‘Baby Reindeer’ Creator Richard Gadd on Sharing His Complicated Story With the World

Baby Reindeer compellingly reveals how a single act of kindness leads down a twisty road paved with hundreds of hours of voice messages and north of 40,000 emails. Much like its multihyphenate creator, the show lends itself to multiple genres, a compelling mingling of heavy emotion and humour.

The story of Baby Reindeer centers on struggling comedian Donny Dunn’s (Gadd) strange and layered relationship with a woman named Martha (Jessica Gunning), whose initially friendly demeanor unravels as she begins to stalk Donny relentlessly. 

Their first interaction is innocent enough: While working his shift as a bartender, Donny shows an act of kindness to Martha, a customer whose vulnerability is readily apparent. But, as the saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished,” and this casual encounter sparks a suffocating obsession that threatens to wreck both their lives and forces Donny to face his deeply buried trauma.

Richard Gadd as Donny, Jessica Gunning as Martha. © 2022 Netflix, Inc. / Credit: Ed Miller/Netflix

While this type of storyline might seem familiar, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a story — it’s true. Since it did come from such a personal place, Gadd consciously avoided the black-and-white, cliché-dense stalker narratives that have been done before, making sure that everyone’s humanity remains intact.

“Stalking on television tends to be very sexed-up. It has a mystique. It’s somebody in a dark alley way. It’s somebody who’s really sexy, who’s very normal, but then they go strange bit by bit,” Gadd explains. “But stalking is a mental illness. I really wanted to show the layers of stalking with a human quality I hadn’t seen on television before. It’s a stalker story turned on its head. It takes a trope and turns it on its head.”

Gadd makes clear that he didn’t want to write “a victim narrative.” He says, “I think art is quite interesting when you don’t know who you are on the side of. I wanted it to be layered, and I wanted it to capture the human experience. The human experience is that people are good, but they have bits of bad and they make mistakes.”

Accurately reflecting the human experience means the show feels like a multidimensional roller-coaster with sharp turns and steep drops, but it never feels less than aggressively honest. Undoubtedly that’s because Baby Reindeer’s authenticity stems from the most honest, unpredictable source material in existence: real life.

“It’s a true story,” Gadd says, adding that he always knew it was one he would want to tell. “In a weird way, I first started feeling like this could be a good story during the whole ordeal itself. It was one of the most intense periods, when I was listening to these voicemails. I’d go to sleep at night and these voicemails — her words would bounce around my eyelids. I remember thinking, ‘God, if I was ever to speak about this onstage, I’d fire the words around. Put the voicemails in a big cacophony and fire it.’ That’s how the play was born.”

That 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit play led us here, to a series adaptation that is no longer a one-man show, and that goes deep into a story that is not an easy one to tell. “There’s something slightly crazy about it, the whole thing, doing it — the layers upon layers,” Gadd says. “It is a heavy brew and it’s all very challenging for sure.”

For Gadd, playing a fictionalized version of himself was, he says, “all challenging. It wasn’t an easy thing to pull off. You are revisiting a period in your life, which was the worst period of your life. So it’s running back towards an awful fire you’ve been in.”

Still, though, hard as that process may have been, Gadd says, “I really threw myself in it, in a way. I wanted a certain reality and truth in the performance.” 

Sometimes in the pit of despair, inspiration emerges. I was now in the fourth year of being stalked, by a woman, whose only skill greater than her ability to harass was her ability to evade the law. She had somehow just obtained my mobile number and I was in the peak of my career at that point, having just come back from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where I had won the Edinburgh Comedy Award for Monkey See Monkey Do. A show which tackled the sexual abuse I suffered when I first got into the industry. 

It was a big moment for me. Coming clean with what happened after so many years suffering in silence. But any good feeling in the Fringe’s aftermath was tempered by my phone ringing every single minute of every day where I was met with a whole gamut of Martha’s emotions from hurled insults to deep expressions of love and longing. It was too much for anyone to bear. 

So, it became my life. Listening, logging, and annotating every single voicemail she ever left me in the hope of bringing it all to an end. Praying that she would say something incriminating so that the situation could be dealt with properly and effectively. 

In the height of it all, I would go to bed at night and still hear her in my ears. Her voice swirling around my head. Her words leaping around my eyelids as I tried to sleep. Sometimes it was like she was there in the room with me. In the bed beside me, even. 

I remember during a particularly long night of unrest; the idea came to me.  To stage this whole ordeal, one day, when the time was right. What an opening, it might be, to layer the voicemails on top of one another and shoot them around a stage in a wash of projected light. A cacophony of oscillating words and sounds bending and mutating along with her different emotional states. Mirroring her madness. Mirroring my madness. I mean… what better way to start a show than to plunge the audience straight inside the horror of it all?

When I decided to debut Baby Reindeer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019, it had been two years since Martha was out my life and I was facing an entirely new pressure. The court of public opinion.

It felt like a risky thing – to do a “warts and all” version of the story where I held my hands up to the mistakes I had made with Martha. The foolish flirting. The cowardly excuses as to why we could not be together. Not to mention the themes of internalised prejudice and sexual shame that underpinned it all. The graphic details of the drugging and grooming and sexual violence I had experienced only a few years before. 

I imagined picket lines outside the venue forcing me to shut down. Telling me that what I was doing was wrong. That she didn’t have a voice. That I was the real perpetrator of harm and she the victim. That storylines of internalised shame are not helpful, anymore, and that my descriptions of sexual violence so extreme that… surely I was complicit in it somehow? These were all legitimate fears and not without merit. But equally I could not shy away from the truth of what had happened to me. This was a messy, complicated situation. But one that needed to be told, regardless.

The show sold out that month and by the end I was performing two shows a day just to cope with demand. People came up to me at the end and would tell me things like “I didn’t know whether to punch you or hug you” and “I felt sorry for you, then I hated her, then I hated you and I felt sorry for her” and to me that was the biggest compliment the show could get. All I ever wanted to do was capture something complicated about the human condition. That we all make mistakes. That no person is ever good or bad. That we are all lost souls looking for love in our own weird way. 

The show was commissioned by Netflix in April 2021 and here we are three years later (almost to the day) ready to release the exact same themes to the world. The exact same moral quandaries. Only this time, on a much larger scale. In a lot more detail. To a wider spectrum of people and an audience two-hundred million times the size. 

I would be lying if I said I was not back exactly where I was all those years ago in 2019 at the Edinburgh Fringe. Fearing the worst. Praying for the best. Hoping that in amongst all the messy, complicated, fucked up, themes Baby Reindeer throws at you that people might take notice of its beating heart. 

Director Petra Fried discusses a scene with Richard Gadd during the filming of Baby Reindeer. © 2022 Netflix, Inc.