Are you hunkering down on the sofa, in need of quality drama to offset all the Quality Street?
Well, you’re in luck. The Girl Before is a prestige BBC thriller starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jane, who moves into a starkly minimalist house designed by a mysterious, charismatic architect. ‘I’d never done a psychological thriller before and I love all the twists and turns,’ says Gugu, 38.
The four-part series is brilliantly suspenseful and Hitchcockian. It’s also a chance for her to reunite with David Oyelowo (they both starred in The Cloverfield Paradox and Come Away), with whom she has been friends ‘for at least 10 years – we met when I first went out to LA’.
He plays the architect who insists on a strict list of rules, which Jane accepts... until she learns what happened to his previous tenant. As associate producer on the series, Gugu had a hand in casting. So she called up David, partly because ‘he has a natural elegance and gravitas, which elevates the whole show’, but also ‘selfishly, to have a friend to work with during the pandemic’.
We’re chatting over Zoom from San Francisco, where she’s filming AppleTV+ drama Surface, produced by Reese Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine. It’s Gugu’s second time working with them after playing tragic TV booker Hannah in The Morning Show.
‘My character had a very serious storyline, so it was a balance between, “Wow, I’m working with these iconic actresses,” but also, “Be cool, you’ve got some heavy work to do,”’ she laughs. ‘I feel sad that I didn’t have many scenes with Jennifer Aniston, but I learned so much from Reese. She’s an absolute powerhouse.’
Between The Girl Before, Surface and Disney+ series Loki (with her old RADA mucker Tom Hiddlestone), it feels as though Gugu’s been working pretty much throughout the pandemic. ‘But there was a massive chunk of time – about five months – when everything shut down,’ she says, remembering her last pre-pandemic premiere: Misbehaviour, about the 1970 Miss World protests. ‘That was the week the world changed. We had the UK premiere of Misbehaviour on Monday night. I flew back to LA to work on Loki on Tuesday, and we were shut down on the Friday.’
I feel sad that I didn’t have many scenes with Jennifer Aniston
She spent the first lockdown in LA, but was home in Oxfordshire for lockdown number two last winter. She found it hard being away from her mum, and says coming home was ‘comforting, especially when the world is going a little bit nuts’. But, when
I ask where her main base is, she answers vaguely, ‘I’m back and forth. I just got a place in the UK at the end of last year, but then moved to Canada to film Surface for five months. Such is the actor’s life.’ She’ll be here for Christmas, then off to Portugal to film Isabel Coixet’s epic romantic drama Nobody’s Heart.
Gugu says her career has built up a tolerance of uncertainty that helped her get through the instability of the past two years. ‘We’re socially conditioned through the school system that there is always a next step, and it’s always progressive,’ she says, explaining that, as an actor, ‘You have to nurture a strength of spirit and a philosophical way of looking at things, so as not to drive yourself crazy. It’s about knowing when to let go and not getting bitter about the what-ifs.’
Now she is used to trusting her own instincts. Back in drama school, an older actor suggested that she Anglicise her name. ‘I never took it very seriously,’ she shrugs. ‘We play so many different characters, with different names. You’ve got to know that you’re coming back to you.’
And we can all learn from Gugu’s faith that things will work out, despite what anyone else says. ‘Because,’ she smiles, ‘there’s no voice that’s more right for you than your own instincts.’
‘The Girl Before’ starts on Sunday 19 December at 9pm on BBC One and iPlayer
Main image: Getty