Billie Piper: “Modern love is really hard”

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  • As her directorial debut, Rare Beasts, hits cinema screens to rave reviews, Billie Piper shares the process behind making it - and why she was determined not to paint women as victims or wallflowers.

    Rare Beasts is one of those films that somehow, suddenly everyone is talking about – and for good reason. Not only did Billie Piper write the screenplay and direct it, but she also plays Mandy – an exhausted single mother to Larch who begins dating her misogynistic and deeply religious colleague, Pete (played by Leo Bull). Tackling gender roles, modern love and what feminism really looks like in today’s world, it’s a brilliantly honest exploration of whether women really can – or indeed want to – have it all in 2021, and the cost we find ourselves paying to figure it out.

    You wrote, directed and acted in Rare Beasts, congratulations! How was it wearing so many different hats? 

    Really exhausting. I wouldn’t be in it again, that’s for sure. I would definitely try not to do that and would solely direct other actors and just enjoy and soak up that process.

    The film has such a lot of big, meaty topics packed into it, did the process of creating it ever feel overwhelming? 

    Yeah, I feel overwhelmed. Well, I don’t anymore because it’s not my experience. But it is sort of purpose built to reflect how I think life feels these days. And when I say ‘these days’ I mean pre- Covid days. For me, it feels very panicky to watch and I wanted it to purposely feel like that. Because that’s how life has felt for me for a long time. And that’s what I’ve witnessed in friends in my immediate friendship group.

    You’re right, as a viewer it feels incredibly stressful and chaotic at times. In what way has life felt stressful for you lately? 

    I guess the genesis of the film comes from a place of feeling like we’re culturally being pushed into this ‘achieving it all’ or ‘wanting it all’ or ‘you can do it all’ mentality or messaging. And actually, all I could see around me was something quite polarising, which was women really falling apart, trying to maintain this new modern spin on life. There’s some really positive intentions within it, but it’s also impossible to achieve without having some sort of mental burnout or physical burnout. And I think that I really just wanted be horribly honest about that instead of sugarcoating it and feeding into these ideas and expectations of women.

    I imagine a lot of women watching will be uttering a collective sigh of relief.

    Yeah. Well, when people have been asking me ‘What do you want people to feel at the end of this film?’ there’s really no expectation at all. I guess it’s what you say, it’s a sense of relief that maybe they see their life being – on some level – reflected back at them. And certainly if you’re female, the sense of what it costs to be a woman, to have that honestly reflected back at you. I don’t see that in nearly enough films. TV is way better at examining what it means to be a woman, but film seems to have just gone so far back. I feel like we’re only seeing superheroes [on film] now. I don’t know, I feel like it’s quite a depressing time for film, but I’m hoping that will change.

    It’s interesting hearing you say there’s no expectation in terms of what to feel. I think Michaela Coel said something similar about I May Destroy You when everybody was badgering her to explain what the series meant and what the take-home message was. In a show like this, everybody will presumably take something different from it, won’t they?

    Yeah. Any sort of axe to grind is a personal one. I don’t have an expectation of the audience to change things in their life or reevaluate their life. Even though the film is very demanding and at times it’s very aggressive, if there’s any sort of message, it’s me saying ‘Do you feel like this too?’. You know what I mean? It’s me looking to other women asking if they understand how this feels.

    What was the starting point for you with Rare Beasts? What made you decide to make it?

    Definitely that ‘late 20s and early 30s’ stage where I just saw everyone fall apart on some level. Also, I’ve always been really keen to talk more honestly about modern love. Not just modern feminism, but modern love and how we navigate it now that we’re so separated and so afraid within relationships to get things wrong, or admit defeat. Or to handle things like financial disparity, all of those things. It’s such a fucking minefield. And our only template is our parents who – certainly in my generation – had quite a traditional setup.

    Absolutely – and so much has changed since then.

    And arguably it was a very depressing experience for women then, although I’m not sure they always see it that way. But there was something more simple about the setup. We’re trying to do something entirely different in a very different time in life and it’s really, really hard. And actually, sometimes, the instinct is that maybe it’s easier to just do it on your own. But then what comes from that pursuit of being the ultimate soloist is loneliness. And I think when Mandy at the end says, ‘I want a man’ a lot of that is lifted from conversations I’ve had with friends.

    What kind of conversations? 

    I’ve had one friend who was too ashamed to admit she wasn’t a professionally ambitious person and she actually wanted to stay at home and to cook her kids’ food and be an attentive mother. I had another friend – one of our more hardcore feminist friends – who was like, ‘Yeah, I can outsource all of this stuff but actually, I just want to be hugged by a bloke in bed at night’ (I’m talking about my friends in straight relationships). And there’s just a load of shit that people don’t feel they can talk about honestly because it’s not ‘loyal to the cause’. Whatever the cause is. I think modern love is just really hard and the world isn’t supporting it.

    For me, the film speaks a lot about vulnerability and honesty and watching it, I realised so often we don’t see strong female characters sharing vulnerabilities like, ‘I want a man’ or ‘I need a hug’. It’s almost as if we hide our needs? 

    No. And I think there is an argument to say that’s because women haven’t been asked what they want nearly enough. So they don’t really know how to answer it. The amount of freedom I got from learning that if someone says something to me in a way that is supposed to hurt me but on some level it’s true? Owning it instead of fighting them on it is such a powerful position to be in. Because it sort of means the fight can’t go anywhere else.

    You’re stopping it in its tracks?

    Yes because if what they’re saying is something that rings true to you, there is absolutely no shame in saying ‘Yes, I am a flawed person’. Or ‘I’m a broken person and I’ve had a series of things happen in my life that have led me to this place where I find it impossible to be in a relationship with you’. And ‘A lot of that is about you, but it’s also about me’. To sort of own those things that are weaponised and used against you, there’s a sense of freedom in that. She [Mandy] is choosing to be with someone who is tragic and contrary and very unlikable. But he also reflects back to her some of the worst things she thinks about herself. I think sometimes we’re drawn to people like that in some weird way. All too often that happens. How many times have you seen girlfriends do it, or been in a relationship where you’re like, ‘What are you doing?’.

    I’d love to know about the film’s ‘tapping’ element. I’m assuming that’s based on EFT [The Emotional Freedom Technique]? Where did that device come from?

    I tried that therapy. It didn’t work for me because I am someone who cannot verbally positively affirm myself, I just find it so cringy. I think that’s a shame, but that’s where I’m at. So it wasn’t a style that worked for me, but it has been really effective for some of my mates. But it’s just funny as well. I can’t pretend that it’s not funny to walk around tapping positive affirmations into yourself! It just feels like such a such a length to go to. And go for it, by the way, I have zero judgment around whatever works for anyone. But I thought ‘God, it would be funny to have this in the film to just highlight the sort of state that we’re in’.

    It’s very funny – in a dark way – to see all of these women walking through a world that’s draining them as they’re manically trying to put it back in via tapping. And then you see guys like Pete, doing no self improvement, no self-development, nothing. The onus often seems to on the women to change, doesn’t it?

    Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it’s somehow harder for men to look at themselves. I don’t know if that’s true, maybe it’s true. Or to have any sort of accountability.  Pete is like an amalgamation of some of the more honest – not all negative – things I’ve heard men say around the fear of this female modern movement. It’s terrifying to them. Some of these guys I really love and respect but in the face of rejection, they can behave appallingly. But so can we all I guess.

    Yes, and he is all of those things – violent, misogynistic and awful to her son in several scenes. But he’s also quite charming and funny. How important was it to paint his character like that? It felt horribly realistic. 

    I’ve just seen it time and time again, where women have been attracted to men who can be really dark. But when you first meet them you’re like, ‘He seems great and really funny.’ I was trying to show every colour in everybody, male and female. I don’t think women in this film get away with it lightly either. It’s not like I’m saying ‘Men are all fucking bastards’. I’m also saying women are really complex too, and aren’t always victims. There’s this idea that we’re always so relentlessly reactive and have no agency, I find that really unhelpful. Because we do. We might not be able to always action it accordingly, but we’re not all wallflowers. So it’s important that everyone in the film is really beastly and they all come out of it quite badly.  I think that feels more true to me.

    Rare Beasts is in cinemas now.

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