ET’ did or ‘Stand By Me.’ So, the reaction from the audience has been huge for me. Not only the making of the film, but the film getting to be seen globally in that way, I’ve had so many people tell me how touched they were from it. I couldn’t be more proud and happy that it happens to be the first time I was behind camera.

‘The Girl Before’ premieres on HBO Max Feb. 10, and ‘The Water Man’ is available now to stream on Netflix. 

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