Billie Piper has occupied a near continual, if shifting, position in the public imagination for almost a quarter of a century. That’s a notable achievement by any reckoning of a performer’s career, but it’s also rather alarming, given that she’s still only 38.
Having started out as 15-year-old chart sensation, she walked away from the pop music treadmill, enjoyed a boozy marriage with the DJ Chris Evans, returned to frontline fame in Doctor Who, struck out on a path of acclaimed dramatic performances on TV and the stage, and has now made her directorial debut with the feature film Rare Beasts.
It’s a vivid, in-your-face kind of film, full of jarring scenes and extreme emotions that feel very much like the work of someone who sees life as an affective battle zone. Piper plays Mandy, a single mother working at a production company whose creative meetings are like an encounter group for raving misogynists.
With one of these men, Pete, she begins a difficult relationship, tentatively getting things started by stripping off to show him the parts of her body about which she’s insecure, while he issues a critical commentary. It culminates with her bending over to expose her “arsehole”. Not for nothing does it bill itself as an anti-romcom.
It will be lost on few viewers aware of Piper’s backstory that Pete is angular, religious, obnoxious, a man who finds women “intolerable” and is given to traditionalist lectures about the correct roles of the sexes. Piper has denied that the character is based on her ex-husband, and recent London mayoral candidate, the actor Laurence Fox.
“If you’re writing things, or you’re creating things, as a woman, it’s always suggested that it’s autobiographical,” she told an interviewer recently. Well, yes, in particular when the parallels are unavoidable. The same can be said of I Hate Suzie, the much-lauded Sky/HBO drama series written by Piper’s friend, the playwright and screenwriter Lucy Prebble, and starring Piper as Suzie Pickles, a former child-star and well-known actress in a popular TV fantasy series, grappling with a resentful husband.
In any case, even if the fictional and real-life stories are not exact matches, the sentiments and opinions expressed by Piper’s characters bear an uncanny similarity to her own. She has described her most common emotion as “inexplicable rage”, and that particular grade of fuel seems to fill both Mandy’s and Suzie’s tanks.
Piper talks of her 30s as years of conflict and confusion, a period of life, she told Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs, that she believes has been under-represented in popular culture. In the era of Fleabag and I May Destroy You, that’s probably less true now than it’s ever been.
Nonetheless Piper, who speaks of the self-insight therapy has brought her, sees a gathering “mental health crisis” among women in their 30s who have been force-fed a “have-it-all” narrative that she has described as “bullshit”.
One scene in Rare Beasts has Mandy, whose mantra is “even though I feel scared and angry I still love and respect myself”, and her group of thirtysomething female friends taking turns to snort cocaine while discussing childbirth and vaginal tautness.
It’s shot with starkly unflattering close-ups, and there’s a feverishness and fragility to the proceedings. They feel located near the edge of a nervous breakdown, that unstable territory towards which celebrity, arguably more than womanhood, drives some famous females. It’s a road that Piper knows all too well.
The eldest of four children, she grew up in Swindon but from an early age nurtured a powerful desire to leave. She told Laverne that she wasn’t impressed by what was on offer for women. “I didn’t want to leave all my ambitions at the door to raise kids and serve men.”
She won a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, where her fellow students included Amy Winehouse. At 13 she made her first TV appearance. A year later she was living in a hotel, and the year after that in her own flat in Kilburn, a time she describes as “exciting and liberating” but also “extremely desperate and lonely”.
It was then that she became the youngest person to reach No 1 in the UK singles chart, with the song “Because We Want To”. Her follow-up also reached the top spot. She was by her own assessment burned out by the age of 18, the victim of a rapacious recording industry and the vicious tabloids that fed on it.
She says it was Evans, who was 35 then, who saved her, teaching her how to have a good time and, just as importantly, how to ignore the media. The three years they spent together, she says, were her version of the student years – lots of pub visits and an escape from crushing expectations.
The conspicuous age gap suggests she was also seeking guidance, a vulnerability that looks more troubling with the passage of time. Piper describes herself as someone who has been “very emotionally available”. That may be an admirable quality in an actor but it can be easily exploited in life.
She split from Evans at 21 (they remain close), and decided to focus on an acting career. The result was the part of Rose Tyler in the newly revived Doctor Who. The role brought another burst of fame, but it was 2007’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl (written by Prebble, and based on the blog of an escort) that garnered respect. Both amounted to success and a preoccupation with that aim has not, she’s said, left much room for self-care.
That same year she met Fox, with whom she had two boys. It was, according to both of them, a volatile marriage, full of rage, jealousy and arguments. Apparently Fox was given to yelling “Cut!” when the disputes reached their dramatic peak. He has said that the bitter split in 2016 left him feeling suicidal.
No one knows what goes on within other people’s relationships but it’s fair to say that if you were a woman looking to explore the felicities and complexities of being a female in the early 21st century, Fox was unlikely to be the most understanding of partners.
“I know about dysfunctional relationships,” Piper told the Guardian. “I know about what it costs to be a woman.” There is perhaps a danger here of generalising from the particular, of taking a specific experience and extrapolating from it a whole worldview and set of assumptions. Piper’s aim in acting and directing at present, she says, is to “lift the lid on what it means and what it costs to be female” and “unpack the ugly sides of being alive”.
These are worthy subjects, of course, but they raise a question that haunts Rare Beasts. Why does such a determined, ballsy woman hook up with such a transparently sexist and controlling man? Does it perhaps fit an image of masculinity that confirms a low-expectation view of men?
Piper is now living with the musician Johnny Lloyd, with whom she has a toddler daughter. It’s clearly a relationship on which she has been able to bring to bear her experience and tastes. Lloyd admits Piper has weaned him off a diet of action films and turned him on to Woody Allen comedies. And seeing her in Lorca’s Yerma, for which she won all six of the major stage actress awards, made him a convert to the theatre.
If she has found some well-earned emotional equilibrium, will it sap her creative energy? Recently she wondered if her entire career had been driven by “being a very anxious person”. Judging by Rare Beasts, neither the anxiety nor the drive is disappearing. We can expect Piper to be around for a long time, maybe even as long as she’s already been around.