It’s become a bit of a cliche to start a Billie Piper interview talking about how ‘normal’ she is. Likely to show up to an interview with her hair unbrushed, as if the appointment slightly caught her by surprise, she’ll natter away like you’ve bumped into her at the supermarket rather than on the promotional rounds for her latest project. And yes, when we chat on Zoom (this was several months earlier in the year before it became legal to see people again), Piper appears with her hair piled on her head, in a stretched out sweatshirt, and apologises for the noise of the boiler in the background. It’s all reassuringly regular. But Billie Piper is not normal. Billie Piper is an entertainment titan, a woman who has spent almost a quarter of a century shattering expectations and becoming one of her generation’s smartest performers. She’s extremely un-bloody-normal.
In her 23 years as a famous person – she’s still only 38 – Piper’s been a pop singer, TV star, theatre actress and writer. And she’s nailed each one. She has three UK number one singles; two National Television Awards; two BAFTA nominations; and every major British theatre award it’s possible to win. She’s often described as being brilliant at reinvention, winning over tough new audiences – pop-loving teens; sci-fi obsessives; theatre critics – with every gig.
Piper screws up her face when the word ‘reinvention’ is mentioned. “Please tell me I’ve never used that word about myself,” she says (she has not). “I’m always amazed when people say that, because to me it all just feels like obvious next steps. I’m not sat at home thinking about how to reinvent myself… I’m just quite curious as a person… and I’m not satisfied doing one thing. I guess I’m restless on some level.”
Her latest project really reflects that restlessness. Rare Beasts is Piper’s first film as a director. She also stars, and made the whole thing while seven months pregnant with her third child, just to make it all a bit harder. It’s one hell of a debut, so chock-full of ideas it doesn’t always know where to put them. The best thing about it is it’s not a film you could readily compare to the work of anyone else. It’s a new, interesting voice trying to make all its thoughts heard before the credits roll. As an introduction to Piper the director, it’s tremendously exciting. It’s also very weird.
“I’m not sat at home thinking how to reinvent myself – I’m just curious”
Piper plays Mandy, a single mother who starts a relationship with a man named Pete (Leo Bill). Pete is awful – misogynist, bitter and insecure – which Mandy knows (Mandy is often quite awful too), but she keeps dating him anyway. Mandy also hates her job and has a son with behavioural problems, both of which she finds very difficult to manage. None of the things that are supposed to make Mandy happy – a relationship, a successful career, motherhood – are working and she’s not sure what to do with that. If this all sounds a bit bleak, it’s not really. It’s a comedy, with a big dance number and lots of flights of fancy. It’s a film about a woman working out who she is and learning to consider herself worth caring about. The film’s been called an ‘anti-romcom’, but Piper says it’s not just about “a dysfunctional relationship [between two people]. It’s about a dysfunctional relationship with yourself.”
Watching Rare Beasts, it’s clear that Piper has… “such a lot of issues?” she suggests. We were going to say, ‘a very active mind’, but she has a point. It certainly seems to be a film where she’s investigating a lot of her own preoccupations. While she insists it’s absolutely not autobiographical, Piper says the idea for the film was seeded by things happening in her own life.
“The idea began with my late twenties, early thirties, being a really formative, quite terrifying time in my life,” she says. “I remember feeling, culturally, we were being told as women that we can do everything successfully. And a lot of that messaging was coming from other women. I understand the intention, but I found it really unhelpful, because all I could actually see around me was a common crisis, women falling apart at this new age idea that we can do everything and it won’t cost you much. It’s the opposite. It costs you greatly.”
At the beginning of her thirties, Piper was in one of the less interesting times in her career, appearing in the final series of prostitution comedy Secret Diary of a Call Girl (a show she has said did not fulfil its early potential) and some other TV and film projects that have been lost to time. She was married to Laurence Fox, the actor who has recently reinvented himself as COVID-sceptic, mayoral election-losing, Twitter ranter (they divorced in 2007). “It was a time in my life when I started looking at patterns of behaviour that were unhelpful,” she says. “Your twenties are kind of inconsequential. You’re kind of living – at least I was – without much sense of fear. Then your thirties are so different. Everything gets so fucking serious.” It just all screams: ‘’Fucking wake up!’”
“Your twenties are kind of inconsequential… then your thirties are so fucking serious”
And she did wake up. She threw herself into theatre, where she excelled, culminating in 2016’s Yerma, a harrowing drama about a woman desperate for a baby, which won her every major British theatre award. She did therapy. She found a new relationship (with Tribes frontman Johnny Lloyd). She says finishing Rare Beasts made her evaluate just how much she’d worked through. “Maybe I didn’t realise it at the time, but certainly when I look at the film now, I see which parts of me have changed,” she says. “It’s kind of an insight into how unmanageable I found certain aspects of life.”
Though she’s jokey, relaxed company, there’s occasionally still something quite saddening in aspects of how Piper views the world. She said in a recent Guardian interview that she sees every character in Rare Beasts as “a baddie with some good qualities. And maybe, on a subconscious level, that’s how I view everyone.” This seems a really unhappy way to look at the world. Why does she feel that? “Maybe because I’m really anxious. Maybe because I’ve seen a lot of bad behaviour in my life and so then you can get into a habit of thinking that’s how the rest of the world sees everyone… when actually it’s not… I think a lot of it comes from being quite famous, maybe, because you always question people’s motives and agendas.”
It’s understandable that Piper has some distrust of the world. She was incredibly famous from a very young age. At 15, she was the youngest person ever to have a UK number one, with ‘Because We Want To’ (still an absolute banger). She was immediately catapulted to A-list status. Her relationships were public property and her face was constantly in the papers. It’s easy to forget how young she was. Her entire pop career – two albums and nine singles – was done and dusted by the time she was 18 years old.
“I can’t remember much about [my pop career[, which I think says a lot about it,” she says. “The only things I can remember are fun things, which I think, again, says a lot. It’s not something I would be keen for my kids to do, in the way that I did it. [That time] benefited my life and it has taken from my life.” For ages, she distanced herself from her pop years, trying to slough off the massive attention it brought her. Now she says, “I feel like I’ve slightly pushed through that. I think a lot of that is due to having kids. I think my compassion for my younger self has grown from having children of my own.” She now looks back quite fondly on the years at the end of her pop career, “when I just stopped doing it and went and had fun.” These were the years when she married Chris Evans, 18 years her senior, and was photographed in the pub most days. “It was my version of uni, I guess. Just out drinking, having a laugh… It was some sort of takeback for myself, and that felt important.”
“I can’t remember much about my pop career, which says a lot”
When we speak, she’s recently watched the Britney Spears documentary, Framing Britney Spears. Or at least part of it. She says she “really felt” the bits about Spears being expected to be simultaneously virginal and sexual. “[The film] made me so angry that I had to turn it off. I know what a lot of that feels like, but she had it on a whole different level. She was world famous, whereas I was quite locally famous.” She says what made her switch off wasn’t entirely the feeling of relating to Spears’ experience as a pop star, but a broader feeling of what it said about women. “It makes me really angry, because a lot of that isn’t what it’s like to be a famous person, it’s what it feels like to be female and be called mad because you’re driven mad by something. You’re not born crazy. You’re driven mad by certain things. Then you’re used and hung out to dry. That’s what made me feel cross and sad.”
Examining that issue, of women being pushed to the edge of their sanity by the world, then being criticised for reacting to it, has become a theme in Piper’s work, ever since she began creating her own projects, rather than acting in other people’s. Her other big job of the last year was I Hate Suzie, a TV show she devised with friend and writer Lucy Prebble (they collaborated previously on Secret Diary of a Call Girl). Like Rare Beasts, it’s about a woman whose life feels controlled by what she’s supposed to want, not what she actually wants. In this case it’s an actress whose career, of projects she’s bored by, is nearly blown up by a silly sex scandal.
“[I’m interested in] female-driven stories where the protagonist isn’t some shiny, empowered woman,” she says. “She’s multi-faceted and some of it isn’t always easy. There isn’t always that likeability factor.” Like Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge and I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel, Piper isn’t interested in ‘strong women’. They’re all writing about women who have been wronged, but also inflict wrong on others. They’re writing stories where women are not either good or bad, but where everyone is a mess of the two.
Suzie was a huge success, critically loved, one of Sky’s biggest shows of the year and nominated for five BAFTAs. Despite all that, Piper says she’s felt little of its impact. The pandemic has completely cut her off from any discussion about it. “[Lucy and I] made this show that we’re both really delighted about and [because of lockdown] we had to just sit in and not celebrate it at all. We want to go out and yell, ‘Yeeeeaaaahhhh’ and we haven’t. It’s almost like it didn’t fucking happen, like it’s this phantom show.”
“We’re writing ‘I Hate Suzie’ season two in autumn”
It very much did happen and it will be coming back for more episodes, surprising given the first batch ended very neatly. “When [Sky Atlantic] talked about a second series, I think we both cried. Not in an, ‘Oh, yay!’ way, but because we don’t know what it will be… I think it was quite overwhelming.” After the initial panic, Piper says she thinks they now have “quite a good idea and we’re going to start writing it in the autumn.”
Both Suzie and Rare Beasts represent brave steps for Piper. They’re about difficult, interesting people who don’t ask to be liked. They’re confident and risky. That’s especially true of Rare Beasts, which is likely to be a polarising film, but whether or not everyone loves it doesn’t really matter. Piper’s made something uncompromisingly, unapologetically her. For someone who spent the first half of her career being told who she should be, that feels significant. It suggests that the best part of Piper’s career is yet to come, as her own voice becomes clearer. She’s not reinventing, she’s evolving.
‘Rare Beasts’ is released in UK cinemas on May 21