On the first day of shooting her debut film, Billie Piper gave Leo Bill a piece of direction he’d never had before. Their characters, Mandy and Pete, have just been on a date, and Piper told Bill: “You just come out of the restaurant, and you’re cool, you’re just chilled.”
“I remember thinking: I never just walk out of a restaurant with a woman and, to my mind, it’s gone really well. I never play that,” he tells me. “Normally I’m the guy waiting in the bushes, and I’m going to attack them. Or I’m the guy who is in love with the woman but there’s absolutely no chance because I’ll probably do something terrible.”
Although Bill’s theatre career has been varied – he was an original cast member of Laura Wade’s Posh, and has done everything from Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch to Caryl Churchill at the National – on screen he’s often been “a complete social reject” or “some upper class, super tense dude”. But to describe Bill, 40, as the ‘romantic lead’ in Piper’s film, brings to mind something cosy and fluffy – and Rare Beasts is definitely not that film.
Piper, who starred, wrote and directed (all while pregnant, no less) plays a single mother on the edge – she’s juggling a high-flying career at a production company, a son with behavioural issues, and a dysfunctional family. From the opening scene, where Pete admits he’s single because “I find women, in the main, intolerable” before Mandy throws up outside the restaurant (“I could see that coming, you ate like a pig,” says Pete), it’s clear that this is a film with bite.
Speaking to me over Zoom from his office – “which I tidied up, as though you were coming over. Ludicrous” – Bill says that it’s a film about how “deeply messy” it is to be a human being. “For me, it’s a film about a woman who is questioning her place within her own feminism. You have a guy who is sort of slightly old school, slightly misogynistic, but she’s kind of into it. And that brings up a load of questions. But I think on a societal level, culturally, that’s not a good thing to be into that person. So then it becomes a film about how f***ing weird we all are, and how ultimately individual, and how you can’t just sort of categorise or black-and-white everything.”
Not everyone who watches the film will like Pete. Bill knows that – but says, as an actor, his objective is to love and care for all of his characters. “Pete’s super-complicated and confused, the world’s moving slightly faster than he would like. And he has a defence system that comes up that says: if I don’t recognise the world then I’ll just hate it.” Masculinity is one of the many topics Piper’s script explores; filming one scene, involving a meeting at Mandy and Pete’s production company, made Bill realise how men feel an inherent need to work out who the ‘alpha’ is. “Up until that point it had just been me and Billie, and suddenly there’s all these guys with big personalities. I could feel this sudden, weird, like... who’s the alpha here? The stupid thing is, of course the alpha was Billie – it was her film.”
Bill thinks Piper is “f***ing amazing”; as the director, she used him as a sounding board on the scenes they filmed together. “My response was always really uninteresting, like... yeah, I think you’re doing really great.” There’s something aesthetically very visionary about the film, which was attractive to him – it’s incredibly meta-theatrical at points and hard to categorise – and he compares it to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love.
He was bemused to see himself described as an ‘alternative leading man’ in one interview; he’s well aware women have long endured the pressure to conform to certain beauty standards, and that he doesn’t look like Jude Law or Orlando Bloom (and, frankly, who does). But he resists the idea that ‘training at the gym’ is part of an actor’s toolkit. “Definitely here we like our romance guys to basically not look British. And the thing is, British – we’re weird, man. We’re weird shapes, weird sizes, we’ve got weird faces, weird teeth. And that’s not celebrated at all. And therefore every actor goes out, trains, does their teeth and just basically looks good. Everyone is aspiring to look like a Hollywood star, but we’re not American. We don’t look like that.”
On stage, Bill has significant presence, bringing a unique, livewire energy to many of his roles; he looks so at home there that I assume he’s been desperately missing it over lockdown. The opposite turns out to be true. He always wanted to go to film school and become a writer/director but couldn’t, so he trained as an actor instead, thinking he’d learn those other skills on the job. He’s “very thankful” to rarely have been out of work as an actor, “but that also meant every time I tried to get stuff up and running, a job would come along that I had to take – whether for artistic reasons, or just to pay the bills.”
During lockdown he signed with an agency as a writer/director, and the pause in normal proceedings presented the perfect opportunity to concentrate on doing what he’d always wanted to. His partner Maeva, whom he lives with in Highgate, is a producer, so the pair have become a team. The list of what he’s been working on is impressive: he’s writing his first feature film, and other upcoming projects include an animated series featuring voices from Tobias Menzies, Paapa Essiedu and Lydia Wilson, and a short film with Phoebe Fox. It’s been a busy and creative time for Bill, and this kind of work brings him far less anxiety than acting.
“I’ve never not done a play where I haven’t spent the entirety of the run sort of terrified – and on a really basic level of ‘what happens if I forget my lines’ anxiety,” he tells me. He loves being creative in a rehearsal room, but if someone told him tomorrow he’d never act again, he wouldn’t mind too much. He wouldn’t be able to do a job like Line of Duty – it would make him anxious for months. “I suffer from crazy anxiety with it, and it’s sort of illogical anxiety – I’m shooting this TV show at the moment where, if you have a scene that’s three pages long, the night before I won’t really sleep.” He mentions an interview where actor Sacha Dhawan discussed his experiences of anxiety: “He spoke so honestly, so brilliantly. I was like, oh man, I hear you, it’s a f***ing nightmare.”
We laugh at the idea of this being his last interview as an actor, but he emails later to say he loves acting and will do it forever – these new strings to his bow just allow him to channel his creativity in new, less pressurised ways. As he told me, “I think it took me quite a while to realise, well, there’s loads of other ways you could express yourself.” This discovery seems to have made him very content. It’s enticing to wonder where this restless creativity will take him next.
Rare Beasts will be in cinemas and on demand from May 21