When Billie Piper, Lucy Prebble, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge all joined a call last week to discuss I Hate Suzie—Piper and Prebble’s brilliant new series, now streaming on HBO Max—every one of them was in bed. Piper and Waller-Bridge were home in London, while the recently resumed production of Succession season 3 had bade Prebble to New York.
It’s hard to imagine fans of Fleabag not immediately responding to I Hate Suzie. Blisteringly funny and exceedingly dark, both shows plumb the sometimes-seedy depths of female desire (an entire episode of I Hate Suzie is devoted to masturbation), prioritizing honesty over doe-eyed likability. I Hate Suzie is the story of an actress, Suzie Pickles, who has intimate photos leaked to the press. As she deals with both the personal and professional collateral damage (the Disney role that she’d only just landed is now very much in jeopardy), Suzie reveals herself to be—much like Fleabag—both intensely compelling and completely nightmarish; the very picture of a modern anti-heroine.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Waller-Bridge—a professed fan of the series—spoke to Piper and Prebble about their friendship, their creative visions, and why it’s sometimes good to be a bit of a control freak.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: I loved this show so much. I watched the whole thing with my sister, and we were in pieces emotionally—it was such a ride, and it felt like it was a roar from beginning to end, and I wanted to know if it felt like that when you were creating it.
Billie Piper: If it felt raw?
PWB: No, no, like a roar.
Lucy Prebble: That’s a really good way of putting it.
PWB: Or did you feel you had a roar in you that manifested into this show in some way?
LP: I think Billie would say definitely. It took me ages at the beginning, when the writing was happening, to find it. There’s loads of different versions of episode one. Even quite late on, I wasn’t sure that we had found it. We were so inclined for the show to just burst out—a bit like a roar, like you’re saying. To just be very eventful and hectic immediately. But there was a point about halfway through the series when I suddenly felt myself relax—I started to just go, I’m going to write like it is just for me and Billie. Like, I don’t care about anything else, and it’s just truthful. From then on, the writing got better, and I went back and rewrote the first ones. So rather than a roar, it felt like there was a tension being released.
BP: A lot of it came out of conversations that Lucy and I were having every day, I think from our late 20s, early 30s. We spoke on the phone every day anyway, but that’s when it started, and we were counseling each other through various things and some really big feelings, big experiences, some of them slightly traumatic. So when we started shooting, it was more of a vomit for me than a roar, I guess. I would say the end of post-production felt very roar, but in the beginning, it was a sort of feeling of sickness that I was looking forward to getting out there and sharing.
PWB: There’s a line in it that I literally couldn’t believe—when Suzie says, “I can’t not be authentic.” It’s like, that’s the line for the show. I feel that about both of you and everything that you guys do … you vibrate with authenticity.
BP: Not in our real lives. [Laughs.] This is the only place we can be honest.
PWB: I know. There is so much about the myriad of facades that we all have, and how fragile they are, and how they all came crumbling down at the same time for Suzie, but then you realize that there are 70 million underneath even those.
LP: Yeah. When I started doing therapy when I was going through a hard time, I remember my experience of going, She’s just trying to take away all of my personality. I use humor to deflect, I use cerebrality to defend myself against feeling vulnerable … if we start dismantling all of these, there’s nothing left. I had that sense of, yeah, I’m made up of various facades and defense mechanisms. How am I supposed to operate without them?
PWB: Did it feel vulnerable putting the show out, or did it feel empowering?
LP: I felt very, very vulnerable.
BP: Yeah. You felt really vulnerable.
LP: We’re different in that way, though, aren’t we? I’m always like that with theater and stuff. I cannot bear it. Whereas, Billie, you were like, I know this is good. I think people should see it. You have a really healthy attitude to that stuff.
BP: I don’t feel like that often. I’ve only felt like that once or twice, and so because that was a new feeling, I felt like embracing that. I felt like we achieved what we wanted to achieve, which was a show for each other first. And it hadn’t been compromised creatively, which is something that we really worried about.
PWB: Did you two feel very open and honest with each other from the off, when you first met, or did it take a long time?
BP: At the end of shooting Secret Diary of a Call Girl, I made quite a heavy play for you in the bar afterwards, where I declared my love for you and desire to be your mate.
LP: And I was very impressed by that, and moved by that clarity and straightforwardness, because it’s not the sort of thing I’m terribly good at, so I … Yeah. My first response was to be slightly inauthentic, and go, Of course we’ll be friends. And Billie just sort of took me by the shoulders and went, No, I mean it. We will be proper friends.
PWB: These are the love stories I’m into. I really, really loved the seconds at the beginning of the show before Suzie sees that it’s her naked pictures that have leaked. She sees this headline with a stock photo of blurred-out naked women, and there’s this little fallacious grin on your face, Billie. Were those details written out, or do you just know them instinctively?
BP: I think that because we worked together from the beginning, I would have been writing the performance in my head as Lucy was writing the actual script. We both wanted to make work that felt very real—and because of that, quite exposing. But I think some things would have been written in there. My favorite note from Lucy was when I’m doing the wanking scene, and I’m looking at my phone. Lucy said, “Just let your eyes go really dead, and then slowly look up to the phone and then look away like this,” in that disgusting, exhausted, masturbated mess that you’ve become. We are proper mates with the same twisted sense of humor.
LP: People use the word seamless a lot when you’re talking about artistic stuff. I’ve had that with directors sometimes, or designers, where explanation isn’t really necessary. As Billie said, the performance was being built with the writing at the same time, so there’s no line between them. And I do write quite a lot of stuff in stage directions, but never for Billie.
PWB: I loved episode four—the wanking episode that you were talking about—and the whole conversation around confusing desire with desirability, and the idea that being wanted is, to lots of women, more desirable than wanting themselves. I’ve talked about that in my life with my female friends particularly, but I have never seen it done on screen so outrageously, so honestly, and for so long.
LP: I was very excited about us telling a story about the messiness of female desire, and like you, Phoebe, I’d had that conversation with enough people to feel quite secure that it wasn’t going to seem really weird and out there. Shooting it was tricky, though. I was worried about making actors or actresses perform sexuality in a way that might make them feel vulnerable. It’s different for Billie because she’s an exec, so she has a level of power, but with other performers, how do you make sure that they are not being exploited in the rendering of that story?
PWB: Did you guys have a clear idea of how you wanted it to be shot, or did Georgi [Banks-Davies, one of the directors of the series] come in with that vision, or did you find it together?
BP: I think we did have a clear idea. Some of it came from doing my film [2019’s Eternal Beauty] just before it, which was about making the experience feel really charged and immersive. Georgi was the first director that came in and we seemed to align on that.
LP: Yeah. At the very beginning, I sat with the directors and talked about the way that each episode should feel really different. Billie and I were very keen to make each of them feel like a different movie, stylistically, and yet, for them all to be combined.
PWB: Are you writing that sort of thing into the scripts, or—
LP: I’m trying not to, only because I don’t want to seem as controlling as I actually am.
PWB: Fair enough. I do feel like we need to find the positive phrase for control freakery.
LP: Do you think our sort of apology about that is gendered?
PWB: I think probably, yes. In my experience, women apologize. But everyone is so much more relieved when you just come in and say, “Do it like this.” I’ve never had a, “God, she’s such a control freak.” I’ve had like, “Oh good, someone is steering the ship.” But I feel like the fear of it is greater in women. What do you think?
BP: Speaking from being called a control freak—mostly by men—or “uptight” or “unreasonable” and “mad”—it’s he stuff I hate being called the most. I don’t mind being called literally anything else, but those things, for me, are really problematic.
LP: It’s funny, when I first started working on television sets—you know how chaotic it is, with shitloads of people everywhere carrying stuff from place to place—I used to always walk around trying to get out everyone’s way. I would walk around being like, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” and I made everything much more awkward, actually, and got in everyone’s way more. But yesterday, I noticed that I just walked totally differently. I was making it very clear where I needed to go. When other people know what you’re trying to do, you can actually move around much more easily.
PWB: Can I ask you about Cob? Because Cob terrified me. I know that he was a wounded animal and a victim of betrayal, but I found there was something brutish about him from the off. What your starting point for him was, and then did the character surprise you as you were creating him?
BP: We talked a lot about men being scary, and what makes them scary, and what makes us scared of them, and situations that we may have found ourselves in.
PWB: I feel like I’ve been in those situations when I know what I’m feeling is fear, but I don’t know what I’m frightened of, because I genuinely don’t think this person is going to attack me or anything, and yet, I feel frightened.
BP: Absolutely—I’m mistaking strength for control.
LP: Or control for strength. I don’t think we talk enough about the physical effects of men on women. Episode three, about fear, tackles that when Cob does his very sinister approach at the fireside, and says something like, “I could kill you. I understand that that must be a strange situation for you to be in.” If you’re in a room with a man, there’s no fight you’re going to win, so there’s a physiological response. Beyond the acts of fight or flight, which are very adrenalized, there’s another one, fawn, which doesn’t get talked about because it’s a very female thing. But it’s this idea of placating to a point until you’re safe.
LP: Suzie is so unsafe because she’s so famous—she’s so young and she’s so vulnerable. If I get everybody to like me, I’ll be safe. I think about those testimonies where women were asked, “Why did you say nice things to Weinstein if you were backing out of the room? Why were you smiling? Why say you thought he was a great producer if he’d just raped you?” Of course that’s when you say he’s a great producer. That’s how you get out of the room. And I think those kinds of confusions as to why women behave the way they behave when they’re afraid shows the lack of understanding around women’s psychology. Men don’t tend to behave quite like that when they’re afraid.
PWB: I wonder what would happen if we had that strength.
LP: A defining aspect of [Cob’s] character is his inability to be that totally vulnerable, and I think that might be one of the contributing problems with their marriage. Everyone is a bit bad. I kind of introduce the monstrosity of Naomi, as well as Cob, as well as Suzie. Naomi kind of uses Suzie a bit in her own way, but Suzie kind of disgustingly takes advantage of Naomi, and there’s an assumption of power in their relationship that’s a bit horrible. I don’t think we started from a point of view of, How can we humanize everybody and make them all more relatable?
BP: And also, in the face of rejection, people behave appallingly, and that’s just life.
BP: It’s not always like that, but that moment where Cob’s like, “If you leave me, I’m going to make your life a fucking misery”—I got so many calls from people going, “Oh my God, I have literally heard that 10 times in my life.”
PWB: Starting from a place of people being bad is much more realistic. That we all are so aware of our flaws from the beginning, and we spend our lives trying to paint over them or better ourselves, is one of the beautiful things about the human condition. But everything that would be “unlikeable” about Suzie is what I absolutely adore about her.
PWB: But that brilliant voiceover episode, where she’s saying women will save each other, and then she’s so brutally ditched by Naomi … Suzie realizing that she needs to love herself is part of her journey, but I love that you’ve talked about the show being like a love letter between the two of you, and it ends with two friends splitting up.
LP: Yeah. We hate each other now. We had to do this conversation contractually.
PWB: I think that’s almost the most romantic thing, in terms of you guys being friends and writing this thing for each other: The fact that you know in yourselves that you have to be stronger on your own.
LP: I think part of the strength of our friendship has been how much we’ve tried to help each other through what you’d call co-dependence. Part of it is going, you can’t put stuff on someone else that doesn’t belong to them. Knowing that no one is going to rescue you is the start of taking responsibility for your own life.
PWB: How much do you think people actually care about seeing naked pictures of other people, and how much of it is the machine telling us to care, so it can control us?
BP: Do you know what? I don’t actually think I care that much, because when all of that stuff was going on with the hacking of the iClouds, I didn’t go and Google that.
LP: Did you not?
BP: No. I really didn’t.
LP: Not that I did, guys. Not that I did.
PWB: There is a noticeable difference between the two of you.
BP: I’d be more interested to see the guy naked, but I don’t know whether that’s coming from a place of personal interest, or the world beyond my own mind. I feel like it’s probably a bit of rubbernecking, isn’t it? But I have looked at the Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee tape, for other reasons.
LP: I was just totally shocked at the idea that the person in [stolen] images should feel any sense of shame at all. I really have such difficulty connecting to that idea. I can only feel disgusted at the person who put them up.
BP: What’s even more weird is that no one wants to talk about it.
PWB: What I think it really proves, though, is how valuable mystery is. The idea that somebody who we’ve only seen clothed in a number of films and interviews might take a boob out, and the world would stop what they’re doing with some sense of real urgency … that is how much it’s valued. It’s actually kind of reassuring that we still have that. But thanks for joining, guys. Thanks for the show, honestly.
BP: Thank you. We love you!
LP: Yes, that goes without saying, I hope.
BP: Why don’t we all get a beer in London when you’re home, Lucy?
LP: Yes. Let’s do that in the New Year, when you and I are no longer friends.
BP: When Phoebe is your new best friend.
LP: Yes, when Phoebe is my new bestie. Good.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.