One way effectively to describe Irish-English Bafta/Emmy-awarded writer, actor, director, and mother of two, Sharon Horgan, is “busy”. I meet her at the Radio Times photoshoot to talk about the third series of Catastrophe, the hit TV show co-written by and co-starring American comic, Rob Delaney. Then there’s Divorce, her US comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker. And a forthcoming BBC2 series of Motherland, which she’s co-writing, with a cast headed by Anna Maxwell Martin. As well as another pilot about horrific dinner parties called The Circuit. Oh, and plans for writing and directing other projects with Merman, her production company... Did I mention that Horgan was busy?
Settling down to talk in her dressing room, still clad in the pussy-bow blouse she wore for the shoot, her hair swishing impressively (“It’s only because I’ve just had it done”), Horgan unceremoniously plonks herself on a high make-up chair. While friendly, with a grin frequently flashing across her face, there’s a distinct frazzled urgency about her. It’s striking how much Horgan uses the word “responsibility”, and how driven and focused she is.
Catastrophe rejoins Horgan and Delaney’s couple where it left them at the end of the second series, with him unemployed and her trying to explain away taking a secret pregnancy test. President Trump looms in the background, as does Brexit. “It’s not laboured, but in this series they have financial troubles, and it would have felt weird not to mention the state of the world.”
Horgan enjoys writing collaborations generally (“It’s just more fun”), but with a fourth series of Catastrophe already commissioned, she feels that her partnership with Delaney is special. “I’ve never met anyone like Rob. Even unedited, the stuff that pours out of his mouth is extraordinary. It’s a glorious thing. What I have, he lacks, and what I lack, he has. It’s weird. We both police each other. If it gets too sweet, maudlin, earnest, or any of those things, we’re just on it.” Horgan thinks that a male-female team is great for writing “because there’s no idealising either sex. With the two of us, hopefully it becomes... kind of real.”
Horgan has a reputation for delivering “real” women. Pulling, her breakthrough series about three women sharing a London flat, which she co-wrote and starred in, was hilarious, but her character Donna also had a candid wit and unapologetic lifestyle that made her something of a feminist trailblazer. “I suppose it was just seeing female characters not being stereotypes, just people. We put them through the wringer but we didn’t judge how sexual they were, what careers they chose, how they lived their lives.”
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This series of Catastrophe was the last thing Carrie Fisher filmed, reprising her role as Delaney’s overbearing mother. Horgan’s face clouds. “She had a heart attack on the plane after she’d wrapped with us. It was so raw because we’d just seen her, and she was a wonderful person, just a great craic.” Horgan was just becoming aware of Fisher’s wider cultural impact. “I was super-aware of her in Star Wars as Leia – the ultimate young girl icon. But I wasn’t as aware of her wit and writing as I should have been, and it’s been wonderful to find all that out.” Is this series a tribute to Fisher? “Of course! The whole thing is a tribute to her. It was an honour to have had her in the show at all, but now it’s also a responsibility to do her proud.”
Stateside, Divorce helped to release Sarah Jessica Parker from being trapped by her own global success with Sex and the City. “It wasn’t something that we ever talked about – ‘How do we make this different from Sex and the City?’ We just knew that it was going to be. I felt a real responsibility to write her something that wouldn’t just move her away from a character she’d played for ten years, but also give her something she could really get her teeth into.”
Horgan isn’t divorced herself (she lives in London with her husband of 12 years, Jeremy Rainbird, and their two daughters) so she couldn’t write from experience. “Though if you’ve been long-term married, you can write about how it feels to want to be divorced,” she jokes. Having worked in America so much, she tries to be home more for her daughters but is wary of promoting working mum stereotypes in interviews, “Yeah, it’s tricky. You want to say the right thing to make sure that women give themselves and each other a break. But at the same time it feels like if you keep answering that question, it’s never going to go away.”
Horgan grew up on a turkey farm in County Meath, with two brothers and two sisters (one sibling, Shane, is a former international rugby player turned TV pundit). “They’ve all ended up doing non-turkey farming for their careers,” says Horgan dryly. “I think that’s why I’m so respectful of the opportunities I get. This kind of career shouldn’t necessarily happen to someone who was brought up on a turkey farm. It feels like an extraordinary stroke of luck.” Is that negating all the hard work she’s put in? “No, because you need luck and hard work. The luck wouldn’t have come without the hard work and the hard work needed the luck.”
Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker in Divorce
Could Horgan give up acting? She smiles: “It used to only be about me finding a way to get on screen. Less and less now.” However, she can’t imagine giving it up completely. “There’s just something great about stepping out of your body to pretend to be someone else.” I suppose she’s in the great position of not having to wait for interesting projects – she can just write them for herself? Horgan nods: “It’s nice to be able to write something I know I’ll like playing. But equally it’s very nice to write for Anna Maxwell Martin and Sarah Jessica Parker.”
She’s not sure that there’ll be a fifth series of Catastrophe. “Rob and I would like to do the characters some time in the future, in a Linklater Boyhood, ten-years-down-the-road kind of way [Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood revisited actors annually over the course of 12 years]”. She shrugs. “That’s a bit of a dream. But who knows if people would even be interested in ten years?”
There’s a good chance: people still thank her “for putting them on screen” in Pulling. “Without being immodest, that’s one of the things that makes me proud,” she says.
Does she feel truly entrenched in the artistic community now? “Not really. But I think it’s OK to feel like a bit of an outsider. Maybe not an outsider,” she corrects herself. “It’s a ridiculous thing to say when I’m lucky enough to get shows made.” She grins. “Then again, the outsider thing has kind of served me well so I think I should stick with that.”
Catastrophe is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm