Billie Piper: The ‘Doctor Who’ Star Rocks New York Theater in ‘Yerma’
The Daily Beast
March 24, 2018
Beyond the heavy wooden door in New York City’s’ hulking Armory building on Park Avenue, Billie Piper’s passionate voice was audible, if her exact words were muffled.
“Sorry,” Piper said brightly a few minutes later, opening the door to her grandly cavernous dressing room with a beaming smile on her face and a suitably theatrical roll of the eyes. “Endless chat about game content.”
Piper, the 35-year-old British actress perhaps most familiar to Americans as Rose, one of Dr. Who’s most beloved assistants, had been on the phone to her 9- and 6-year-old sons, Winston and Eugene, about a violent “shoot-em-up” video game they wanted to play.
The game had the same graphics as “the more innocent” Minecraft, Piper said, but was “full of shooting and stabbing. I just feel like a mom about that, you know?”
The candid and bluntly eloquent Piper is at the Armory to star in the title role of Yerma in an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 play that won Piper a record number of acting awards when it was staged in London in 2016.
She explained, while munching on a salad bought by an assistant, that she had told the boys she didn’t want them playing the offending game at her house. She would talk to their father, her ex-husband Laurence Fox, about what happens next. (She herself was a Sonic The Hedgehog fan.)
“What you realize is women don’t have the same instincts as boys. They just want to run around and have a real tussle. Some of that seems a bit scary, but it’s also quite natural. It’s quite tricky.”
The specter of motherhood, and what becomes a corrosive, soul and marriage-killing desire to be a parent at any cost, is why Piper is at the Armory. She is playing the title role in Simon Stone’s lavishly acclaimed adaptation of Lorca’s 1934 play about a woman desperate, and unable, to conceive.
Stone has updated Yerma’s plight—the character is now a lifestyle journalist with all the accoutrements of an otherwise ideal life—but her pain remains as searing as Lorca intended.
When this adaptation of the play premiered in London, Piper won not only uniformly adulatory reviews, calling her performance a devastating tour de force, but also a swathe of awards; she is the only female actor to have won all six of U.K.’s theatre Best Actress awards for a single performance.
Yerma is the latest stop in an intriguing and varied career path: Piper had been a teenage pop star before becoming tabloid-famous for her three-year marriage to DJ and TV presenter Chris Evans, he at 34 then 16 years her senior.
Playing Rose on the BBC’s Dr. Who opposite David Tennant returned Piper to TV fame in the mid-2000s, cemented by a role as a high-class prostitute in her friend and professional collaborator Lucy Prebble’s glossy comedy-drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl. She had her two children with actor Laurence Fox, who she divorced in 2016 after eight years of marriage, and is now in a relationship with rock singer Johnny Lloyd.
Piper said that having children means it’s easy to unwind from the emotional tornado of Yerma: the demands of the school run every morning mean it doesn’t make sense to bring the play’s emotional traumas and broken character home.
Indeed, Piper said she uses the play to expel any personal demons: “It’s sort of like a therapeutic exercise, going on stage, getting rid of loads of shit.”
After the first run of doing the play, “going out for a few beers” afterwards was welcome; the second time she did it she took better care of herself.
“She isn’t desperate to have a kid until she suddenly thinks she ought to,” Piper said of Yerma, “and then it becomes a preoccupation and she becomes obsessed by it. I’ve seen it with girlfriends, who don’t want kids. They’re loving life as working women, they’re having a great time, then they say, ‘I’m going to have a kid soon,’ and it’s like they have a Terminator focus on it. It’s really hard for them to go through and for you to watch them go through it, because you can pretty much control everything in your life on some level apart from this.” Even if you spend money on IVF there is no guarantee it will work out, Piper added.
Piper is glad she didn’t wait, like Yerma, “until I was in the position where I had to panic about it the whole time. It’s definitely hard as a young parent. You don’t feel remotely equipped, but you’re sort of a young person until you have kids in many ways. There’s lots of stuff you’re not seeing. It’s kind of blissful, but it’s a totally different existence.”
One thing Piper does recognize in Yerma is the pressure of the world in which the couple lives. “As much as the play is about a woman not being able to get pregnant, it is also about what is happening socially and what that does to a modern relationship.”
Piper wanted to act from a young age. At 9 years old, growing up in Swindon, Wiltshire, she watched, “rather inappropriately,” she conceded with a mischievous smile, Band of Gold, a landmark ITV drama about a group of female sex workers. “I remember thinking Samantha Morton was incredible, and being so moved by her performance. I just worked with her, and told her. She was very sweet about it.”
Drama classes followed, and then Piper began modeling. A music scout saw her picture, and approached Piper at her school.
“They said, ‘Do you want to do a demo tape? We think you have got the right look. We hope you can sing, so we can sign you as a female vocalist.’ It was a weird way in.”
She was offered a record deal at 15, and became a huge pop star, with singles like “Because We Want To,” “Girlfriend,” and “Day & Night.”
Did she feel she was sexualized by the media too young?
“I didn’t at the time, but I guess we were doing magazine features for [‘lad’ magazines] Loaded and FHM. I was 16, you know. On some level I think I loved it. I felt really grown up. On reflection I wouldn’t let my kid do it, but it was a totally different time. They were giving awards to us for being sexy. It sounds outrageous now.”
Piper said she had not experienced sexual abuse and/or harassment. “But I would definitely say I experienced the heat of bullies, people using their status and power in inappropriate ways; certainly no criminal activity but definitely emotional stuff that is just not really appropriate.”
There has been “overwhelmingly some really good stuff to come out” of #MeToo, Piper said, “and I also feel it’s very sensitive and needs a lot of thought. There are some really obvious cases of criminal, deeply inappropriate behavior and then there are some other areas that are harder to pin down.
“I feel it needs a lot of thought in how it’s navigated, because I’m raising boys and I want them to feel free, and respectful and curious and not frightened of this world. In terms of how they relate to girls, it’s going to be an interesting challenge. What I don’t want us is for us to be divided as sexes even more than we were before this movement. It’s really important to celebrate our differences as well as fighting for equal opportunities.”
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, as well as other cultural forces, have created “a real pressure cooker at the moment,” she added. “It feels like new ground. Women are being emancipated, going after things they want, and having a voice and all that stuff and men are feeling threatened by that. How do you co-exist? What if you make more money than your partner or you’re more successful?”
Piper “absolutely, obviously believes there are some fuckers out there who have taken advantage of their power and I don’t stand behind that remotely. And I’ve definitely seen situations where the woman isn’t always a victim in those circumstances.
“My biggest concern, especially for actresses, is that they haven’t been taken care of by their agents or their managers. They’ve been encouraged to be in some of those rooms when people know what the behavior of those men is. I’ve definitely worked with people who I think are really fucking rude, not just to women but to men as well. I have seen men fall apart at the hands of a person using their power to be a dickhead.”
Piper added, “I think it’s important to talk about the sort of coercive control shit that happens.”
That happened to her recently, she added, and she had seen it affect other people and has learned to be “careful” when around those who have perpetrated it. “I think you have to find way to handle it and make sure you never ever put yourself in that position again,” she said.
The “really good thing” about #MeToo, Piper said, is that abusers are less likely to behave wrongly, knowing that their behavior will not be accepted and they may face legal action and professional catastrophe.
“I don’t know,” Piper said, when asked if she described herself as a feminist. “I think I am one… I don’t know… sometimes I get confused about what it means to be a feminist. Sometimes I think there is some energy around it I don’t sit comfortably with, and then some other parts seem obviously good. I think of myself as a person rather than something like that. Obviously, I will always champion women. I love women, but I also love men and I want to champion guys as well and I want us to be healthy, and not fuck-ups, around each other.”
As a teenage star Piper recalled that she was lonely. “I missed my family so much. I was living entirely in an adult world. There were many brilliant things that came out of that. I learned to be enormously independent from a very young age. It taught me so much. It definitely made me quite needy of people. But it taught me to take care of myself, and sharpened me up as a person and put me in a good place for the second half of my professional life.
“Entering into my acting career I made the choices I wanted to make without them being governed by wanting to be famous. I hated being famous from such a young age.”
She seemed outwardly at least to enjoy it?
“I loved it at first. I loved performing live more than being famous. It just became so detrimental to my mental health I think. Being famous at such a young age is so unnatural at a time of your life where you are going through puberty, so you feel so anxious and self-conscious and out of your body. It made me feel really reclusive. I couldn’t go anywhere. Anywhere.”
She married Evans, then 34, when she was 18. “I was always really interested in older people. I was really desperate to be grown up myself, and also to be taken care of. In an industry where pretty much everybody was on the make, I wasn’t getting that from people involved in my music career necessarily. Chris invested in me as a person and my happiness.”
She married him, “because I loved him and I’ve always wanted to be in a family. I really, really value it. And we were a bit wild.” Piper laughed.
Ah yes, the pictures of them drinking, or carrying cans of beer back from the shops. “It was pretty wild,” said Piper, “but also we were very caring of each other as well.”
They are still friends, but do not see each other as often as they once did.
So, the “wild child” tag was fair? “Yeah.”
Today, she added, “that level of partying has definitely taken a back seat. I still enjoy spending the afternoon in the pub, but that sort of madness doesn’t exist any more and there’s something quite nice about that.”
The tabloid intrusion Piper endured has stopped, she said, as a result of changing practices in the wake of the infamous British phone hacking scandals.
Piper didn’t imagine that Rose would become such a popular character on Dr. Who. “It was already such a popular show with a serious fanbase,” she said, it was hard for her to think Rose would take off. “It was a big surprise, and it meant I became quite famous again which I found quite hard. I remember not liking it. I’m not going to lie. There are parts of it [fame] that are absolutely amazing. But I’m happier when I don’t feel the heat of the fame stuff. I like my life small and local, with the people I know.”
In Call Girl, her glamorous character was far removed from Piper’s more “tomboyish” nature. “There’s a freedom to playing a part knowing your sensibilities are quite different. It was interesting.”
Piper “constantly worries” if she should be on social media, and whether she is doing it in the healthiest way. She posts on Instagram, while an assistant handles her Twitter account.
“You can’t be transparent and honest. I don’t feel like I can be totally myself on social media, and yet it’s a good way to connect with people who want to be actors or who care about a part you played, or to raise money for charity. I would rather say how I feel about things through my work, rather than a series of pictures of me online.”
Piper said she expresses her political or emotional views through her work, rather than social media, so she does not feel compromised.
“I don’t want to invite a load of shit into my life. I’ve got 2 kids and frankly I’m working out how I feel about things, and those feelings change.” Things said on social media may change over time; Piper does not want to be “locked into” such things.
Fame can be “quite unhealthy,” she added. “I like my private life. I value it. I value good relationships and I value my family time. If any of that feels like it’s going to be compromised I have a real problem with it.”
The experience and confidence gained through ageing means that today she is not as rattled by the media as she once was. “You’ve got to work out how much emotional energy you want to spend on it. The key is not to read the shit written about you. That really, really helps, although sometimes it’s unavoidable. It’s also about standing up and admitting, ‘Yeah I am a bit like that.’” She laughed. “I don’t want to have to hide that, but I do want to protect my family.”
“I really, really love it,” Piper said of parenting. “I find it very emotional. There are a lot of triggers involved there from your own childhood that have been dormant for 25 years of your life, and suddenly you’re like, ‘I remember all this stuff!’ It’s an emotional rollercoaster, but I’m really glad I had the kids when I had them.”
Her divorce from Fox, Piper said, was “tough doing it as two actors.” Acting, with its unpredictable filming schedules, can be “a nightmare” for both of them, especially when trying to craft a consistent schedule. “Somehow cosmically it works out, but the fear of it not working out is so great. It definitely means you can’t do everything you want to do professionally but that’s not a disappointing outcome. To be honest, it makes you more selective. It means you enjoy every moment you have.
“I don’t want to be at work all the time, not with the kids. It’s not going to work. I’m around as much as I can be without compromising my entire career or my desires to pursue the things I love. But it’s not without enormous struggle. The ‘balance thing’ doesn’t exist. It’s all potentially problematic. You just muddle through.”
Piper laughed. She had just told one of her sons she thought the offending video game was violent. “Well, I think Instagram is violent,” he had replied.
“He’s not wrong,” she said. She is looking forward to the boys coming to New York over Easter, their very first time in the city.
Piper laughed again. She hates it when her sons say she’s strict. She thinks she’s a fun and easygoing parent. She loves hanging out with them and their friends. They make her laugh, she relishes their company. And she’s conservative in some ways too, around setting certain boundaries, and ensuring they respect others.
“Parenting is a minefield,” Piper said. “It’s hard to say what will work and what won’t. Just when you think you’ve made your way through the milestones, something else happens.”
Piper would love to have more children “because I love them so much.” She said she was happy and in love with Lloyd, then laughed when I asked if she would consider marrying again. “I’m not sure if I would ever get married again. I don’t think a third divorce is going to work for me. Something is obviously not working!”
Her friends joke with her about the very subject, she said. “Marriage is not something I feel compelled to do again. I just don’t know if you need to be married. I understand it a bit differently now. We’re living in an age where we’re not massively religious. I think it’s kind of weird on some level if we marry if we’re not religious. I’ve seen a lot of casualties around the marriage stuff. I don’t see many successes.”
Piper is writing, directing and lead-starring in a film, Rare Beast, about “what it means to be a modern woman, navigating this moment as men and women.” She sees her generation as one beached between traditional and modern models of how heterosexual relationships are crafted. Women’s lives, and their cultural allegiances will also be a focus.
“My fear is what if men and women turn on each other, where does that leave us all? I have male friends in bits about how they move forward at this moment, and they haven’t done anything wrong. They’re just tense all the time. ‘Can I say or do this?’ The etiquette of courting, what they want, what they say, can they open the door for you, buy dinner: all that shit feels more treacherous now.”
Piper laughed that the writing-directing-starring project has made her a “complete control freak.” The experience was so new, “it might be shit. I’m being realistic about it. I have great ambitions for it, but it’s a bit of a big ask. Finance may fall through…” If all goes well, Rare Beast will begin filming in the summer.
With Prebble, co-creator of Call Girl and playwright (most famously of ENRON), she’s also writing a TV series about one’s 30s, and how a significant incident can “unmask you.”
Of her own experience with the decade, which she is now midway through, Piper said, “You start looking at what you’ve achieved what you haven’t; where you are emotionally, your mental health, repetitive patterns of behavior, where you are with your happiness, does any of that matter? It’s a moment of hard reflection.” Piper feels as if she is “in a good place, a bit less restless I guess,” while aware that feelings and situations can change.
The success of Yerma means that, should she return to theatre, Piper would want it to be in a similarly un-traditionally structured and staged play. Hollywood does not appeal to her, because of the dearth of challenging and rich roles for women. “I haven’t watched anything from Hollywood that I have liked for so long.”
She saved a surprise for when we were saying farewell.
“I think it might be good to try something else apart from acting,” Piper said, contemplating the future. “I don’t know if I want to be an actor forever. I just think it might be nice to do something else.”
Scriptwriting may be the thing she pursues next. “It’s nice to challenge yourself isn’t it?” she said – something Billie Piper has been doing to surprising and award-winning effect for over 20 years.