Billie Piper on the Prince Andrew scandal: ‘Any abuse of power and abuse of innocence just makes me feel sick and furious’

Billie Piper stars in ‘Scoop’, about the BBC’s quest to interview Prince Andrew: ‘I realised, Oh my God, there are these unsung women behind the story’  (Netflix)
Billie Piper stars in ‘Scoop’, about the BBC’s quest to interview Prince Andrew: ‘I realised, Oh my God, there are these unsung women behind the story’ (Netflix)

I think Billie Piper is being polite when I ask how she feels about journalists. “Very mixed, obviously,” the I Hate Suzie star replies, diplomatically. “There’s loads of it that I really support. And then there’s some of it that I obviously hate. Because I’ve been on the receiving end of that.”

Yes. From the age of 15, she was trailed and tormented by tabloids; these days her name gets dragged in whenever her ex-husband Laurence Fox makes a bold new stand in the name of free speech. So I was surprised that her latest project, Scoop – Netflix’s star-studded film about Newsnight’s quest to land its now infamous Prince Andrew interview – is something of a love letter to journalism. We were the last sort I’d have thought she’d want to big up, but she’s found that our profession isn’t so different from her own.

“[Journalism is] such a dog-eat-dog world, and you see when you watch the film: even though they make this thing happen together, it’s not without tricky dynamics, and sort of stabbing each other in the back to get the thing. I mean, I can relate in a way – on some level, that’s sort of what acting feels like.”

I’m nodding, nodding, thinking of all the colleagues I mortally wounded so I could talk to Piper, the teen pop queen of my early adolescence, whom I watched transform into one of the best actors working in Britain today... Wait, hang on – who has she stabbed in the back? “A number of people!” she jokes through a giant laugh. Then she’s serious, quiet, considered. “I don’t know if I’ve stabbed anyone in the back. But I’ve definitely seen it become a blood sport, I suppose is what I’m trying to say.”

Piper, now 41, has led a life full of wild twists. In 1998, at the age of 15, she became the youngest female singer to enter the UK singles chart at No 1 with “Because We Want To”. A few years later, she left the pop princess life behind to travel the world with her first husband, the DJ Chris Evans, who was almost twice her age.

For her next act, she returned to her original dream – acting – gaining the auspicious early role of Doctor Who sidekick Rose Tyler before carving out her own boundary-pushing projects, like the dark, freewheeling Sky series I Hate Suzie and her dream-like 2020 film, Rare Beasts, which she starred in, wrote and directed. The pinnacle so far has been her wrenching 2016 performance in a modern stage adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Yerma, which transferred to Broadway and won her six Best Actress awards, including an Olivier.

But despite her tendency to triumph, Piper speaks cautiously, question marks hovering at the end of her words, until she tips it all over with a big, blossoming laugh. It’s a good laugh – and through her career, she’s often had the last one. Clearly the self-compassion – and slight sense of detachment – with which she speaks about her past took years to achieve. When I mention I’ve heard that a tabloid once ran a “countdown” to her turning 16, we both muse over whether it’s a true story or an urban myth. “I think it might be true...” she ponders.

Questions about Fox – with whom she shares two children – are off limits (in rare recent remarks, she described the “enormous difficulty” of their co-parenting). But in conversation, Piper isn’t closed down – today she’s as warm as her bright orange hair. Her outfit? A crisply, stylish, double denim skirt suit, and fluffy hotel slippers. There you have the Piper paradox: she’s a star, but she’s normal. (Well, normal-ish: she grew up in Swindon with her working-class parents, but had left home to take up a scholarship at the Sylvia Young Theatre School by the time she was 12.)

Scoop is far better than your usual “recent news story turned into content” fare. Gillian Anderson and Rufus Sewell as presenter Emily Maitlis and Prince Andrew – possibly the only man ever to be sacked by his own mum – are spookily good at the “Pizza Express in Woking” of it all. The film is paced like a thriller, with Newsnight’s interview booker Sam McAlister – played by Piper – its dogged engine. She’s the grafter with something to prove, the leopard-print-boot-wearing square peg in a round hole with the bit between her teeth, and it’s easy to see why Piper wanted to play her.

But she was initially unsure about Scoop – what was left to say? What drew her in was the way that Peter Moffat’s script framed things. “I realised, ‘Oh my God, there are these unsung women behind the story,’” she says. One of whom was McAlister. Meeting her, the actor understood how Prince Andrew could have agreed to do the interview. “I think she was the reason this happened,” Piper explains. “And it’s slightly depressing that no one really knew anything about her.”

Piper as Sam McAlister in ‘Scoop’ (Peter Mountain/Netflix)
Piper as Sam McAlister in ‘Scoop’ (Peter Mountain/Netflix)

The pair met several times before filming began, and Piper came to see many similarities between them. “We have very similar backgrounds. Spent a great deal of time around middle-class professionals. Had to find a way to be taken seriously in amongst all of that. We have these sort of uncompromising parts of our personality.” Watching Piper play McAlister, I was reminded of a story the actor Leo Bill told me about playing Piper’s leading man in Rare Beasts. A room of male actors were sizing each other up before one scene, trying to work out who was “the alpha”. “Of course,” Bill laughed, “the alpha was Billie – it was her film.”

“Oh, Leo!” Piper cries, ecstatic at the mention of his name. She does remember the tension she felt making the film, being a woman making the decisions. “I was pregnant as well. And on some days, that can make you feel really empowered – and mostly it did. And then other days, it can make you feel really vulnerable, just because you’re physically unable to protect yourself, and I think that plays into your emotional responses. Also, you are surrounded by blokes. So there were times when I felt uncomfortable, endlessly asking the guys to do stuff. And then there were days when I didn’t give a s***. It sort of changed. And I think that’s OK.”

Piper and McAlister at a New York screening of ‘Scoop’ (Getty for Netflix)
Piper and McAlister at a New York screening of ‘Scoop’ (Getty for Netflix)

I had assumed all Nineties pop stars had performed in the royal family’s back garden at least once, but Piper has never met a royal, nor has she been to the palace. “No!” she says, a note of playful shock in her voice. “I love the fact you think I must have been.” The royals likely won’t be watching Scoop – “I think they’ve probably got a lot going on,” she says, before correcting herself, “Well, we know they’ve got a lot going on.”

Piper tells me fame is “the most toxic part” of her job, and she sympathises greatly with royals like the Princess of Wales, pushed to share her private life in public. “My heart breaks for them around that stuff,” she jumps in. “Makes me feel a bit sick. That people are so grabby and demanding in that way.” Towards Andrew, though, who landed in a mess of his own making with his complacent, car-crash Newsnight interview, Piper has less sympathy. “I don’t feel pity. I feel like it can’t be easy growing up in that world. But that’s pretty much where my compassion ends.”

Prince Andrew was, of course, being asked by Maitlis about his friendship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, and allegations that he sexually assaulted Virginia Giuffre when she was under the age of 18. Giuffre alleged that she was a victim of Epstein’s sex trafficking, and had been made to have sex with powerful men, including Andrew on three occasions. (Prince Andrew denied all allegations, and the case was settled out of court in 2022.)

Piper has three children (as well as her two sons with Fox, she had a daughter in 2019 with her then partner Johnny Lloyd), and the story affects her on a different level as a parent. “Since I’ve had children, anything like this, any abuse of power and abuse of innocence, just makes me feel sick and furious. I don’t know that I had access to that type of emotion before children.

“Things like that would really upset me, or scare me even. But when you have kids, it becomes something totally almost primal. The feelings you get. And there’s loads of stuff you can’t even watch or read any more. And now that I’ve had a girl, I feel” – the big laugh, now at odds with her words, is back – “alarmingly protective of her!”

Scoop is also the story of a working mother doing a job that requires her to be almost constantly available. “I totally relate to that. Working mothers’ stuff is really complex,” she tells me. Does Piper have a work-life balance? “No,” she answers simply. “I don’t. I feel like we’ve been told we should have that. But there’s absolutely no way I have that? And that’s one of the tiring things about being an actor for hire – if you’re working in a lead role, you’re out of the house sometimes 15 hours a day. I really struggle with that now I’ve got three kids.”

The problem, she says, is that you might do an intense all-consuming job for three months and then not have to work for the rest of the year, “but when you’re gone, you’re gone. Those extremes make for something quite rocky.”

Piper after winning the Best Actress Olivier for ‘Yerma’ in 2017 (AFP via Getty)
Piper after winning the Best Actress Olivier for ‘Yerma’ in 2017 (AFP via Getty)

That’s why Piper is becoming more drawn to working “behind the scenes”. After the well-received Rare Beasts, Piper wants to make more of her own work. But some of the greatest work of her career has been on stage. When I saw her perform in Lucy Prebble’s drug-trial drama The Effect, and in the Richter-scale smash that was Yerma, her bows always blew my mind. The toll of her performance was clear; Piper looked ravaged, like she was on a different plane. I’ve always wanted to know what she is feeling in that moment.

“You’re on the ceiling by the end of something like that, and then people are standing up and clapping... there’s just something so unnatural about it,” she tells me. “Like you’ve gone through it emotionally in your body, and so somehow you’ve told your body you’re in a state of stress. And then there’s people clapping at the end. It’s so... confusing?!”

She wouldn’t describe herself as “Method”, necessarily. “When I’m filming, I’m really sloppy,” she laughs, “and I’m not a Method actor. But when I’m on stage, I’m not someone who can phone that in. I don’t feel comfortable doing that. I feel like I have to take myself there all the time. Which is why I don’t really do it that often.” (She will do more theatre one day – but doesn’t yet know when or what.)

Piper with close friend and collaborator Lucy Prebble (Getty)
Piper with close friend and collaborator Lucy Prebble (Getty)

Something about Yerma – in which the hero desperately struggles to have children – felt so real that women came up to Piper and said, “I feel like someone has lived the same experience.” But her 2007 ITV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, based on the pseudonymous blog of high-class prostitute Belle de Jour, lacked that authenticity – for its writer, Prebble, at least. Piper and Prebble are now close friends and collaborators, but Prebble quit the show after one series, on discovering that the channel didn’t want it to be as daring as she had hoped – a storyline about mental health was vetoed.

Almost a decade on, after I Hate Suzie, after Fleabag and I May Destroy You, could Secret Diary be that daring show, were it made today? Piper is uncertain whether it would get made at all. “I’m not sure how willing people are to accept that someone has chosen that profession because they like it. I think that’s a hard concept for people to get their heads around.”

The show was full of nudity and raunchy sex scenes, made in the pre-intimacy-coordinator twilight zone. Piper’s eyes widen, like she’s remembering a weird night out a long time ago. “Oh my God. Yeees!” Was it... OK? “Yeah,” she shrugs. “It was what sex scenes were then, which is not great. But all we knew. Largely respectful, I think. I mean, the intimacy coordinator thing is a game-changer.”

Piper once worried that the scenes might sabotage her future career – does that still bother her? “No, I don’t think so. I worry about them more that they’re just... always there. They’re. Just always. There,” she says, all gallows humour. “Yeah. That’s it. And now I’m really glad I’m out of my sex-scene years. I really don’t want to do them any more.”

I’m really glad I’m out of my sex-scenes years. I really don’t want to do them any more

Back then, Secret Diary was a grown-up, subversive role for Piper. Her career-making gig as Rose Tyler, companion to Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, in 2005, was distinctly more family-friendly. Piper’s easy-to-like performance was key to the show’s successful revival, winning her Most Popular Actress at the National Television Awards; she returned to star alongside the 10th Doctor, David Tennant, in later series. But last year she appeared at a fan convention alongside Eccleston, who painted a more negative picture.

“The first series was a mess, and it wasn’t to do with me or Billie – it was to do with the people who were supposed to make it,” he said, revealing that he’d only return if showrunner Russell T Davies was sacked. Was that her memory of making the show? “No, it wasn’t. I don’t share a lot of those sentiments. I had a very different experience,” she tells me. “I was going through a lot of personal stuff – I think that’s where my focus was. I’m still really close with those guys, and the whole production team really. I now know that he was having a hard time, but I’m not sure I understood at the time how troubled he was with it all.”

Given her early rise to fame, it’s easy to forget she was only 23 then. “I was young,” Piper agrees. “But also, it was one of my first big acting jobs. So I was like, ‘Wheeeyy!!’ Grateful, grateful, grateful. Loving it, loving it. Can’t believe I’m finally doing the job I want to do, can’t believe I’m working with all these incredible people, can’t believe I’m working with Christopher Eccleston, can’t believe I’m rebooting a British classic. I was not where he was,” she says. “And so it’s kind of sad to hear that, really. I knew he was struggling, but yeah – I thought it was just scheduling and things like that, which are often a tricky part of what we do.”

Piper doesn’t hesitate to say she’d return to the Whoniverse. “I wouldn’t go back as a full-time thing, but I’d love to make another appearance.”

Before her success as a pop star, she’d dreamt of being an actor, so it makes sense that she looks so at home in this world. But I do wonder if Piper ever had to do anything as a young pop star that made her just feel a bit sick? An onstage Abba medley at the Brits wearing a flammable-looking red jumpsuit, performing alongside Steps and B*Witched, perhaps? (Can’t confirm or deny whether I owned the recording on cassette tape.)

“Yeah. All the time,” she jokes. Except... not really. “Now I’m older, I have learnt to sort of love that part of my life a bit more. It took me such a long time to get over it. I think, now, I can be really compassionate towards my younger self. I’m not as cringed out by it as I used to be. It was just really unfair [to myself] – I don’t know why I felt like that.”

Piper performs on stage in her early Noughties pop star years (PA)
Piper performs on stage in her early Noughties pop star years (PA)

So she doesn’t fear what Sophie Ellis Bextor has just experienced with “Murder on the Dancefloor” – a Saltburn-style revival of “Because We Want To”, with her old single suddenly viral on TikTok, following her everywhere she goes? “No, I don’t. I’d love that,” she says softly. In fact, one of her songs appeared on the soundtrack to Lena Dunham’s 2022 medieval comedy, Catherine Called Birdy, in which Piper starred. “Lena Dunham loved ‘Honey to the Bee’. Which is such a weird fact.” The Girls writer heard it as a child when her father was in the UK for an art show, and asked Piper if she could use it. “Which is kind of awesome,” she thinks.

When she appeared on Desert Island Discs, Piper chose novelist Deborah Levy’s memoir The Cost of Living – the literary millennial woman’s talisman, in which Levy famously identified a woman’s realisation that she could be the “major” rather than the “minor” character – as her book to take away. So it’s not a surprise that she wants to keep focusing on female stories, and on acting roles that make her “hard relate”. But her next moves are harder to predict. After all, who knew a teen pop star would become a generational acting talent? Or that a woman beleaguered by the press would star in a film celebrating journalism?

When she tells me what she has in mind for the future – something “long game” – she sounds like a kid in a candy shop. “I want to try and merge all the things I’ve done professionally in one job. To merge mediums. I feel quite excited about doing something slightly strange.” Piper smiles. And then she leaves the room with a big laugh – the last one.

‘Scoop’ is available to watch now on Netflix