‘Baby Reindeer’ Creator Richard Gadd Has ‘Conflicting Feelings’ About His Trauma Becoming a Pop Culture Sensation

TheWrap magazine: “‘Baby Reindeer’ comes with its challenges, but I think I’ll look back on this moment as a proud one,” says the Scottish comedian

Richard Gadd in "Baby Reindeer"
Richard Gadd in "Baby Reindeer" (Netflix)

Eight years ago, Richard Gadd had a breakthrough in his career and in his life. The Scottish comedian went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with a one-man stage show called “Monkey See Monkey Do,” which was the first time he’d incorporated his real life into his work. The show, which he performed on a treadmill, detailed his grooming and sexual abuse at the hands of an older and more successful comedy writer — and while it required a brutal honesty to put his experience on an Edinburgh stage every night for a month, it was also freeing.

“Of all the techniques I had tried to understand all the things I’d gone through, nothing had the power and impact that processing it into art did,” he said.

He did something similar three years later with another Fringe show called “Baby Reindeer,” in which Gadd talked about being stalked by a woman who he said groped him and bombarded him with emails, texts and threats. Those two shows became the basis for a seven-episode Netflix limited series also called “Baby Reindeer,” which fictionalizes the stories to some degree and changes the names: Gadd plays a version of himself named Donny Dunn, Jessica Gunning plays the stalker, who is named Martha Scott in the series; Nava Mau plays Donny’s girlfriend, a trans woman named Teri; and Tom Goodman-Hill plays Darrien O’Connor, the predatory comedy writer. 

When he first began telling his story on stage, and again when the show premiered, Gadd asked his audience not to try to identify the real people who inspired his characters. But with the success of “Baby Reindeer,” which became one of Netflix’s most-watched shows around the world, a woman came forward, claimed she was the model for Martha, denied many of the details in the show and threatened to sue Gadd and Netflix for what she said was the damage done to her reputation.  This interview with Gadd, Gunning and Mau took place before that woman told her story to Piers Morgan on British TV.

Two of the biggest pop culture sensations of the last couple of months have been Taylor Swift’s album, which is thought to be all about her two latest breakups, and “Baby Reindeer,” which comes from your life. Maybe in an AI world, people are looking for things that feel like honesty?

RICHARD GADD: Are you saying we’re as big as Taylor Swift? (Laughs) I do think that’s maybe why “Reindeer” cuts through. It’s honest, sometimes to a fault. And the characters have a mixture of good and bad and positive traits and negative traits. I think people are seeing something quite real echoing back at them. I could probably spend the rest of my life guessing why it struck a chord with so many people, but I think people needed something real at the moment.

Why combine your two different stage shows, the first one about being sexually abused and the second about the stalking, into a single series?

GADD: As I was writing both shows, I suppose I did feel like they were intrinsically linked. There’s a line in “Baby Reindeer” which says, “That’s what abuse does to you.” It made me this sticking plaster for all of life’s weirdos. I was struggling so much in the aftermath of what I’d been through in the grooming and the sexual abuse that I was trying to take comfort wherever I could find it. Anyone who showed me the tiniest bit of positivity or affirmation, I would take it because my confidence was so low.

So when someone like Martha comes into my life, even though the red flags were there and the dangers were so obvious, my self-hatred was so extreme that it seemed to outweigh any potential dangers. I always saw them as two of the same. I know it’s called “Baby Reindeer,” but it really is an amalgamation of both live shows, “Monkey See Monkey Do” and “Baby Reindeer.”

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in “Baby Reindeer” (Netflix)

Jessica, what was your reaction when you first were exposed to the material?

JESSICA GUNNING:  I thought it was incredibly told and really detailed and complicated and nuanced. Not to discredit other auditions I’ve had, but sometimes they feel quite generic and you think, “That’s easy, I know how to do this.” But with “Baby Reindeer,” I thought it was so unique. I felt immediately drawn in by the character of Martha and her connection to Donny.

What were your keys to figuring out the character, assuming you’re not going to talk to the person that Martha is based on?

GUNNING:  Interestingly, I never felt the need to know much about the person it’s based on, just because all the material was there in the script. As soon as I read her, I felt like I really understood what Richard wanted. You know, she’s a mass of contradictions, but there’s something endearing about that side of her. There’s also a kind of cuteness and sweetness to her that I really responded to.

One of the audition scenes was the scene outside the comedy club when she says that one of her wishes as a superpower would be to zip up people and climb inside them, snuggle away for the winter. And I remember just thinking, “That’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever read.” But I practiced the scene with a friend of mine who said, “Oh, my God, this seems terrifying.” (Laughs)

It was much more complicated than a black-and-white stalker-victim story. And I’d never read anything or seen anything like that. You know, there are incredible movies like “Misery” or “The King of Comedy,” but this felt like a really unique story.

Nava, what made you want to be a part of it?

NAVA MAU: I felt so connected to this deeply personal and cutting narrative told from a first-person perspective. What I connected to in the character of Teri was her desire for intimacy and for belonging. I think that trans women have been cast into a position in society where we’re not afforded the dignity and respect that is required for true intimacy and love. And so it felt really important to be part of this story that explores one trans woman trying to find that for herself.

Nava Mau in “Baby Reindeer” (Netflix)

Jessica, you mentioned “Misery.” I actually spent a lot of time on the set of that movie when it was filming…

GADD: No way!

… and I’ve never been on a funnier set. Rob Reiner and Barry Sonnenfeld were cracking jokes all day long, while James Caan was going stir crazy because most of his scenes were in bed. But it occurs to me that with “Baby Reindeer” based on real events rather than a Stephen King novel, yours was probably a more intense and less jokey shoot.

GADD: Yeah. Of course there was fun, but there was a sort of heaviness that people felt on the set.

GUNNING: For you, especially, I think that you needed to be in a certain zone. It didn’t feel right, necessarily, to be cracking too many jokes. The vibe of filming felt very serious and intense, but in a good way. Like, “This is a special story and let’s really work hard to make sure we do this right.”

GADD: For sure. I think I only corpsed (broke into uncontrollable laughter) about four times in the seven months that we filmed.  Danny Kirrane, who played Gino—I almost couldn’t look at him. If I looked at him in scenes, he just made me laugh. So I would have to unfocus my eyes because he made me laugh so much.

GUNNING: I corpsed once, and it was in a really serious scene. It was the scene where Donny takes Martha back to her house and he realizes that she genuinely believes that they’re in a relationship, so he knows he has to break up with her. We were filming in this council estate in South London, and we had a curfew cutoff time and only about 15 minutes left. They wanted to capture one final closeup, but instead of having the time to set up the rig, the DP said “I can do it on the Steadicam,” which of course is a big piece of heavy equipment. And right at the bit where Donny says, “Martha, I’m breaking up with you,” (the DP) was so physically stressed that he gasped. From my perspective, it sounded like he was reacting to “Martha, I’m breaking up with you.” (Laughs) And it was so funny.

MAU: For me, I keep saying Teri is on a different show. There was a lot of laughter in my scenes, and we had a great time. I actually remember a moment where I realized, whoa, Richard’s a comedian. In between takes, jokes would just be rolling out and then we’d have to sometimes snap into being serious. This was the first time I’ve actually filmed something where I felt like I could have a good time.

What scenes were the most challenging to shoot?

GADD: Quite a lot of them. (Laughs) The Darrien scenes (in which Donny is groomed and abused) spring to mind. God bless Tom Goodman-Hill for being, like, the sweetest, kindest man, because that was a very intense few days. Those feelings can come back into your body, so I was very uncomfortable. I remember a few days where I found myself going to set and thinking, “I wouldn’t mind a traffic jam today.” 

As you’re shooting a scene, even if it didn’t happen exactly that way in real life, are you trying to approach the feeling of what really happened?

GADD: I try to emotionally recall the actual world. I maybe did it to an unhealthy level sometimes. That monologue scene, for example (when Dunn breaks down onstage for the first time and talks openly about his abuse and his complicity in his stalking), I had to stay in it. I had to make myself feel like I was on the edge of crying before I went on the stage. And it’s quite hard to do, ’cause he goes out and does a lot of jokes, but in the back of my mind, I’m holding onto those tears and that sadness until I can let it out.

I plugged earphones in, played sad music and thought about sad things, and I did that quite a lot during production. I’m one of those actors that tries to call upon real-life feelings and emotions and tries to put them onto the screen.

Is it strange to have your personal trauma become a pop culture sensation?

GADD: It’s very strange. I sometimes have conflicting and confusing feelings about it in a lot of ways. But to think that looking at the darkness I’ve been in in the past would lead to something that could be an inspiring journey for people makes me happy. There were times in my life where I didn’t think I would make it, you know? But now, of course, it’s grown to such an extreme degree and I still am quite baffled by the fact that people are interested in me. (Laughs)

But if you look at the statistics, the stalking charities and abuse charities in the UK are really on the up. We Are Survivors, which is a male sexual abuse charity, is up 200% in terms of email referrals to their website, and 53% of those cite Baby Reindeer as the reason that they reached out. That brings me peace, knowing that it was all for a reason. “Baby Reindeer” comes with its challenges, but I think I’ll look back on this moment as a proud, proud one.

This story first appeared in the Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Hoa Xuande The Sympathizer cover
Hoa Xuande photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap

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