Making A Scene: ‘Baby Reindeer’ Stars Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning Break Down the First Time Donny Met Martha, Gunning’s Audition Tapes and That Laugh

It all started with a cup of tea on the house.

That innocuous gesture between a failed comedian turned barhand named Donny (Richard Gadd) and his soon-to-be stalker, Martha (Jessica Gunning) would spark a chain of events eventually culminating in the streaming success of “Baby Reindeer” on Netflix. The small, U.K. production based on Gadd’s real-life experience all centered around the complicated chemistry between the two characters — so naturally, the stakes were high filming their first encounter.

More from Variety

In Variety’s “Making a Scene,” we sat down with Gadd, co-star Gunning and Tofilska to break down recreating that cup of tea that changed everything.

“It’s one of the most important parts of the show,” says series creator and co-star Gadd. “I always wanted the show to open straight away, throw you right into the deep end.”

Agrees director Weronika Tofilska, “It was really important for us that this captures this moment of them looking at each other and seeing each other for the first time, especially how Donnie sees Martha seeing him.”

“It’s the butterfly effect, isn’t it?” Gadd continues. “Here’s the small thing that leads to the disaster.”

It’s a seemingly simple moment: a woman enters a bar and the bartender offers her a free drink. But every single decision, from how Gunning would enter to the moment they locked eyes, told a little piece of the “Baby Reindeer” story.

“This is a memory that [Donny] has of this woman entering the pub. We wanted the camera to capture the point of view of Donny,” Tofilska says. “For example, when Martha comes in, we don’t really cut to her close-up. The camera pans with the way he looks at her. The door opens, and he sees this woman, and we see her in a wide shot, and we see that she’s upset, she’s looking around. There’s something interesting about her, intriguing. Then, we really glued to his face with the camera, and with every step when he approaches her, we approach Martha and we reveal more and more about her.”

Gunning says that “there was a very specific kind of rhythm to it that was quite important.” Therefore, the opening shot took multiple takes.

“Obviously, trying to get the sense of where [Martha’s] come from was important as well,” she adds. “In my character back story, she’s just left whoever she was previously connected to and walked into the pub almost to kind of escape that. If he didn’t offer the cup of tea, she probably would’ve stayed in that space, I imagine. But then when he does, that is broken and everything changes from there, really.”

When the offer is made, Donnie and Martha lock eyes. “It’s almost like a little miracle happens in her world at this point,” Tofilska explains.

“I don’t know how many people have paid huge amounts of attention to her before,” Gunning adds. “So not only is this a light bulb moment because he gives her a free cup of tea, but I think it’s also a light bulb moment because it’s like she’s seen for the first time in a long time.”

The cast and crew spent a lot of time discussing the importance of this first look-up moment from Gunning. “It really feels like this world is so unforgiving to her. Then, there’s this one person who does something so special for her and it’s almost like all a sudden, it’s Christmas,” says Tofilska.

Keeping “Baby Reindeer” strictly from Donny’s point of view required a copious number of tight shots. Tofilska says they wanted to linger in that uncomfortable feeling of someone staring so intensely back into your gaze; the feeling of being watched. These shots often omitted the help of a scene partner within eyesight.

“A lot of the scenes in ‘Baby Reindeer,’ loads of them, we weren’t even looking at each other,” Gadd says. “We were looking at these little X’s on the camera, which is crazy. Sometimes I do it and I’d be like, ‘Oh God, I just wish Jess’s face was there so I could look into her and can see her expressions.’”

In Gunning’s arsenal of emotions — all seemingly a mere flicker away from transforming her entire face from joy to rage — the jewel is her incredible, room-filling laugh. “She has the best laugh that he has ever heard,” Tofilska says of Donny. Shortly after Donny and Martha lock eyes, he tells her a little joke to cheer her up. The response is electric, especially for his character, a failed comedian. “That’s exactly what [Donny] wants. That’s exactly what he needs, really, at that point in his life.”

“Sadly, it’s kind of my laugh,” Gunning reveals. “I went to a comedy club back home and it was cabaret seating and I was like, ‘Oh no, I hope I don’t find this guy too funny because it might be a bit scary hearing my old laugh in the background.’”

Gadd knew that finding the right Martha for “Baby Reindeer” was going to be a challenge. “The show really hinged on an actor being able to deliver the nuances of Martha. If somebody plays it, nothing but evil, nothing but weird, nothing but twisted, the show fails to take on the nuance that I think it needs to be an interesting piece of work.”

Gunning immediately saw what Gadd was looking for after reading his script. “I think she’s one of the most fascinating, multi-layered, contradictory characters I’ve ever read,” she says. “The challenge was trying to get that balance right and do the story justice.”

Though the casting process was arduous, Gadd says he was always pushing for Gunning from the beginning. After four months of chemistry tests and one random audition after Netflix sent notes asking if Gunning could be “aged up,” inspiring the actor to hire a makeup artist, find a wig, and send out an older taping of Martha, eventually, she landed the part.

“I really fought for it because I just saw her so clearly. I just kept thinking, ‘Oh man, if somebody were to do this and play her as a villain or play her as crazy, you’d miss the point a bit because she so isn’t that,'” Gunning says. “I went in again and again to try and persuade them and luckily, they took a chance on me.”

While Gunning needed to find Martha, Gadd had the unique experience of having lived through his encounter with the real-life Martha. That being said, Gadd didn’t share any of the real-life voicemails or emails with Gunning.

“I also didn’t want her to be influenced by anything,” he says. “I wanted Martha to take on a life of her own, to exist outside the real-life people. And I trusted Jess enough with her abilities to bring the character enough. I didn’t want to do a documentary. I didn’t want it to be an actor trying to inhabit a person. I wanted it to be its own character.”

And indeed despite shooting so much of “Baby Reindeer” from Donny’s point of view, this story wasn’t wholly his to tell.

“The point of the show is that it’s just two people who kind of connected and they’re a bit lost and lonely,” Gunning says. “And I think that was a good thing to remember at the core of her and his connection.”

Variety’s “Making a Scene” is presented by HBO.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.