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As her directorial debut, Rare Beasts, hits movie screens to garner criticism, Billie Piper shares the process behind it – and why she was determined not to paint women as victims or flowers.
Rare Beasts is one of those movies that somehow, suddenly everyone talk about – it’s for a good reason. Not only did Billie Piper write the screenplay and direct it, but she also played Mandy – a lonely single mother to Larch who begins with her misogynistic and deeply religious partner, Pete (played by Leo Bull). Dealing with gender roles, modern love, and what feminism really looks like in today’s world, it’s a brilliantly honest exploration of whether women can really – or really should. want to – have it all in 2021, and the cost we are paying to understand it.
You wrote, directed and acted in Rare Beasts, congratulations! How was he wearing so many different hats?
Really tired. There would be no more in him, that’s for sure. I will definitely try not to do this and I will direct only other actors and I will just enjoy and enjoy that process.
The film has a bunch of big, fleshy themes wrapped up in it, has the process of creating it ever been unraveled?
Yes, I feel oppressed. Well, I don’t do it anymore because it’s not my experience. But it’s sort of a purpose built to reflect how I think life feels today. And when I say ‘these days’ I mean pre-Covid days. For me, I feel a lot of panic and I want him to feel that way. Because that’s how life feels for me for a long time. And that’s what I saw in friends in my immediate friendship group.
For some reason, as a spectator it feels both incredibly stressful and chaotic. How has life been stressful for you lately?
I think the genesis of the film comes from a place of feeling that we are culturally driven into this “getting it all” or “wanting everything” or “you can do it all” mentality or messaging. And in fact, all I could see around me was something quite polarizing, which was the women really falling apart, trying to keep this new modern spin on life. There are some really positive intentions in this, but it’s also impossible to achieve without some sort of mental burnout or physical burnout. And I think I really wanted to be horribly honest about this instead of sucking and feeding on these ideas and expectations of women.
I imagine that many women who look at it will throw a collective sigh of relief.
Yes. Well, when people asked me “What do you want people to hear at the end of this movie?” there is really no expectation. I think whatever you say, it’s a sense of relief that maybe they see their lives being – to some degree – reflected in them. And of course if you’re female, the sense of what it costs to be a woman, to have that honestly reflected in you. I don’t see it in almost enough movies. TV is much better at examining what it means to be a woman, but the film seems to have gone so far. I guess we only see superheroes [on film] now. I don’t know, I think it’s going to be a pretty depressing time for the film, but I hope it will change.
It’s interesting to hear you say that there is no expectation in terms of what you feel. I think Michaela Coel said something similar in I May Destroy You when everyone was badgering her to explain what the series meant and what the message was to take home. In a show like this, everyone will presumably take something different, right?
Yes. Every kind of ax to grind is a personal one. I don’t have any hope from the public to change things in their lives or reevaluate their lives. Although the film is very demanding and at times very aggressive, if there is some sort of message, I am saying “Do you feel that way too?”. Do you know what I mean? I’m looking for other women who ask me if they understand how you feel.
What was the starting point for you with Rare Beasts? What made you decide to fail?
Definitely that stage of the ‘late 20s and early 30s’ where I saw everyone break into a certain level. Also, I have always been very interested in talking more honestly about modern love. Not just modern feminism, but modern love and how we navigate it now that we are so separated and so scared in relationships to do things wrong, or admit defeat. Or to treat things like financial disparity, all of these things. It’s a fucking minefield. And our only role model is our parents who – certainly in my generation – had a fairly traditional structure.
Absolutely – and so much has changed since then.
And without a doubt it was a very depressing experience for women back then, although I’m not sure they always see it that way. But there was something simpler in the installation. We try to do something completely different at a very different time in life and it’s really, really hard. And in fact, sometimes the instinct is that maybe it’s easier to do it alone. But then what comes from that quest to be the ultimate soloist is loneliness. And I think when Mandy at the end says, “I want a man” a lot of that is revealed by the conversations I’ve had with friends.
What kind of conversation?
I had a friend who was too embarrassed to admit that she wasn’t an ambitious professional person and that she actually wanted to stay home and cook her children’s food and be an attentive mother. I had another friend – one of our most hardcore feminist friends – who was like, “Yeah, I can outsource all these things, but really, I just want to be hugged by a guy in bed at night” (I talk about my friends in direct relationships). And there’s just a lot of shit that people don’t feel like being able to speak honestly because it’s not “loyal to the cause”. Whatever the cause. I think modern love is just hard and the world doesn’t support it.
For me, the film talks a lot about vulnerability and honesty and looking at it, I understand so often that we don’t see strong female characters sharing vulnerabilities like, “I want a man” or “I need a hug”. Is it almost as if we are hiding our needs?
No. And I think there’s an argument to say that’s why women haven’t been he asked what they want is almost enough. So they don’t really know how to respond. The amount of freedom I have to learn that if someone tells me something in a way that is supposed to hurt me but to some degree is true? Possessing him instead of fighting him is such a powerful position to be in. Because it means a way that the fight can’t go anywhere else.
Do you keep it on the track?
Yes because if what they say is something that sounds real 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 brought me to this place where I find it impossible to be in a relationship with you.” And “A lot of this is about you, but it’s also about me.” Luckily for own These things that are armed and used against you, there is a sense of freedom in that. She [Mandy] choosing to be with someone who is tragic and contradictory and very unlikely. But she also reflects on some of the worst things she thinks about herself. I think sometimes we are attracted to people like that in a strange way. Too often that happens. How many times have you seen girlfriends do, or are in a relationship where you’re like, “What are you to do? ‘.
I’d love to know about the “tapping” element of the film. Suppose it is based on EFT [The Emotional Freedom Technique]? Where does that device come from?
I tried that therapy. It didn’t work for me because I’m someone who can’t verbally affirm myself positively, I find it so cringy. I think it’s a shame, but that’s where I am. So it wasn’t a style that worked for me, but it was really effective for some of my teammates. But it’s fair funny as well. I can’t pretend that it’s not fun to turn around and touch positive statements on yourself! It just seems like such a long way to go. And go for it, by the way, I don’t have zero judgment around everything that works for anyone. But I thought, “God, it would be fun to have this in the movie to highlight just the kind of state we’re in.”
It’s a lot of fun – in a dark way – to see all these women walking through a world that is draining them while they are manually trying to get back on touch. And then you see guys like Pete, who don’t do self-fulfillment, nor self-development, anything. Responsibility often seems to change for women, right?
Yeah, I think that’s true. I think it’s somehow harder for men to watch. I don’t know if it’s true, maybe it’s true. Or to have all sorts of accountability. Pete is like a fusion of some of the most honest things – not all negative – that I’ve heard men say about the fear of this modern female movement. It’s terrifying for them. Some of these guys I really like and respect, but in the face of rejection, they can behave terribly. But so can we all assume.
Yes, and he is all these things – violent, misogynistic and terrible for his son in many scenes. But it’s also quite fascinating and fun. How important was it to paint his character like that? I felt horribly realistic.
I’ve just seen it over and over again, where women have been attracted to men who can be really dark. But when you meet them for the first time you feel like, “They look great and really funny.” I tried to show every color in everyone, male and female. I don’t think the women in this movie barely escaped it. It’s not like he says ‘Men are all bastard dogs’. I also say that women are also complex, and they are not always victims. There is this idea that we are always so reactive without fear and that we have no agency, I find it really useless. Because we to do. We may not always be able to act accordingly, but we are not all flowers. So it’s important that everyone in the film is really beasts and that they all come out pretty bad. I think I feel more real.
Rare Beasts is in theaters now.