Sharon Horgan’s unflinching take on the realities of romance today has made her hot property in Hollywood. Stylist’s Helen Bownass meets her as she joins the big league...
Photography: Tom Van Schelven
It’s not often in London you accidentally see someone you know twice in one day. OK, I don’t strictly know Rob Delaney, but I feel like I do (and that is key). And the fact my seeing him bookends my meeting with his writing partner Sharon Horgan – while I’m on the way to meet her at the St Pancras Hotel in King’s Cross, and then again a couple of hours later when I’m on the way home from our chat – feels like it says something meaningful. Or it would if I was the star of a Hollywood rom-com.
While I’m not the star of anything even vaguely Hollywood or rom-com-y, Sharon Horgan is. Catastrophe, the wonderfully sharp sitcom she co-wrote with Delaney, has become the surprise toast of the town on both sides of the Atlantic, after being bought by Amazon in the US. It has led to appearances on The Ellen Show (“Rob had a heads up that Ellen [DeGeneres] and Portia [de Rossi] had been watching it because he knows one of the writers,” she tells me) and Conan, an Emmy nomination and, on home-soil, a 2016 Bafta TV Award for best writer(s).
And The Hollywood Dream is set to burst into full technicolour thanks to Horgan’s newest project, Divorce, for legendary TV network HBO. Written for a certain Sarah Jessica Parker – her first lead TV role since Sex And The City – the comedy series explores the impact of divorce in all its heart-wrenching, visceral mess. It’s smart and funny, a counterpoint to Catastrophe; instead of the synthesis of a couple, it examines its destruction.
The role for Parker – Horgan reveals everyone calls her “Sarah Jessica or SJ” – is also the antithesis to Carrie Bradshaw. And not just because the show is set in Westchester County, New York, a million miles (figuratively not literally) from Manhattan. Parker’s character Frances is not cute or charming. She is real, fallible, at times narcissistic and a love-cheat, but no less appealing for it. Horgan wrote the pilot solo, and then the rest of the 10-part series with a group of writers, and the result is rife with brilliantly astute one-liners – “How do you go from years of a loving marriage to wanting to blow someone’s head off?” Frances muses.
The series was filmed in upstate New York and Horgan was ever-present. “I was there for every second,” she admits. “My family live in London and I was going back and forth and my family came back and forth.” That family is husband Jeremy Rainbird, an entrepreneur, and two daughters Sadhbh, 12, and Amer, seven, who, we are guessing, are the proud owners of a mountain of airmiles.
Indeed, on the day of Stylist’s photoshoot Horgan is not long off another transatlantic flight and she’s desperately fighting the jetlag creeping through her. Still: her name may be in lights but she remains distinctly un-Hollywood – turning up to the photo studio on foot with just her backpack for company, swearing liberally throughout our encounters, admitting her personality is messy and harbouring a fear of anything involving a red carpet. The only thing she requests during the shoot is a banana. “I’ve convinced myself that they alleviate the weird anxiety/adrenaline rush of nerves I get when I’m about to perform. It’s psychosomatic now – so much so that if there aren’t any bananas I get panicky.”
“I’m genuinely in a constant state of worry about what’s coming next. There’s never a moment when i’m not.“
She is a little quieter than I expect (I get the sense she doesn’t like having her photo taken), though when we sit down to chat she is easygoing and laughs generously at my jokes but she’s also watchful and considered, playing with her hair frequently.
Once upon a time it seemed photoshoots and award ceremonies weren’t ever something that would concern Horgan. She was born in Hackney, before the family – including her two brothers (Horgan is one of five siblings) who she anoints alongside Delaney, “the funniest people I know, their humour is taking the piss out of me,” – moved back to her mother’s native Ireland where they ran a turkey farm. “I’ve never killed a turkey, I’ve plucked a lot though,” she laughs.
After dropping out of university, Horgan returned to London aged 19 to become an actor but struggled to find work. Things finally changed when she ran into writer Dennis Kelly, with whom she ended up writing the seminal comedy Pulling (in which she also starred), first shown on the BBC in 2006 about a trio of women behaving badly.
Now, she is nothing short of prolific. This year alone there have been two pilots – The Circuit for Channel 4 and Motherland about middle-class motherhood for the BBC, both produced by Merman, the production company she has co-founded – while Catastrophe (first broadcast on Channel 4 in July 2015) has just been commissioned for another two series. Its success is largely due to its unflinching depiction of the realities of love today; when they started writing it Delaney and Horgan vowed to make nothing up, using instead their own experiences as inspiration. It has worked.
We conduct the interview over a glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon (I tell her to order for us both) and there is plenty to celebrate. “Two weeks ago we had no episode six and it was f**king terrifying,” she laughs. “But we just finished it today!” In the rom-com version, this is where Hollywood wraps Horgan in a sweet embrace, but Stylist suspects she won’t bend to its wishes anytime soon.
Catastrophe has been so well received in the States, have you been taken aback by suddenly being a Hollywood success story?
That’s what you always hope, with everything, but the fact is, there’s 700 shows being made every year, it’s like, ‘How the f**k did your one get noticed?’ So the fact that it managed to break through is the miracle – Rob and I were emailing each other like, ‘What the f**k is happening?’ The fact that people liked it is less of a miracle. We conduct the interview over a glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon (I tell her to order for us both) and there is plenty to celebrate. “Two weeks ago we had no episode six and it was f**king terrifying,” she laughs. “But we just finished it today!” In the rom-com version, this is where Hollywood wraps Horgan in a sweet embrace, but Stylist suspects she won’t bend to its wishes anytime soon.
How are you finding everything that goes with it: the chat shows, the red carpets...
I hate it because it makes me nervous. I get heart palpitations. You need a bunch of outfits and that means you have to go shopping or you have to get your hair done – all of that sh*t. I feel like cattle and there’s always someone more interesting around. Anything that isn’t just writing in a little room kind of frightens me. But then once you’re doing it, it’s hard not to feel giddy because it’s nuts.
Have you ever caught yourself doing anything a bit 'Hollywood-y' and had to give yourself a talking to?
No. My embarrassment threshold is too low. I can’t do anything Hollywood. Maybe it’s because I’m Irish. Or I just imagine my brothers laughing at me. But it’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to do that looking over my shoulder at a row of photographers thing. I’d just feel too silly.
Is it tough though, to not feel a little smug when you hear that someone like Ellen Degeneres likes your show?
It’s so hard to not feel smug… I’m genuinely in a constant state of worry about what’s coming next or if the writing feels like it’s in a good place. There’s never a moment when I’m not, it’s kind of tragic in a way. But I don’t think you should think about that sh*t too much because then you kind of rest on your laurels and it’s good to be insecure. How would feeling successful do any good to my writing? Especially with the kind of things we write, it’s much better to feel constantly on edge.
Do you think that's because you’ve had experience of your career not going how you wanted?
Yeah I think all of that was helpful, it’s all fed into my extremely messy personality.
Why did you keep persevering?
Oh, I absolutely gave up. I remember going back to Ireland one year, bumping into a friend and her telling me that she’d read that if you hadn’t made it in this business by 26 you were f**ked. By that point I was 28 or so and I’d made nothing of significance so I decided I was going to work in production or something. So I went back to college [to study English] and parked it in my head, and then it sort of happened by accident.
That’s interesting you just stopped rather than ploughing on regardless…
Yes but I have this weird sort of pride and I found it embarrassing going back to Ireland and being someone who wants something but can’t get it. My family are really good at what they do [laughs] and they were all doing it extraordinarily well and I found that I couldn’t cope with that feeling so I thought, ‘I’ll just get a proper job’.
And now you’re writing for the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, how did that happen?
I’d been in development with HBO years ago and had written a bunch of scripts but nothing really made it to production and then Casey Bloys [HBO’s programming chief] contacted me and said, “I have this idea, would you like to meet Sarah Jessica Parker, she’s looking for something but she hasn’t found the right writer.” They flew me over to New York, I had lunch with her and we chatted. She had read the scripts I’d written yonks ago for HBO but she hadn’t seen Pulling. She just liked my vibe and the tone of my scripts. I think she wanted a female character who’s not afraid to be a mess, not afraid to make bad choices and f**k things up. She wanted to get it right so she was very involved in the very beginning. I went off and had a think and created this treatment for the Divorce idea, they liked it and it all moved really quickly from then. At that point Catastrophe had been picked up as well so it was this crazy time of ‘S**t, am I going to be able to do both?’ I just killed myself for a year.
Who do you think was more nervous about it being a success?
I think we were both nervous but from the very beginning Sarah Jessica was reading every little thing I wrote from the treatment stage, she was like, ‘This doesn’t feel like…’ She’s as game for the comedy as she is for the really dramatic moments and that was important. She wanted to make sure she was doing something that felt like it had some kind of emotional clout or some kind of cultural significance; she didn’t want to do something that was frivolous.
Were you always a Sex And The City fan?
Of course. But I had to knock the show out of my head. If I watched her on telly or in a movie as soon as I started Divorce it would f**k me up because it would make me realise how big the whole thing was. What I had to do was keep it small in my head and therefore I would never be worrying about it or thinking about the characters and their similarities.
Which is your favourite Carrie Bradshaw moment?
My favourite scene is the one with her and Aidan when she does the “You have to forgive me, Aidan. You have to forgive me. You have to forgive me” [after Carrie cheats on him]. I still think about that. It felt like something you hadn’t seen before.
Did you and Sarah Jessica spend much time together off set?
Me and her went out, just the two of us, for dinner. It’s ridiculous but we ended up talking about how f**king hard it is to do what we do and run a family as well most of our time. And then about an hour into the dinner we looked at each other and said, “Can you imagine two men sitting here, and talking about all the s**t that they’ve gone through to make sure it’s as smooth a ride as possible for their families?” But that was good because that’s when you see the light in someone’s eyes and you know you have common ground. That’s important when you’re in the middle of that craziness, and you’re filming for insane hours.
The dating landscape today though isn’t necessarily something that makes people feel lucky…
The natural thing you want to say is, “F**k it, it’ll happen,” but then at the same time, it having to happen is upsetting. A lot of my female friends, the ones who want to have children, they’re thinking about ways to make that happen. I like that being the focus.
The New Yorker called you a “brutal romantic” – is that accurate?
I think it’s an accurate description of the stuff I write, I’m not sure it’s an accurate description of me, I don’t think I am a romantic. I think there’s something about listening to my base thoughts that has helped my writing because it’s not nice having those thoughts but then sometimes you put it down on paper and you go, ‘Oh, that’s funny’.
How do you write?
Rob and I have got a little office round the corner with Post-it notes everywhere. Having it all up on the wall really helps; you can see what’s going on.
Journalist Liz Jones once said her most intimate relationship is with her computer and she would write things in her column she would never tell her sister. Can you relate to that?
Well without referencing Liz Jones [laughs] there’s loads of stuff I don’t tell people that I might put into a character, but it doesn’t mean that I’m coming out and saying that that’s my experience.
If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you still work?
I couldn’t exist if I didn’t. I would crumble to the floor and break down. Apart from the fact I love what I do, a lot of my writing helps me figure stuff out and the s**tty parts of my personality make more sense when I put them into a character. I would never stop writing, I might take a few less voiceovers, I might relax about school fees and mortgages but it wouldn’t stop me wanting to make stuff.
Would you like to write a film next?
I’ve written a film – it needs a big re-write though!
You’ve always written from what you know, was it intimidating writing Divorce, which isn’t about something you’ve been through?
There’s a great quote: “If you’ve ever been married you know how to write about divorce”. It was using all of those long-term marriage feelings and taking it to the nth degree. I have a very close friend who’d been through a recent divorce and I took her out and said, “Just give me the forensic detail. Tell me what happened when you first told him that you wanted a divorce and tell me what his reaction was and tell me what happened the next morning, and tell me what day two was like.” Because otherwise I would’ve just done some sort of weird approximation and it wouldn’t have felt true.
What were your main findings about the experience of divorce?
Well, it’s usually when one person still loves the other. I mean it’s always uneven, love; it’s unbalanced and it’s obviously even worse when it comes to someone wanting to part from someone who isn’t willing to. It’s often feeling hurt that you’ve never felt [before] and you want somebody else to feel that pain and also not wanting to let go, because when you let go you’ve got to start living your life again and it consumes people.
That’s interesting that you say that love is unbalanced. Do you think that’s true for all relationships?
Yeah, I guess. I guess there’s the odd couple out there who have a kind of ignorant bliss or something – not ignorant bliss, that’s not right, but I’d be suspicious of those people. There’s also a quote from Gwyneth Paltrow about her parents’ marriage and how the reason they stayed together for so long is because they never wanted to get a divorce at the same time.
Do you think we’ve moved on enough from the idea that without a relationship women are somehow incomplete?
I think that there’s an idea in 2016 that if a woman doesn’t have it all then she’s lacking in some way, and I think that ‘having it all’ is the kid, the relationship and the career, and that seems horribly skewed. I get genuinely excited when I meet women – or men – who don’t want to have children. It’s refreshing and unusual and means they’re not swayed by what society has told them, they’re just listening to their own basic instincts. I love meeting people who are fulfilled by other things. I think, ‘lucky old you’ when I meet someone single.
What’s your favourite rom-com?
My favourite movie in the whole world is The Heartbreak Kid [the 1972 version], which is more of a romantic tragedy. It would be my goal to make something halfway near as good as that.
You’ve covered pulling, marriage and divorce, do you think you’ll keep on exploring relationships in your work?
There’s no big thematic plan, even though it is weird how those things have sort of lined up. I think I will still continue to write about people and relationships because that’s what makes the world go round. I’m not super politically astute and don’t have a big sci-fi idea in my head so what I’m drawn towards is stuff I feel I’ve got something to say about. But at the same time you want to push yourself, you don’t want to repeat yourself.
And with such Hollywood success, would you ever leave London and move there?
I don’t want to leave London, I love it. It kind of depresses me when people decide to move away. I get it, you want your kids to have somewhere to roam free or to recreate whatever your sort of childhood ideal was, but my kids are grand. I love LA because lifestyle wise, it’s near the beach and mountains and it is great for kids but then it’s a city built on an industry that, at the end of the day, is kind of facile.
Divorce starts on Tuesday 11 October at 10.10pm on Sky Atlantic.