‘Baby Reindeer’ Star Richard Gadd on Struggling With “Toxic Empathy” for Real-Life Stalker

During a FYC event for TV Academy members, Gadd shared his creative process in shaping the intense, seven-episode series: “I just knew it was my chance. It just had to be as good as I could make it.”

Richard Gadd attends Baby Reindeer red carpet event

Richard Gadd attends a panel for Netflix’s ‘Baby Reindeer’ at DGA Theater in L.A. on May 7, 2024. MONICA SCHIPPER/GETTY

The Baby Reindeer phenomenon has landed in Los Angeles.

On the heels of Richard Gadd‘s limited series becoming a certified sleeper hit by coming in at No. 1 on Netlfix’s English-language TV rankings for a third consecutive week, the streamer welcomed its creator and star to the West Coast. Gadd is making the media rounds this week to discuss the critically acclaimed series inspired by his real-life stalker of six years, and he’s doing so alongside Jessica Gunning, the actress earning raves as the woman who terrorized him.

The pair posted up Tuesday evening on a stage inside the Directors Guild of America with actress Nava Mau and two key members of the Baby Reindeer team — director Weronika Tofilska and editor Peter Oliver — for the show’s first-ever panel discussion. Moderator Tonya Mosley of NPR’s Fresh Air steered the conversation (in front of a capacity crowd of TV Academy members) which covered Gadd’s creative process in adapting his one-man stage show for the screen, his approach to mining personal trauma (being stalked and sexually assaulted) in his work, how Gunning landed the plum part and what the panelists hope viewers take from what is described as an intense, profound and at times comical watch.

Baby Reindeer follows Gadd’s Donny Dunn, a struggling comedian who encounters a lonely woman at the bar where he works. The chance encounter, during which he offers her a cup of tea on the house, spirals as Martha is revealed to be a dangerous, serial stalker. Over the course of multiple years, she sent him more than 41,000 emails, 744 tweets, 100 pages of letters and 350 hours of voicemails. Mau plays a pivotal role as Donny’s transgender girlfriend who gets caught up in the mess.

Baby Reindeer crew: star Jessica Gunning, director Weronika Tofilska, creator, executive producer and star Richard Gadd, star Nava Mau and editor Peter Oliver. MONICA SCHIPPER/GETTY IMAGES

Gadd fielded the first few questions as he opened up on the “huge process” of hammering out scripts for seven episodes by pulling from his one-man show of the same name which won a slew of awards in 2019 and 2020. “I had to go into a very obsessive place,” he said of writing. “I did mad hours on it. My best writing hours are from 5 a.m. onwards, and I would always get up at [4:30 a.m.] and obsessively write almost until I went to bed the next day. It became a real obsession for me, and I just knew it was my chance. It just had to be as good as I could make it. I just didn’t want to ever look back and think I didn’t do enough. I probably went too far the other way, but I just had to give it everything.”

Gunning gave it her all long before she got the part. She revealed that she first encountered Gadd and his work by buying a ticket for his other critically acclaimed one-man show, Monkey See, Monkey Do, the one that preceded Baby Reindeer. “I just thought it was one of the most profound things I’ve ever seen, really, on stage,” she said. That production, like episode four of Baby Reindeer, centers on Gadd’s experiences of being sexually assaulted by a man he considered a creative mentor early in his career. “Then I tried to go and see Baby Reindeer, the play, but it was sold out so I actually bought the play text, which is a little bit Martha of me.”

A still from the series featuring Gadd as Donny and Gunning as Martha. NETFLIX

Mau, known for HBO’s Generation, said when she first received the script, she couldn’t put it down. “I stayed up all night and I started journaling about it,” she explained, going so far as to hound her agents for updates on the casting process. “It really kind of found a place in my mind and in my heart and never left.”

She also told Mosley about how the part helped her process dormant emotions. “I had no idea that I internalized so much anger and that I shut it down. As a trans woman, as a Latina woman, I have had to do that in order to survive, in order to make my way into the world as far as I have, it’s kind of been my responsibility to take care of other people’s emotions. It was so difficult and challenging, honestly, to play a character who felt so entitled to her own emotions and was not too concerned about taking care of other people’s emotions. That was very empowering for me to get in tune with my body again.”

Jessica Gunning, Richard Gadd, and Nava Mau. PHOTO BY MONICA SCHIPPER/GETTY IMAGES

Baby Reindeer debuted on April 11, and over the past month as the show has rocketed in popularity, it has inspired countless online sleuths to focus on uncovering the real people in the true life tale. While Gadd did not address that during Tuesday night’s panel — he previously urged fans to stop speculating because “that’s not the point of our show” — he did open up about being guided by “emotional truth” while making it.

“I never wanted to kind of lie,” he explained. “I always had to constantly check myself to be like, does this feel truthful to me and to my experience all the way through? If it didn’t, I would have to bring it back. But it was a tight rope. It was a constant process between what works for a TV show and not selling out on your own story, and that continued all the way from writing all the way to filming and all the way through the editing process in finding that right balance. I think we did in the end, but it was a hell of a process.”

Also intense was filming of episode four which focuses on the sexual assault perpetrated by the character Darrien, played by Tom Goodman-Hill. “It was tough,” Gadd noted. “We did closed sets, but I was looking over and you’d see the props guys wiping tears from their eyes as they would be putting the props back how they should be. The show was based in such a trauma that everyone on set felt it at times.”

Gadd said catharsis has come thanks to the “unbelievable response” the show has received in recent weeks. “I always believed in the show and I really loved it, and I thought it would be maybe sit as maybe a little cult, artistic gem on the Netflix platform maybe,” he said. “But then overnight it was crazy. It felt like I woke up one day and everyone was watching it.”

The real-life stalker, someone Gadd never named but who has revealed herself online and through interviews after the show debuted, has seen it as well. She’s even threatened legal action. During the panel, Gadd looked back on his experience of being terrorized by the woman, and said he struggles with a “toxic empathy” problem that even applied to her.

“I remember when I was getting stalked, it was relentless and felt like it was everywhere, and I felt like my life wasn’t really functioning. I still had these unbelievable pangs of feeling sorry for her,” he said, adding that he thought of her as someone in a lot of pain. “I never saw someone who was a villain. I saw someone who was lost by the system, really. I saw someone who needed help and wasn’t getting it.”

Gadd also shared why he thinks it has become such a phenomenon. “The world is maybe in a bit more pain than I think we realize, perhaps,” he said. “If you just look at the state of the world right now, everything just feels slightly wrong. I’m not sure there’s been a TV show like Baby Reindeer that’s kind of captured the dark difficulties and idiosyncrasies of life. Television, maybe, for the past few years has veered slightly towards keeping a broader eye on things, and that’s great, and I love so many of those shows that do that. But I think Baby Reindeer has stood out so much because it goes back to something about the human condition, which is dark and difficult and challenging, and every human being is a mixture of good and bad.”

The final question of the night came when Mosley asked the panelists to share what they hope audiences take from Baby Reindeer. Gunning wants viewers to see it “as a kind of messy story” that’s not tied with a bow at the end. “I don’t think there’s a villain or a victim in it, really. I hope that people take the nuance away from Richard’s amazing writing, everyone’s amazing storytelling.”

Gadd closed by saying he hopes viewers draw their own conclusions. “I quite like the fact that its message is ambiguous. I sometimes have problems with work where it’s so clear what it’s trying to say to you. I’ve seen so many different articles on the ending of Baby Reindeer. For example, that [final shot] where Donny looks up at the bar and people have said, well, it means he’s a stalker or it means that he’s realized he’s similar to Martha. I’ve seen about seven different interpretations of that, and I like that because I ultimately want my people to take what they want from my work.”

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning capture their big night with a selfie at the end of the discussion. EMMA MCINTYRE/GETTY IMAGES FOR NETFLIX

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