Richard Gadd on Netflix’s Baby Reindeer and his real-life story of stalking and trauma: ‘I’ve lived in a prison of self-hate’

Richard Gadd: ‘When you go through quite a relentless ordeal of stalking, it does imprint itself upon your soul a little bit' (Pip)
Richard Gadd: ‘When you go through quite a relentless ordeal of stalking, it does imprint itself upon your soul a little bit' (Pip)
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Richard Gadd is waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’re speaking over video three days before the release of Baby Reindeer, the seven-part Netflix series fictionalising the Scottish comedian’s protracted experiences with a stalker. “Three more sleeps,” he says, as if it were Christmas. “I go through sort of giddy excitement, and feelings of pride… all the way to just being insecure. It’s just a big exposing time – but I’m well up for the ride.”

Before it was a Netflix series, Baby Reindeer was a one-man stage play. It follows fledgling stand-up comic Gadd – named Donny Dunn in the series – who works a day job as a bartender. One day, a woman, called Martha in the show and played by Jessica Gunning, walks into the pub, claiming she’s a lawyer but can’t afford a drink. Out of empathy, or perhaps just rank pity, Donny gives her a cup of tea. From thereon in, she clings to his life like a limpet, first as a sort-of friend, and then, quickly, as a relentless harasser. This, more or less, is what happened to Gadd. What started out as an act of benign courtesy soon metastasised into a nightmare.

Gadd, looking comfortable and shrewd-eyed this afternoon, already has a pretty enviable CV. The 34-year-old has an Edinburgh Comedy Award to his name (for 2016’s Monkey See Monkey Do), an Olivier (for the stage version of Baby Reindeer), writing credits for the Netflix teen hit Sex Education, and he acted in the Bafta-nominated BBC Two programme Against the Law. On stage, his routines were initially rooted in subversive anti-comedy, with a dark psycho-analytical edge. As time went on, this gave way to something slipperier, less laugh-centric, and more soul-baring. Ahead of Baby Reindeer, Gadd says he’s thus far been avoiding reviews entirely – though if he looked, he’d see they’ve been roundly enthusiastic. “This is twisty, mature, self-interrogating stuff that will leave you more troubled than tickled,” writes Nick Hilton in The Independent’s four-star review. He’s not wrong.

The show’s title is borrowed from Martha’s pet name for Donny, a name that adorns most of the obsessive 40,000-plus emails she sends him over a three-year period, all riddled with spelling errors. She waits outside his home all day. Comes to his gig and heckles him. Abuses his parents – smearing his father as a paedophile among his work colleagues. It’s life-ruining stuff, and for years, the police were impotent in helping him. “I never want to lambast the police, because I think there is a national acknowledgement at the moment that the police is an institution which needs improvement,” Gadd says. “I have met very good policemen in my time. And, unfortunately, I’ve met some that I feel extraordinarily let down by.”

Having watched Gadd be squeezed so brutally through the emotional wringer in Baby Reindeer, I find it a little upending to see him as he is now, calm and assured. The comic is ever so slightly cagey about what he says, insisting at times that his series wasn’t “making a [broader] comment” about some of the topics it explores, but rather navigating the specifics of his own experience. But that’s not to say he was oblivious to the bigger picture.

“I don’t like to make these interviews too political, but it does feel like we’re at a crisis point with our public services right now. Going through the police process on [the stalking case], I really did feel quite confronted with just how kind of how much lack of resources there seemed to be – how the police have been gutted.” There were also, Gadd adds, times where he “questioned” the lack of help being given to his stalker. “Like, why wasn’t she being helped in some way? I left with more questions than answers.”

Now at least, it’s over. Sort of. “I suppose the situation, shall we say, my dealings with the person who stalked me is certainly over,” he says. "The emotional ramifications do live on.”

Jessica Gunning as stalker Martha in ‘Baby Reindeer' (Netflix)
Jessica Gunning as stalker Martha in ‘Baby Reindeer' (Netflix)

“When you go through quite a relentless ordeal of stalking, it does imprint itself upon your soul a little bit,” he adds. “I still live in its aftermath a bit, for sure, but I guess that’s why I do the art: to work through it, to understand it, to try and let go of all these kinds of things.”

What really elevates Baby Reindeer is that, while it is a series about being stalked, it is not only about this. The centrepiece fourth episode, told in flashback, hits like a punch to the gut. The episode shows Donny’s relationship with an older, successful TV writer he meets at the Edinburgh Fringe (Tom Goodman-Hill). The man purports to offer him comedy advice and career mentorship – but starts inviting him round his London flat where the two would regularly take hard drugs.

I couldn’t keep my life separate from what I’d been through anymore. It was becoming increasingly hard to play the frivolous funnyman when I’d been through these kinds of things

Deftly manipulated and chemically messed up, Donny would wake up to find he had been sexually assaulted; the show’s most distressing scene depicts him being raped, having been plied with acid and the date rape drug GHB. It is only after finally getting free that he realises the full extent of the man’s harm, that he had been groomed all along. The trauma of this, and the shame of it, complicate everything in Donny’s life – his personal relationships, his self-image, and his approach to Martha’s stalking, which takes on a messily co-dependent dimension.

“I don’t want to speak for every person that’s been sexually abused, but one of the most common ramifications is self-blame,” Gadd says. “‘Why did I go there? Why did I do this?’ Why did I… blah, blah blah. I’ve lived in a prison of self-hate and self-punishment. But writing it down in a chronological way, and processing it… I guess I learned to empathise with myself a little bit more.”

The experience also imprinted on his work. Baby Reindeer, in its various iterations, has been part of Gadd’s life for half a decade, while he also addressed sexual assault in his previous stand-up shows. “I used to go to Edinburgh and put on silly wigs and do shows with props,” Gadd recalls, as Donny does in the show. “But it just became very hard.

“I couldn’t keep my life separate from what I’d been through anymore. It was becoming increasingly hard to play the frivolous funnyman when I’d been through these kinds of things. So I had no choice, really, but to conflate the two. Because I don’t think I could have really survived having repressed it, and carried on doing these one-liners and surface-level routines. It was almost a survival choice. Because I was struggling so much.”

One of the most refreshing and admirable aspects of the series is its approach to sexuality. Donny, like Gadd, is a bisexual man, and the nuanced way in which the series explores this is something that’s infuriatingly rare on television. “I never wanted to be a man with a clarion in his mouth, sort of bellowing at people,”? he says. “But yeah – the bisexual reality, I did want people to pick up on. I think it is unrepresented. Not just on screen but in life in general.

“There’s no real hard community, or identity in the public sphere, for bisexual people to go. There’s an indoctrination you can get from a young age – [the idea] that you have to be one or the other. Sometimes that pressure can come from both sides. There is still this notion that if you’re a man and you’ve slept with a man, then there’s no going back. It’s rubbish.”

What Baby Reindeer gets about bisexuality (about many bisexuals, at least) is that it is not simply a matter of “liking both”. The series understands that gender is not a rigid or binary thing, and neither is desire. One of the subplots in the series sees Donny date a trans woman called Teri, played by Latina actor Nava Mau. In the show, he is torn over feelings of shame around the relationship, and he initially lies to Teri about his name and job. This arc too draws on aspects of Gadd’s life – but dates back to a time when there was less cultural awareness around trans people, even within the wider queer community.

Gadd and Nava Mau in ‘Baby Reindeer’ (Netflix)
Gadd and Nava Mau in ‘Baby Reindeer’ (Netflix)

“It’s in the public consciousness now, but it wasn’t back then, when I was dating,” he says. “It felt so new that it added a certain pressure, to me, that I really regret now. But that’s what it explores in the show. This story was set back in a time when things were very different.”

Gadd credits Mau for helping with the handling of the character, as well as other advisors, ensuring the show struck the right balance. “We had all kinds of advisors – diversity advisors, trans advisors – to make sure that what we were doing was gonna be the right thing,” he says. “But not in a way where the art felt compromised or anything was watered down. They were very good in terms of knowing the kind of complicated story we were trying to tell.”

After five years of Baby Reindeer, Gadd is almost ready to move onto other things: the BBC has just announced that he’ll be writing Lions, a six-part series set and filmed in Glasgow that interrogates ideas of contemporary masculinity. After his challenging, unpredictable Netflix show, we can expect pretty much anything and everything. Laughs. Trauma. Romance. Anything, that is, but an easy answer.

‘Baby Reindeer’ is streaming on Netflix now

Rape Crisis offers support for those affected by rape and sexual abuse. You can call them on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, and 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland, or visit their website at www.rapecrisis.org.uk. If you are in the US, you can call Rainn on 800-656-HOPE (4673)