Billie Piper: 'Not being able to have kids would make me unbelievably depressed'
Billie Piper scooped Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. She tells Nick Curtis why she loves motherhood and how life's just great at the moment
Like many things in her life, Billie Piper embraced her triumph at last Sunday night's Evening Standard Theatre Awards wholeheartedly. "It feels great," laughs the 34-year-old, handling the statuette for the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress, which she won for her heart-rending performance as Yerma at the Young Vic, in a production that turned Lorca's barren Spanish villager into a modern London woman desperate for a child.
The applause from the starry crowd at the Old Vic was as heartfelt and unanimous as the reviews lauding her performance. For the Times, her "full-blooded" performance marked the former teen pop star's "transition into a major dramatic artist".
Piper was nominated for the same award in 2013 for her performance in The Effect, written by her great friend and collaborator Lucy Prebble, so her win this year is all the sweeter. "It feels like it comes at a good time and it's such a fancy night," she says. "It's just nice, after the end of a run, to then go and drink nice cocktails and dress well and meet loads of wonderful people and grab an award. These little moments in life are gone in a flash, and it's exciting that you experience them once in your life."
It also provides validation at the end of a difficult year. Piper was divorced in May from Laurence Fox, the scion of the acting dynasty, after nine years of marriage. When they first separated in March they stated that no other party was involved and that they would continue to co-parent their sons Winston (8) and Eugene (4).
This subject is off limits but it must have made Yerma - and the physically and emotionally exposing last series of Sky's Penny Dreadful, which she shot as her marriage was breaking up - all the more wracking.
"I think you are drawn to certain things in certain points in your life," she concedes. "I've noticed that I have always found myself doing something (professionally) that comes out of something personal. Maybe you are just in a more emotional place where you can be affected by certain stories."
This Yerma, adapted by Australian writer-director Simon Stone, was performed inside a glass box, like a fish tank or a lab cage. At the start Piper's unnamed character is a successful journalist engaging in flirty talk with her businessman partner in the new home that they've somewhat guiltily bought in an "edgy" part of London. By the end she is a desperate woman, hollowed out by rounds of IVF and her gnawing baby hunger, savagely turning against her lover and her family, and ultimately herself.
When Stone first contacted Piper she read Lorca's original and found it entrancingly poetic, but something she'd rather read than watch. "I find period stuff frustrating," she says.
Stone assured her he'd update the play, and on the first day of rehearsals he told the cast about the box, gave Piper four pages of script and asked them to discuss the play's central issue. The story and performances grew organically, which gave the play its energy.
The story felt timely. "The conversation about fertility is rife among friends and women generally and in the media," Piper says. "Or maybe it's that I've entered my thirties and that's all I hear. But I know loads of people going through it. I have seen what it's done to people I know, and it's not as full-blown as Yerma, but it's pretty f****** awful. It's terrible for your relationship and friendships. And having had children myself, knowing what it feels like, the thought of not being able to have that is just traumatic. I know it would make me unbelievably depressed, and angry and so jealous."
Piper left her working-class parents in Swindon at 12 to stay with grandparents and attend the Sylvia Young Theatre School. She became the youngest pop artist to debut at number one with Because We Want To at 15. After a struggle with anorexia she gave up pop when she met and married 34-year-old presenter Chris Evans at 18.
She separated amicably from Evans in 2004, aged 22, then effortlessly charmed the nation as Rose Tyler in the rebooted Doctor Who in 2005. At 25, she starred as happy hooker Belle in TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl.
That was 2007, the year she married Fox, having met him in 2006 on the set of Christopher Hampton's play Treats, her stage debut.
I assumed she'd made enough from music to relaunch as an actress (and to not take a penny of Evans' millions when they split). "No. I think I'm still in debt to certain record companies," she says. "I didn't earn much compared to the amount I worked."
Lots of things, such as the cost of filming music videos, came out of her earnings, "plus I was a child, so I spent a lot of it". Depressed by the punishing workload and fan abuse over her relationship with Richie Neville from boyband Five, she splurged on limos back to Swindon or to friends' boltholes - although Evans gave her a £110,000 Ferrari after their first date she couldn't drive until she was 19.
Evans was pivotal, though: "He is like 'chief encourager'. If there is something you believe in he will champion you. He encouraged me to pursue acting and hooked me up with an agent and showed me loads of arthouse movies, which I studied and studied."
Though she loved Doctor Who - "I have not worked with a nicer group of people since" - she quit after a year because the role brought a level of uncomfortable fame similar to her pop days.
Now theatre is what she wants to do. It's where the interesting roles are for women, she says, although they tend to be "mad or unhinged or sad. But I like playing those crazies, or women with stuff going on. And TV is good for women now as well. It's just film that seems to be... nothing." Still, for TV it's "very rare that you read a role that doesn't involve a sex scene." She's only played prostitutes twice - in Secret Diary and Penny Dreadful - but "I still get sent hooker scripts once every four months."
Despite her past body issues Piper says nude scenes were possible because "I feel like a tomboy, so it's easier for me to share my body in that way. I'm not programmed in that sexual way. I could sit around in my pants in front of people and I wouldn't care because I don't feel I am doing it to be suggestive."
She's said in the past that she disliked her "oversized" features and her "monster" feet, has been frank about suffering from rosacea and facial hair but says now that being in her thirties, and a mother, she's let go of any anxiety about how she looks. Needless to say, even though she's tired after a childcare failure today and wearing a knackered oversized lumberjack shirt, she remains extravagantly beautiful.
Is she in a good place now? "I'm in a great place, yeah," she says. "I am in a great professional moment. I am happy at home and in love with my children and I feel all right." She's gained a new-found respect for her mother since becoming a mum herself and has a solid network of friends in north London.
There's a chance, she reveals, that Yerma will be revived at the Young Vic, then transfer to New York. Right now, though, she wants to take it easy. "I'm still coming down a bit with Yerma," she says. "And at this point of the year it's time to just bed in and get cosy, isn't it? It's beautiful, I like the cold, I love England, and all the festivities. I love Christmas."