“It’s exhausting trying to just survive”: Billie Piper on motherhood, turning 40, and playing the kind of woman she wants to be
Billie Piper is glad her thirties are over. “They get so fucking weird,” she exclaims over a pint at her local pub in north London. We’re meeting to speak about the second series of her excellent television show I Hate Suzie when we meander onto the subject of ageing and turning 40 in September. It’s no big deal, of course, but for Piper, who is remarkably skilled at exposing raw truths about womanhood, it’s worth contemplating. “I built it up in my mind as this really big thing, and I want to feel completely different,” she says, shaking her dark, chin-length bob. “It’s annoying that I don’t, I still feel 16 in my head … I’m trying not to shirk my thirties, I want to accept them and invest in the joy … ” Piper trails off and sighs. She is still in the midst of figuring it out.
It’s refreshingly honest, given that the popular school of thought goes that things get easier for women after the excesses of their twenties, when they have presumably settled down. But Piper has led anything but an ordinary life. If you were a child of the 90s, she’ll be a familiar face. You might remember “Because We Want To” going viral before “going viral” was even a thing. Piper, then solely known as Billie, was 15 when she became the youngest artist to debut at number one on the UK Singles Chart. She went on to star in Doctor Who as David Tennant’s assistant Rose Tyler and followed this with an altogether more grown-up role in Secret Diary of a Call Girl. By this point, aged 25, Piper was one of the most recognisable faces in the UK – her life, relationships and marriages treated as tabloid fodder. So you could say we grew up with Piper, but she also grew up with us, the public.
Given her history, her latest project appears to be on the nose. Written by her creative partner and close friend Lucy Prebble, the kooky, mile-a-minute dramedy stars Piper as Suzie Pickles, a former teen pop star-turned-TV actor. Well, that is until her phone is hacked and nude photos are leaked, also revealing she is having an affair. What follows is a seismic, public unravelling of a woman’s life that is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious. But despite the superficial similarities between Piper and her protagonist, it is not based on her own life.
“Suzie’s way worse than me,” Piper laughs. “She’s almost like a fantasy of what I wish I could be sometimes. She’s more reckless, and I can be conservative around certain choices in my life. There are things that she does that I would never fucking do.” In that the women she creates are “monstrous”, just like real-life people who are going through difficult situations. “But you journey with them to understand why they’re not totally bad. You learn why they behave the way they do, and why they always make wrong choices. I think that’s something that feels familiar to people.”
This fascination with women who are struggling to survive in the public eye, and behind closed doors too, is a sticking point for Piper. “I think I maybe have a vested interest in it because of my own experiences but I’ve always been interested in female-led stories, and quite often those stories have been quite tragic,” she says, citing the likes of Caroline Flack, Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. “Eighteen months after we wrote season two of I Hate Suzie we saw Roe v Wade happen and everything with Amber Heard. It’s depressing that a lot of the things we started writing about have become reality. They’ve always been happening really, this is historical behaviour.”
Piper and Prebble became fast friends on the set of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which aired from 2007 to 2011. Both women have since denounced the series as a product of its time that, despite their best intentions, ended up “a bit fluffy”. However, that period was incredibly important creatively. I Hate Suzie was based on lengthy emails that the two women swapped about their experiences in their late twenties and early thirties. And in that sense, Piper says, the show is a “lamenting” of choices made, for better and for worse. “It was really about that time in our lives and what it felt like to be a woman. It was based on what I was seeing in my friendship circles, and I drew on those negative patterns of behaviour over time – the people I was choosing to spend time with, my absolute nihilism and the lack of anything spiritual. I wasn’t understanding why I was triggered by certain things and feeling so desperate.” Why did it take so long to get help and go to therapy, I ask. Piper points to a generational divide. “I think you guys are on it. You might not find your thirties such a shock because you’ve already done the self-care.”
Like many female artists, Piper is used to being quizzed about whether her work is autobiographical, but this scrutiny has been intensified by fame. In 2019, she released the film Rare Beasts, which she wrote, directed and starred in. It is marketed as an anti-rom-com, but really it’s a whip-smart satire that subverts expectations and probes into questions surrounding the way we’re living our lives and how we feel about it. Can you be a feminist if you openly admit to wanting a man? And can you be a feminist if you’re kind of dating a misogynist? These are just two existential conundrums that Piper expertly skewers.
Some have wondered if the film’s insufferable male lead, Pete, is modelled on her ex-husband, the controversial right-wing commentator Laurence Fox. Piper, understandably, chooses not to speak about Fox, whom she shares two children with, but I wonder how she’s been finding the attention that comes with celebrity. It’s got better, she tells me. “People don’t have access to you in the same way, where you feel like you’re constantly being followed by stalkers. Social media to some extent gives you control over the narrative. But then again, does it? My kids are online now and I can be as free as I want in my work, but I want to respect them.”
Piper’s own childhood was unconventional. After winning a scholarship to study at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, Piper left the family home to move to London as a 12-year-old, armed with a rape alarm. She stayed with a great-aunt and uncle, but by 15 she had purchased her own home – signing the mortgage under her father’s name. How does she feel about that time now having three children of her own? “The 90s were arguably quite fun and also freeing, because now we have so much technology. But working as a child pop star, there is no fucking way I’d serve my kids up to that life.” She doubles down, eyes wide: “I’m pretty amazed by the way I was unscathed. I look back and think that was insane.”
Motherhood has been a prevailing theme within the actor’s recent work. In 2016, Piper delivered a “generation’s best” performance playing Yerma, tragically “barren”, in Simon Stone’s modern-day adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s play of the same name. Then, in Rare Beasts and I Hate Suzie, she plays working mothers, contending with the associated trials and tribulations. “I find it fascinating to portray because it’s so challenging,” she comments. “It makes women ask so many questions about their own mothers and family patterns. There are bigger questions over why women want to have kids now – are you having a child because you need to fulfil something personally, because you’re lonely, because you need to stop going out, or because you had a rough childhood? It’s not as simple as it used to be, when it was an expectation rather than a choice.”
It was important for Prebble and Piper to portray this on screen, and so among its lighter elements (picture a garish, more Gen Z version of Strictly Come Dancing), the second series of I Hate Suzie will delve into weightier topics like divorce, infertility and abortion, Piper reveals. “The show is about motherhood in many ways,” she says. “A woman who is a mother but has also chosen to have abortions, and a woman who wants to be a mother but isn’t.”
But the past few years have been intense career-wise for Piper, and as she enters a new decade she keeps returning to the thought that she’s ready for something different. “I don’t know if I want to play those kinds of characters any more,” she muses. “They’re important to me and to the work I love to make, but I want a break from them. Maybe because I want a break from myself. [Prebble] and I love doing it but it takes a lot out of us.”
Piper’s desire to focus on the positive is evident. When I ask her about how difficult it was to get I Hate Suzie on air – with the series initially being turned down by broadcasters who claimed to “already have our woman-having-a-breakdown show” – she points out that it might be nice to speak about the “strength” that comes from success. “I don’t want to see everything as this hill to climb anymore,” she says matter-of-factly. “I want to be living my life rather than feeling like there’s some next thing to get through. It’s exhausting trying to just survive.”
So what kinds of women does she want to portray going forward? “I want to play someone who’s weathered different things. A woman who is more therapised, modern, considered, self-assured and less reactive. Basically, all the things I want to be now. Those things don’t come easy, but I am becoming less impulsive, which is crucial!” she says. Moments later, her three-year-old daughter, Tallulah, who has just arrived with her partner, the musician Johnny Lloyd, toddles over. Piper scoops her up, beaming ear to ear. It’s a sweet picture, and I leave them there. Perhaps Piper doesn’t need to have it all figured out just yet – life at the moment looks pretty good.