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Lewis Saunderson TikToks
Two of Lewis Saunderson's TikTok videos: the first reads "it only takes 30 seconds to drown a child" and the second reads "finding my beautiful daughter dead"Lewis Saunderson/ TikTok

Tiktok star Lewis Saunderson is here to raise awareness

We sat down with the controversial TikTok star who is, without a doubt, the most intense actor at work in Britain today

In a video posted to TikTok, a man in a paddling pool unleashes a howl of agony as he clutches a drowned child in his arms, moments after leaping down an inflatable slide in slow motion. In another, he is dressed as a soldier: returning home from war, he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with his brother, before smashing up the kitchen and pummelling himself in the face with his hands. In the next, captioned “Men’s Mental Health Matters” and set to a plaintive piano ballad, a man cries out for help as he discovers his father unconscious – the result of an apparently fatal overdose. 

These vignettes – many of which have gone wildly viral – are the work of Lewis Saunderson, a 39-year-old from Peterborough who is setting out to educate the internet on a number of issues, including choking hazards, mental health, grief, addiction, and being cucked by your brother. Behind this man’s meteoric rise to online celebrity lies decades of acting experience: Saunderson first studied drama at a college in his hometown of Peterborough and went on to a professional drama school in London, where he graduated with a BA in 2008. After this, he spent a few years living in the capital, working on commercials, music videos and even some feature films. But before long the cost of living and general lifestyle in London “swallowed him up”, as he puts it, and he decided to return to Peterborough, where he continued attending auditions and working in film and TV. Along with a close friend, he later set up a business offering filmmaking classes to local kids, which ran for four years before closing down around the same time as the pandemic. It was just over a year ago that he started his TikTok account, and he has already amassed a huge audience – at the time of writing, he has just hit one million followers.

This sudden exposure has brought with it both a large fanbase and a fair deal of controversy. Not setting out to mislead anyone, Saunderson is meticulous about labelling his videos as fiction. But once they escape the confines of TikTok, they have a tendency to confuse. Last year, Saunderson posted a monologue – inspired by the film John Q – about a father donating his heart to his dying son. When it was uploaded to Facebook, the video was shared by over 11,000 people, the majority of whom appeared to believe that this was documentary footage. Upon learning otherwise, many viewers felt deceived, as did some of those who responded to a video titled, “Finding my beautiful daughter dead – every parent’s worst nightmare” with sincere messages of condolence. In response, Saunderson has posted videos clarifying that he is an actor (“It’s nothing different to when you watch a drama on TV”) and justifying the value of his work in raising awareness about a range of serious issues.

Below, we speak to Saunderson about the divided response to his videos, how he achieves such intense performances, the importance of raising awareness, and more.

@lewissaunderson38 It only takes 30 seconds for a child to drown! This is an awareness video to help educate people around the dangers of leaving a child unattended in a paddling pool or any water for that matter. This is fiction not real. This is the power of filmmaking, editing, storytelling and sound design. The child was completely safe. The scream was added afterwards in post-production. #awareness #watersafety #parents #parentsoftiktok #mumsoftiktok #dadsoftiktok #child #fiction #fictionalcharacters #acting #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #viral #viralvideo #xcyzba #explorepage #love ♬ Only Love Can Hurt Like This (Slowed Down Version) - Paloma Faith

What has the reaction to your videos been like?

Lewis Saunderson: The channel has grown significantly in the past 12 months and a handful of my videos have gone viral, some of which have created a public divide. Earlier on, there was a bit of confusion as to whether or not they were real, and when people found out it was just acting, that obviously triggered certain people. So as much as I have a big fanbase, I also get a lot of hate and harassment, because some people can’t understand why I would re-enact such traumatic events that people actually go through.

I’ve put out many videos over the past year where I’ve had to justify why I do what I do, the importance of it, and how it helps people. So it gets to the point where you have to say, ‘nothing everyone does is going to be right for everyone.’ I just try to continue doing what I set out to do, to ignore the negative and focus on the positive.

I’m surprised people would have thought they were real experiences. To me, it seems quite obvious that they are fictional vignettes.  

Lewis Saunderson: It doesn’t really take a rocket scientist to work out that if you have a scenario where there are fifteen different cuts, close-ups, and background music then it’s probably fiction. If this father’s son was actually drowning in a paddling pool then it wouldn’t have been filmed from ten different angles, you know?

Your performances are pretty intense, often involving screaming, shouting and crying. In terms of your process, how do you get into the zone beforehand and summon that emotional energy?

Lewis Saunderson: It’s always been a strength of mine to perform that level of emotion – those were the characters I was getting cast at when I was a bit younger and more involved in the acting industry. It’s definitely about the training I’ve had. I’m a happy-go-lucky person who had a relatively good upbringing, so it’s not like I’ve had a traumatic life that I can draw upon. It’s just an actor’s skill to be able to tap into that type of emotion when required. I wouldn’t say I have an easy knack for putting on the tears, but it’s just about getting myself into that mindset. I’m a very empathetic person and things can upset me: things I see, things I read on the news, horrible things that are happening in the world to people and children. I just need to have my own process where I can connect myself to these things.

What do you want people to take away from your TikToks? 

Lewis Saunderson: It’s about raising awareness. For example, I did one about addiction recently where I played a son begging his mother for money through the letterbox. Addiction is a big problem: almost everyone knows somebody who has suffered from it, be it alcohol or drugs. Making a video about it is a way of showing people who might not necessarily know the kind of impact that it can have on people’s lives.

As for the ‘drowning son’ video, obviously that’s the one that completely skyrocketed. It caused a lot of media attention and there was a triggering element to that video for the public, because even once people realised it was acting, they weren’t necessarily happy that a young infant was used as part of it. So again, it’s about trying to justify to people that it’s the power of storytelling, editing, filmmaking and sound design – the scream I did as I was hugging the child was put on afterwards in post-production. But some people don’t really care, they just see what they see and think, ‘you shouldn’t have done that with a child.’ I can understand where they’re coming from, but many, many people have told me that it’s doing its job in terms of spreading awareness, that it’s made them think twice about even popping to the kitchen if their child is in a paddling pool.

Is that a problem that happens a lot (kids drowning in paddling pools)? What inspired that video?

Lewis Saunderson: Sometimes the videos are thought-out and planned ahead of time, and sometimes these ideas just pop up. With that particular one, it was June and I just so happened to be with my nephew, who was in a paddling pool. I was standing there, enjoying the sunshine and I thought, ‘it’s the beginning of summer, this weather is really hot, and everyone’s going to be getting their paddling pool out’. He was playing around, almost pretending to be dead – and the idea just hit me at that moment.

So I started grabbing some shots of him just happily playing in the pool, and then at the point where I run out and jump down the slide, he was inside the house. When we finished it off, I said to my nephew, ‘I’m going to give you a cuddle and film it,’ and then I did the silent scream behind him. Once I’d put it all together with the music and the scream, obviously it’s very impactful. When I did some research and realised how little water it takes for a child to drown, I thought, ‘this is definitely an important awareness video.’

Do you see yourself as part of a wider scene of content creators making these dramatic vignettes on TikTok?

Lewis Saunderson: I just try to stay humble. Like I said, I’m about to hit a million followers, and that’s obviously incredible. It’s great that I’ve been able to reach so many people. I get hundreds of messages every day – obviously, I also work a full-time job so I don’t have time to sift through every single one, but every now and then I’ll have a read of the messages from people who my videos mean so much to, who share their own stories with me as well. That means a lot to me and that keeps me going. Because I’m not getting to do as much as acting in my life at the moment due to my other commitments, it’s also a great way for me to brush up on my skills.

So in terms of how big it will continue to grow, in all honesty I will just keep doing what I’ve been doing and see what happens. If I can start working with certain companies in terms of becoming a patron of mental health, then that would be great. I certainly put my heart, my passion, my full focus into these videos and telling these stories. I’m not trying to offend or upset or hurt anyone, I’m just trying to do what I love.

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