WHEN, I ask Billie Piper, was the last time you wanted to throw a chair through a window.

“Oh my God,” she says. “About a week ago.”

We are 10 minutes into our conversation and Piper, teen pop star, tabloid obsession, daughter, mother and Olivier award-winning actor is talking to me about anger.

“This experience of lockdown has just tested the human spirit so much and for some people it has been unbelievably awful,” she suggests. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t wanted to smash up the room. It’s been a real test of holding your nerve, for sure.”

Anger, female anxiety and insecurity, imposter syndrome, what makes a kind man. Just some of the things we will talk about today.

It is the beginning of March and we are all still stuck indoors. Piper is hundreds of miles and a dodgy Zoom connection away. “I am in Dorset because my partner has a recording studio down here, so we’re here while our house is underpinned in London.”

Piper has decamped to the west country with said partner, musician Johnny Lloyd, their daughter Tallulah (on the cover of Lloyd’s 2019 album, Next Episode Starts in 15 Seconds, Lloyd and Piper appear; she is eight months pregnant and showing off her baby belly) and her two young sons Winston and Eugene from her marriage to Laurence Fox.


Is it a good place to be? “It’s great. We’re so lucky. We’ve got a garden and we’re near the sea and that’s changed everything.”

We were meant to speak a day earlier, but she wasn’t feeling well. She’s a little better today and soldiering on. She has a film to promote, after all. Rare Beasts. Written by, starring and directed by one Billie Piper. Which is some heavy lifting, I suggest. Especially as she was also pregnant with Tallulah at the time.

“Yeah, it’s a lot,” she agrees. “I might argue that it’s a sign of lunacy in myself.”

Directing wasn’t in the original plan, she says. “I think when I started it, I was just going to write it and be in it. More and more I knew I was going to be annoying about how it ought to be shot too. That’s not a creative environment for a director. So, once I got a vote of confidence, I decided I’d just do it myself.”

Can you enjoy the process with so much depending on you, though? “I loved it when I was directing. Being in the film was the oversight because it meant that I could never fully be in the mind of a director which I really, really enjoyed.

“I’m not sure it would be something that I would do again. I would definitely direct again, but I would direct other actors.”

That said, it’s a confident directorial debut and, as ever with Piper, she gives a confident performance in the lead role as Mandy. But, man, is it a tough, at times cringing watch. If you thought I Hate Suzie, Piper’s recent Sky Atlantic drama written by her long-time friend and creative partner Lucy Prebble was near to the knuckle wait until you see this.

Rare Beasts is funny, yes, but it’s also a painful, at times brutal, account of dysfunctional relationships and female fears. Piper is holding nothing back here. It feels very exposed.

HeraldScotland: Billie Piper and Leo Bill in Rare BeastsBillie Piper and Leo Bill in Rare Beasts

And, to go back to where we came in, it’s a movie full of rage at times. Mandy does indeed throw a chair through a window. (Actually, more of a glass divider to be honest but you get the visual.)

Rage can be funny too, of course. At one point Mandy’s boss says to her, “You are angry, you are seething, you know, people are calling you Scottish.”

“Oh, it’s only a joke,” Piper says when I bring it up. Yes, a good one. And it’s a line that sings with the dark, raging humour of the movie. There are a lot of flayed nerves on show.

Some of them, I think it’s safe to assume, are Piper’s own.

“I wanted to explore the idea that, culturally, it felt like we’ve been pointed towards a having-it-all culture and you can do it all and see it all and work and have kids and have successful relationships. And, actually, all I could see around me was a common crisis at some level, myself included, which seemed to completely undermine this type of messaging, which, personally, I feel totally unhelpful.

“And I wanted to talk really horribly honestly about that stuff. And I also wanted to talk about what it costs to be a woman, I guess.”

There is no question that some will see the film as a roman a clef about her relationship with her second husband Laurence Fox. Some have even suggested Pete, Mandy’s frankly terrible partner in the film, played by Leo Bill, even looks a bit like Fox.

I’ve been warned in advance not to bring her ex-husband’s name up. Fair enough. Frankly, the actor turned alt-right edge lord gets more attention than he deserves as it is. Even so, the temptation to read Piper’s life into the film is there.

Piper, perhaps not unsurprisingly, sees the film slightly differently.

“When I was writing the film, I thought it was more about a dysfunctional relationship with a man. But it feels more of a dysfunctional relationship with herself,” she suggests. “We meet Mandy at the beginning of the film. We learn that she is a single mum, a professional working woman, a full-blown nihilist and we track her journey with this one guy over the course of half a year and we get seduced by their relationship and then thrown out. It’s a real rollercoaster of dysfunction.”

HeraldScotland: Rare BeastsRare Beasts

Well, here’s the question, Billie, I say. Are you suggesting – as the film seems to – that in any relationship it’s always going to end up in a battle between men and women?

“I think … Ooooh, I haven’t been asked that yet … I think, if anything, it asks questions about how people behave, both men and women, in the face of rejection. And if that rejection is choosing not to love you, what that does to people, what that actually looks like.

“There is a kind of primitive behaviour around attachment and abandonment that I don’t think we talk about enough really, or certainly enough for me.

“Look,” she continues, “I’ve grown up in quite male-dominated and oppressive environments. I haven’t experienced some of the things that some women have experienced that are at the more brutal end of it. But I’ve seen a life dominated by men and I-I-I-I-I …” She pulls the word out as she thinks.

“I have a lot to say about that and I’m only just coming to terms with some of that stuff. And I want to talk about it creatively. I don’t want to talk about it on social media. I’d rather express what I see around me through drama.

“So, is it men against women? Maybe. I don’t know. I suppose it depends on what cloth you’re cut from. I don’t think anyone is behaving well in that film. I don’t know if anyone is behaving moderately, or they come from a place with good boundaries and good parenting. I think it’s a bit of a s***show in terms of the success of a human, both for Mandy and Pete on some level.

“I think to be horribly honest about both men and women, that feels authentic to me.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that answer, isn’t there? But the film begs another question. The women in Rare Beasts are all looking for a kind man. What, Billie, is your definition of a kind man?

“Someone who is able to understand a female’s struggle, and to understand that life is a different experience and to have compassion around that. I’m not talking about someone who is going on and on about it in a way that feels forced. I’m talking about genuine compassion for each other.

“And then it’s really small things like small acts of generosity and being able to say sorry. And sorry meaning change, I guess.”

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Born in 1982, Piper grew up in a working-class family in Swindon. Her dad was a builder, her mum a housewife. Speaking on Desert Island Discs last weekend she said she was keen to leave Swindon as soon as she could. She didn’t want to be another housewife.

Piper won a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London, and by the age of 15 she had a number one with her first single, Because We Want To in 1998. Soon, she was living in a flat with her boyfriend and working 19-hour days being a pop star.

She had never even wanted to be a pop star in the first place. Acting had always been her goal. Eventually, she gave music up, ran away to marry her first husband Chris Evans, who was significantly older than her, in 2001. She basically gave up work and fame to go to the pub.

It’s what she needed to do at the time, she has since said. But, as a result, when she took on the role of Rose in Russell T Davies’ revival of Doctor Who in 2005, as she told Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs, she was perceived as a “burnt-out child star”.

HeraldScotland: Piper with Christopher Eccleston in Doctor WhoPiper with Christopher Eccleston in Doctor Who

Piper has said before that her pop star years were difficult. And lonely. And that’s why she needed to drop out for a while. The question is, would she be where she is now without that early experience?

“No, not at all. And that’s why I can’t chalk it up to some tragic thing that happened in my life. Yes, there were downsides of that time. But I also think on some level it has been the making of me, for good and for bad.

“It’s meant that now in my late thirties I’m finally doing work that I really, really, really care about and I’m also in a place where I feel emotionally more able and like I’ve got my priorities straight.”

It’s curious, I say, that as someone who was so successful so young, you’ve also claimed you suffer from imposter syndrome.

“I don’t know that I feel it so much anymore,” Piper replies. “I definitely felt it when I was singing. I felt like I was totally in the wrong profession. But at the moment I feel all right. I believe in the work I’m putting out. But that’s only really been the last three years.

“And even then, I still want to do more. I do have to ask myself why? Where is it coming from? Is it coming from a healthy place or an unhealthy place? What’s driving it all the time? And does it even matter?”

She pauses, apologises. “I’m just talking in a monologue.”

Playing Rose in Doctor Who showed how good she could be as an actor. It also saw her having to negotiate fame again. Taking a role in Secret Diary of a Call Girl only intensified tabloid interest. But in the years since she has impressively established herself as an actor who can more than hold her own on stage and screen. She won her Olivier award for her role in Lora’s Yerma at the Young Vic in 2016, which transferred to New York where Piper was the toast of Broadway.

HeraldScotland: Billie Piper attending the Olivier Awards. Photograph GettyBillie Piper attending the Olivier Awards. Photograph Getty

And now she is where she wants to be, making work that she wants to make. I Hate Suzie, alongside Fleabag and I May Destroy You, is a show that is ploughing new ground with its unsparing account of female life.

There’s a sense that these shows (Rare Beasts too, for that matter) are finally pulling the curtain back on the truth of female experience.

“Yeah, I think so,” Piper says. “I think there have been amazing women opening up doors for others and I think the world is better for it. And thank God those women have been celebrated for not even being 100 per cent honest, but 40% honest.”

“It’s amazing how powerful it is and how moved people are by female honesty. And I hope it continues.”

Rare Beasts is in cinemas and on digital platforms from Friday