Jessica Gunning is messing with the nation’s head. Her performance in The Outlaws as community service supervisor Diane Pemberley, now a fully-fledged officer with her own blue-liveried, two-wheeled electric scooter, is one of the most joyous things you will encounter on the television this year. Conversely, her portrayal of the unnerving stalker Martha Scott in Netflix’s Baby Reindeer, is a relentlessly agonising viewing experience.


"I responded to Martha so clearly in my mind," says Gunning, who is in LA with her Baby Reindeer co-star and creator Richard Gadd. "Such an emotional reaction; I was incredibly moved by her. When I got the part, a friend of mine said, 'Go for it. Be brave, really try and be emotional and vulnerable.' I think it’s quite easy, once you’ve fought to get something, to feel like, 'Oh, God, now I’ve got to do this!' and it can be quite overwhelming." It’s fair to say she went for it.

Gunning might seem suddenly everywhere, but she’s been gathering acclaim for a long time – including a spell at the National Theatre in 2019 with Cate Blanchett in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. "There have been times when I haven’t worked for months or maybe even years," she says. "If 16-year-old me were to see this, I don’t know if she would believe it, really." Along the way Gunning, who was "a big fan" of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey when she was younger, has become a brilliantly adept physical performer.

Diane in The Outlaws is funny partly because she always manages to be pointing herself the wrong way when bad things are happening, while Martha in Baby Reindeer is a nightmarish jack in the box who might, and usually does, just pop up anywhere.

"Martha is always forceful," says Gunning. "She comes into the pub, puts the bag on the table and says, 'I’ve got to go.' She’s always got places to be. There’s a similar energy to Diane’s swagger in this series because she’s got her protégé alongside her [a pitch-perfect Harry Trevaldwyn as Stan] and she has more confidence.

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"But there was a physicality in those earlier seasons of The Outlaws, especially where I’m doing Brazilian jujitsu and I've got Stephen between my legs trying to demonstrate some of the moves. When you think of those jokes, you don’t actually think of the practicalities of going, 'OK, kneel down, Stephen, I’m going to have to straddle you.' It’s slightly strange on a Monday morning."

Diane (Jessica Gunning) from "The Outlaws" is seen in a blue security uniform and cap, pointing and speaking with a serious expression, set against a blurred, leafy background.
Jessica Gunning as Diane in The Outlaws. BBC / Big Talk / Alistair Heap

All the stranger when she realised Merchant had based the character on his own mother? "I’m not sure if Stephen, or his mum, would agree that their characters are similar," she laughs. "It’s more that that’s the job his mum used to have, so over time he heard a lot of stories about the kinds of people she would encounter."

There was a period of crossover between the productions. As they were filming Baby Reindeer, Gunning was in the writers’ room of The Outlaws, something she’s keen to do more of. How did she keep Diane and Martha separate? "Sometimes it’s really important to compartmentalise things," she says. "Baby Reindeer was an emotional part and an emotional experience, so there’s a sense of responsibility – as it's based on Richard’s true story – to do that justice and to make sure he’s happy.

"That felt very weighty, in a good way, and an exciting experience. Then The Outlaws felt hugely familiar because we’d done two series already, we were established as an ensemble and I was in the writers’ room. It was a really nice thing to go back to after the intense atmosphere of Baby Reindeer."

Intense hardly seems to do justice to a part that is so profoundly troubled and asks an actor to do such strange things, not least an excruciatingly embarrassing sexual act. "I’ve been working now for about 17 years and it’s probably the first time where it did take a while to shift the feeling of the role and the feeling of the experience afterwards," she says. "Especially on those high-intensity scenes, like at the bus stop, or when Donny [Richard Gadd] takes Martha back to her house, those were emotionally heavy days. And your body doesn’t really know sometimes that you’re pretending. There was an adrenaline for all of us that felt like we had been in that experience. You were left in that charged place."

Gunning hasn’t engaged with the the real-world fallout from Baby Reindeer, which has seen armchair detectives seek to identify the real-life figures which inspired Gadd's series. "Because," she explains, "Me and Richard have this close connection and I’m very concerned about anything that might upset him. He’s a survivor of sexual assault, and he was stalked, and I think that any search for real people almost undermines that slightly.

"He said in the past that he didn’t want any internet sleuths to go out and try and find the identities of these real people. He deliberately changed identities for a reason. But of course, in this day and age, it’s inevitable, especially with a show this big, that people are intrigued by who the real people are."

Martha standing in a pub by the door
Jessica Gunning as Martha in Netflix's Baby Reindeer. Netflix

Did she ever find it problematic that Gadd based Martha on a real person? "I wouldn’t use the word problematic, I would say, maybe, sensitive. I absolutely saw Martha as a character, I wasn’t doing an impersonation of a real person. She was very clear to me in the script, but I genuinely didn’t know anything about the real person. But Richard is playing a character as well. When I was acting with him, I felt like he was a character. I didn’t feel like we were re-enacting scenes for some documentary, it felt like we were doing interpretations of these characters in this emotionally true world."

Does she worry about Gadd and the way he’s now being criticised? "I think he was incredibly brave to bare all. He really did put everything in that show, warts and all, errors, mistakes that were made. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. I’m always fiercely protective of him and I want to make sure that none of this is upsetting for him, really, so I try and keep out of any of that stuff."

Until recently, Gunning was a highly respected and much-admired character actor. Now, thanks to Netflix, she’s known around the world. "The reach of Netflix is the thing that surprised all of us. It’s just too hard to get your head around, really, when there’s like 260 million Netflix subscribers. But it’s how people react [that matters]. I got quite emotional the other day. Somebody asked Richard why people have responded so much to the show and he said, 'Because I think that we’re hurting a little bit more than we realise.'

"I thought that was profound, but I also think it can be true of The Outlaws as well as Baby Reindeer. The world of The Outlaws is also true."

The Outlaws returns on Thursday 30th May at 9pm on BBC One.


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