We sat down with the Catastrophe creator and star to talk abortion rights, making TV for women and her new Hollywood movie.
Generally speaking, famous people fall into two camps. There are the Beyoncés, Kate Mosses and Angelina Jolies of the world, who are such capital-C Celebrities that they may as well be from another fabulous and rarefied planet. Then there are those who seem like they could, in a parallel universe, be your next-door-neighbour, favourite co-worker or best mate: the ones you can still imagine getting the Tube without causing a stir, or ordering a round in the pub.
More than 11 years after the launch of her cult south London-set sitcom Pulling, Sharon Horgan still falls very much into the latter category, even though she’s now a bona fide name in Hollywood. Case in point: when we meet at London’s Ham Yard Hotel, she tells me that she still doesn’t feel comfortable on red carpets and at big glitzy events.
“At the big awards dos, it’s just like, massive,” she says. “Loads of people in front of you, loads of people behind you, it’s just a weird, intimidating sort of set-up.” This would ring hollow from most people who have been nominated for an Emmy, several Baftas and won countless other awards, but it resonates coming from Horgan. She’s not a famous person pretending to be normal; she’s a normal (albeit very talented) person who has ended up famous.
She’s currently promoting Game Night, the new film by Horrible Bosses writers John Francis-Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, in which she has a supporting role. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a typical Horgan vehicle: it stars Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman as Annie and Max, an obsessively competitive suburban couple whose weekly game night goes terribly awry. The poster and trailers make it look like a brash, silly, vaguely domestic action comedy in the mould of the rowdy blockbuster comedies that have proliferated in the last 15 years or so – and in many ways, it is. But it’s also surprisingly smart, screwball-dark and genuinely, truly hilarious, with just as many funny women on board as men. In other words, it makes perfect sense that Horgan is involved.
Apparently, I’m not the first person to have enjoyed the film more than they were expecting. “I’ve had a bunch of people say that,” says Horgan. “But I think that’s a good thing – it’s almost better that people go into the cinema going ‘Hmm, impress me’, rather than having high expectations and being a little bit disappointed.”
She plays Sarah, the co-worker of Annie and Max’s friend Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who he invites to game night in the hope that she can help him win. Ryan is a wannabe alpha male who usually treats women as arm candy, but the tables are turned when Sarah is introduced, making him the dopey airhead to her sarcastic straight woman. “She’s British!” says Ryan, introducing Sarah to his friends. “Well, Irish,” she corrects him. When he shrugs that it’s the “same thing”, she raises her eyebrows incredulously and deadpans: “It’s really not.”
It’s Horgan’s first role in a film of this size, and she says she took it partly because of the sharp script, partly because of fortuitous timing. Filming took place in Atlanta last spring, when she had some time off in between juggling her various TV projects and realised that she “really missed acting”. Based on the number of plates she seems to keep spinning in the air at any given time, you get the sense that she doesn’t relish an unfilled schedule. The fourth series of Catastrophe, the show that catapulted her into mainstream consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic, will air in the UK later this year, while the second series of her Sarah Jessica Parker-starring sitcom Divorce is about to wrap up on HBO. She also co-wrote Motherland, a well-received sitcom about modern motherhood that ran on BBC Two last autumn, and is developing US versions of her Pulling and her 2012 sitcom Dead Boss.
All of those shows are produced or co-produced by Merman, the company Horgan founded in 2014 with her friend Clelia Mountford. Merman recently signed a deal with Amazon Studios, giving it a first look at all forthcoming Merman productions. It would be a huge coup for any company, but it’s not the thing that Horgan is proudest of accomplishing with Merman. Rather, she’s glad that she’s able to boost the visibility of other women in TV and film.
“I mean, the Amazon thing was great, and it puts us in a position where we get to bring our ideas over there [to the US],” she says. “But I feel like our biggest achievement so far has been that when we set up, we wanted to work with more female talent and crew, and produce more female stories.
“Some of the work we’ve created is small-scale, like we curated these shorts for Sky which were all directed by women,” she continues. “Or Motherland has a female director at its helm and a very female cast and writing staff.” Merman has a raft of new projects in development, all of which “feel like very well-populated, female-staffed shows,” she adds. “That’s the thing I’m proudest of.”
In January, Horgan posted a photo on Instagram from the Time’s Up Women’s March rally in London, showing one of her two daughters holding a “The Future Is Female” sign in the air. Feminism is obviously something that’s discussed in the Horgan household, and I wonder what subjects come up around the dinner table.
“I mean, there’s something huge happening in the world at the moment, isn’t there?” she says. “I think especially for the younger generation, they really feel like they’re on the cusp of something, and they have a voice. [My daughter is] a teenager – she kind of does what she wants anyway – so for me it’s just about encouraging her to know that she can make a change, and that change is easier when you’re surrounded by other people who want the same thing.”
The feminist education goes both ways, she adds: it was her daughter who told her about the Pink Protest in December, where women marched through London against period poverty. “It’s very interesting having a teenager; it’s a bit of a learning [process] for me too. I guess my input is that you have to feel it at your core. It’s not just about showing up with your poster and getting a snap on Instagram, it’s about what you do next.”
One of the things Horgan will be doing next is going back to Ireland for the abortion referendum, which is due to take place at the end of May. The country will be voting either for or against the Irish constitution’s eighth amendment, under which a foetus has the same right to life as its mother – effectively blocking abortion in all but the most extreme circumstances. Horgan grew up in County Meath; is she hopeful that the country will vote to give women control over their own bodies?
She looks strained. “God knows, god knows. It’s so much more of a difficult one than the marriage referendum [in 2015]. That was a wonderful thing and I was so proud of the country, but [Ireland’s attitudes to abortion are] so ingrained. It’s such an emotional, difficult subject.”
Despite her uncertainly about how the referendum will play out, she ultimately settles on optimism. “Just the thought of it finally shifting is exciting, so I can only hope. I feel positive about it. But everyone will have to make a mad push for it, so we’ll just do what we can.”
Game Night is out in UK cinemas now.
Images: Rex Features