Horgan goes Hollywood: Stylist talks to Sharon Horgan as she hits the big league

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The Stylist web team

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.

No happily ever after for Sarah Jessica Parker in new series Divorce

No happily ever after for Sarah Jessica Parker in new series Divorce

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.

Sharon and Rob Delaney co-wrote and co-starred in Catastrophe

Sharon and Rob Delaney co-wrote and co-starred in Catastrophe

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.  

sharon horgan

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. 

The Heartbreak Kid

The Heartbreak Kid, 1972

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.