In the four-episode series, Oyelowo stars as Edward Monkford, the brooding architect behind a one-of-a-kind ultra-minimalist home in London that comes with a daunting set of rules. Viewers follow two women, Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Emma (Jessica Plummer), during separate timelines in which they inhabit Edward’s house and subsequently enter relationships with the mysterious owner.
In exchange for affordable rent, the women are expected to live according to Edward’s stipulations: no pictures, no ornaments, no children, no books—the list goes on, to the tune of 200 rules.
Oyelowo’s Edward is unfazed by the home’s unique setup: “All buildings are designed to have an effect on people: castles to intimidate; churches to inspire,” he says in the second episode. “Why shouldn’t a house be designed to give you a framework to live by?”
As Edward’s parallel relationships with Emma and Jane play out, questions of his true intentions — and possible involvement in Emma’s death inside his house — rise to the surface. “It is a whodunnit in the true sense,” Oyelowo muses. “I just found my character to be genuinely intriguing. A very complex guy, someone who is equal parts attractive and also questionable, in terms of his attitude to life, to art, to love, to a moral compass or the lack thereof.”
In several instances, Edward has virtually identical conversations with Emma and Jane (who bear a striking resemblance to one another — and Edward’s late wife). While some may balk at his repeated pick-up lines, Oyelowo isn’t so quick to condemn Edward’s behavior: “I am almost certain most of us, if we had different relationships we had juxtaposed with each other, over a three to five year period, there will be commonality that could easily be deemed questionable.”
The actor takes every opportunity he’s afforded during our conversation to praise the series’ leading ladies: “I’m just incredibly proud of the two central performances in the show,” he says. “Gugu is one of my best friends and is just truly wonderful in the show, but I also think Jessica Plummer just gives a breakout performance. The emotional depths that she mines in the show is really impressive, compelling and heartbreaking. Gugu is well on her way, career-wise — but I have high hopes, and I’m looking for big things from Jessica Plummer as well.”
The enigmatic, potentially sinister role is a true departure for Oyelowo, known best for his acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s “Selma.” “Our business is pretty notorious for pigeonholing people into a box or a lane that is tied to the work we’ve seen people do,” Oyelowo says, crediting Mbatha-Raw with helping him make the leap into new territory. “In all honesty, if Gugu hadn’t called me up, I don’t know if a role like this would come my way. Gugu’s aspirations are to continue to do things that challenge her and challenge the perception of her, so she probably saw things in me that maybe others hadn’t yet.”
So what’s next for Oyelowo as he continues to break new ground as an actor? He’s currently in production for “Wool,” the upcoming Apple TV Plus adaptation of Hugh Howey’s post-apocalyptic science fiction book of the same name. “I’ve done big movies, but nothing quite like this,” he teases. “I feel like an audience member as much as an actor in it, because its ambition is so huge.”
Speaking of ambition: Oyelowo and wife Jessica are producing the upcoming Disney Plus reboot of 1991’s “The Rocketeer,” the aptly titled “The Return of the Rocketeer.” It’s been rumored that Oyelowo will also take on the title role, but he’s not confirming anything just yet: “The new Rocketeer, he’s going to be an ex-Tuskegee airman. So, you know, he is going to be Black. Look, I am an ex-Tuskegee Airman as an actor, having been in ‘Red Tails,’ so you know I would be lying if I didn’t say that I’m curious to see what me plus that equals. But we’ve got to get the script right first, and then go from there.”
Whether he’s acting or working behind-the-scenes, one thread holds true in all of Oyelowo’s projects: championing diversity. “The goal is normalization,” he says, referencing the three Black lead characters of “The Girl Before.” “The goal is to genuinely have a world where it is no big deal whatsoever to have every kind of person under the sun doing every kind of thing under the sun. That is certainly the world I inhabit.”
All four episodes of “The Girl Before” premiere Feb. 10 on HBO Max.