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Billie Piper Wanted I Hate Suzie to ‘Feel Like a Literal Panic Attack’

Billie Piper. Photo: Mike Marsland/WireImage

In the few first minutes of I Hate Suzie, an actress’s life absolutely craters. Suzie Pickles starts at the top of the world, celebrating an offer to play a Disney princess (even though she thought “it was just villains from now on”), and then suddenly discovers that photos of herself having sex with a man who is apparently not her husband have leaked online. Things just continue to spiral further out of control from there — as the season continues, Suzie embarrasses herself at a sci-fi convention, lashes out on her husband and son, has a vicious bout of stress IBS, does lots and lots of hard drugs, and sabotages pretty much every relationship in her life. As the show’s star Billie Piper puts it, “I think I had adrenal fatigue by the end.”

I Hate Suzie, an extremely dark, extremely funny British comedy, hits HBO Max today after premiering on Sky TV in the U.K. earlier this year. Piper created the series with her longtime friend and collaborator, writer Lucy Prebble (of Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Succession). Speaking with Vulture over the phone, Piper talked about how a show they’d originally conceived as about female friendship eventually took the form of an immersive panic attack, her love of musicals, and why they were glad the show didn’t get compromised. “There wasn’t an I Hate Suzie-lite,” as Piper said. “It has to be a hot mess!”

The first few episodes of this show, when Suzie’s phone is hacked, really throw you into this visceral panic she’s experiencing. I’ve read you describe it as trying to be an intentionally “immersive experience.” What did that mean to you?
I felt strongly about it being a very sensory experience, as if it was happening to the viewer. For the first few episodes, we were like these should feel like literal panic attack. So when we were talking to the director, Georgi Banks-Davies, we found the person who had that instinct as well, and wanted to lean into that, even though it’s not always that easy.

What was it like as an actor to have to stay in that place? It feels, well, intensely stressful.
I think it was, actually. When you’re working as fast as we were and playing quite a hysterical character … I think I had adrenal fatigue by the end. I’d not long ago had a baby, either, so I was in the age-old push and pull around those feelings. It all culminated in a new breakdown. [Laughs] Which worked pretty well for the character in the show!

You and Lucy Prebble, who created the show with you, worked together on Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I’ve read that you originally started developing this as something about two women’s friendship. When did you land on the idea of making it about a phone hack?
The first couple of scripts Lucy was putting forward were very much friendship-based and probably off the back of our friendship and what it’s meant to each of us. It started to play out as a friendship show — which, Lucy is a fantastic writer, but it felt a bit … tired? Conceptually. So we went back to the drawing board.

Lucy has always been quite obsessed by the way technology has impacted our lives recently, and was very much focused on the hacking of the iCloud. She was consumed by that and really wanted to know what it meant for the women who it had happened to, what the fallout of that was for them emotionally, psychologically, professionally, and within their intimate relationships. It’s weird that not many people have spoken quite so explicitly about that. She came up with that, and then the eight stages of grief of trauma [which act as the titles and themes for each episode] happened later.

That’s an interesting structuring mechanic, because you basically watch how one event ripples out into all these different aspects of her life.
Having this enormous crisis is awful, as it would be, but guides her to unpacking and pulling apart who she actually is, at the center of all this chaos and shit that’s just happening to her. She’s constantly responding to it all with little to no agency in her life, and that’s something that felt familiar to us.

Suzie has some obvious similarities to yourself. She was a pop star, you were a pop star. She’s had a career on this big sci-fi show, you were on Doctor Who. How did you think about defining who she was, separately from yourself or not?
Well, look, I’m not really that much like this character, thank God. I share a lot of similarities, but there’s something slightly more hysterical about this woman. I’ve certainly been there, so it was easy for me to pull from, but the world and the themes are quite heightened. That allowed us to play in quite a bold and vivid way. At the heart of it, having something brutally honest allowed us to get slightly left of center with the world of the show, I guess.

When you say “brutally honest,” do you mean her reaction? The thing that’s happened to her?
I guess her experience as a woman. We were quite determined to show a woman in every light, and some of that isn’t always easy and palatable for the viewer. We don’t like to see women that way. We can take a few crass jokes, but we don’t want to talk about them masturbating in bed all day long and getting [the vibrator’s] batteries out of a kid’s toy, or being a pretty shit mom, a shit wife, having an affair. I’ve always thought that was such a great tragedy, because women can do all those things. We felt very passionately about making sure that is honest. And it’s brutal, because the truth is.

I believe you and Lucy put together a list of all the things you don’t see women do on TV as you were making the show, and it included stuff like masturbating all day, or having stress IBS like Suzie does. What was it like putting that list together?
It was weirdly satisfying! That process of us being in different writing rooms all over London feeling like we were being naughty. It felt like us: funny, with a tendency to lean into the darker corners, with a desire to be lightly fantastical.

Did you get pushback from the network on anything you wanted to put in?
Sky TV was the perfect place for I Hate Suzie, because the content of the show at no point was compromised. At no point did someone say “you can’t do that,” or “you’ve gone too far.” Both Lucy and I thought that if this show was going to be controlled and compromised, we probably wouldn’t do it. There wasn’t an I Hate Suzie-lite. It has to be a hot mess!

Speaking of the way this started out as a friendship show: As the season goes on it, it becomes very much about the friendship between Suzie and her manager Naomi, and their realization that they do need some space from each other. How did you think about that dynamic?
It’s a very codependent relationship, and Lucy and I have struggled with codependency a lot of all our lives, and it’s a shared interest. There are so many more layers to a female friendship, and they’re not all that nice. It can be competitive, deceitful, vicious. It’s way more than “girls stick together!” Which I’ve found is a misleading message when I’ve watched drama throughout my life.

The show goes into these big tonal swings occasionally, where Suzie breaks out into song like she’s in a movie musical, for instance. What made you want to put them in?
I love that stuff, and I really push for all that from the beginning, because it’s the stuff I love to watch. I’m always desperate to sing and dance in anything I do. Lucy and I are both obsessed with musicals and big pieces of theater.

Do you have a favorite musical that you’d love to do?
Cabaret? All the Fosse stuff, really. What else? I can’t think off the top of my head.

Well you should do Cabaret! That’s a good start. 
The sort of political musicals are just wild, aren’t they?

In terms of theater, I saw you in the play Yerma when it came to New York. That was a harrowing performance, about this woman driven to the edge by this need to have a baby. In some ways, that’s similar to Suzie, who’s facing all these expectations of what it means to be a woman. Do you think that performance fed into what you did on I Hate Suzie?
I do. Doing Yerma changed so much for me professionally as an actress, because I worked in a way I’d never worked before with a director. That means leaving pretty much all the work until the day, so that you aren’t sure what you’re doing to do. How are you going to respond to this? It’s a really thrilling way to work, and allows for something way more truthful. But yeah, I think it’s these sorts of women pushed to the edge by all these female expectations from men and from other women. It’s horrible.

What keeps you coming back to that kind of character?
I’m always drawn to going to the edge with the characters. The work has to be meaningful to me, otherwise it’s not worth leaving your family. It has to say something. It’s so much more of an experience if it feels really honest. I’m always drawn to work that really unpicks what it is, what it means, what it costs you to be a woman. The other stuff is frankly really fucking boring, and a really missed opportunity! Playing the polite, civil, malleable women, or extensions of men. It’s not real, and it’s boring! Boring to act, boring to watch, unfair, and irresponsible! [Laughs]

You’d said that you weren’t able to find any women to talk about the experience of being hacked when you wrote the show. Did you hear from anyone after I Hate Suzie aired in the U.K.?
I haven’t, but I’m not very active on socials. Lucy is more likely someone who would have spoken with people. I sort of hear about it when I meet people in the street. That’s my feedback.

How did it feel once the show came out in its entirety in the U.K.?
It sounds very emotional, but it’s a sort of love letter from me to Lucy, and from Lucy to me. We’ve been through a lot together, some wonderful things and some really fucking awful things. To invest all of our emotional history in this show in a way that felt very much us and wasn’t compromised … I hoped that people would react in the way they did, but I don’t think I expected quite the reaction. It’s gone down well. I can’t wait for Americans to watch it. Will they dig it? Will it be too much? I don’t know!

Billie Piper Wanted I Hate Suzie to Feel Like a Panic Attack