Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper interview
Lucy (series writer / co-creator) and Billie (Suzie / co-creator) tell us about their 'funny, revealing and dark' drama.
HOW DID YOU BOTH MEET?
Lucy: In a canteen at the BBC. Billie arrived first, which was the first and last time that’s ever happened! We talked about Secret Diary of a Call Girl and I remember being very impressed and excited by how smart and open she was.
Billie: What was really encouraging was that we wanted to make a very different show to what everyone else wanted to make. We’ve always clung to that.
Lucy: The stakes were high for both of us, so it’s amazing we became good friends! The best thing that came out of that show for me was Billie. I’ve never worked with an actor whose radar for emotional truth is as good and honed.
Billie: We were still in touch a lot after Call Girl – the origins of I Hate Suzie were many conversations at a particular time in our lives, our late twenties and early thirties, where everything became very intense. We were talking pretty much every day, it felt like a shared anxiety.
Lucy: Completely – there was a lot going on in both our lives. Occasionally we’d say something like, ‘we should remember that’, but we didn’t talk about a TV show until five or six years ago when Billie suggested it. She said we should do a TV show that is exactly what we want to make, about stuff we talk about and are interested in. It took me a while to get there because I couldn’t settle on what it was about.
Billie: It started off as more of a friendship-based show, but it feels tonally different to that now.
Lucy: It needed to have a big idea behind it. When I found that, the idea of a woman whose life unravels because of a hack, I thought, we can look at everything we want to look at through a clear, big, modern prism.
HOW DID YOUR AMBITIONS FOR THE SHOW TALLY WITH THE REALITY OF MAKING IT?
Lucy: We were restricted by schedules, budgets and what’s physically possible, but rarely restricted creatively. In this window where there’s so much TV being made, there are opportunities to make more extreme, interesting television. Channels are less cautious and more prepared to take risks, and they really want to work with Billie.
WHO IS SUZIE WHEN WE FIRST MEET HER?
Billie: I don’t think she knows who she is. She’s been a lot of people, which feels very female. As a woman you put on many different hats to get what you want. She’s absorbed lots of personalities and been formed by other people. She’s very impressionable, porous and sensitive, and she’s shaped from a young age. We didn’t want to conform to storytelling in the way we’re used to seeing. People see so much TV now that they can anticipate everything without even realising. It allows you to tune out and we absolutely didn’t want that.
WHERE DO SUZIE AND BILLIE OVERLAP?
Billie: This is not autobiographical, but a lot of my own feelings are there as a woman in her thirties. My photos have never been hacked, for example – but setting it in the world of being an actor creates a lot of drama, fun and entertainment. Everyone has a profile now: whoever you are, if your phone is found it could be so incriminating. Your entire life could be destroyed by a few innocent texts. It doesn’t have to be anything huge to take someone apart these days. It never felt like we were pushing people away with this story, because it’s a familiar concept: the unmasking of someone.
Lucy: We decided to tell the truth about that celebrity world rather than doing a “fun, glamorous” version. It’s funny, revealing and dark. I thought a lot about what it’s like to be a woman in the public eye these days: Britney Spears’ meltdown, Lily Allen, Charlotte Church, the hack that affected Jennifer Lawrence. I never heard anything about that afterwards, how they felt about it. I get interested when stuff just disappears, and this series follows Suzie’s emotional journey, how this thing affects every area of her life in surprising ways. She must face who she is, which she’s managed to avoid up to her thirties.
HOW IS SUZIE’S MARRIAGE WITH COB?
Lucy: It functions but it’s fragile. They don’t know how fragile it is, but that’s not unusual. Our parents’ generation had a traditional framework, the generation after us is comfortable with having no rules and everything being fluid. Our generation is caught between the two, so Suzie is slightly trapped in a model she’s never considered. One of her roles is the wife, but it’s complicated – she’s choosing to do it, but is also slightly pushed into it. But their deaf son, Frank, binds them together.
WHERE IS SUZIE PROFESSIONALLY?
Billie: We wanted to talk about finances within a marriage, where women are making more money than the men. No one wants to talk about it publicly, but women talk about it a lot among themselves.
Lucy: The hack has a huge impact on the household because she’s financially responsible. As a college lecturer, Cob considers her job to be slightly trashy.
WAS THE STRUCTURE OF FOLLOWING THE STAGES OF TRAUMA THERE FROM DAY ONE?
Billie: The hack came first, then the phases of trauma followed.
Lucy: It started with what I didn’t want to do, which was a more thriller-based “how did this happen” thing, who did it and so on. The idea of that bored me. There were dramatic truths we wanted to explore that were more important than explaining the legal issues. We’re interested in what it does to lots of areas of her life. That’s not a line that travels forward, so I considered making the episodes relatively self-contained and very filmic. I worked on themes, while Billie gets very excited by emotion. The structure encapsulates all those things. I was thinking about Shock, Denial, Fear and so on, and once I got to Fear I realised that one could be shot like a horror movie and had the key to it.
Billie: We wanted it to feel stressful, for these emotions to sit at the front of it.
WHAT MADE LEILA AND DAN RIGHT AS NAOMI AND COB?
Lucy: As soon as I watched a clip of Dan, I knew. There was something about how he could repress anger in a truthful way. It was real and not managed.
Billie: We didn’t want him to want to be liked, but the opposite. Vanity in actors is so boring and he seemed to go with that and share his rage.
Lucy: A lot of actors we saw were trying to find the nice guyness of Cob, like he was more pathetic and sympathetic at the same time. There’s a fear for men of being villainous because of what’s been happening in the last few years, so they either play the baddie by commenting on the baddie, or they play them nicer. Cob is really struggling to cope with his relationship with Suzie and Dan’s brave about being quite pissed off and owning it, but he knew how to do dark humour when we needed it.
Billie: We met Leila late on and she was very dry which is really satisfying. Opposite of Suzie, who’s more emotionally available and highly strung, Naomi sits on it all, which makes sense for the character.
Lucy: There’s a lot of me in Naomi: she’s controlling, and she’s drawn to the intellectual.
WHICH WERE YOUR FAVOURITE SCENES?
Lucy: When we were shooting episode two, we turned up to Comic Con and went to a huge hall for the Q&A. The Art Department had designed a poster for Quo Vadis, the show Suzie used to be in. They’d designed a fake show within our show, what the character would be wearing, their hair… As a sci-fi fan, I was stood there going, this is my dream!
Billie: Even though the day was so tough, I enjoyed the end of episode one, dancing down the street in the village, singing. I’m happy letting everyone know through the work that I’m actually a bit weird and everything came together with that. It was like an Oliver! moment.
HOW GRUELLING WAS IT TO GO THROUGH THOSE STAGES AS AN ACTOR?
Billie: When I’m in it I don’t realise how much it’s stressing me out but playing someone who’s rattled all day every day does have an impact. The stuff as exec producer really added to the anxiety, because we were up against so many things, so we had little margin for error.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MAKE SUZIE A CHILD STAR?
Billie: It’s interesting to see the losses that come with age for girls.
Lucy: I’m not sure I ever had the moment of trying to understand who I was before I was told who I was by other people. It probably wasn’t until my thirties that I addressed the fact that I was dressing a certain way because it was attractive to men or working like this because my parents wanted me to. The core story of the series is definitely how Karl’s world is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Ruby. Norma hired a carer to free Karl up to live his own life and meet someone else but ironically it’s brought Karl and Ruby closer together instead. On the outside they appear a bit of an odd couple with nothing in common but you can’t always control who you fall for. I realised how little responsibility I’d taken for who I was in my life. The biggest metaphor for that is a woman who, at a very young age, is claimed by the press and entertainment and almost always has issues as a result. Suzie is celebrated at 15, an age where some women get culturally celebrated for being attractive and fertile, then eventually that interest will stop.
WHY DID YOU WANT GEORGI BANKS-DAVIES TO DIRECT?
Billie: We took a long time over that decision. We wanted to find the right person for the job rather than it be a gender thing. We met Georgi right at the end of the process.
Lucy: I often find that you have a great meeting with a director, then look at their work and see nothing of what they talked about, or the other way around.
Billie: It’s a hard thing for her to come onto because we’re so creatively invested and have very strong opinions. We were mindful of not letting the show slip into something general and broad. We wanted something more abstract, leaning into the weirdness, and she ticked a lot of our taste boxes.
Lucy: Her background is short films and commercials, which means she has a lot of experience working on self-contained things with very specific tones, which you wouldn’t get from a director who’d worked on one drama for years. We went for directors who were ambitious, extreme and strange in their taste.
Billie: That describes us too!
Lucy: Yes, we’re both real control freaks…