Richard Gadd, Jessica Gunning, and Nava Mau prove how art heals entrenched trauma in the incomparably vulnerable series.

Nava Mau and Jessica Gunning stand behind Richard Gadd, who sits in a chair.

Baby Reindeer

19 June 20248 min read

During a particularly taxing stretch of life, Richard Gadd would go to bed and listen to his stalker’s voicemails before falling asleep. “Her words would bounce around my eyelids,” he recalls, revealing that it was amidst those moments he realized his experience would make for a good story. “I remember thinking, If I were to ever speak about this onstage, I’d fire the words around. Put the voicemails in a big cacophony. And that was how the play was born.”

Baby Reindeer, the story of a struggling comedian whose warped relationship with his stalker forces him to face a deeply buried trauma, was not Gadd’s first play. After debuting multiple shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe through the years, he credits 2016’s award-winning Monkey See Monkey Do as “the start of my career.” Gadd explains, “I had this big weight that I needed to get off my chest. I could no longer go onstage with silly props and gags and be that guy because my past was catching up with me and getting in my head. I felt that year I had to go to Edinburgh to keep momentum, but at the same time, I was falling apart inside and could no longer keep going.”

Donny Dunn’s monologue at the end of Episode 6 is laced with the same very real revelations that Monkey See Monkey Do contained, and a vulnerability that was naturally concerning for Gadd. “I remember thinking, This is high stakes stuff. I’ve been sexually abused. That’s bad enough. The last thing I need is to make a crappy show out of it. It could just make everything so much worse.” The show went on to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award, and coincidentally enough, his future co-star Jessica Gunning (who plays his stalker, Martha), saw the show live.

Richard Gadd wears a red suit and sits at a yellow table.

Richard Gadd

“Not to sound too stalkery myself,” says Gunning, who’s appeared in series like White Heat and What Remains, “I actually did know Richard previously [to the show]. I saw Monkey See Monkey Do back in 2017. As you can imagine, it was very harrowing to watch, but I was so impressed by him as a performer and also as a storyteller.” So much of an impression was left on Gunning that she tried to score tickets to the Baby Reindeer play when Gadd mounted it a couple years later, but it fully sold out so she opted to buy and read the play text. “I was so fascinated by the story and Richard as a person,” she raves.

The appreciation of artistic abilities is mutual, as Gadd reflects on casting Gunning as Martha. “I knew the second I saw Jess, for sure, that she was the one. I couldn’t describe it, but there was an essence of Martha. A lot of people came in and played it psychotic. I never thought Martha was psychotic. I thought Martha had moments of deep anger and outbursts, but she was sympathetic, she was deep, she was vulnerable. Jess was the only one who seemed to get it.”

Gadd has similar praise when recollecting casting relative newcomer Nava Mau (Generation) as Teri, Donny’s love interest, who is also a therapist and tries to help Donny: “We saw so many people, but I remember going through the tapes when we opened [the call] to Americans. We’d seen lots of people from Europe, Britain, everywhere really. Mau was sensational. There was something about her that made us all go, ‘Oh, there’s something here.’ She did one of the best auditions I’ve ever been part of — it was a chemistry read and she threw herself into it. She was brilliant, gave helpful feedback, and saw what the show was trying to do.”

Jessica Gunning wears a black top and sits a yellow table with yellow plateware.

Jessica Gunning

What Baby Reindeer was setting out to accomplish is something Gunning and Mau both fluently grasped, and each described feeling a sense of responsibility when joining the show. “I knew how important it was to handle these sensitive topics with care,” Mau says. “I wanted to do the story and the character justice.”

Mau, who was a real-life counselor to survivors of violence before playing the role of therapist Teri, credits Gadd’s generosity in sharing deep personal details of his true story to help her with her performance. Gunning reflects on having a handle-with-care approach with her fellow actors, having checked on Gadd throughout, and “just making sure he was O.K. quite a lot of the time because not only had he written and executive-produced the show, he was in every single scene, which would be a lot with any actor, but especially hard with Richard because he’s reliving and reenacting stories that happened to him.”

Gunning also credits the below-the-line crew who helped smooth out the process. “We had a lot of support systems around us: Intimacy coordination, a fight choreographer, a lot of support.” At the end of Episode 3, Teri and Martha have a verbal altercation that escalates to a physical confrontation, one of the most intense moments in a series chock-full of them. Despite how their characters’ confrontation plays out onscreen, Mau loved working with Gunning. “We met for the first time to do our stunt training,” says Mau. “She’s hilarious, she’s so caring, she’s so talented, so skilled, and I felt a sense of shared responsibility. After we filmed the attack scene, she came up to me and gave me a hug and said, ‘I’m sorry,’ because we did have to go there. Working with her was filled with care and I really appreciated that.”

Nava Mau wears a black top and rests her chin in her palm, sitting in front of a yellow teacup and saucer.

Nava Mau

The delicate handling of Baby Reindeer in every facet makes sense when considering the thoughtful seeds it sprouted from. Gadd put great care into the manner in which the story was told, opting for honesty and authenticity even if it wasn’t always flattering for Donny.

“There was a version of the play in the early years where I felt it had a bit more of a victim narrative. Like, a guy does a good gesture, and look how awful his life goes. It didn’t feel real. The part that was missing was the fact that I egged it on because I was so insecure and I’d been through all these things and I needed a pick me up.” He believes that veracity is a part of why so many connected with the story. “I think that’s what made the play so successful,” says Gadd. “Instead of the audience having one feeling the whole way through, which would be, Oh, this poor guy, it was challenging their feelings. They didn’t know how to feel; it was a seesaw effect that was much more interesting. In the TV show, I elaborated on it because I had more time to tell the story. I drew it out and used more examples, fleshed it out a bit.”

That seesaw effect is what Gadd finds compelling in storytelling: “I think art is quite interesting when you don’t know whose side you’re on. I think that’s what Baby Reindeer does quite well. You sort of feel sorry for [Martha], then you feel sorry for [Donny], then you feel sorry for her again, and you hate her or you hate him. I wanted it to be layered and to capture the human experience. People are good, but they have bits of bad and they make mistakes.”

Richard Gadd, Jessica Gunning, and Nava Mau sit and stand around a yellow table.

Richard Gadd, Jessica Gunning, and Nava Mau

Martha’s complexities avoid falling into the tropes often seen in stalker stories, something Gadd made a conscious effort to avoid. “I really wanted Martha to be three-dimensional because stalking on television tends to be, for the most part, sexed up. It’s somebody who is really sexy, who’s very normal, but then they go very strange bit by bit. Stalking is a mental illness. I wanted to show the layers of stalking, the fact that this person is going through a lot themselves, a lot of trauma, a lot of issues. I wanted to bring a human quality to stalking.”

Aside from complex characters who may leave audiences uncertain whose side they’re on, Gadd also wants viewers to take what they choose away from the show. “One thing I never wanted to do with my art was force something onto someone. I think the fact that people go away questioning it and taking different things from it, that’s powerful. I quite like to let people make their own minds up. I like leaving it ambiguous that way.” 

Gadd’s decision to prioritize artistic ambivalence might be the key ingredient to Baby Reindeer’s success with audiences, turning it into one of 2024’s most watched, discussed, beloved series. Precisely one month before Baby Reindeer’s release on Netflix, Gadd reflected, “I really hope it moves people. I hope it comforts people who have been through stuff like this, people who are alone and may be struggling with trauma themselves. What I hope most of all is that it affects people in a positive way.”