‘Baby Reindeer’ Star Richard Gadd on ‘Daunting’ Reaction to His Real-Life Stalking Story and ‘Feeling Sorry’ for Martha: ‘It’s Two Broken People’

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SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for “Baby Reindeer,” streaming now on Netflix.

In just over a week, Richard Gadd’s miniseries “Baby Reindeer” has captivated Netflix viewers with its shocking story of a struggling comedian being stalked by an older woman named Martha. Even more shocking? The fact that the show is based on Gadd’s real-life experience.

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Adapted from Gadd’s stage play of the same name, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, “Baby Reindeer” follows a fictionalized version of Gadd named Donny, who meets a hapless woman named Martha (Jessica Gunning) while working in a pub. What begins as Donny offering her a cup of tea out of sympathy turns into a twisted and complex relationship where Martha wreaks havoc on all of the relationships in Donny’s life. But when he finally turns to the police to report Martha’s behavior and she goes silent, Donny finds himself worried about her and the obsession becomes mutual. Through his experiences with Martha, Donny is forced to confront the trauma of a past sexual assault and come to terms with his sexuality.

The show has taken off in Gadd’s native U.K., currently sitting at No. 1 on Netflix’s TV chart, and is also gaining steam in the U.S., where it holds the No. 2 spot. The response is “far and beyond what I ever imagined,” Gadd tells Variety over the phone. “I always believed in it, but I guess I didn’t expect it to blow up this quickly.”

Below, Gadd discusses the true story behind “Baby Reindeer,” where the real Martha is now and why the show is connecting with audiences.

What inspired you to take “Baby Reindeer” from stage to screen?

If I’m honest, I think even as I was writing the play and taking it up to the festival, I did think, “Hm, this does have sort of television properties.” It has, in my opinion, interesting characters and it’s got quite an intense plot and through line. I always thought it had television potential, and then when I was at the Edinburgh Fringe, everyone started to bid on it and throw their hat in the ring to develop it, so that all happened quite quickly as well.

In terms of developing it from a theater show into a television show, it was quite difficult. The play itself was a one-man show where I spoke about my life. It was me and a stool — Martha was a stool and I carried the stool around stage and I’d move her into different positions. So to bring it from a 70-minute monologue into seven episodes, multiple characters, different strands and plot lines, it was a massive undertaking and a load of pressure.

At the start of the show, viewers see a title card saying “Baby Reindeer” is a true story. Is it fictionalized at all?

It’s all emotionally 100% true, if that makes sense. It’s all borrowed from instances that happened to me and real people that I met. But of course, you can’t do the exact truth, for both legal and artistic reasons. I mean there’s certain protections, you can’t just copy somebody else’s life and name and put it onto television. And obviously, we were very aware that some characters in it are vulnerable people, so you don’t want to make their lives more difficult. So you have to change things to protect yourself and protect other people.

Also for artistic reasons, a lot of stalking is quite boring at times, like it’s a repetitive action and it’s, “Oh god, this person’s messaging again.” And of course, in television, especially a thriller, you need to move certain timelines around, you need to move certain points to the end of episodes to make them pay off a little better. As well as a true story, you have to make it visually interesting. Just in percentages, I wouldn’t be able to [tell you], but it’s a very true story — it comes from an emotional truth, and I think that’s what people are resonating with most of all.

How did you go about casting Martha? How similar is the character to your real-life stalker?

Well, we have to make them different for legal reasons. But what I needed to see was the essence of the person, the kind of energy, and no one did it like Jess. She’s phenomenal. I needed to see someone who was vulnerable one moment, angry the next, volatile but so desperate and sympathetic. I needed to see someone who could capture a full gamut of emotions. When somebody has severe mental health problems, they tend to leap from one emotion to the next, sometimes even quite quickly. And that’s very hard to do from an acting point of view, but Jess seems to have it in her pores, it seems to just fall out of her.

One of the aspects that makes the show so fascinating is your empathy toward Martha. Why was that important to highlight?

I have a bit of empathy overdrive sometimes. But it’s not like anything I’ve seen on television before. Stalking usually is depicted as someone who is kind of evil, whereas I felt like there was a vulnerable person who genuinely couldn’t stop, who for whatever reason had believed the reality that was inside her head and no matter what couldn’t change from that. I mean, it is a mental illness and I wanted to portray that. I did see someone who I felt sorry for.

Even in the height of things, in Episode 7 when he’s listening to the voicemails and everything, you still see that he’s feeling sorry for her and he’s relating to her, even though we’re at the end of the journey and he’s trying to bring her to conviction. Actually, even after that, in the courtroom when she gets pulled away, their eyes catch for the last time and there’s nothing scary about it. It’s two broken people. Their eyes meet in the room knowing that their lives are not going to be the same again without each other, in a way. I’m not saying this is the case with all stalkers, but I really felt with her that there were things to empathize with.

Obviously, the show is very personal and honest about the complexities of the situation and the mistakes you may have made. How does it feel to have shared it with the world?

It feels quite daunting, but people have been really nice and it’s affected people. As much as it is an examination of stalking and abuse and love and loneliness, I really wanted it to be an examination of the ramifications of trauma. And I think that’s quite subtle in the show, but a lot of people are really getting that aspect of it. They see Donny and they’re appreciating someone’s self-destructive tendencies in the wake of trauma. And I think people are finding a great comfort in that, honestly.

What was it like to relive some of those traumatic experiences during filming?

It was tough, I can’t deny. I mean, who in their right mind wants to revisit the worst thing that ever happened to them? The worst period of their life? Of course, it affects you and leaves a bit of an imprint on you. But at the same time, I do sometimes feel that revisiting pain and re-experiencing things can lead to a better understanding of them.

Do you think that has been the case with “Baby Reindeer”?

I think it’s to come still. At the moment, I just feel kind of windswept and overjoyed and overwhelmed with the response. I’m not feeling anything other than, “Oh my god, is this really happening?” So we’ll have to do another interview in a year’s time.

Viewers are wondering what happened to the real Martha. Did part of you feel afraid she’d try to contact you because of the show?

I can’t answer any of that, really. But yeah, due to where things ended in real life, it’s not a concern for me.

In the show, we see Donny fall in love with a trans woman, Teri, as he is coming to terms with his sexuality. Is there a real-life Teri, and where is she now?

There’s no storyline in the show that is completely fabricated, but again I can’t copy the person exactly. There was a real-life Teri, a long time ago, but that’s all I can really say.

What do you think is connecting the most with viewers about “Baby Reindeer”?

I think it’s just honest. We do live in an age now, whether for better or for worse, where people are afraid to admit mistakes sometimes. And I think there’s something invigorating about the human condition. We make mistakes, we fall in and out of love. Sometimes the people we love the most we can’t treat as well as we want. It has these difficult themes and characters struggling to exist in the world. And the loneliness and the disassociation that people feel from life, I think it’s way more common than it’s given credence to. I think the authenticity of “Baby Reindeer” just screams out of the television.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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