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.
If you’re writing or creating things as a woman, it’s always suggested that it’s autobiographical. It’s quite exhausting
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.”
Teenage stardom is one of the few things in my life I don’t feel angry towards. But I look at it with a very curious eyebrow
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…