“Selma” star David Oyelowo has played spies, saints, and even a guy who drowns a dog in “Chaos Walking,” but you’ve never seen him in a role quite like Svengali-esque architect Edward in “The Girl Before,” which premieres on HBO Max on Feb. 10. It’s based on the 2016 novel of the same name by J.P. Delaney, who adapted it for television.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Jane, who’s trying recover from a tragic loss. She applies to live rent-free at One Fulgate House, an ultra-modern, minimalist house designed by Edward, who has some very strict rules for his tenants. Jane encounters his rarely-given approval, and he soon makes his romantic intentions towards her clear. He becomes her lover as well as her landlord, but when she learns the previous female tenant, Emma (Jessica Plummer) – who looked remarkably like her – died in the house, she wonders if she can really trust him.
Oyelowo had his doubts about playing such a smooth and controlling lothario, who recalls Elisabeth Moss’s obsessive billionaire boyfriend in “The Invisible Man.”
“It was something I hadn’t done before, but also something I didn’t really know I could do,” he told TheWrap recently via Zoom. “He’s someone who you have to believe he can attract these women, but also someone who there is something questionable about all at the same time and that’s a bit of a juggling act. But I like a challenge.”
As it turns out, it was Mbatha-Raw who recommended him for the role. “My dear friend Gugu Mbatha-Raw was the one who called me up about it. I am still wondering why she thought I was the right person to play Edward,” he laughed. “I think it’s one of the only times an actor has reached out to me to offer me a role, so I’m very glad it was her. Gugu’s one of the loveliest people in the world.”
He read the script, which he called “a genuine page-turner,” and was immediately hooked on the story’s dual timeline and unfolding mystery.
“When Gugu sent me the project, she was only able to send me the first two episodes and I was incensed by that. I was so desperate to know what was going to happen next. And I thought, ‘Well, if I feel that way, hopefully the audience will as well,’” he said. “But I am particularly happy that this is going to be a show that is bingeable on HBO Max. I do think it’s quite ‘more-ish,’ as in you just can’t get enough. When it came out in the U.K., it was on consecutive nights, and even that was frustrating for people. I think there are going to be a lot of people who are going to be – whether knowingly or unknowingly or unintentionally – sitting in front of this for the full four hours.”
Walking onto the set of the forebodingly cold house – which is as Gothic in its own way as Maxim de Winter’s rambling mansion Manderlay in “Rebecca” – helped him get into the headspace of man who demands everything and everyone in his life be perfect.
“You normally have this when you put on a costume or you see the makeup, but that house was such an insight into Edward’s psyche, into his mentality, into his emotional state. And into this controlling aspect to him. That house really helped me,” he said.
He laughed as he added, “Look, I’m an anally tidy person myself, but this guy takes it quite a few notches above anything that could be considered healthy. But the show is looking, in some ways, at the effects of trauma. For Edward, there’s no getting away from the fact that he is someone who you would want to approach with caution, but over the four episodes, you [begin to] have some degree of understanding of why he is the way he is.”
He also jumped at the chance to work with director Lisa Brühlmann: “Her film, ‘Blue My Mind,’ about a prepubescent girl who envisages herself as a mermaid, is such a surreal concept, but beautifully rendered. She was a huge highlight of doing the show as well.”
And he’s glad that the series, which was filmed in 2021, didn’t have the same exacting COVID protocols as when he was shooting Nate Parker’s “Solitary” in 2020. “Olivia Washington and I play lovers, so every time we had an intimate scene, we would have to use mouthwash and they would come in and sort of fumigate the bed. It was over the top. My mouth was burnt raw.”
He joked that he wouldn’t have survived if he’d had to undergo that kind of post-kiss treatment with all the make-out sessions in “The Girl Before.” “I would not have teeth or a mouth, it would have been eroded by the sheer amount of mouthwash needed on that one,” he laughed. “So thankfully, we had learned our lesson by then.”
“The Girl Before” is just one of the three TV shows he filmed last year, including the limited series “Wool,” for Apple TV+, and Searchlight Pictures’ murder mystery, “See How They Run,” opposite Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell, and Adrien Brody.
“Bizarrely, considering it’s in the midst of a pandemic, 2021 was probably the most I had worked in a given year,” he added. It’s definitely as busy as I’ve ever been. I also run a production company [Yoruba Saxon], and I’m a father of four, and I have a lovely wife. So yeah, life is full.”
“The Girl Before” premieres on HBO on Thursday, Feb. 10.