The Real Sam McAlister and Billie Piper Share How They Took on Scoop

Culture

The new Netflix movie Scoop explores Prince Andrew’s viral BBC Newsnight interview, but focuses on the women responsible for organizing the groundbreaking broadcast. As well as discussing his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, the prince talked about the sexual assault allegations made against him by Virginia Roberts Giuffre. Behind-the-scenes, Newsnight producer and talent booker Sam McAlister was the person working hard to convince the palace to agree to an interview in the first place, which wasn’t easy.

In Scoop, Sam McAlister is portrayed by Billie Piper, the dynamic British actor who co-created Max’s I Hate Suzie and previously starred in Doctor Who. ELLE.com caught up with Piper and McAlister herself over Zoom to find out how they brought that infamous BBC interview to life.

Who is Sam McAlister?

Scoops by Sam McAlister

Scoops by Sam McAlister

Scoops by Sam McAlister

In Scoop, we follow Sam McAlister (Billie Piper) in her role as Newsnight’s talent booker, hunting the next big story and desperately networking with Buckingham Palace whenever they reach out. Based on McAlister’s book Scoops, the movie reveals just how much work went into securing Prince Andrew’s sit-down with Emily Maitlis. The blurb on the back of McAlister’s book is written by none other than Piers Morgan, who says, “Behind every great interview is a great booker—Sam McAlister is one of the unsung heroes of television news.”

McAlister spent more than a decade working at Newsnight, where she secured high-profile interviews with the likes of Stormy Daniels, Bill Clinton, and Elon Musk. “Billie wasn’t aware of my existence as nobody really was,” McAlister tells ELLE.com. “I was just kind of plugging away like many journalists do, and many people in my role trying to do something important and bring great interviews to BBC Newsnight.”

Prior to becoming a TV producer, McAlister worked as a criminal defence barrister, making her an eminent negotiator and strategist. McAlister’s diverse past experience is one of the many reasons Piper was drawn to portraying her in Scoop. “There’s just something so unsung about her, so incredibly tenacious, and she’s just this formidable character,” Piper explains. “Not only is she brilliant at her job, but she’s also really fun, really bright, totally unique, unwilling to compromise in a workplace that is very much one way,” Piper says, referring to the culture at the BBC, in which McAlister wasn’t always a natural fit. She continues, “I didn’t realize how dog-eat-dog it is, and how ruthless it can be, and how desperate it can leave people feeling.”

billie piper sam mcalister

Peter Mountain/Netflix

Billie Piper and Sam McAlister.

As viewers will know, Scoop portrays the sometimes uncomfortable nature of McAlister’s job at Newsnight, including “the graft and the tears and the concerns of working in a newsroom, which can sometimes be a little bit spiky,” she says. McAlister was thrilled when Piper was cast to play her, saying “she understood the essence of me,” which included her life outside of work as a single mom. McAlister describes herself as “a combination of kindness and warmth… with 1 percent pure steel.” She explains, “And I don’t like to bring the steel out, but if I have to, I will.”

How did Sam McAlister book Prince Andrew for Newsnight?

Most of the world is familiar with the Duke of York’s 50-minute Newsnight interview. However, not everyone will know what actually went in to convincing a member of the British royal family to appear on such a candid episode of television. Discussing how she finally cinched the unexpected booking, McAlister tells ELLE.com, “It was so nerve-wracking… I was dealing with 99 percent rejection. I had to be very resilient. It was like going on a hundred first dates and only getting one second date.”

Initially, McAlister didn’t think she’d be able to book the prince, but she persevered nonetheless. “I didn’t even tell my editor I was doing some of these meetings,” she says. “It seemed so unlikely.” Despite never quite believing Andrew would agree to be interviewed, McAlister spent “13 months of negotiation and conversation” speaking to the prince’s former private secretary Amanda Thirsk, played by Keeley Hawes in Scoop. But once Andrew decided to take part, time sped up. Having met with the prince on Monday, he agreed the following day, and the interview was filmed on Thursday of the same week. Two days later, it was broadcast on the BBC, and the rest is history.

How did Billie Piper transform into Sam McAlister?

billie piper in new york

Bella Bradbury

Billie Piper.

Billie Piper bonded with Sam McAlister ahead of portraying her onscreen. The pair found common ground in their working class upbringings and their shared passion for seeing women over the age of 40 in lead roles. But the physical transformation also aided Piper’s understanding of the TV producer, with her hair, nails, and Chanel accessories helping her to embody the character. “For me, costumes are really affecting,” Piper tells us. “Her costume is very specific, very unique, very powerful.”

McAlister praises Piper’s commitment to the role, noting how accurate the costuming for Scoop is. “Seeing [Piper] transform into me physically, with the incredible makeup and hair, and my passion for wearing the same outfit every day,” was a jaw-dropping experience for McAlister, who highlights her penchant for wearing black leather outfits and snakeskin boots. “Although I like some lip gloss and some high heels, I’m not a creature of any type of vanity,” McAlister explains. “So you get to see me with all the curls everywhere and all the lip gloss flying all over the place.”

Piper clearly enjoyed becoming McAlister for the Netflix movie, drawing inspiration from the producer’s real life, while embellishing some of her attributes for the screen. “I cherry-picked her walk,” Piper says. “Her energetic speech patterns, her accent… We’re both from working class families, but I’m not sure you would know that from the way we talk.” The Penny Dreadful star also incorporated McAlister’s chewing gum habit into the role, and welcomed her input. “I just was constantly watching her,” Piper explains.

On account of her background as a barrister, McAlister can come across as “pretty unreadable” in some situations, “and then highly emotional behind-the-scenes,” Piper says. “You can be steely in the workplace and then have a cry in the toilets,” McAlister notes. “You can be worried about getting your kid something for dinner and end up with a kebab on the bus, and the next day be in Buckingham Palace.”

As for Piper, she says she “relished” the opportunity to tell McAlister’s story, even though portraying a real person isn’t always easy. “It is tricky and you do have a sense of responsibility, but it’s also an incredible challenge,” she explains.

billie piper by bella bradbury

Bella Bradbury

Billie Piper.

Where is Sam McAlister now?

Newsnight’s Prince Andrew interview was incredibly successful. The episode was nominated for a BAFTA award, and won Scoop of the Year and Interview of the Year at the Royal Television Society Awards.

McAlister left her job at Newsnight in 2021 to write the book on which Netflix’s Scoop is based. Scoops was published by OneWorld Publications and distributed by Simon & Schuster in 2022. Understandably, leaving her position at the BBC was a huge risk, but McAlister was ready to tell her story. “I was the only person that could tell the whole tale from beginning to end, of how it started with a mundane email, and how it ended,” she explains.

Since leaving the BBC, McAlister has become a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics. She served as an executive producer on Scoop, and she’s incredibly proud of getting the chance to show so many working women in lead roles onscreen. “When do you see women in their forties and fifties just doing their job?” she asks. “It’s so rare.”

Piper completely agrees with McAlister, asking, “Where are all the stories about women my age? I really wish there were more, but I’m really glad Scoop exists.”

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