Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessica Plummer on Smelling the Part in The Girl Before
There’s no shortage of weird landlord stories out there, but The Girl Before brings the concept to a whole new level. In it, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (of The Morning Show and Loki) plays Jane, a woman recovering from a recent trauma. She seizes a chance to shed the past—and a lot of her stuff—by moving into a sleek, inexplicably affordable jaw-dropper of a house. The only conditions are that the house will collect data on her (it’s rigged up like a giant “smart” device), and that she must follow a lengthy and exacting list of rules (no gardening, no pictures on the wall, etc.) set by Edward, the home’s mysterious owner and architect [played by David Oyelowo]. In time, Jane learns that Edward has some demons of his own involving the home’s previous tenant Emma [played by Jessica Plummer] who, unsettlingly, turns out to look a lot like Jane.
The four-episode miniseries, based on the best-selling novel by J.P. Delaney (who wrote and executive produced the adaptation) and directed by Lisa Brühlmann (Emmy-nominated for her work on Killing Eve) takes viewers through a harrowing psychological labyrinth filled with twists and turns. But the show was also a head trip for its costars Mbatha-Raw and Plummer, as the cast and crew often struggled to tell the two women apart. Recently, the pair caught up via Zoom, and discussed the eerie feeling of playing doppelgängers, their landlord horror stories, and the show’s recent HBO Max release. — EVELINE CHAO
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: You read a lot of psychological thrillers?
JESSICA PLUMMER: Yeah, it’s my go-to genre. Normally it takes me a few days to get through a script, but this one, I literally sat down and read in one sitting.
MBATHA-RAW: It’s such a page-turner, isn’t it? I love that the show has two female leads, which is so refreshing. And it’s stylish, but has substance. It looks really glossy and cool, with the clothes and the house and the architecture, but the characters have all of these deep, emotional things going on.
MBATHA-RAW: Tell me about the process of getting into Emma. It’s funny, because we never really acted together. So David [Oyelowo] and Ben [Hardy] know your process much more than I do.
PLUMMER: You know what’s so funny? I actually watched an interview you had done, I think ages ago. You spoke about giving your characters a scent, and I was like, oh my god, I’m doing that.
MBATHA-RAW: Wait, you chose a scent for Emma? What was it?
PLUMMER: Jo Malone Lime Basil and Mandarin.
MBATHA-RAW: This is amazing. Jane’s was Le Labo Rose.
PLUMMER: That’s so funny, I almost gave Emma a rose scent.
MBATHA-RAW: Girls connected.
PLUMMER: I know. I thought a rose perfume would be good for Emma, but when I sprayed it on myself, I felt like it needed to have a bit more zing.
MBATHA-RAW: That totally makes sense, because anything citrus has that zing. I feel like Emma, and you naturally, have that vivacious and bright energy. With Le Labo Rose, I wanted something that feels a bit more heavy and sophisticated. Also because of the rose quartz, which both our characters share.
PLUMMER: Once, David and I were in a scene together, and he asked me, “I really like your perfume. What is it?” I told him it was Lime Basil and Mandarin, and he thought that every morning I’d wake up and crush some limes, basil, and mandarin together.
MBATHA-RAW: Grinding the juice for the limes. I love learning that, because we were connected in our process, even though we weren’t on the set at the same time.
PLUMMER: What about you? How did you find your character?
MBATHA-RAW: I don’t know that I ever have one moment where I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got her.” Like you said, I have little things which help get me in the right headspace, and move away from myself. It usually takes about a week. But I don’t stay in character. I come in and out and try and be playful in between, because Jane is quite—
PLUMMER: Heavy, yeah.
MBATHA-RAW: Serious, and I’m not that serious. When you get a feel for a character, do you start to embellish them with ideas of your own? I suppose we’re always bringing our own energy to the character.
PLUMMER: There is a bit of me in all of my characters, because I have to be able to empathize with them to play them truthfully. I purposely didn’t read the book so that I could figure it out as I went along. Other than that, it’s trusting other people to add in their pieces to collectively make this picture. Charlie [Jones, the costume designer] knew how Emma would dress—I wouldn’t have a clue. But when I had all of the clothes on, it was like, oh my god. This is it.
MBATHA-RAW: I had only read the first two [episodes] when I first signed up, because the other two hadn’t been written yet. So I felt like I needed to read the book, especially since I was also a producer. I added a few things which weren’t in the book. Like I loved the scene where Emma dances, but in the book, Jane never dances in the house—that was an idea I brought. I wanted to bring an element of physicality to Jane, because she could seem so uptight and restrained.
PLUMMER: I love that scene.
MBATHA-RAW: I’m so glad. It was a nice parallel between the two women. Another thing that wasn’t in the book was Jane having these dreams — to parallel Emma having those traumatic flashbacks. Even though they’re different to Emma’s flashbacks, they still give us a window into Jane’s emotional state.
PLUMMER: It made me really emotional, the mirroring, because I didn’t know it was going to happen. Because obviously we didn’t shoot together. I cried.
MBATHA-RAW: Have you ever had any landlord nightmares? None like Edward, I hope.
PLUMMER: I haven’t. I’ve had neighbors complain—I’m quite a loud person. Not lately, though. My neighbors are lovely.
MBATHA-RAW: So you’re the nightmare, is what you’re saying?
PLUMMER: It’s me. No, I’ve been really lucky with my landlords. I’m quite a low-maintenance tenant. I just leave things broken—I’m like, “Whatever.” That’s probably something I have in common with Emma. That’s a bit scatty.
MBATHA-RAW: You said you didn’t read the book. Do you prefer to have just the purity of the script to work from?
PLUMMER: Well, I bought the book and did plan to read it. Then I asked Lisa, and she had a conversation with J.P. Delaney, and basically said that everything I need for the character is in the script. I’m going to read it after the show comes out.
MBATHA-RAW: It’s an interesting choice, isn’t it? I’ve done other projects where I’ve started the book then thought, this is nothing like the adaptation, I’m not going to get anything out of this. This one, I was just impatient to know how it ended. Do you remember the first time we saw each other on set? Because we’re supposed to look alike in the show.
MBATHA-RAW: It was a spooky moment. Has anybody ever got us mixed up?
PLUMMER: Remember it was your birthday when we were on set? People were saying happy birthday to me.
MBATHA-RAW: I heard that you milked it and were like, “Thank you. Where are my presents?”
PLUMMER: At first I was like, “I’m not.” Then I realized it’s quite awkward because I’d made them feel awkward. So in the end, I was just like, “Thanks, yeah.”
MBATHA-RAW: That is so funny.
PLUMMER: Three people said happy birthday to me. A few times people would be like, “Oh, Jane,” or, “Gugu.” But the funniest one is that when I first watched the trailer, Noa, my daughter, couldn’t tell me apart from you.
MBATHA-RAW: Your own daughter?
PLUMMER: My own child couldn’t recognize her mother. But it’s funny because when I would see you on set, it was like, “Oh my god, we really look alike.” I don’t think we do [in real life], but in character we do.
MBATHA-RAW: The way the characters were styled to play up the similarities, like the clothes, the hair, it was kind of spooky. I always felt like you should never meet your doppelganger. When I saw you in costume, I felt a bit strange about it. I could see everyone around just being like, is this meant to happen? Are we going to combust? It doesn’t feel natural.
PLUMMER: Yeah. And because I did the majority of my stuff after you had gone, your imprint was there still and people were getting confused with it.
MBATHA-RAW: It’s so funny, because I was actually the girl before, in terms of the shoot schedule. So, obviously The Girl Before has already aired on BBC One. What was that like? And what are you expecting when it comes out in the U.S.?
PLUMMER: I literally tallied down the days until it came out like it was my birthday. The fact that it’s about to be released in the States, and seeing the billboards they have up — it blows my mind. You’ve been in the industry a lot longer than I have. Does it ever settle?
MBATHA-RAW: No. Lisa texted me a picture of us on a billboard in Williamsburg the other day. I was still like, “Oh my god, this is so brilliant.” And then another friend in New York sent another text.
PLUMMER: It’s so crazy.
MBATHA-RAW: That stuff never gets normal. When did you first consider yourself a professional actor?
PLUMMER: Oh my goodness. I just about consider myself an adult. Not to discredit anything that I’ve done previously, but I feel like I’m going along, just trying my best. I know we had this conversation before, that English people have this really polite way of downplaying—
MBATHA-RAW: I know. So modest.
PLUMMER: To even say, “I’m a professional”… I mean, I am a professional actor.
MBATHA-RAW: Oh my god, Jess. Let me break it to you. You are a professional actor and have been for a long time. Sorry, news flash.
PLUMMER: You’re right. I became a professional actor when I was 5 years old, when I put a performance on for my parents.
MBATHA-RAW: There you go. I want to talk about the best wrapped gift that I ever got.
PLUMMER: Oh, perfect.
MBATHA-RAW: Well, my favorite wrapped gift is obviously my mug from you, duh. Which says — I need to get it. It’s in the cupboard. “Best Doppelganger Ever.” It was such a brilliant gift. It made me laugh out loud.
PLUMMER: It was originally meant to be a birthday present, but it took so long to arrive. It came from the other side of the world.
MBATHA-RAW: So you had it especially made? That’s so cute.
PLUMMER: Yeah, I hand-painted it. But I think it came the day before your last day.
MBATHA-RAW: I love it. It made me laugh so much. And because I drink so much tea, and drank so much tea on set.
PLUMMER: Thank you. I am so sentimental — I still haven’t started burning the candle that you got me. I did a job six years ago called How To Talk To Girls At Parties, where Elle Fanning gave me some Earl Grey tea, and I still have it.
MBATHA-RAW: Wow. I don’t think tea goes off. Just keep it in a time capsule.
PLUMMER: Anything given to me by someone, I feel like I can’t use it. Once on the same program, Nicole Kidman was was eating these chocolate-covered rice cakes. This was before I knew I was pregnant, so I was starving. I don’t know if she saw me staring at them, but she was like, “Do you want one?” I was like, “Uh-huh.” But I didn’t want to eat it, just so I could be like, Nicole gave me this rice cake.
MBATHA-RAW: This is Nicole Kidman’s rice cake, guys.
PLUMMER: Yeah, exactly. Put it in a frame. But I ate it because I was starving.
MBATHA-RAW: Please, permission to burn the candle. I want you to enjoy it. I’m sure it’s got a nice smell.
PLUMMER: What’s the most incredible location you’ve ever shot in? I’ve only ever shot in the U.K.
MBATHA-RAW: Apart from the glamorous Bottle Yard Studios in Bristol? I haven’t shot in that many exotic locations. I loved filming in New Orleans, when I did Free State of Jones and also a film called The Whole Truth. I love that city and the culture and history. We actually had one location that you had to take a boat to get to, because it was in the middle of a swamp in a bog.
PLUMMER: Oh wow.
MBATHA-RAW: There was the bayou and you’d see alligators drifting by, their little eyes peeking out over the water.
PLUMMER: No way. That’s scary.
MBATHA-RAW: They weren’t interested in us, they were just sunbathing and didn’t really come out of the water. But that was probably the coolest base camp. But nothing compared with our cool set for The Girl Before.
PLUMMER: I left Bristol a bit heartbroken. I acted like Emma did when she thought she wasn’t going to get the house — I touched every wall in every room and said goodbye. I came back to the studio when it was in the process of being knocked down and it broke my heart. I cried.
MBATHA-RAW: Oh, no. That’s really heartbreaking to see.
PLUMMER: Yeah, you were gone at this point, David was gone, Ben was gone, Folgate Street was gone. I felt like I was at a party and all my friends had left. Quite a lot of my heavy emotional scenes were in that last week, and it didn’t take a lot of digging. I was genuinely—
MBATHA-RAW: You were method. You were fully grieving at the end of the job at the same time.
PLUMMER: The Girl Before was so special to me. It’s always going to be that one thing, no matter what else I go on to do, that has been super special.
MBATHA-RAW: Me too. Just like Emma and Jane, I feel like we’re bonded for life.