Billie Piper: how to conquer the world before you're 30

She's been a pop princess, a TV sensation in Dr Who and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, a mother, a West End smash... now Billie Piper proves herself as a serious actress

This was probably not Billie Piper's finest hour, but in 2005 she was one of the stars of a British film called Things To Do Before You're 30. It was about the tangled romantic mesh tying together a group of twentysomethings as they approached full maturity. By chance it also starred Emilia Fox, the cousin of Piper's future husband.

Just a few weeks ago Piper really did turn 30 and today it seems highly unlikely that any young woman, in fiction or in real life, can have done quite as much as she has, or done it all so publicly, before reaching that age.

A brief list makes the point clearly. Quite apart from opening on Tuesday night as the lead in a high-profile new play at the National Theatre, as a young teenage pop star Piper went straight to the top of the charts twice. She then dropped out of the music industry to become a bride for the first time at 18, flying to Los Angeles to marry a rich, famous older man. After a period of dodging the paparazzi in marital retreat with Chris Evans, she emerged to take the role of The Doctor's assistant Rose Tyler in BBC TV's immensely successful reimagining of the sci-fi franchise. She then performed in the West End opposite actors Laurence Fox and Kris Marshall, later marrying Fox and soon securing the future of a leading British acting dynasty by having their two baby sons, Winston and Eugene, in prompt succession.

All this was done in three decades, and yet Piper is still also regularly referred to in the press simply as "the former sultry star of Secret Diary of a Call Girl". This ITV drama series was based on a mystery blog and on subsequent books by "Belle de Jour", who posed as a high-class London call girl. Piper played the lead role of Hannah Baxter, a London student who led a shadowy secret life as a prostitute. The adaptation was written by playwright Lucy Prebble, now best known as the author of Enron. And it is Prebble who has also written The Effect, the play in which Piper is shortly to star at the National. Described as a "clinical romance" it sets out to "explore questions of sanity, neurology and the limits of medicine" and has been directed by the award-winning Rupert Goold.

Such a prestigious opening night may well mark Piper's transformation from an appealing and capable television actress into a major acting talent. If so, she will not be the only leading lady in the West End this autumn to have transformed herself from a minor television talent into a considerable A-List stage star. On Friday night, Sheridan Smith, formerly of the sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crips, concluded an acclaimed run at The Old Vic in the title role of Hedda Gabler in a new version of Henrik Ibsen's classic. Anna Friel meanwhile, formerly of Emmerdale and Brookside, is currently appearing as Yelena in Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Like Smith and Friel, Piper's ordinary background seems to suggest that a hint of everyday integrity has never been more valued by casting directors and producers. While male actors from Eton and Harrow are scooping the best roles on stage and screen, rather more humble origins, perhaps with a touch of stage school thrown in, are proving the best credentials for an aspiring actress.

Born in Swindon as Lianne Piper in September 1982, Billie was the eldest of Mandy and Paul Piper's four children. Her career began at the age of 15 with appearances on the Saturday morning children's show Scratchy & Co and she secured a record deal later that year.

"I was a little girl from Swindon, but managers and others work you to death, and you become exhausted and bitter," she has since said about this era of constant touring and pressure. "I was young, green and taken advantage of."

She has also recently spoken of the deep depression she fell into before giving up on music. "My eyes were vague and dead, and my mouth was smiling without feeling in a false pose I'd become accustomed to. I had a very dark moment at 16 when I didn't want to be here any more, but I did nothing about it, thank God."

The early period of her six-year marriage to television presenter and radio DJ Evans was full of partying too, although the couple did attempt to pursue a quieter life in rural Surrey. Piper has described herself as "hardcore through my early 20s" even after her pop career.

"I was super gung-ho then, and I still am to a certain extent, but I don't think it's possible to maintain. It would be a bit gross if I was still like that and had a family," she once said.

Now, as a mother-of-two, things look different. Her second husband, Fox, is appearing on stage too in the West End until mid-December in the play Our Boys by Jonathan Lewis, and Piper claims she even spent her 30th birthday night at home with her own little boys. "My friend had said, 'What are you going to do on your birthday? Are you going to get wasted?'" Piper told an interviewer in September. "I said, 'I'm going to have dinner with the kids and go to bed, because I know, in five hours, I'm going to have to get up with the children."'

The new Prebble play, The Effect, will not be the first time Piper has been called upon to play "grown-up", serious roles. In 2007 she was cast rather against type as the very proper Fanny Price in a television dramatisation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. (A bit like the Hollywood star Scarlet Johanssen, Piper is often relied upon to stoke up the sensual quotient of a cast.)

In 2003 she brought her effortless, perky glamour to a modern day reworking of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, appearing as a young pub singer in The Miller's Tale opposite Dennis Waterman as the landlord. More recently she also won critical plaudits in an episode of director and writer Dominic Savage's improvised, gritty romantic television dramas, True Love. But it was as a heartbroken mother-to-be in the Almeida Theatre's production of Neil La Bute's play Reasons to be Pretty that Piper truly earned appreciation for her acting ability.

Charles Spencer, theatre critic on the Telegraph, said Michael Attenborough's production was "blessed with a heart-wrenching turn from the wonderful Billie Piper as the pregnant wife (and supermarket security guard) who suspects that her husband is betraying her. Piper's mixture of courage and grief in the role is deeply moving and it is wonderful to see the old bruiser LaBute writing with such tender humanity."

The former agent Emma Dyson, of Spotlight, runs workshops for casting directors and aspiring actors, and suspects she has spotted a new interest in actresses who can bring a strong sense of personality to a role, as well as flexibility.

"An actress like Piper or Sheridan Smith, who is from Lincolnshire, is certainly very different from the public schoolboys, your Benedict Cumberbatches and your Eddie Redmaynes," she said. "Both these actresses' careers have really blossomed this year and it is great that people like this are now taking on classical roles. It is nice to see actresses from ordinary backgrounds breaking through to big roles. Someone like Anna Friel from Rochdale is now also being given roles outside those northern stereotypes." While young actors can usefully employ their regional accent to get work, at one time it limited them later in their working life, Dyson explained.

However, Paul Caister, the director of the Poor School for Acting, in London, believes that there will always be a premium on any performer who can deliver charisma on stage. "Casting directors are looking for what they have always looked for. Comic actors and television stars can often become great stage actors if they are prepared to give a compelling and committed performance," he said.

"Although, of course, it has always been true that if you come from a privileged background you will find it easier to get on just because of the people who you have met. Provided they work hard, I say good luck to them, wherever they come from!"


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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