Billie Piper on feminism, fear and her first love

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Words: Lucy Prebble

Photographer: David Oldham

As Billie Piper returns to the stage, close friend and writer of Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, Lucy Prebble, asks the award-winning actress why she is unafraid of turning everything on its head.

I ought to be fine interviewing Billie Piper. She’s my best friend. We chat rubbish about our lives every other day. But coming in and talking to her for Stylist feels different..

At the shoot, I find Billie smiley but very much in charge and I’m reminded briefly that, ‘Oh yeah, Billie is a star’. Stars have a gravitational pull that can’t be explained; people orbit them. And today, it’s not Billie, my hungover, rolling-up mate; it’s Billie, the award-winning actress who stunned critics with her incredible portrayal of a childless woman in 2016’s Yerma. She is perched on a chair reminiscing with make-up artist Karin, who, by coincidence, is the same make-up artist who worked with Billie at the very beginning of her career. It’s fitting Karin being here because, at 34, it feels like Billie is embarking on a whole new phase of life, one that’s as big as her Nineties transformation from Swindon teen to pop superstar.

I met Billie over 10 years ago when we worked together on the TV show Secret Diary Of A Call Girl. I wrote it, she starred in it. It turned out lighter than we both wanted and the critical reception was fierce so ultimately it wasn’t the perfect creative experience for either of us, but I clearly remember her turning to me at the end and saying, “I want to be your friend.” What an honour. Since then she’s also starred in my 2012 play, The Effect, and we’re now creating a new TV show together, about a woman in her 30s going through a life crisis. That’s something we both can relate to.

In the last 18 months, Billie has ended her eight-year marriage [to actor Laurence Fox] and embarked on an emotionally shattering performance at the Young Vic with Yerma – about a woman craving motherhood in a society that demands it – collecting a prestigious Olivier Award for Best Actress in the process. The play has recently returned to the stage and will be broadcast to 2,500 venues in 60 different countries via National Theatre Live on 31 August. She also has a BBC thriller, Collateral, coming up about the repercussions after a shooting, alongside Carey Mulligan. From teen pop star to power player on the British acting scene, it feels like Billie’s subverted expectations and turned her life upside down. We often talk about our mid-30s and how for both of us, it’s been an age of reinvention and risk. Or, as Billie would say, ‘an absolute sh*tshow’…

I was watching you on camera earlier and you have this luminous quality. People used to say that about Marilyn Monroe, but it turns out she had a fine layer of down over her face and body that diffused light. So my first question…
Do I have a hairy face?

I do have a hairy face. I don’t have the down which you normally get if you have an eating disorder. But since I worked through my eating disorder [in Billie’s 2006 autobiography Growing Pains she admitted she became anorexic as a teenager] I now have hormonal spurts of facial hair. I always thought I had a hormone imbalance because I felt like I had more testosterone than I should, because I felt really aggressive. I got tested for it a year ago. It turns out my hormone levels are totally normal. But I have an enormous sensitivity to testosterone and if I run, which I do, it triggers that for some reason. It gets increasingly worse if I run.

Was there a specific moment in the last year when you thought, ‘I’m going to change things’?
Yeah. I think there are times when you change something quite fundamental because something in your life becomes unmanageable and then you get addicted to changing things. So the temptation is to change everything, which has the reverse effect and causes more trauma than is healthy.

I’ve always been jealous of your capacity to take risks. Do you feel like a risk-taker?
No… I feel like taking risks professionally has always really paid off for me. I don’t think about work being risk-taking and strategic moves. I just think if I don’t do different things, I get bored, so most of the changes – the decision to play a prostitute or a woman who can’t have a baby – are born out of boredom in a way… not boredom, but like a sense of adventure. I feel like doing Secret Diary… was a massive risk, but I didn’t feel the risk and I think that backfired a bit, but it led me to you! So I feel like some of the backlash from that was worth it. I feel like everything is part of some cosmic plan.

When was the last time you were really frightened of doing something?
I get really frightened to confront people in my life. I think that sort of confrontation is essential, but I regularly avoid it.

What are you afraid of?
I’m afraid of being shouted at. I’m afraid of upsetting someone. I’m just afraid of all of it. Professionally I don’t fear that much, but personally I’m frightened of everything.

What makes you angry?
I went to see a film yesterday, it’s getting so many stars but it is shockingly bad. There is no strong story, the female parts are just meat. I left really angry, because this is the alternative to a Marvel film. This is saying nothing. This cost so much to make, it’s such a waste. Give the profits to something significant, feed back into the industry, nurture young talent or don’t make a movie and give it all to f**king charity.

How about politics? Do you pay any attention to what’s happening in Britain and America at the moment?
I dip in and out. I get enough for conversations at dinner parties, but… I hate it. You’re the only person I can listen to about politics, because it’s not regurgitated quotes from The Telegraph. I love the Frankie Boyle show [New World Order]. That’s a way I can actually compute what’s happening, in a way that makes me laugh. If I read [the news] it makes me so sad and hopeless and I don’t know that much of this is new ground.

I’ve been interested recently in whether it’s possible to really change someone’s mind, like people who voted Brexit or didn’t vote Brexit, or people in America who voted for Trump. Does anyone really say, “I was wrong. I’ve changed my mind”?
I don’t think that we ever do really change our minds.

Really? That’s depressing.
On certain things. I used to scoff at therapy, but now I love it. So, in a way, that is something that really changed for me. I know that taking care of myself is a good thing to do. I used to think that all of that wild streak would feed into something quite creative. But I feel like there’s a point in your life when those truths are becoming unmanageable things and… that makes me sound like a total f**k up, but you know what I mean? I think that your 20s into your 30s, there’s no coping mechanisms for that change, the change from 20s into 30s is huge. You feel so ill-equipped.

Oh, so ill-equipped. And so angry and frightened.
So angry. It feels like you have to be fully established by your 30s. But now the world’s not interested, because you’re not 20 anymore.

I think you’re a really interesting combination of someone who’s innately quite wild and yet also quite traditional.
Are you talking about my feelings about feminism? I will not be changed by feminism.

What does that mean? This is something we disagree on…
Of course things are way better than they used to be. I just think some of this new-age female emancipation can often land us in that place in our 30s where we feel, ‘I’m supposed to have this, this and this… I’m supposed to be successful and business-savvy and coquettish and making cash and a slag in the bedroom and well-read and I’m supposed to be on top of all of these things, because it’s my time. People have made it my time. Women have made it my time’.

I just feel f**ked by this amount of pressure! It feels like it is unnatural to be able to do all of those things. I think it’s shaky in its brand, do you know what I mean? When I’m around women of my [24-year-old] sister’s generation, I think there’s this really misguided view of what [feminism] actually is. It’s a bit man-hating and sort of oversexualised. I think young girls misread what feminism is.

I feel like, if you’re a woman who commits herself to a career and doesn’t have kids, people always talk to you like, “Oh my god, that’s so sad,” but if you stay at
home and look after kids and don’t have a career, that’s also “so sad”.

Also, I’m not into reducing men to these idiots and f**king rapists all the time. I’m bored of it. Either I’m ill-informed and making sweeping statements about something I don’t really know much about or it’s just a feeling. The reality of that is I can’t breathe because I am spinning a thousand plates and I’m dropping balls… The plates and the balls analogies don’t really work in conjunction!

This brings me to Yerma – you’re playing an intelligent woman who is desperate to have a baby. They’re filming it for NT Live – will that change how you perform the character?
No. Because if you think about it as a film thing, you’re going to change everything. You just manner yourself a bit more. I don’t think about it, which is why I think I’m not in massive Hollywood movies.

In the first episode of the TV show we are writing, there’s a recurring motif of someone who’s not sure where home is. Where do you feel home is?
I think I feel at home in my own home, which is really good. I’d say that you can feel lonely in your own home or you can feel stifled in your own home. I also feel at home in Swindon [where Billie grew up]. I feel with my people, my tribe, we have enormous differences but I feel relaxed with those guys, there’s a shared history and it is where I feel like I can be myself.

You once told me there was a part of you that was married to a Swindon scaffolder?
My first love. Yeah, I often think about what would’ve happened if we were still together and I think we would probably have had a 30-year relationship.

If London and Swindon are home, which is the city you love the most?
London. I love New York, but I always lose my sh*t in New York. I go there, I’m looking on their equivalent of Rightmove to make this impulsive move and then after day three, I’m like, ‘I need to leave’. I met this guy in the street in New York when I was single and I wasn’t pulling and I asked him, “Hey man, why can I not get a number?” and he was like, “Because your legs are too short. And you’re too old. I’m just being too honest with you, your legs are way too short for this city.”

That’s an amazing line. Do you mind rudeness?
No, I love rudeness if it’s funny. I really like rudeness if it’s honest. It’s truth-telling. I love people who don’t give a f**k.

Are you rude? Or is it because you’re not that you like other people who are?
I can’t do it and feel comfortable about it. I always try and take the positive spin on things, even if I’m not feeling it, but that’s because I’m nervous of making people feel bad. But with my dear, closest friends and with my family, I’m really honest.

On Stylist’s cover you’re upside down and it looks like you’re falling. Would you rather bungee jump or jump out of a plane?
Jump out of a plane. I used to think I’d be able to jump out of a plane easily, but since I’ve had kids all of those instincts changed.

When you fall over in the street, what do you do?
I look at my shoe to see if it was a problem with my heel, even though I know it’s not. Or I look at the ground, and go, “Stupid ground”, so everyone will know. Or “Stupid b*tch”. That’s what I think whenever I’m in a moment of weakness, I feel like everyone’s going “Stupid b*tch”. That’s what the Daily Mail is, you can basically just tag all of those [photos] “Stupid b*tch strikes again”.

When was the last time you fell down an internet hole? When you suddenly find that you’ve spent hours watching clips of Matt Damon?
Or myself? I don’t have Google alerts. I was obsessed with [reading my press] when I was a kid, but that was before the internet. I know from my family what’s happened in the press. Like, “Billie, it would be great if you could brush your hair.”

Is there any time in life you feel you’ve fallen short?
God yeah. I’m trying to think about things that aren’t really upsetting or incriminating! I feel like I’ve fallen short with family members. I definitely feel like I could’ve been more present for my siblings.

Because you’re the eldest?
Because I’m the eldest of four and also I think when my life changed, theirs did too, and I was too overwhelmed to even know how to… I was really young, but I feel like we’re just now getting back to something. I haven’t invested enough in the relationships that run deeper than people I’ve met in London. But I feel like those things are happening now. As f**ked up as your 30s are, as overwhelming as they are, they’re also the most thoughtful and reflective time of your life. So far. When you imagine yourself at 90, how is it?

I’ve had loads of adventures, I’m smart as f**k, I can still do the crossword, and I’m angry with everybody. What’s yours?
Mine is on a beach in Mexico, in a kaftan, with rum and roll-ups. Getting old, but not feeling the cold from England, feeling like now it’s my time. I love my kids, I raised you all, I’ve poured everything into you and now I just want to go and waft around. Just being looser than I was in my 20s and in my teens without any apologies because I’m approaching my death.

Will you invite me?
You can come.