Sharon Horgan: Queen of difficult women

Sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued and very funny, Sharon Horgan is about to seduce America with her tragicomic take on a divorce from hell, starring Sarah Jessica Parker

One evening in 2014, Sharon Horgan met Sarah Jessica Parker for dinner. After making her name in a show about sex and thankless dating, Parker wanted to make a programme about grown-up relationships – she was a fan of Horgan’s Pulling, and the two had started tentative talks about working together on a show about a long and painful divorce. They ordered food. Horgan was overdressed and far from home.

Born in 1970, she grew up on a turkey farm in County Meath. At 19 she moved to London, where she lives today with her property-developer husband and two daughters (Sadhbh is 12 and Amer seven) on the edge of an east-London common that, on warm days, smells sweetly of marijuana.

In the restaurant, Horgan and Parker talked about their children (Parker has two daughters and a son) and how it felt to be away from them. They talked about the stress of fitting filming in around school schedules, and the questions people ask, and the expectations strangers have of the guilt a working mother is meant to feel and then the guilt inspired by those expectations.

“Hours later we looked up and realised,” Horgan says, “that we’d spent the whole meal talking about the… the qualifying we had to do before we could even get to the work, things that a man would never even consider. A man, at a meeting about a TV show, would surely have just been looking straight ahead, into the future.”

Pulling power: Horgan as Donna with Cavan Clerkin as Karl in her breakthrough BBC comedy.
Pulling power: Horgan as Donna with Cavan Clerkin as Karl in her breakthrough BBC comedy. Photograph: BBC/Silver River

They made a decision. “Next time a woman tells you they have a big job, we’d just say: ‘Good on you!’ Rather than: ‘I don’t know how you do it.’” They made two decisions. The second was to produce a TV show.

For British fans, there is sure to be a quiet feeling of reflected pride at Sharon Horgan’s slow, steady rise to become one of the most in-demand scriptwriters in the world. Fans who have followed Horgan’s work from the first minutes of Pulling, where we meet Donna (Horgan’s character) in bed as she gives her fiancé Karl a sluggish handjob before he politely tells her that he finished some time ago. He plucks a leaf from a nearby pot-plant, wipes himself off, and drops it behind the bed. Fans who are interested to see how her comedy – her brittle women, her soft men, the particular brand of romantic tragedy she has created – will translate to HBO.

It’s a warm afternoon and she greets me on her doorstep having just cycled home from a day writing the third series of Catastrophe with Rob Delaney. The two met on Twitter, and their sitcom, loosely based on Horgan’s own experience of getting pregnant early into a relationship, (its title was taken from a line in Zorba the Greek: “I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe”) has won an embarrassment of awards.

“One thing about her that I’ve had to learn to live with is that she eats faster than a piranha,” Delaney tells me later. “She just tosses the food in her face and is, like, ‘Back to work!’ And I’ve taken two bites of my sandwich. But honestly that’s part of what’s great about working with her. Yes, she’s funny, but so are a lot of people; it’s her work ethic that is so great. Whatever bad thing happened in her childhood to make her afraid to sit back and relax has been a huge benefit to me personally.”

Couples therapy: with Rob Delaney in Catastrophe.
Couples therapy: with Rob Delaney in Catastrophe. Photograph: Paul Thompson/Channel 4

She falls into an armchair in her dark-walled living room, and crosses all her limbs. Horgan doesn’t love interviews. She’s better at writing than talking, she says. But the more success she has, the more she has to talk.

Does she feel like she’s made it?

She holds her head. “Did you read that interview recently with [Sightseers co-writer] Alice Lowe, whose new film has just premiered at Venice? She was talking about how creatively fertile she feels and how she knows her best work is ahead of her. And reading that I felt so jealous.” Jealous? “I’d love to have that feeling! I’m more like: ‘Shit, what if I never make anything decent ever again?’ I definitely felt that way after Pulling – like that was the best thing I’d ever make. It took a while to shift that.”

Pulling, the show she created with co-writer Dennis Kelly, aired in 2006. “Writing with Sharon requires proper honesty,” Kelly tells me. “It’s like therapy. But also a real laugh. She’s why I’m still writing, really. [He’s currently working on Brad Pitt’s movie series, the sequel to World War Z] She runs at something, just to see what happens. Which isn’t to say she’s super-confident. In fact, I think one of the reasons she likes to collaborate is that she’s slightly insecure that she’s not good enough. Which, of course, is bizarre.”

Working with Delaney, Horgan says, softens her sharp edges, whereas Kelly helps access her “brutality”. “There was a period after Pulling when work slowed down for Sharon,” Kelly says. Then when Catastrophe became an overnight hit (originally turned down by the BBC, Channel 4 renewed it for a second series before the first had finished, recommissioning a further two in July), Horgan was suddenly “hot”. “But she genuinely doesn’t put more stock into this big HBO work than the smaller stuff she makes,” Kelly adds.

The ex files: Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church as separating couple Frances and Robert in Divorce.
The ex files: Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church as separating couple Frances and Robert in Divorce. Photograph: HBO

The two reunited recently for a Channel 4 one-off called The Circuit, a dark comedy about a dinner party. It aired shortly before Motherland, a pilot Horgan wrote with Graham Linehan about the bleak reality of being a parent. On the school run that week, Horgan says, she worried the other mums might “think I’d been trolling them”. All this as they wrapped on Divorce. She’s busy.

Kelly first realised Horgan was becoming a big deal when he was on the phone to her as she walked down the street, and he heard a stranger thank her for her work. It happens a lot. “One of the biggest pleasures is when women contact me about the character Sharon in Catastrophe,” Horgan says, “thanking me for putting her on television. Someone who was fucking up, making mistakes, and still getting by.”

All the women Horgan writes fuck up. She is a master of “difficult women” – from the self-obsessed Donna (when her kebab is stolen, she compares the violation to the murder of an old lady) to Sharon, and now Divorce’s Frances, who cheats on her husband with a literary professor.

“I have a responsibility, I think, to make complex female characters who aren’t necessarily always good people. Men have always been allowed to be flawed, and annoying, and childlike, but also allowed to make mistakes and find their way back. The great thing about writing with Sharon was that she was allowed to be all those things. A lot of me went into that character – and look, I managed to get to this point in my life…” She gestures around her living room, the sound of her kids laughing out the back, the pleasing smell of a recent wood fire, “without completely alienating everyone. It can be done!”

Horgan with her husband, property developer Jeremy Rainbird.
Plus one: Horgan with her husband, property developer Jeremy Rainbird. Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

Watching her characters age and grow from show to show is a little like Boyhood-ing Horgan’s own life, from the friendly desperation of house-shares, through to unplanned pregnancy, marriage, the boredom and anxieties of motherhood and the difficulty of staying in love. The characters have grown up because she has.

“I look back at Donna with some nostalgia. I watched Pulling again for the first time recently, and called Dennis saying: ‘God, we were really harsh to those characters.’ Would I treat a character that badly today? Wouldn’t I want to give some chink of light? The funny thing is, I’m way harder now.” She laughs. “Apart from that things make me cry because I’ve got kids, and that I’m aware of the desperateness of the world, I’m also hard as fuck because I’ve been through it – I’m tougher than I was back then, I don’t believe anything anyone says, I’m much more cynical.”

There’s a knock on the door. A delivery man has a package for a few houses down – will she hold on to it for them? Sure. He returns from his van with first one parcel, then another, and another. A street’s worth of unwieldy boxes piles up behind her front door, and she calmly smiles, and waves them in. “Well. An opportunity to meet the neighbours!” she says, brightly.

“Like any new show,” says Sarah Jessica Parker on email, “timing is everything. I was fortunate to meet Sharon, who had so much to say about marriage, relationships and being a woman that was completely in line with the story we had been wanting to tell for years.” And the process of working so closely with her, she says, “has been a rewarding collaboration. I couldn’t be more proud.” Divorce is great. It’s set in winter, in a suburb of New York where couples can barely look at each other, where the snow is almost definitely a metaphor. Parker plays Frances, a typically Horgan-ian, lovable narcissist who tells her husband (played by Thomas Haden Church), “I want to save my life while I still care about it.”

Divine comedy: Horgan wears knit by Bella Freud; leather skirt by Whistles, and suede shoes by Jimmy Choo.
Divine comedy: Horgan wears knit by Bella Freud; leather skirt by Whistles, and suede shoes by Jimmy Choo. Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Observer

“I was fascinated by the idea of divorce,” Horgan says. “I wanted to see how it works. What are the obstacles to splitting up, how do people’s feelings shift? There are surely moments when you worry you’re doing the wrong thing. And there’s rarely one real baddie, right?”

Before she started writing, Horgan sat down with a friend who’d been divorced and asked her what happened. Not the familiar, we just fell out of love’s, the sad shrugs, but the real details. “I went: ‘You have to tell me exactly what you said when the decision was made, and then what he replied.’ And then I asked what happened the next morning, and then the day after that.”

What did she learn? “Well, I learned that there’s always someone who loves harder. When we were writing, the challenge was to keep the brutality while still being able to laugh at the ridiculousness, the honesty, the horror.”

Richard Plepler, the chief executive of HBO, said he’s excited to show an authentic story. “It’s not a Hollywoodisation of divorce,” he said. He’s right – the balance of deadpan humour and icy bleakness is anything but Technicolor.

Despite the high production values and American accents, Divorce fits into the uncomfortable body of Horgan’s work; in one episode, when Frances and her husband are saying a tender goodbye, he asks her to leave so he can empty his bowels.

Horgan has plans for a hundred more projects, including a feature film with Delaney which, she hopes, will be “a short aggressive romantic tale”. There is a romance that runs through all her work, but one that is constantly questioned.

I ask if she consciously returns to similar ideas. “No. There’s not just one thing I want to say,” she replies. “Not to be a wanker, but I do have a different thesis for each story. For Catastrophe now, it’s the idea that when you stay in a long relationship you’re not whole any more, and accepting this is what allows you to move forward. You become them. With Divorce it’s about trying to find the person you were before you got married, and dealing with the realisation they no longer exist.”

She raises her eyebrows and chuckles. There is only one message, she says, that she returns to on purpose. “That it’s not a bad thing to be a strong woman. In the second series of Catastrophe Sharon says: ‘Not everyone has to like you… I have earned the right to have people dislike me.’”

Does she feel the same? She thinks for a second, and seems surprised to hear herself say: “Yes.” She shrugs. “Like me, none of my characters are scared to say: ‘Take it or leave it. This is who I am.’”

Divorce starts on 11 October at 10.10pm on Sky Atlantic

Contributor

Eva Wiseman

The GuardianTramp

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