Billie Piper Doesn’t Care If You Do Hate Suzie

Andrea Cuttler
·13-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Harper's BAZAAR

In a year driven by television shows with dynamic female characters behind the wheel (I May Destroy You, The Queen’s Gambit), Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble’s I Hate Suzie holds its own. The show, currently streaming on HBO Max, was created by the duo, who met in 2007 while working together on the ITV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. The series was short-lived, but luckily for audiences, their friendship and working relationship was not.

After doing the 2012 play The Effect together, Piper was keen on working with Prebble again, and sought endless ideas on which they could collaborate. It was their friendship, and counseling each other through both the victories and crises of their late 20s and early 30s, that ultimately set the stage for Suzie.

The eight-part series centers on Suzie Pickles (Piper), a former child star now in her early 30s, still hustling for acting gigs. She’s carved out a seemingly quaint life for herself in the English countryside with her husband, Cob Betterton (Daniel Ings), and seven-year-old son, Frank (Matthew Jordan-Caws), who is deaf. Naomi Jones (Leila Farzad), her best friend from childhood, is her manager. After strangers hack her iPhone and release sexually explicit photos onto the dark web—which also expose an extramarital affair—her life begins to quickly spiral.

At her core, Suzie is irreverent and carefree, funny and frenetic, dark and selfish. She is a loving mom. She is messy. She has a lot of heart, and she is imperfect. She is the embodiment of how all attributes can coexist in one human being—the exploration of what happens when adulthood hits and your carefree spirit lingers. In the way Lena Dunham’s Girls did for so many 20-somethings, Suzie will stop 30-somethings dead in their tracks: You know this woman.

When we spoke in November, Piper was inexplicably sitting in her car, in the dark, outside the former home of Sylvia Plath. “I mean, that’s just the context of where I’m at,” she said with a laugh, and I can’t quite tell if she means physically or literally; perhaps it’s a little bit of both. We spoke about the path to creating Suzie, the experience of being a 30-something female, and why, as an actor, she absolutely does not care whether or not you like this character.

So, I'm in love with this show. I'm so curious about how the idea came to you.

I was wedded to this idea of [Lucy Prebble and me] working again together in TV. I kept sending her ideas, and considerations, and potential adaptations, and just seeds of thoughts. She rejected them all, but our friendship continued to thrive, and we've remained friends after Secret Diary of a Call Girl. But I think it was really cemented after our play [The Effect], and then late 20s approaching early 30s. I would say that we spoke to each other pretty much every day on the phone, and still do. We were sort of counseling each other through, you know, the rude awakening, which is your early 30s. And we talked balls-out about everything. And that has very much been the nature of our relationship.

Photo credit: Des Willie - HBO
Photo credit: Des Willie - HBO

It seemed like a lot of the things we were discussing were things that we were emotionally experiencing or witnessing around us in our extended peer group, and our conversations would often start from a really dark, very frank place, and would have us crying with laughter by the end. We talked about how amazing it would be to create a show where some of these feelings, thoughts, or musings came to fruition. And we wondered if they would be received in the same way that we found them, to be entertaining and thoughtful. So we just kept doing that, really.

And then when we said, "Why don't we make this a serious endeavor and try and get a show together?" Lucy came up with this idea of sending me confessional emails. And this time I never replied, because I can't handle emails. I'm someone who likes to have a chat on the phone, and she's sort of wedded to technology in a way that I find really stifling. Anyway, the early draft of an episode came in, and it was more sort of a friendship-based show. And we both felt like it wasn't really doing enough, and it wasn't really packing a punch in the way that we had intended it.

Lucy then came up with a big theme. She came up with the hack. She was very interested in the fallout of all the accounts that had been hacked, and what that meant and cost women, and the fact that you never really hear about it beyond that. We thought, "Well, this is also not so specific to a famous person. This is something that we all experience, on some level, now that we all have a social media." Most of us have a social media platform or just a profile online, or just a smartphone, which in itself is wildly incriminating—even the most innocent bits of information or Google searches or history are somehow shameful.

So she came up with that, and then she wanted to drill down to these ideas of the eight stages of grateful trauma. That really kind of took us full circle and took us back to what we originally wanted to do, which was talk very vividly, very honestly about what it means and feels like to be a woman right now.

My favorite part is that it does feel like it encompasses the entire female experience, particularly the uglier and messier parts, which make it feel so real. It does such a good job of asking the question, what happens once you get married and become a mother? You go through these phases of life that you choose and that we're quote-unquote supposed to do, but you're still yourself. And it feels like there's such a big part of Suzie that's conflicted, that maybe wants to hang onto a youthful past.

We talked a lot about the fact that your early 20s are all inconsequential, kind of. You're trying to establish yourself after being in school all your life and institutionalized in that way. And there's this recklessness to your 20s that's fun, and wild, and all of that stuff. And we've seen that. That's been dramatized and documented for a very long time, coming-of-age stories, blah, blah, blah. But never was it actually seen to be talking about your early 30s, which is when we felt as women we were looking at: Where are we, what the fuck? Am I established enough? What patterns of behavior are pulling my life apart? Friends who are in marriages, friends who are divorced. Women that are trying to get pregnant, they've chosen their career, and now they are running out of time. And then my other friend is in a marriage with two kids, and she's deeply unhappy. It's so much. It's such a thoughtful, and terrifying time in life. But it is when you start to look at addressing things, I think. Or it certainly was our experience. And something that we talked about a lot was that we didn't know exactly who we were. And that idea of having some sort of identity crisis, I guess. I'm a wife, I'm a mother, or I'm childless, and I'm poor, or I am a careerist, I'm a drunk.

All these sorts of ideas are, as you say, messy. And all of it is quite traumatic, or quite shocking. And the modern world only fuels those feelings. But the thing about it all is that I've always found that when people talk about women in friendships in their 30s and stuff, it's all felt quite disingenuous. And actually, it's a lot coarser than that. At least that's what Lucy and I have always talked about.

Photo credit: Alison Painter / Sky UK
Photo credit: Alison Painter / Sky UK

I agree. I know that you've been singing and acting since you were 13. And obviously, Suzie Pickles's character begins as a child star. Would you say that anything beyond that was taken from your life, or that you used it as a basis for the character in any way?

No, apart from the obvious professional similarities, like, I was in a sci-fi show, and I was a pop star as a child. That sort of stuff really allowed us to open up the world. And it gives us a lot of scopes of fun, and pain, and playing around, and just this absurdity, which it is. But beyond that, Suzie is way more hysterical than I am. And I would hate for people to think that that is who I am. And I think it would do Lucy's writing a disservice to suggest that she just plucked stories verbatim out of my experiences, or my life as is. It takes an enormous imagination and skill to write that stuff. Beyond those obvious parallels, I completely know those feelings, and those instincts. I know what it means to be an angry mid-30s woman. I know what it means to feel really frustrated and not entirely sure why. I know what it means to feel resentful of serving a lot of people in my life. And I know what it feels like to not really know who I am.

I think women our age will be able to relate. And older women will be able to remember the time as well. And women in their 20s, it will be a great look to what's ahead. The show is probably a little more manic, hopefully for everybody, but that's what makes it so much fun.

I know. It is fun. It's fun to watch a woman on-screen making really bad choices, but not in a way that is gratuitous, in a way that's really honest. We are not shiny, established, put-together beings all the time. There are so many sides to women that aren't explored enough dramatically. They certainly do in theater. And, to be honest, there have been, most recently, a fair share of really good female-driven shows, such as Fleabag and I May Destroy You, and Girls was great, but that was 20-somethings. It's this woman with no agency in her life, and all of this stuff is happening around her, and to her. And she is repeatedly making it worse, without it always being active. Some of it is active, but some of it's just what it's like to be a woman.

This brings me to the title, because in just sitting here talking about her, a lot of it is a mess and chaos, and yet she is so lovable.

That's so funny. I don't know. I guess people have finished the show feeling quite differently about it. I had one friend call me out of the blue who I hadn't seen for ages. And she just said, "I'm so upset by the last episode. And I can't really put my finger on why," but it feels like her sort of summation may be of how desperate it can get sometimes. Look, I don't know if you'll get to the end and feel like you hate her or love her. I guess it depends entirely on your makeup and your experiences. There's a few people who've just been like, she's a stupid cow or something, or she makes terrible choices, or she's awful to her husband. She was unfaithful, for Christ's sake. It's like, "Okay, well, guess what? Women do that as well." You know, it's very telling, I think as to whether people like her or hate her, and either is fine to be honest.

Did it ever matter to you, her likability?

God, no. And that's something I feel really strongly about that as an actor. I always slightly go after roles where you go back and forth with whether you like that person, or if that person is good or bad. Not good or bad, that's sort of simplistic, but I do not care if someone likes the characters that I play. I also find this concept of making characters likable, one of the biggest, most wasted opportunities in drama. And it's hard, because with men, you've always been able to love a complete rogue, or a complete bastard. You've been allowed to love Tony Soprano. Do you know what I mean? You're there going, "Oh my God, I love this murderous, slandering, psychotic bastard." But with women, people have to tread very carefully, and they've more often than not done women a bit of a disservice, I think in that respect. I like characters who aren't easy and likable. I think Lena Dunham did that really well in Girls. That was one of my favorite things about it. They were all fucking annoying, but they're just real, and they're true. And it's funny, and it's entertaining, and it makes me think beyond the 30 minutes that I'm watching it.

Your involvement in this show has been from the beginning. How has that process been? Have you enjoyed it? What have you learned?

I've learned that I want to do that for the rest of my working life. I've also learned that I really, really love working with my best friend. And in the future, I want to continue to work with people that I like and trust implicitly. Both professionally, but artistically and creatively, but also on a human level. That has been a massive eye-opening experience for me. Moving forward, I still want to be a jobbing actor, because having worked on this show, and also I wrote, directed, and starred in my own film, which is coming out next year. We did that before I Hate Suzie. It's just a lot of work, and moving forward, I would quite relish just coming in for a little light cameo day role here and there.

I'm curious if you have a hope for what women, men, and audiences in general take away when they watch this.

I hope that they come away and feel like they've had a sort of honest experience with a character, or a bunch of characters, and that there is something that they can relate to, and that that is a relief. The idea of people being able to talk about some of the more challenging aspects of our life, both men and women. If people came away from that show being able to do that, I think that is why we do what we do as creatives. And as I said before, I'm also okay if someone comes away, and goes, "I fucking hate that woman."

Do you think there will be more to the show, or is this one and done?

I don't know. I think we're going to start talking about it in January and see where we're both at. One thing that's definitely true for both of us is that if there isn't material there, and the idea isn't slightly pushing more, and I'm beyond Suzie One, I don't know if it's worth doing. It's got to mean as much to us as Suzie One.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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