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Something Bigger Than Myself: Billie Piper on Rare Beasts

Billie Piper is a jack of all creative trades. She released her first single "Because We Want To" at the age of 15, becoming the youngest female singer with a #1 on the UK Singles Chart. A feat she matched with her second single “Girlfriend” in 1998. After two successful albums, she pivoted to acting, starring as Rose Tyler, companion to The Doctor, on BBC’s “Doctor Who'' for several seasons. She also starred on Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” and Netflix’s “Collateral” before co-creating the Sky Atlantic series “I Hate Suzie,” for which she earned a BAFTA nomination. Now she’s got her eye on directing. 

A labor of love for over eight years, Piper’s directorial debut “Rare Beasts” is an anti-rom-com about a workaholic single mother named Mandy (Piper) who lives at home with her divorced parents Marion (Kerry Fox) and Vic (David Thewlis). Craving connection, Mandy agrees to go on a date with her acerbic co-worker Pete (Leo Bill). Despite their different backgrounds—she’s progressive, he’s a traditionalist—they fall in love. But soon Mandy starts to question whether his brutal honesty is worth the pain and has to decide what she is really looking for in a life partner.

Although it debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, its release was delayed by the pandemic, finally making its way to U.S. theaters this week. Piper spoke about finding inspiration in her anxiety, her pleasure in representing facets of the female experience that aren’t often seen on screen, and overcoming fear to find her authentic voice. 

You first started working on this script eight years ago, since then have you changed at all? Have any of those changes made their way into the finished film?

I started writing it when I was just leaving my 20s and into my early 30s, I had just had my second son, and that for me was a rude awakening I would say. I became very conscious of myself, the world around me. I became incredibly anxious. I felt like the culture messaging was that we as women could do it all and that we should and that we should do it really well, and that we’d be able to balance it all. And yet, all I could see around me was female crisis. I wanted to unpack that stuff in a very exposing way. Since then, how have things changed? I guess I have learned how to cope with anxiety. Personally, lots of things in my life have really changed. The character of Mandy is a nihilist for sure, and I think I was very nihilistic as a young adult until probably five years ago. So for me, that has changed. I’m not part of some religious group, but I’ve welcomed something bigger than myself. That’s taken a lot of work.

Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?

I’ve always thought about it. I’ve always wanted to create something from the ground up. I just didn’t have the confidence to do it. There is a lot of technique required and it took me working on sets as an actor for like 13 years, 14, 15. I can’t remember. I can’t bear to do the math. It took that time to come to terms with the fact that I might actually know a thing or two about how to do things. 

What would you say is the biggest challenge you overcame as you started directing?

When I was actually directing, I felt so unbelievably alive and so connected and so excited. That part of it was thrilling. Thrilling to see the actors say the words and bring these things to life. Thrilling to see what a DoP can do to interpret your vision. All of it was so moving to me, I felt constantly emotional about the process. The thing that I found really, really, really hard, was this sort of game of nerves involved when making an independent film. It can fall apart at any time. You might not be able to get the location that you started to marry a scene to. Maybe you’ll have to stop filming. Maybe you won’t have enough money for post-production. How can you swindle more time in the edit suite? It’s all that stuff that I had to overcome in terms of levels of anxiety and working out how to get the f**king thing done. 

While you were developing the tone of the film, were there any works that inspired you?

I was watching lots of Busby Berkeley and Pina Bausch and Paul Thomas Anderson, Cassavetes. My usual go-tos really. 

I can really see the influence of Pina Bausch’s dance work. What is it that you love about Pina?

The symmetry of it, the color, the shapes. How strange and beautiful her work is, and how she can ride both of those things so that the audience is connected to it and not out observing it without an emotional investment. 

I love your unique use of sound to evoke Mandy’s anxiety. 

That was another level that felt like choreography. I absolutely love the sound design. I knew that to make those ideas work, I had to jump back inside my head of my late-20s, early-30s and just bring all that shit to life. My anxiety at that time was crippling, so it was really accessible. I was desperate to make the world feel really, really loud, really threatening. I wanted to show an inability to filter out sounds, almost like a processing disorder where you can’t not experience all these senses at once. It feels like your sensory system is compromised when you are that anxious, so I dipped into my memory of that. 

Were any of the awkward date scenarios based on anything you’d actually experienced?

I’ve never had that level of hostility on a date. I’ve always wanted people to be as honest as that, but I’ve never experienced it quite so full throttle as let’s say the first date. So, I cherry picked things that I had heard and then imagined them as I wanted to imagine them, and put that out there. What I’m ultimately saying with that level of how coarse it is and how acerbic it is, is that I do think it’s gotten so bad—it was bad then, but it’s arguably worse now—that the level of respect for one’s self and then other people has diminished. There’s little etiquette now. I’m not talking about Victorian manners, I’m talking about how we want to fast track everything now. And how brutal we can be to each other, you know? It’s very entertaining to watch, but it’s quite hard to be on the receiving end of it.   

How did you wind up casting Leo Bill as Pete? It’s such a hard character to bring to life because he’s so mean, but compelling. 

I’ve always thought he was brilliant. He’s labeled in the UK as a character actor, but he should be a leading man because he’s so brilliant. I love working with people who have worked in theater. I think they are really skilled actors and they’re always larger than life. It’s a bigger thing, so you’re getting a lot more from them. There’s not a stillness on camera, it feels very alive, at the risk of being big. He’s not scared to play an asshole, and he wasn’t going to come on set and try to make his character lovable. He wasn’t there judging the character either. He was the best guy for the job

How did David Thewlis join the cast?

I had worked with David Thewlis on "Eternal Beauty," the Craig Roberts film, and I said to him I was doing a film. He asked me to send him the script. I thought I’ll send him the script and he’ll never read it, or he’ll come back to me when we’re in production and it’ll have already been cast. But he read it so quickly, and he said he was in so quickly. I feel quite emotional talking about that even now. That’s why I had to stop being such a nihilist, because actually I do think that the stars align for these moments. Although sometimes they don’t and it works out differently. 

I loved the scene where all the women were talking so candidly about having sex after childbirth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that in a film before. How do you feel about representing things that maybe haven’t been shown in films before?

It’s my guilty pleasure. I absolutely love bringing to life things that people aren't supposed to be talking about, even though we all talk about it. All of my girlfriends have talked about their sex lives after having kids and the things that happen to us, the trauma of it. It’s crazy that you don’t see more of that. It’s crazy that we think about a woman has had a baby that they aren’t going to want to be having sex with some guy eight months later. It’s healthy to be exposing these moments. 

What do the phrases “likable” or “unlikable” mean to you when discussing women, in life or in films?

This idea of likable and unlikable women, because it’s weighted at women more, it’s like these women aren’t unlikeable, this is just what women are like. These are the things that women talk about. Unless you’re sort of prudish or whatever, which is fine. It’s this idea that they would be unlikable because one of them is having sex with a married man eight months after having a kid with some other guy who left, or they’re all getting hammered and there’s kids in their lives ... I feel like these are normal things. It’s not watching a woman be bad, it’s just we haven’t seen this enough in film or in drama, so we immediately chock them up to villains. I sound judgmental, but if you don’t like these sorts of women, well, it’s your life I guess. I think a lot of people actually feel quite warm towards these types of characters, the women especially. Like, if you watch "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano is a murderous, infidelitous f**ker, and yet you kind of want to be with him. He’s applauded and everyone loves him. Tony’s the guy, you know? It’s funny, isn’t it, it’s just harder for people to marry as an idea when we watch women behaving like that.

Do you have any advice for women looking to become filmmakers?

Don’t put pressure on yourself. Experience a lot of life. I think that really helps inform the work. I think sometimes people who have made doing the work the focus, I think some of the work is compromised because there’s not enough life behind it. Don’t rush. Try and find, however hard it is, your authentic voice. That’s what we need. We need it more and more. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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