‘Baby Reindeer’ Breakout Jessica Gunning on Unshakeable Connection to Creator Richard Gadd – Hollywood Reporter

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Jessica Gunning is having a moment.

The veteran actress has earned raves for playing unhinged stalker Martha in Netflix‘s critically acclaimed limited series Baby Reindeer opposite Richard Gadd. It’s a part she’s embracing as the role of a lifetime, but she’s no overnight sensation. West Yorkshire native Gunning, 38, has been acting ever since graduating from drama school at London’s Rose Bruford College with a long list of credits that includes Doctor Who, White Heat, The Outlaws and Pride.

Baby Reindeer, created by and starring Gadd as inspired by his traumatic real life experiences, casts him as 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 free cup of tea, spirals over several months as Gunning’s Martha is revealed to be a dangerous, serial stalker. Gunning recently stopped by The Hollywood Reporter office for an interview about what it took to land the plum part, the emotional connection she maintains with Gadd and why she has ignored all of the brouhaha surrounding the real-life identities of Gadd’s characters.

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It’s been interesting to see some social media posts from viewers assuming you’re an overnight sensation when you’ve been working for quite some time …

Yeah, about 16 years.

An overnight sensation 16 years in the making. While Baby Reindeer may have given you a new global fan base with Netflix’s reach, you’re no stranger to global fan bases thanks to one of your first jobs with Doctor Who. What was it like to be introduced in that way?

I was quite fresh out of drama school. My first job was at the National Theatre in Much Ado About Nothing, and it was during that time that I auditioned for Doctor Who. It’s an iconic show really, and it was a really great part. It was only one episode, and I kind of explode and these little aliens come out of me — as you do, all in a day’s work. It was amazing because I realized how great the fan base is over in the U.K. and it’s spread over here, actually, as well. More and more people have started to watch the show.

Have you watched the new installment with Ncuti Gatwa?

Yes. I’m friends with Jodie Whittaker. She’s from near where I’m from, actually up north in Yorkshire. I watched the transformation and it’s such great, great casting. It’s really exciting to see it having a new lease on life with a new fan base coming through. I was a part of the David Tennant era of Doctor Who and he’s very beloved in that role. I feel very lucky to have been a part of that era. So often when you do plays, you get quite a lot of autograph hunters who are big Doctor Who fans and they come through so you’re constantly signing images from way back then. It’s a great thing to have been a part of.

When you look back on these years leading up to Baby Reindeer, what are you most proud of?

I was just thinking of this the other day. I had an office job that I used to do on and off for the first eight years of my career. It was for a council that used to inspect colleges. It was pretty boring, really, and I did a bit of everything from administration to answering phones. I had an easy, relaxed contract so I could go do acting jobs, come back and work in the office. But then I realized it was becoming my backup plan and I thought it was dangerous to say that I’m an actor who works in an office rather than just saying, “I’m an actor.” One day, I was like, “hold on, why am I not just saying that I’m an actor?”

What led to that?

I did a film called Pride, which is one of the things I’m most proud of, and a bus went past the office and it had a poster of the film with my face on it alongside the rest of the cast. There I was in the office holding two empty jugs about to go fill them up at the coffee machine. [I said to my co-workers], “I’m on that bus there.” They said, “Oh, great. Can you take those to meeting room two and four, please?” It was quite a grounding moment. I didn’t have a big head about it, but I just thought at the same time, I needed to be brave and say, “Let’s do this.” That’s when I left my backup plan and focused completely on acting.

Richard Gadd as Donny and Jessica Gunning as Martha in Netflix’s limited series Baby Reindeer.

Netflix

When did you first hear of Baby Reindeer?

I’d seen Richard’s [stage show] Monkey See, Monkey Do, which was so powerful. I kept thinking about it for days after. It’s the show that he did based on the events that happen in episode four. During the play, he’s running on a treadmill throughout the entire thing and I remember thinking, “god, what a brave guy and an amazing storyteller.” When I heard about the next show he did, Baby Reindeer, I tried to get tickets but it was sold out. I actually bought the play text and found it to be such an amazing story. When the email came through about the project four years later, I took a look at the subject line and got goosebumps.

What happened next?

There was a series of auditions that probably spanned about four months. Netflix wanted to make sure I was the right person, completely understandable. We had quite a few rounds of just me and Richard to test out the chemistry. There was a bit of a question mark over the age gap, because we don’t have a big age gap in real life but the characters do so they wanted to make sure that I could pass for 42, 43.

I actually got a good friend of mine to age me up to show in a video that I could look a bit older. She’s an amazing makeup designer called Nadia Stacey who just won an Oscar for Poor Things. I rang her up and she said she could do it by getting me in a wig and some makeup. I did a series of scenes, including the final voicemail in the look and sent the tape in. I mean, in hindsight, it looked rushed and kind of ludicrous but it was just a way for them to imagine. When I read the script, I so clearly understood Martha and I knew how to do it, so I thought it might just take a bit of thinking outside the box to get them to trust somebody like me to do it.

Had you ever gone to those lengths?

Never, ever, ever before. There’s a an amazing bit of advice Bryan Cranston gives about the time when he was auditioning for Breaking Bad. He realized he was going to audition to get the job, and that’s not the point of being an actor. The point of being an actor is to go in and show the version of the character you would do for the role. If I’m right for you, then take it or leave it. That’s been my ethos: If I’m right, I’m right. It was a game because I’m not very well know, and Richard’s not very well known. In another world, people may have been pressing to cast a name, somebody more famous. But I kept thinking, “I know how to do this.” If it got in the hands of someone who saw Martha as a villain or crazy, it would be such a shame and a spoil to the nuance of Richard’s writing.

Why so?

It’s complicated and she isn’t all bad. Her intentions may have been perceived in that way, but she never meant to do anything intentionally harmful. I connected to that side of her. I suppose the side that maybe has been overlooked her in the past, I really thought: this is a woman who feels like she’s not seen very much, and he isn’t as well. He says so himself in the script. He felt like he was undiscovered and then suddenly this woman sees him and says, “Something happened to you, didn’t it?” She sees him more than most do, and they’re both kind of invisible people in a way till they meet each other.

Have you ever feel that way?

Yeah, maybe. You can kind of very happily get along in life and actually in this industry like that. To even be able to say that I’m working 17 years on is such a treat, because many of the people in my year at drama school aren’t working actors now. They’ve gone on to other jobs. I’ve never felt overlooked in a bad way, but maybe I’ve been typecast. Also, being a bigger actress as well, in terms of my size, people sometimes only think of me for certain parts. This was a really refreshing role in that Martha is not defined by her size. It was great that they took a chance on me.

Yeah, her looks are not really addressed at all…

I read the Stephen King article [in the Times] and he mentioned the size thing in an interesting way, by saying that she can run fast when she’s angry. That interested me because I forget sometimes that I’m bigger. I’m really glad we didn’t ever touch on it too on the nose. That’s one of the things I loved playing about this character, she’s not self-conscious in any way, not in the way she dresses or holds herself. She’s a catch and she thinks he’s lucky to have her. I love the scene where she says, “Men who don’t fancy me are either gay or blind.”

Have you paid attention to the discourse? Or have you read any reviews?

I’m actually not on social media, so I haven’t seen many of the comments. My sister and friends have been screen grabbing the nice ones and saying, “Oh, this looks great,” and sending my way. A few of the reviews I’ve seen just in preparation for some interviews. But from what I can tell, everyone’s been responding really well to it. Even if there’s negative responses, I think that’s interesting, too. This is the kind of show that shows people are ready for meaty, challenging, unusual stories. Everything doesn’t have to be tied up in a nice, neat little bow. It’s complicated like life is and mistakes were made, as Richard very honestly says. It’s so important that he told his story from his point of view.

What’s the reason for not being on social media?

Don’t know. I guess it’s because I’m 37 and I think I’m just too old now. I was never really on Facebook, so I missed it. I also don’t really get it. I would just panic about trying to be funny or I would overthink it.

You’ve said that Martha has been the hardest character for you to shake, and it took about a week or so to let go?

When you hear actors say, “I’ve lived with this character for so long,” you sometimes think, “oh god, get over yourself.” But genuinely it’s true. Their story just captured me.

How did you decompress?

I love spending time with my family and mates, things like that. That’s always my go-to, but sometimes I just sit in it as well. It’s really good to know that you’re going to miss it and allow that sadness to be felt just because it’s so rare that you get to be in something like this. Like I said, it’s rare to even friggin’ work, let alone do something as special as this show.

Gadd and Gunning take a selfie at Netflix’s Baby Reindeer panel at L.A.’s DGA Theater on May 7.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix

The show has become so popular that it has inspired some to track down the real-life Martha, who has responded and engaged with people online. What’s your take on that? [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to Fiona Harvey’s interview with Piers Morgan.]  

Honestly, I’ve tried to avoid anything like that because I don’t really know. I don’t know much about the real person. I tried to know the least about the real people as I could, just because I didn’t want it to blur my view. I saw the character so clearly in my mind that I didn’t want anything to complicate that, because I’m not doing an impersonation. I’m doing my interpretation of her. Like Richard said when he posted that message on social media, that’s not the point of our show. He has every right to tell his story, and he’s done so through his point of view, through his eyes. I felt like it was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen. I completely get the impulse. There’s a fascination nowadays with true crime stories, let alone something that’s gone as big as this show has, and I understand that armchair detectives has become a thing. But it’s a shame. That’s not the essence of our show.

What is your relationship like with Richard now?

I get really emotional when I talk about Richard, just because I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone in the same way. I know him as Martha. I used to study his face and his way to get his vibe. I can read him better than even some of my closest friends. Weirdly, I don’t think I’ve felt the way I feel about Richard about anybody at all. We’ve got this unique shared experience that I don’t think anyone really will go through again in the same way we have.

I knew episode four was going to be special. When we did the read through for it, the room was silent. Then at the end when Martha comes in, I remember feeling relieved that he had her. Even though that was really strange. I was so blown away by the episode when I saw it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any performance as brave as that. He’s a patron of the charity We Are Survivors and they told him that they’ve had an 80 percent increase in phone calls from male survivors of sexual assault since the show came out. We are lucky to do this job let alone do it in a way that changes people’s lives, makes a difference or makes people feel seen in the way this show has. I’m so pleased he took a chance on me and let me be his Martha because I don’t think I’ll ever have a connection like it again.

What’s your life been like these past few weeks?

It’s changed a bit. I forget how much I look like myself. If I don’t put any makeup on or I have a frizzy hair day, I’m like, “oh yeah, that’s why people are gasping and running away from me as I’m walking down the street.” Some people have been amazing and come over to tell me how much they loved it. Others have asked for a selfie and said, “I’m not going to give you my number,” or that sort of thing. That’s always really fun.

For my mum’s birthday, we went to this place near my sister’s house and quite a lot of people there were noticing, but everyone was really lovely and complimentary. It is strange, though, because I’ve realized that it’s a much different thing for me now.

What does your family think?

They’re so proud. None of us expected it. When I got the part, they knew how much it meant to me. I think we all thought it might be a bit of a slow burn so no one can believe how big it’s gotten. They can’t believe I’m out in L.A.

Have you been here before?

I actually did a pilot a few years ago called What About Barb? It was a remake of the movie What About Bob? I played Barb opposite Leah Remini but the show never got picked up. That was my first experience here and they put me up in Burbank near an Ikea. I was here about three weeks, thinking it was Hollywood.

How has Baby Reindeer influenced what you want to do next?

It took 17 years for this part to come along, and I don’t think there’ll be another one like it. I’m not viewing it as a springboard to anything, or to something bigger. I can’t even imagine what that would be. No offers have come in, just a lot of lovely compliments. I guess I can just say, watch this space. I also wrote on The Outlaws, which is coming out soon, and I have another film that is about to go into production but I don’t know if I can talk about it. Cate Blanchett, who I did a play with, is producing it. It’s going to be announced soon. It’s a very lighthearted action comedy.

What was it like to work with Cate?

Amazing. I would go work for Cate Blanchett as a maid for the day in a film if I could, I’m a big fan. But suddenly, she was doing this play [When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other] and I got a part in it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone work like she does. She’s so present and every night she would do something different on stage. She’s so in the moment and even her eyes would be listening. She’s amazing and a brilliant person. She’s aces.

Has she seen Baby Reindeer?

I think so, or she’s about to. She told me that her friends are texting her about it, asking, “Have you seen it yet?” which really makes me laugh. She’s great.

Gunning, Gadd and Nava Mau at Netflix’s Baby Reindeer panel.

Monica Schipper/Getty Images

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