Billie Piper’s Frankenstein Future
ABOVE: BILLIE PIPER IN PENNY DREADFUL. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHOWTIME
In her home country of England in the late ’90s, Billie Piper began her career as a Spears-esque, insouciant pop star, releasing tween-friendly hits such as “Because We Want To,” “Girlfriend,” and “Honey to the Bee” under the mononym Billie. She was 15 years old. Piper released her second and final album in 2000 and officially retired from the music business, despite her popularity, in 2003. Two years later in a career switch-up, she joined the massively popular sci-fi show Doctor Who, quickly becoming a fan-favorite by playing Rose Tyler, the Doctor’s headstrong and down-to-earth companion, opposite Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.
The Who-niverse aside, it’s Piper’s work as an actress on stage and in television that has brought the now 32-year-old Brit international acclaim; particularly her roles as prostitutes in ITV2’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Showtime’s macabre-lite horror-drama Penny Dreadful. Both roles, however, have transcended their seedy beginnings; Piper’s portrayal of the high-end call girl Belle de Jour was defined by intelligence, eloquence, and confidence, cheekily navigating the London call-girl scene with style and grace. On Penny Dreadful, Piper began season one as Brona Croft, a poor Irish immigrant working as a prostitute who, despite slowly dying of consumption and attempting to escape from a dark past, is equal parts vivacious and charming.
At the end of the season, however, Victor Frankenstein (one of the many characters on the smorgasbord of 19th-century literary homages on the show) murdered Brona by suffocating her with a pillow, speeding up her seemingly eventual death in order to “create” a bride for his “Creature.” Stored in a tub of water, she’s awakened at the start of season two at the behest of an electrical surge from a thunderstorm, with no memory of her previous life (or perhaps some memory…) and a fresh British accent. She’s now Lily, the immortal bride of Frankenstein—an erratic and seductive force to be reckoned with who brazenly goes through men while slowly revolting against her creator. “Never again will I kneel to any man,” she declares to the Creature, perhaps a premonition for how Lily fared in the finale. “Now they shall kneel to me.”
Before the show’s season two finale this past Sunday, we called Piper to discuss her evolution from Brona to Lily. She was at home in London, we were in New York.
BILLIE PIPER: One minute, let me just let my dog in. He keeps on shouting. [aside] Baxter! In!
DEVON IVIE: What’s your dog’s name? Baxter?
PIPER: Baxter, yes.
IVIE: That’s a great name for a dog.
PIPER: I named him after Baxter from Anchorman. [laughs]
IVIE: I was just going to say! Ron Burgundy’s dog.
PIPER: That’s one of my favorite films.
IVIE: Mine as well. Did you see Anchorman 2?
PIPER: It was good. If you watch it on a DVD, it’s actually really good. Watching it in the cinema, there was a lot of pressure for it, I think. You’re never going to beat the original, ever.
IVIE: Very true. So, how did you first hear about Penny Dreadful?
PIPER: They sent me a script three or four months prior to anyone actually putting themselves on tape and auditioning. I didn’t really know about the character beyond the first script. I didn’t know how it was likely to develop, but I was assured it was strong. And then I put myself on tape with a friend of mine, and that was that. John [Logan, the show’s creator] liked it. I met him in Covent Garden for a Caesar salad and we talked about where he saw the character going, and it was really bloody exciting.
IVIE: Were you immediately aware that your character would develop into the Bride of Frankenstein, or did it come as a surprise later on?
PIPER: No, [John] told me that day. That’s how smart and up-front and on the ball he is. He could confidently give me a breakdown of every script. It was the same with him when we were shooting series one, he could tell us lots of things about the next series, and now we have a feeling of where it’s going. He’s just ahead of himself. Serious mental agility.
IVIE: Did you prepare for the role in any particular way, such as reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?
PIPER: No, I didn’t. I use to do that a lot, but I felt like I was going to go at it totally based on an instinct. Because, to me, it’s newly imagined and it’s kind of a different realm, and I think there’s something liberating about stepping into something blindly. With a character that’s really iconic you can really cling to things that have come before, so I was a bit stressed about doing that. Also, the origins of Lily Frankenstein are totally different to the original. It’s almost like a new person entirely.
IVIE: What was most challenging about transitioning from Brona to Lily?
PIPER: I think what was really challenging was not “Brona to Lily,” but rather the beginnings of Lily. Being the renaissance or birth of something brand new and seeing everything for the first time, almost like being a baby. I found that really hard to get my head around. It’s wonderfully challenging. I think you kind of see the stress of that after. I do, anyway, thank God.
IVIE: Lily has very complex relationships with different men—including Dorian, the Creature, Ethan, and Victor. Which relationship have you found most interesting in seeing evolve?
PIPER: I sound like a real tramp when I say this, but all of them. [laughs] They’re all unique and wonderful in their own way. I like the punky element of Frankenstein and I think that it’s fun to work opposite Harry [Treadaway], who’s a friend. There’s something brilliantly gothic about him, so I enjoy their weird, weird relationship. It’s really smart. I also really love working alongside the mad, perverse, age-old Dorian. As Brona, to play opposite Josh [Hartnett] and his Ethan was great. So I’m being really bland and saying I enjoy them all. But I also love working opposite the Creature, because he’s a really complex character. He has his wild, nature strengths but he’s very English and poetic. That’s how you sort of imagine those old English characters to be.
IVIE: What do you find most fulfilling in your portrayal of Lily this season?
PIPER: When she loses it and becomes this wildly loose canon, who you really don’t know what to expect from. In all of her feminist ranting I love it.
IVIE: Do you think that Lily has turned into a monster in her own right?
PIPER: Yeah. In the same way that we…well, as a woman myself, you can be totally driven mad by men and vice-versa. I think she turned at the hands of her maker, really, and there’s something so bold about that in terms of the story. I love her for that.
IVIE: Did you enjoy being immersed in the neo-Victorian setting? I feel there are two common ways that people look at the Victorian era: either as sublime and romantic, or dark and mystic.
PIPER: Yeah, I really love it. What I love about John’s portrayal is that, apart from all of the supernatural elements, I think that it’s quite, from what I’ve read, an accurate account of the dirty and polluted and lawless environment from that time period. It’s nice to see a period drama not looking sort of stiff and mannered and pretty and light.
IVIE: Did you work with the show’s costume designer to help create Lily’s new aesthetic? It’s certainly a more polished and refined look than Brona.
PIPER: The thing about working with the team is that they’re almost like specialists. They have a very strong vision and your job is to inhabit what they select for you. What they know about me as an actor is that there are little colorful character traits. Like with Brona, she’d always have beads and fingerless gloves and little fake flowers on her clothes, and they know that I love stuff like that. So I think they get excited when we play around with stuff like that. Then with Lily, they were playing with the softness and florals and things that you don’t see with any of the other women on the show. So, they come with a very strong vision, and you’re either on their side or not.
IVIE: You now have many different television genres under your belt—sci-fi, drama, horror. Do you find yourself preferring one genre to another?
PIPER: No, I’m thrilled to have done all of them. I think my favorite thing about all of those genres is that I find the humanity within them all. Even if you’re travelling around space and time, there is still something crucial about finding humanity within that and the same thing with a high-class escort. They’re people before anything else. That has been the common thread; I’m totally blessed to have a crack at them all.
IVIE: Do you have any other projects that are currently in development?
PIPER: I just finished this British film called City of Tiny Lights, which is sort of like a noir thriller, so that’s exciting. There are also a few things that I’m working work in early developmental stages. There’s always something chugging along.
PENNY DREADFUL WILL RETURN FOR A THIRD SEASON IN 2016. SEASONS ONE AND TWO OF PENNY DREADFUL ARE CURRENTLY AVAILABLE VIA SHOWTIME.