Spoilers ahead for the HBO Max miniseries The Girl Before.
Jessica Plummer once joked that she wanted a “lighthearted” role after portraying a domestic-abuse survivor on the BBC’s EastEnders. That didn’t happen. In HBO Max’s new limited series The Girl Before, Plummer portrays Emma Matthews, a sexual-assault survivor who finds herself trapped in an ultraminimalist house designed by Edward Monkford (David Oyelowo). An architect who enforces a strict set of rules for any tenant who can pass his tests, Monkford prohibits pets, clutter, and all children. The London real-estate market must be vicious because Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) jumps at the chance to inhabit the concrete edifice at 1 Folgate Street just three years after Emma mysteriously dies there.
Plummer has a diverse array of credits, from her debut in the children’s show Wizards vs. Aliens to performing alongside Taylor Swift in the pop girl group Neon Jungle. Plummer exudes a sense of put-together-ness that departs from Emma’s youthful enthusiasm, but she refers to her character in The Girl Before as “my Emma” and speaks of Emma’s traumas and triumphs as if they were her own. In a Zoom conversation with Vulture, Plummer talked minimalism, developing authentic trauma responses with a therapist, and using Skream’s “Tortured Soul” to channel Emma’s inner turbulence.
Would you ever live in an ultraminimalist house like 1 Folgate Street?
They say, Clear space, clear mind. If I showed you my house, it would explain why my mind isn’t so clear. There’s definitely something to choosing the minimalist lifestyle. I know it’s become quite popular these days. For me, I don’t think it would last. I’d be like, Excellent. How do we fill this space? What shoes can I buy? What clothes can fill that gap?
What did you think 1 Folgate Street would look like before you visited the set?
I imagined it completely differently. Still pretty minimal, but in my head it was white. I don’t know if it’s the same in the book, but in one of the original scripts I read, it was described as white. Then the art department and camera were like, That will look terrible. We’re going to change it. I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for seeing what it actually became. It was so breathtaking.
What were you thinking when you walked through it the first time?
My face was probably really similar to Emma’s face when we see her in the first scene. As you see it on TV is what it was in real life. Sometimes with sets, they put different rooms in different parts of the studio, but it was all contained in one space. The stairs actually led to a real upstairs. You had the balcony you could look over, the two garden areas with the trees. So much detail and hard work went into it. The only thing missing was central heating.
I know you joked in the past that after your role on EastEnders, you wanted to do something lighter, but you ended up doing a lot of heavy, emotionally charged scenes in The Girl Before. How did you prepare to play Emma, and how did you decompress after filming?
I spoke with therapists, and I spoke with an acting coach who gave me techniques to access those emotions in ways that were detached from myself so coming out of it was easy. There have been times when, for an audition or something like that, I’ve had to be emotionally there, so I used my own experiences. As much as it works, it can be pretty dangerous to be doing that constantly for three months. We had this technique where I would assign a piece of music to Emma’s mood, whether she’s feeling happy, sad, shameful. I would listen to it while I would learn my lines for that scene; I would listen to it constantly while I practiced it. When it came to the day, I would listen to that piece of music, and instantly that feeling was there. As soon as they said “cut” for me, I’m back in the room, and I’m me again.
What are some songs you used to channel Emma?
A lot of them were classical pieces, so no lyrics or anything attached to it. I’ve got a playlist called “Emma Likes,” and sometimes I’ll listen to that because that’s what Emma likes to listen to. One of them is “Tortured Soul” by Skream.
What backstory did you make up for Emma while developing the character?
My Emma didn’t have siblings. Her mum was quite young but very much involved in romantic relationships, and Emma carried a lot of feelings of maybe not neglect but needing to feel as though she needs to prove herself and constantly be on a high. She wants to sweep everything under the carpet and pretend none of it happened, which I think a lot of people can relate to. She had quite a few short-term relationships. Ben Hardy, who plays Emma’s boyfriend Simon, and I spoke loads about their relationship, how they got together, how long they had been together, the fact that it had all happened very quickly because it was convenient. Potentially, Emma just needed somewhere to stay, so she was like, Let’s move in together right now, and never really planned to invest in that relationship. Then she did start to love him, but it just wasn’t right.
There’s a really interesting scene in episode three when the police interrogate Emma on lying about her rapist’s identity before they charge her with perjury. She originally claimed her assailant was a burglar named Ray Nelson when it was actually her ex-boyfriend Simon’s best friend. How do you think Simon’s presence affected her statement?
As much as he wasn’t the right person for her romantically, she does care about his feelings, and when the police gave her that opportunity to lie, they planted that seed in her head. She was like, Well, I’m going to take that. Rather than have to confess to everybody, Here I was, flirting with your best friend in front of everyone and leading him on, it’s like, There’s assumptions being made here by the police. I’m going to roll with it. He’s a bad person who needs to go to jail anyways, so why not just put the blame on him? It snowballed into this huge, big thing, which she regretted and wanted to take back. But when you’re too far down the rabbit hole and there’s no turning back, you gotta go with it.
While filming scenes like the police questioning, were you thinking about any real-world stories, such as that of Sarah Everard, who was killed by a police officer, or the many cases of missing women of color?
The level of frustration hearing about stories like that was the fire in my belly for playing those scenes. At that moment, I was that woman. There is this systematic fear in women to speak up because we feel like we question if it wasn’t entirely our fault. We automatically put the blame on ourselves; we’re told it’s our fault. I spoke to a therapist and did other research. My role in EastEnders was similar in that there was a double life and feeling like she had to keep this secret. In both cases, my roles are examples of women being let down by the system.
In The Girl Before, you’re directed by a fellow actor and a woman. How did that affect the more challenging scenes?
From the get-go, I felt taken under the wing of Lisa Brühlmann, our director. She was very hands-on in the prep before we started. She wanted to rehearse things. She wanted to talk about my concerns. She made me feel 100 percent supported, as though she also trusted me and what I would bring to the role and to the character and wanted to collaborate on experimenting with different things. We built up a relationship before we even met in the flesh because everything was done over Zoom. When it comes to doing the trickiest scenes, knowing you have somebody you feel 100 percent safe with made it that much more easy.
How did you film the staircase death scene?
We actually started rehearsals for that before Folgate was even built. There was an amazing group of stunt professionals who are the people you see falling down the stairs. That’s not me. I was in the buildup to it and the bit before the push. When the push happens, I just fell on a safety mat. It’s fun to film scenes that are so charged like that. They’re exciting.
You performed at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show as part of the pop group Neon Jungle. What was it like sharing a stage with Taylor Swift?
Oh my God, unreal. The fact that I can say I did that — I’m at a dinner party, and people are reeling off cool facts about themselves, and for me, it’s 100 percent the fact that I did Victoria’s Secret’s Fashion Show when I was 20 years old. It was crazy because we had formed as a girl band, but I don’t think our song had even come out in the U.K. and we were being flown over to New York. It was just like, Oh my God, is this my life now? Me and Taylor Swift are going to be best friends. She’s just the sweetest girl in the whole world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.