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Baby Reindeer Star Jessica Gunning on Bond With Richard

Baby Reindeer Star Jessica Gunning on Bond With Richard

Jessica Gunning is having a moment. The veteran actress has earned rave reviews for playing unhinged stalker Martha in Netflix’s critically acclaimed limited series Baby Reindeer. It’s a part she’s embracing as the role of a lifetime, yet the West Yorkshire native, 38, has been acting ever since graduating from drama school at London’s Rose Bruford College. Her long list of credits includes Doctor Who, White Heat, The Outlaws and Pride.

Baby Reindeer was created and written by Richard Gadd, inspired by his real-life experiences, and he stars 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 Martha is revealed to be a dangerous serial stalker. Gunning recently stopped by THR’s Los Angeles 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.

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.

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. 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 goose bumps.

What happened next?

There was a series of auditions that 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 one in real life but the characters do. 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 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. 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 before? 

Never. There’s an amazing bit of advice Bryan Cranston gives about the time 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 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 gamble because I’m not very well known, and Richard’s not very well known. In another world, people may have been pressing to cast a name, 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.

How 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 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, until they meet each other.

Have you ever felt that way?

Yeah, maybe. You can very happily get along in life and in this industry like that. To be able to say that I’m working 17 years on is such a treat. Many of the people in my year at drama school aren’t working actors now. I’ve never felt overlooked in a bad way, but maybe I’ve been typecast. Also, 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.

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

Ed Miller/Netflix

Yeah, her looks aren’t really addressed at all.

I read the Stephen King article [in The Times of London] 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 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. 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 any other discourse about the show?

I’m 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 sending my way. A few of the reviews I’ve seen just in preparation for some interviews. But from what I can tell, everyone has 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.

You’ve said that Martha’s been the hardest character for you to shake, and it took about a week 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. 

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

Honestly, I’ve tried to avoid anything like that because 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 eyes. 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. But it’s a shame. That’s not the essence of our show.

What’s 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.

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 will 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’s 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. 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 onstage. 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.

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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