The first thing Billie Piper says to me is, “It’s in your lined paper book, Eugene, I already sent it to them,” because she’s trying to home school her children while also roaming around her house to escape them and find a better phone signal. We’re already on to our third kind of tech in an attempt to video chat. “I’m just so strung out,” she says, sitting down, remarking that she looks awful with no makeup on, long blond hair yanked into a ponytail. She laughs at the bleakness: to hell with all this.
The Piper household – her two sons, Winston, 12, and Eugene, eight, her musician boyfriend Johnny Lloyd and their toddler daughter, Tallulah – are enjoying the pandemic as little as the rest of us. “We’re OK. We’re just cracking on. Everyone’s going through it and other people have some terrible situations,” she says, first trying to be positive, then admitting the truth: “I’ve got two boys home schooling and they just hate it. And I hate it. If a teacher hears me losing it down the phone, I’m past the point of caring. The mask has slipped.”
She takes a deep breath and kindly tells her son to go and find his iPad (“I feel sick to my stomach when I see my kids on devices: even the baby knows how to zoom in on pictures now”). But she is addicted to her phone, too, and finding this third lockdown “particularly triggering”: how much news can she consume or even think about? “I mean, I’m ultimately just so confused all the time. That’s what I’m getting out of my 30s. In general!”
The thing is, I’m confused, too – for all the same reasons, but also because I can see into Piper’s house and it looks just like the one in I Hate Suzie, the recent Sky/HBO drama in which she starred. It was written by Lucy Prebble, but in cahoots with her close friend Piper, who plays Suzie Pickles, a famous woman with a patronising husband. She’s a strung-out, ambitious mother who has successfully navigated the class system, likes getting high, has terrible taste in men and is building towards a crisis. In one episode, she gives an interview about her life as a television actor and former child popstar, and ends up having to hide from the photoshoot crew, while her life implodes, in the toilet. I’m half expecting this conversation to move there at some point.
Now Piper has written and directed a film in which she also stars, Rare Beasts; Prebble is credited as a script adviser. It is brilliant and distinctive in its own right, but it is also, it’s fair to say, about a strung-out, ambitious mother who has successfully navigated the class system, likes getting high, has terrible taste in men and is building towards a crisis. Given that Piper spent 2007 to 2016 married to Laurence Fox, the anti-lockdown actor who has been mouthing off about wokeness and feminists ever since she left him, it is hard not to see parallels.
Fox has talked publicly about his heartbreak at the end of their marriage, but Piper prefers never to discuss it in public, presumably keenly aware that they still co-parent their two sons. But I think it is fair to say that they are not close, and she seems wary when I ask if people will assume the skinny, fair-haired, obnoxious male lead in Rare Beasts is modelled on her ex.
“No, I really don’t think so,” she says. “If you’re writing things, or you’re creating things, as a woman, it’s always suggested that it’s autobiographical. You know, you can understand how people go, look, that’s a similarity – she shares that thing with the character. But it’s also quite exhausting because it feels like everything you ever do, people are going to go, ‘OK, that’s about you, that’s about your life.’ And it’s not.”
She does, however, explain that she likes connecting to parts where she has “some sort of personal axe to grind”, and that “the only time I want to work is when I understand those instincts. When I’ve seen that world myself first-hand, it will all feed into everything I do. So I guess it’s inevitable that people will always make that connection – or want to make that connection. But you know… I know about dysfunctional relationships. I know about what it costs to be a woman. So I can comfortably sit in all of those things and say, yes, all of those experiences have informed my work. But it’s not that I was her, and that that was him.”
In the film’s opening scene, Mandy is in a restaurant on a first date with her colleague Pete; they work in a trendy but nightmarish production company. Mandy asks why he is single. “What’s not to love about Pete?” she inquires.
“Uh, well, I’m just going to be plain with you,” he replies. “I find women in the main intolerable. But I realise that I can’t live without them. Won’t live without one.”
“Right,” she says, and we expect disgust, but see in her eyes that this could go anywhere. Pete tells Mandy he’s a traditionalist, “a man of faith, a religious enthusiast”. She asks if he’s joking, before confessing that she gives really bad blowjobs, to which he replies unblinkingly, “Well, you do have a lot of teeth.”
“No, my teeth are just big, it’s deceiving,” she explains. “I actually have the correct number of teeth in my head. Thirty two. What have you got in there, a little bag of shrapnel?” She peers across the table into his much smaller mouth, and the question of who’s in control seems to shift back and forth between them. “I can see your nerve endings,” she adds.
And so it goes, deeper and deeper into the darkness, unlike any other romantic drama you’ll currently see on screen. According to Piper, everybody in Rare Beasts “is at the end of their rope. So there really is nothing to lose for any of them. And in many ways it’s an observation of how people behave when they’re frightened, and how primal it can get.” She says this sort of work is where she feels truly comfortable: she isn’t really a cheery, mainstream person at all.
Piper adds that she is glad to be writing scripts right now, at a time when women are finally being taken seriously as creators of entire shows, and when they don’t have to be nice. “I can be crass or vulgar, or just an arsehole – and there is a place for that. It might be received negatively or positively, but there is a forum for it. I’m finding the world generally just way more exciting. Just freeing. I think, before that point,” she says, referring to a time before I May Destroy You and Fleabag, when it seemed as though everything that women said and did in private “had to be hidden”.
We talk about the fact that, in a show like Succession (which Prebble also works on), not a single character is likable, something commissioning editors used to insist a story needed. Piper says she is glad that screenwriting has got beyond, “the old school way, where you can decide who is a good person and who is a bad person. I think that just feels – well, it smells like bullshit to me. I would say everyone in my film is a baddie with some good qualities. And maybe, on a subconscious level, that’s how I view everyone. I’m just more interested in people who make the wrong choices and who behave appallingly in the face of rejection.”
Whether or not her film will find an audience with the same dark sense of humour, she doesn’t know. “I think it will depend what cloth you’re cut from. If you do understand,” she pauses, “those ideas of being confused by modern feminism. Or you do understand those ideas of getting together with someone who…” She takes an even longer pause. “Who says things to you that you think about yourself in your darkest hours, and how that can be perversely attractive.” Then she laughs, a fruity roar at life, disaster, everything.
“But some people may have had a really nice, sunny time! And this won’t chime for them whatsoever! This sounds very therapised, so I’m loth to say it, but I think those people are taught about boundaries. Those are the people who seem to move through life quite proudly, and possibly even peacefully.” She smiles. “I don’t know. That’s not me!”
So how has she moved through life?
“Probably restlessly, ugh,” she sighs. “Restlessly for sure, with poor boundaries. But very curious, I suppose, if that’s a positive spin on that. Maybe that’s what it is. Curiosity.”
Billie Piper grew up in a working-class family in Swindon, and after attending Sylvia Young theatre school in London, appeared on the children’s ITV show Scratchy & Co; she was 13 and with a group of classmates pretending to be the Spice Girls. At 15, she had a record deal with producers who actually made her sound like the Spice Girls, becoming the youngest singer ever to go straight to No 1, with her debut single Because We Want To. There were follow-up hits – Honey To The Bee, Day & Night – though she has since said that she wasn’t a very good singer and always mimed when performing in public.
Before she was old enough to marry without parental permission, Piper had been nominated for two Brit awards and crowned Princess of Pop by Smash Hits magazine. When she was old enough, she did get married, in secret and in Las Vegas, to the broadcaster Chris Evans. She was 18 and he was 35, an age difference I suspect would damage a man’s career now. They then recovered from their hectic 1990s by taking early retirement in the pub for a few years.
Separated (amicably) at 21, Piper then became household famous again, playing Doctor Who’s companion Rose Tyler. There was also lots of theatre work: when she starred in Lorca’s play Yerma at the Young Vic in London in 2016, she set a new record by winning all six of the possible best stage actress awards, including the 2017 Olivier award. She met Fox on stage when they both appeared in the Christopher Hampton play Treats in 2007. Her boyfriend now, Johnny Lloyd, is a musician who was a friend for years until they were both single at the same time and realised they were falling in love. He worked on the soundtracks for I Hate Suzie and Rare Beasts.
One of the other defining relationships of Piper’s adult life is her friendship with Prebble, whom she met on the Channel 4 series Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, after Prebble adapted Brooke Magnanti’s Belle de Jour blog for TV. Prebble and Piper have said they found the show frustrating; last year Piper told the Radio Times, “I thought it could be very original and thought-provoking, but there was a lot of resistance and it became something very different.” So when Prebble cast Piper in her play The Effect at the National Theatre in 2012, about two people who fall in love while taking part in a clinical trial for an antidepressant and struggle to understand which feelings are real, their working relationship was able to develop.
As they entered their 30s, they began to email each other about the state of their lives. “I think our friendship really hit its heights after that, once we had both left our 20s and were desperately clinging on to each other. Saving each other from various car crashes. I have a tendency to lean into a sort of absolute bleakness, a lot, and Lucy and I share that. We enjoy the bleakness, we find it very funny,” Piper explains.
They ranted back and forth about being female, being ambitious, yet also feeling co-dependent, unsure how to live on one’s own terms or have equal relationships. Out of this came I Hate Suzie. “It’s been a revelation, working with a really old friend. I sort of don’t want to work any other way now. Lucy was certainly a lot more apprehensive about whether our relationship would stay intact,” Piper admits. They have started swapping ideas for a second series.
Her own film started life earlier, as a script she wrote in snatched moments after her younger son was born, and then parked until he started school. “And then I would write in between the school runs. So I would come home from the drop-off and hammer it in the only time I had.”
English was the only subject Piper loved at school. “And though I was terrible at spelling, I loved stories and reading and writing. I used to write my own plays. And I’ve always kept diaries, although not for the past five years. I just really enjoy writing and always had a desire to maybe do it in conjunction with directing, but didn’t have the confidence. I found instructing people – well, men mostly – quite difficult. Telling people what I wanted took some courage. I think, as an actor, I’m alive to people’s sensitivities, which made the ‘Not this, that’ hard for me at first.”
Piper has described the film as an anti-romcom, which seems to have confused some critics who saw it at the Venice film festival in 2019 and expected something closer to Bridget Jones. In fact, it’s much more art house, with elements of the Theatre of the Absurd – well, if Eugène Ionesco had written something bleakly hilarious about women who take their clothes off to show you the worst parts of their body first. As a director, Piper says she was influenced by the choreography of Pina Bausch and Busby Berkeley, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, from Boogie Nights onwards. “I like theatrics and pace and drama, and he’s wildly dynamic with camera and sound, and seems bloodthirsty on character. Johnny and I watched Phantom Thread on a loop last year – it’s so moving to me, so funny, so sensual.” She was transfixed by Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, the controlling dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock: “I could listen to Reynolds eat his breakfast every day of my life.”
Therapy has helped her make sense of some of her own frustrations, though she used to lie about having had it, “because of my upbringing”. Her family were unimpressed by the neuroses of the chattering classes. “It’s just a general sort of scoffing at the unpacking of your problems. Especially if you’ve been successful, it’s this sort of, ‘Why do you need therapy?’ That narrative. Now I’m that really annoying person who suggests therapy to everyone. I do totally get that thing of going: ‘Is this a problem, or am I a problem? Should I just use stoicism and swallow it down?’ And sometimes that can see you through – it just doesn’t last. Because the anger comes back up.” She starts laughing as she describes her most familiar emotion: “Just this inexplicable rage.”
In the light of the MeToo movement, our better understanding of exploitation and what fame does to young women, has she reconsidered her teenage stardom? She says yes, and that she didn’t have a strong memory of that time at all until quite recently, having pushed it down. “I’m sure there’s a reason for that. Since I’ve had a little girl, I think about it a lot. But absolutely, yeah. Although it’s actually one of the few things in my life I don’t feel really angry towards. I don’t feel anger towards what I saw or what I experienced, but I do look back at it with a – a very curious eyebrow. It just seems so wildly unsafe. I do slightly despair, and I want to feel for that version of myself a bit more than maybe I have allowed myself to, in the past. You know, there were also some brilliant things that came out of that time in my life that have really set me up quite well now. But it’s not something that I would feel comfortable showing my children, as an experience.”
Anyway, she says, her children have “absolutely no interest in any of it. They certainly don’t give a shit about my music career. They don’t like seeing me in Doctor Who, and I have pushed that on them a number of times. My elder son would get very upset that I was being chased or scared or attacked, so I thought, ‘OK, this is a weird mental leap for you.’ They don’t really like seeing me in music videos – they certainly don’t recognise me! They have actually said ‘That’s not you,’ which is very funny.”
Couldn’t she be the new star of Doctor Who? I tell her my daughter is horrified that Jodie Whittaker might be replaced by a man and thinks the idea of a male Doctor is outrageous.
“Oh that is so good! I wouldn’t go back. It’s a great role, but you’re away from your kids for so long. My experience was that you were in Wales for nine months solid. And as a job it dominates your life. It’s mainstream family viewing so you can’t really escape it. It feels like it makes you very, very famous.”
Instead, this has been a time of acceptance. Piper says she feels the push and pull between her upbringing and her very different adulthood, as well as the fact that her family vote Tory and she votes Labour. “I’m at a point in life where I’m considering the two sides of my life a lot more. I sort of rejected my past, in the past, whereas now I need it more than ever. I need a sense of where I’m from and how I’ve been raised, even though some of that hasn’t always been helpful. I go home more than I ever used to. I want to be around my mum more.”
Some personal progress has been made, too: she admits that when she wrote the line in Rare Beasts about her character having big teeth, that was indeed autobiographical. “I think I’m finally OK with saying I have big teeth,” she adds, smiling. “It’s taken me possibly 35 years to get to that place.”
There is a memorable scene in Rare Beasts where a group of women sit in someone’s house, taking cocaine and then, in increasingly comic, wretched horror, describing what childbirth did to them. “I can’t believe I’m crying on coke!” one of them wails. I tell Piper this is not something I have ever seen on screen before, but that I feel I recognise these women: that clash of two worlds, between reckless hedonism and motherhood.
She nods, and says she was once having a good time “at Glastonbury, at three in the morning, me and my partner, until I was asked by some really gorgeous young girl, ‘So how’s the baby?’ You just think: ‘Not here!’ That’s why I love Glastonbury, usually. You can just go there, your phone dies after a day, you eventually get it charged, but you get to be your 20-year-old self and it’s extremely liberating. As long as you’re there with your peer group. Not when you get merged and muddled with actual young people asking you what it means to be a mother. You certainly can’t be honest: there’s so much more shame attached to having sort-of-normal life experiences that aren’t golden-hued moments in the garden with your kids.”
Yet she managed to make her film while heavily pregnant with her daughter, which meant she had to shoot most of it from the neck up, and use a body double in a nude scene. She is relieved that I hadn’t noticed, having agonised about whether or not they had got away with it. “It was also very satisfying,” she says, “because I could sit down for a minute and eat something.”
She giggles remembering the awkwardness of the crew trying to find a polite way to suggest that the body double might look a bit better than her. “They were like, ‘We-ell, we’re going to have to put a bit more shade over here. Or maybe she should be standing in this position, it might make more… sense.’ But I do look back at that time – and then going straight into making I Hate Suzie when I had a new baby – as actually a bit mad. I’ve got to try not to do that again.”
Why is she so hard on herself? At only 38, her work output has been extraordinary. Is she proud of the film she has created?
“I think when the film has come out, when there is some feedback, whatever that may be, then it will feel more real – like it hasn’t just happened in my imagination. In terms of a sense of achievement, again, this is something I’m really trying to work on. Taking some time, having a moment with yourself of saying, ‘Well done.’ I don’t do that, really. Ever. And I think that has to change.”
What she misses from back in the day, what she was missing even before lockdown, “is those spontaneous days in the pub, where maybe you’re there for two hours, maybe you’re there for seven hours, you know what I mean? Maybe you end up in a club, dancing and sweating with other people. I do miss that because, certainly with three kids, there’s just a lot of logistics.”
I tell her I’ve been reading about the Roaring 20s and the idea that, after the pandemic, parties and nightlife will take off again the way they did a century ago. “I know!” she cries, the most enthusiastic she has sounded yet. “I’m ready for it! I’m there! I am so excited by this idea that we’re going to be having this fucking raucous time! Who bloody knows?”
• Rare Beasts is out in May.