When asked to discuss her favorite show she’d binge-watched in quarantine for W's TV Portfolio, Killing Eve actress Jodie Comer didn’t hesitate to talk at length about I Hate Suzie, a comedy by co-creators Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper. “It’s a real trip,” Comer said. “I think what Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble have done is brilliant. The series is very, very immersive.”
At the time of Comer’s interview, the BBC show was not yet available in the United States—but as of November 19, HBO Max released I Hate Suzie to American audiences. They have, in turn, lapped it up—making the clever, inventive, and often off-putting, stress-inducing show an object of obsession. The story surrounds Suzie Pickles, a thirtysomething British actress and former child star, played by Piper (the actress herself experienced fame at a young age—she was a teenage pop star and appeared on “Doctor Who”). We meet Suzie while she's filming a television show about zombie Nazis, and has just found out she’ll play a Disney princess next. Right before a promotional photoshoot is due to take place at her home in the English countryside, she discovers that nude photographs of her with a man who is not her husband have leaked. What follows is the fallout of such a privacy breach, and how it affects all the realms of her life—her own mental health, her relationships with her family, friends, and the public.
When I meet Prebble and Piper on Zoom for this interview, the former is in Brooklyn working on Succession, for which she is a co-executive producer; the latter is in London. They greet each other warmly, bursting into peals of laughter when Prebble says, “Look at your massive cup of tea!,” and Piper replies, “I thought you were going to say massive tits, or massive teeth.” The writer and actress have worked together for years, first joining for the dramatic television series “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” then “The Effect” in 2012, Prebble’s play about a couple testing out an antidepressant as part of a clinical trial. Their banter and style of communication reveals a close friendship, which began when the two women were transitioning from their late 20s into their 30s around the opening of “The Effect.” At that time, they’d trade lengthy e-mails mulling what it meant to be a woman, the issues they faced during a time they didn’t know would be so trying and confusing. The contents of these letters to one another became the source material for I Hate Suzie.
The show portrays a woman’s life in an almost uncomfortably honest manner—touching on topics like affairs; being gaslit and pulled in different directions by loved ones; not knowing, truly, what you want in life. But the narrative is presented in an almost surreal way: Suzie will be in the middle of a daydream, her mascara dripping, lipstick smeared, her face wonky through fish-eye lens, when someone calls her name in the distance and she suddenly snaps back to reality. Immediately following the photoshoot from the first episode after Suzie finds out about the leak, she devolves into a manic state, pacing down the street wearing a black-and-white fur coat splattered with fake blood, singing. It's the kind of breakdown any person can understand.
Here, Piper and Prebble discuss modern-day witch hunts against women, why unsavory characters aren’t meant to be loved, and what I Hate Suzie is really about.
I read a previous interview that, Billie, you had done, in which you said I Hate Suzie is based on “the amount of guises and heads you have to have as a woman to attend to work, being a mother, being a sexual being, so much so that you don’t even recognize yourself anymore.” Am I correct in saying that you both went through an identity crisis like this?
Billie Piper: The show is about other things as well, but that is very much at the heart of it. I found my late 20s into my early 30s quite an alarming stage in my life for many reasons, but mostly because it was completely unexpected, that feeling. I didn't see that coming. No one really talks about it; you read about your 20s and then you read about later life, but there’s middle ground that felt like a significant change. Especially in terms of getting to a point where I'd seen patterns of behavior in my life that I was looking to change.
Lucy Prebble: It's funny, isn't it—identity crisis, as a phrase? It sounds almost too familiar. It sounds like a thing that we know what it is, and I'm not sure we do know what we're talking about when we say identity crisis. I was surprisingly old before I learned to take myself into consideration. I wasn't checking in. I wasn't going, “Who am I, and what do I want to do?” And then starting from that point. I was starting, quite often, from an external source—what someone else's view of life was, what their wants were, and then responding, which is something we look at a lot in Suzie as a character. That's also not something that there is a lot of art or literature about. There's some, but most start from the point of view of quite a strong character, who's defined, who's in an environment that they're in conflict with. But they have to know what they want in order for that conflict to exist. I was thinking, is it possible to write about that, or does narrative not support someone with quite a weak sense of self?
It does seem like Suzie exists within this orbit of how other people perceive her.
Lucy: She's very, um, what's the word?
Lucy: Yeah. And she's an exacerbated version of that, because if you think about fame, it's a really good metaphor for what we're talking about in terms of, what do other people think of me or what do other people want? If you extend it out to the whole world, what if it was everybody and not just your child or your partner or your parents?
Billie: I can really relate to Suzie in that way. And maybe it's because of having been on some level, quite famous since I was a kid, and also always participating in big relationships. I understand that idea of completely losing a sense of who I am, especially through acting but I wouldn't even say that is the thing that's done it to me. It's more about—and this is something we talk about on the show—being quite a codependent person, someone who's always putting out fires professionally and personally, being very reactive and doing things for people ahead of myself a lot.
That's the testament of being a woman: putting others before ourselves.
Billie: And we're taught to do that from a very young age. You also have seen your mother do that, if you have a relationship with your mother. Something that really upsets me is that whenever I ask my mum what she wants, she isn't able to tell me, because no one's ever fucking asked her.
Lucy: And then maybe you lost that part of your brain. It's just not there anymore.
Billie: She is incapable of saying what she wants and it's something I struggle with a bit. Without always wanting to blame my fucking mum, it's a mirrored experience. I definitely have copied that. And it's not just my mum, it's all the women in my family.
Lucy: You sit down at a restaurant with them and they're like, “What are you going to do? What are you going to have?” At some point, somebody needs to fucking decide because this is a nightmare. I was thinking about this yesterday: here's another way of looking at it, which is, yes, that is problematic, and it is also a frustrating weakness of character. But also what if—in a terrible, evolutionary, biology way that I despise, but just to play with the idea—part of us is designed to respond to an external source, which is a baby or whatever? But there might be something that is more inclined toward that external source for you to respond to than maybe some men are? In any case, it's still perceived as a weakness of character. And it's still responded to as a weakness of character and not as interesting, as profound, as important a thing to explore. That's why we wanted to look at it in I Hate Suzie; male protagonists always have a fatal flaw. And this is Suzie's, and it's as interesting. It's as deep, even if it's hard to get hold of.
I have to admit that character trait of Suzie’s—not having control over her own life, not making her own decisions or knowing what she wants—is the thing that I like about her the least.
Lucy: Liking isn't important, being compelled is important in television. We've been caught up for so long in discussions of whether or not you like a character—and it is mostly women we talk about in that way—that we've forgotten that that doesn't really matter. And it doesn’t matter for men. You don't like Travis in Taxi Driver, you shouldn't. Or any Scorsese character, really.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the name of the show. It’s interesting to me that people like her husband, Cob, are so filled with hatred for Suzie, and then she’s got someone leaving notes at her house that say “I love you.” People either are obsessed with her or they despise her. Was this a larger commentary on people’s views on women?
Lucy: In the writing, I knew one thing that I really, really wanted to happen is for a lot of people to say that they loved her. And for that to have no meaning and often be used as a system of control, because I think it is, to some extent. This idea of “I hate Suzie,” yes, it's partly that she hates herself, it's partly lots of people in her life hate her, but a lot of them are telling her that they love her. That's about fame; we've seen this very common experience with the famous, but I think it's quite a common experience of people. Women, but also people in general—the people who were supposed to love you the most or tell you they love you a lot: parents, partners.
Billie: Can you have a relationship with a woman that isn't toxic, or misunderstood? It happens a lot in parenting. It's when you read those parenting manuals or books, which I pore over. It's one of the things that they always like to unpack—this concept of constantly telling your kids that you love them and behaving in a way that contradicts that, which is very easily done, but quite damaging.
What is the function of Suzie’s son’s character? He seems like something of an afterthought.
Billie: From my own experience as a mother, in the white heat of the lives that we live, it's very easy from the outside to look at that sort of dynamic and say, “This mother is not thinking about her child all the time.” But my experience of raising kids is that you're not always thinking about your kids all the time. You can't possibly be thinking about your kids all the time when you're trying to have a career, maintain a marriage. And this idea that we've been sold—that women can have it all—is just bollocks. It's really unhelpful. You can't. It’s a nice idea in theory, but something always falls apart. It’s certainly something I struggled with, working, being a mum. It's really hard to do those things and for it to be everything you hoped it would be, to be present, for the experience to be meaningful. When it came to talking about the relationship with the kids, we wanted it to feel very honest. And in being honest, it's quite exposing. There’s a scene when Suzie disciplines her child for a situation with his pet rabbit, and she's quite cold about it. When we were filming that, people behind the monitor found that quite hard, didn't they, Luce? They didn't particularly like it, even though it's something we all do as mothers. You can't be golden in every moment of raising children.
Lucy: We were fighting very hard to show things as they would be in life, rather than how you would see them on television. On television, you probably see parental love turned up a few notches, unless you're watching a film about dysfunction. We would try to deliberately turn it down a couple of notches, not because she's a bad mother or they're even necessarily bad parents, but because the show begins with a huge traumatic event, and the point of the show is to demonstrate how it affects and evolves through all the different parts of her life—one of which is being a mother and a parent. There's something that's happened that's massive that she's trying to cope with.
I’m interested in the witch hunt scene, when Suzie is sitting in on her husband’s college lecture and he’s demonstrating how a witch trial couldn’t happen without some dehumanization. To me, the “witch hunt” idea was an allegory for the whole narrative of the show.
Billie: Broadly speaking, the show is a witch hunt. And it's something we still see regularly in the press. If you look at the Daily Mail, all you can see is women, and the subject should just be "Look at what this stupid bitch has done now," the whole way down. "What has this fucking idiot done today?"
Lucy: I love a thematic. It's a bit of my Achilles heel. I love throwing themes at stuff. And sometimes I take that a little bit too far. I remember saying, "It's quite bad, that her husband's doing a lecture about witch hunts, isn't it? It's too much." But actually, you sort of just about get away with it.
Billie: But it's something that Cob would do. It satisifies his impotence.
Lucy, you’re especially interested in nude leaks and iCloud hacks. Was there was a particular celebrity or person of note whose privacy breach was fascinating to you?
Lucy: No. It was more the big, first one that happened a few years ago—and actually, that was a depressingly democratic event. There were huge Hollywood stars, but there were also quite a lot of very unknown actors. That was obviously a sign of violence that happened against a bunch of women online, but that was also very shocking and revealing, and meant something culturally. As Billie will attest, I love tech stuff. I'm interested in how technology is affecting us all. It's partly to do with age—I was born in the year when the Internet was first being explored, when video games were first being invented. This era of tech as an art form has spanned my lifetime. How has it changed us? How has it evolved?
Billie: You were interested in, what did it feel like for them? Why do we not know what the fallout was? Where is it all gone? How are they, how has it affected their lives?
Lucy: Nobody has properly spoken about it. And I do think that is a testament to how painful and shameful it probably was. I think that's really sad. We talk a big game about how far feminism has come, trying to get past fucking white feminism into an intersectional place, and all that. There’s a lot of truth to that, and different voices are being heard, but there's also a fundamental emotional truth: none of them can bear to talk about it.
Billie: One thing I do know is that I've seen it happen to someone I know, and that person was male. It didn't affect his life that much. He didn't seem to care at all.
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