Laurence Fox on Billie Piper split: ‘I haven’t slept for 6 months, I’ve had panic attacks – it’s hit me hard”

Nursing a beer in a London bar, Laurence Fox smiles after finishing rehearsals for a new British film.

The actor – best known for his role as Detective Sergeant Hathaway in hit ITV series Lewis – is hoping this new movie venture will help to heal the darkest six months of his life.

The tall actor admits to having suffered hugely since his actress wife, Billie Piper, called time on their eight-year-marriage.

Charming and witty, Laurence exists on adrenalin, cigarettes and brutal ­exercise to get him through.

He barely sleeps, suffers anxiety attacks, and has been on a six-month therapy course.

Today the star has made the brave step of speaking out in an attempt to raise awareness of mental ill health.

The Sunday Mirror has long battled, through our Time to Change campaign, to end stigma.

Laurence is now a week into filming in deepest Devon, spending the longest time away from his two sons so far, Winston, seven, and four-year-old Eugene.

But the work with fellow actors Anna Calder-Marshall, Sinead Matthews, Greg Hicks, is already helping him enormously.

This Family, about a dysfunctional family gathered round their dying mother’s bed, means Laurence will take home the same minimum wage as every member of cast and crew, because he believes this is a way to revive good British film.

He said: “In this new piece my character has been the mender of his family’s problems all his life, having known his mother was having lovers, his childhood was destroyed by watching what his mother did. I have to do a lot of screaming, shouting, emoting and it will be good for me to get it all out, after everything I’ve been through this year.

“It’s like my own family, highly emotional, lots of shouting, getting over it, lots of love. But absolutely no sulking ever. If you want to talk about class, that for me is a big one, people with no class sulk.”

Remarkably honest, and unashamedly emotional, one of Britain’s most popular actors described his shock, sadness and trauma of divorce.

Chain-smoking, 38-year-old Laurence said: “The physical symptoms of trauma and suffering are profound panic attacks for an extended period of time, and I’ve never had a panic attack in my life before last year.

“It’s like being plugged into an electric socket where you go mental. I’ve learnt to put on my running shoes and sprint as fast as I can until I can’t move anymore, then there’s something else distracting me and the endorphins kick in and you start to feel better. Thankfully they’re getting less all the time.

“I haven’t slept for six months, even with sleeping pills. I go to bed the same time, same bed as the kids and just lie awake, sleeping two or three hours. My mind’s whirring round.

“I’m seeing an amazing therapist, I love her. You’ve got to seek help, from your family, a therapist, a fitness trainer, whatever it is.

“Family and friends might be the best people for this stuff but they’ve got their own lives. My brother, Robin, has saved me in this whole situation. He saw it all, what I didn’t see, knew what was coming and tried to tell me about it.

“I shouted and got angry with him. But I am my brother’s keeper and will never be able to thank him for how wonderful he’s been to me. He sent me a personal trainer, Darren, three times a week, as a divorce present, and the other two days I train myself.

“I kept going to my marriage guidance counsellor even when we stopped, and she said, ‘You know all the money you’ve got saved for a rainy day? Well its f***ing pouring, so use it’.

“So I live that way at the moment, spending whatever I need to get me through.

“I think mental health is much undiscussed in this country, men especially are scared of it, but it’s good to talk about feelings. There’s
only so much room in the cupboard to store them up.”

Brought up by parents who have remained married for 43 years, actor James Fox and Mary Elizabeth Piper, Laurence is a believer in keeping ­promises for richer or poorer, so divorce has left him completely derailed.

He says, chokingly: “You make a promise and should stand by that. If you just can’t work it out, then go about it with love and thought, not by foisting it on someone.

“We should cherish the things that really matter and the big promises we make, and try to talk through our problems. This has knocked me very hard, it would anyone who really cares about marriage and its beliefs. I’m working with Anna Calder-Marshall, she’s been married for a very long time, and the love in her eyes when she looks at her husband is huge, and that’s what I value.

“But other people have a phase in their life where they’re married to this person, that person, and that’s ok, I’m not knocking it. I’m just boringly traditional.

“Let’s get married and stay married forever. That’s what I grew up watching, so this has derailed me, but I am starting to feel back on track even this week acting with people, because on a TV show it’s more broken up. This is much more human-centric.

“I don’t feel like a failure, I’ve got two amazing children. But it’s definitely tempered my belief in fireworks between two people, the big spark.

“I wish divorce was like Brexit , I will trigger article 50 after six months, will you just calm the f*** down a bit.”

And Laurence admits Billie’s ­continuing friendship with her ex Chris Evans was hard for him.

He measures his words when talking about the volatile ginger-haired presenter, but admits: “I don’t think I was super tolerant of having him around.

“I was just more naive than I should have been. Chris Evans’ job is to observe people, interview them and be interested in them so that’s what he does for better or worse.”

With Lewis on hold, Laurence is ­starring in “an ensemble” and taking home the same pay as make-up artist and boom swinger.

“It’s not because I come from a ­privileged background that I am able to and believe in a project like this, that’s a typical British establishment bullsh*t comment. Look at everyone else in the cast who is also doing it. I fell in love with the script straight away and that is so rare, that I wrote to the director as soon as I’d finished reading it, saying please hire me!

“My family dynasty is ­fascinating to people, I get it, but when you’re in it, its not fascinating, just a normal family. To me class is the way you behave, that was always what class was, it was nothing to do with money.”

Laurence adds: “Kev and I argue about this the whole time, we spent every day on set arguing about class. I said I was working class and so is my dad. We aren’t rich and go to work. Kev just keep saying that was bullsh*t. I’m making less money in this film than if I stayed at home and did nothing. I wouldn’t have to drive here, use petrol, buy lunch, but the rich poor divide in acting fees is killing art, so this is of real value.

“I have a friend who worked on a film with a casting budget of 35 million dollars as one of the four leads, and he was paid £70,000, so the other three stars ate up the remaining 34 million dollars.”

After 10 years of playing DS Hathaway in one of ITV’s best-loved and most enduring dramas, Lewis, sometimes watched by 15 million, will Fox return in the role? There’s definitely something afoot.

He admits : “I love Lewis and in a different model it could work again but Kev’s got to want to do it. We had lunch the other day and I said, ‘Should we do it again?’, and he just muttered. So I said, ‘What if you just turn up and do a couple of days on it and I visit you on your golf course and ask for advice?’. He said, ‘Maybe’.

“I’m sure something will happen but Kev’s got stuff on his plate right now, and he’s worked really hard hasn’t he, so he deserves a break.

“I love him and don’t miss him because I see him loads. Do I miss Lewis? I miss the people I work with but do I miss getting up at 5 in the morning, going in and interviewing people in a police station, maybe not that much.

“It’s so encouraging that so many viewers love Lewis and I’m very protective of that audience because they’re a bunch of people who want to be stimulated in a laconic, calm and thoughtful way, rather than stimulated for its own sake.

“Kev and I were a good combination because we’re great friends. He’s been a real support to me through my divorce, and gave me very good advice.

“I did Lewis for over a quarter of my life and consistently earned good money and wasn’t a lavish spender apart from motorbikes. We lived in the country and our mortgage was less than £1,000 a month. Now its a whole different ball game. But I could easily not have money and be ok.

“Do I look like I’d ever do Hollywood? I’ve got two children to look after.

“Even being minimally famous myself I can tell you it’s boring. Nothing good comes from it, you just keep getting dodgy looks across the bar.”