Billie Piper on developing after Doctor Who and pop career with the help of best friend Lucy Prebble
Emma Cox meets Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble ahead of their landmark new show, I Hate Suzie.
In Billie Piper’s new series she plays a woman who shot to fame as a 15-year-old pop star before becoming an actor, moving to the country and having a baby, while never quite giving up her partying ways. After marital problems and reinventing herself as a theatre performer, the eponymous protagonist of I Hate Suzie certainly sounds familiar. Yet Piper says she’d be horrified if viewers took the eight-part series – which she co-created with Succession writer and best friend Lucy Prebble – too literally. “There are lots of moments I really wouldn’t want people to think were autobiographical,” she snorts with laughter.
It’s certainly bold. The story begins with Suzie’s iCloud being hacked and a photo of her in flagrante with her lover being made public. Each episode then deals with her responses to the scandal: from shock, denial and fear through to anger and eventually acceptance. “They’re real feelings Lucy and I discussed, but the actual narrative is completely made up,” explains Piper. “The temptation is to say, ‘That must be autobiographical,’ but hopefully people will get over that quite quickly.”
“We talked a lot about Lily Allen, Charlotte Church, Britney Spears,” adds Prebble, “people who suddenly became visible and were quite psychologically affected by it. So it’s not even Billie we’re drawing on, it’s looking at it in quite a winking way.”
Despite that, Piper, now 37, admits that drawing on her own fame as a child and the anxiety she’s felt since – she was the youngest artist to reach number one in the charts with her debut single Because We Want To, aged 15 in 1998 – was key to the emotional heart of the piece. “I know exactly what that feels like and I’m sure it feeds into my performance. I’m only coming to terms with a lot of it right now.
“In my 20s a lot of my stress from that period was buried, and I still struggle to remember a lot of it. I don’t regret it. I love what I do and where I’m at personally. But I certainly wouldn’t want my children to go that way. There’s an anxiety of me as a child that I probably on some levels smother my children with.” She has two sons, Winston and Eugene, by second husband Laurence Fox and last year gave birth to Tallulah, her daughter with musician Johnny Lloyd.
Over 15 years of friendship, the women have talked a lot about creating a show together. Piper says she’s often taken ideas to Prebble but been rejected; Prebble says she puts their friendship ahead of their work. “Billie is a courageous, frank person with a very big heart. I really value our friendship so if we were going to work together, I wanted it to be something that we could be really proud of and bring us closer together, not something that would be a challenge for us.”
Although Piper pretends to be offended at the previous rejections from Prebble, she agrees it was right to wait. “Because I’ve got kids, if I’m going into work, it has to be something I feel really bowled over by. Something I was really interested in was trying to honestly portray a woman. That’s hard and takes balls. You have to find a broadcaster who doesn’t want to make the female experience more palatable.”
The pair met when Prebble wrote Secret Diary of a Call Girl, the 2007 ITV series in which Piper played a high-class prostitute, based on the blogs by Belle de Jour. Prebble quit after the first series; Piper filmed four, but both agree it was not quite the show they’d hoped it would be.
Prebble explains: “I loved the blogs. I’d never heard that witty, knowing, dark voice before. I realised that’s how my friends talked about sex and I hadn’t seen it represented. I was so pleased to get Billie on board because she’s one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with. Ultimately, though, it was not the show we’d envisaged.”
For Piper, it was the project that helped her make the leap from sweet parts like Doctor Who companion Rose Tyler and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park to the far grittier roles she’s known for today. “I thought it could be very original and thought-provoking, but there was a lot of resistance and it became something very different. The execution wasn’t quite there.”
In some ways, Secret Diary was a test run for I Hate Suzie: now they finally have the autonomy to make the show they always wanted to. One might expect Prebble – after six Olivier Award nominations for her stage play Enron and now a writing and executive-producer credit on HBO’s Bafta - and Emmy-winning Succession - to be in a position to do what she likes. Not so, she says. “There was a moment where we were like, ‘This is a great idea, and it’s us, why doesn’t anybody want it?’ There’s no place for pure confidence. Every time you think, ‘Surely this must mean something now,’ it’s amazing how you can keep getting knocked.
“You don’t often have people saying, ‘We really like your work. What can you do for us?’ That did happen with this. More often I’m offered stuff that other people would make a lot of money out of. Which is completely fine. That’s being an employee. On this show we insisted that we own a very large section of it.”
Their success in getting I Hate Suzie off the ground may be to do with the changing landscape of TV generally. “This probably wouldn’t have been made five years ago,” admits Piper. “Things have changed dramatically, although in some ways we’re only scratching the surface.”
Prebble concedes that shows like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You are a sign that women are being allowed to make programmes that reflect their real lives. “There have been shows in the past where, as the writer, I was barely allowed to come to set. There’s not a moment on this, or on Succession, when the writer isn’t on set. Fleabag and I May Destroy You have come from putting artists in positions of power that maybe they wouldn’t have done before. The proof is in the pudding: they are very good.
“There’s been a combination of things to do with the #MeToo movement, and the way certain groups of people are represented on television, which meant that commissioners were poked in a shocking way to react to that. People said, ‘We should be looking at more work from women,’ and that’s played into some TV, including our show.”
In particular, the women wanted a lead character who is unashamedly flawed and messy. Piper says, “She’s not always likeable or a great mother. She’s quite often monstrous and hysterical and tightly wound. But that’s in all of us. I find it incredibly frustrating when I watch anything and I’m not getting that from a female character. It pisses me off.”
More than anything, I Hate Suzie is about working out who you really are. Prebble admits to having felt too passive in the past, saying yes to projects because she should be pleased just to have been asked. And for Piper, it was only her Olivier Award-winning turn in the Young Vic’s Yerma in 2016 that helped her overcome her insecurity. “Yerma was a turning point for me because it came at a really good time in my life. I needed it. I don’t feel that imposter syndrome so much any more. I felt it very strongly until Yerma, so that was a big moment for my confidence.”
Does she feel, then, that she is beginning to know herself now, as Suzie starts to at the end of the series? “Yes! I do. And it’s both enlightening and really terrifying but it’s happening now. As a woman, you are so many things to so many people, it takes a long time to find your way back to yourself. The last few months have been bonkers and we’re tired, aren’t we Lucy? But I do feel fulfilled and I’m looking forward to feeling it a bit more.”