Sharon
Horgan

Hands down the funniest writer-director-actor-producer-showrunner around – on a TV screen near you.

Text by Sophie Elmhirst
Portraits by Paul Wetherell
Styling by Raquel Franco
Issue nº 19, Spring & Summer 2019

Sharon Horgan, 48, is one of the most bankable women in television. It’s a position she has reached by simply writing, performing and producing what she knows. As a child growing up in rural Ireland, Sharon would dream up plays and act out frenzied monologues about her feelings.

A kind of Nora Ephron for the 2010s, she now chronicles modern metropolitan womanhood in her popular series – from Pulling and Divorce to Catastrophe – with ribald, close-to-the-bone humour. And with shows galore across prestige platforms HBO, BBC, Channel 4 and Amazon, Sharon’s mammoth output shows no signs of abating in 2019, as the voracious streaming market calls on her endless creativity. Watch this one move!

Too early on a recent Tuesday morning, in the coffee queue at her local park cafe in east London, Sharon Horgan bumps into a mum she knows. It’s the usual chat: when the children are breaking up, where they’re going on holiday, how everyone’s doing. But when the usual chat is with Sharon Horgan, it comes with a twist of self-consciousness: suddenly it sounds like dialogue lifted from Motherland, her BBC Two show whose second series she is on her way to the office to write. It is a show about middle-class metropolitan parents just like her, talking about their children. Sharon often finds herself in these situations, life and art interlacing. When the pilot went out, she was so nervous about the reactions of the parents at her daughters’ schools that she was tempted to drop them off under cover: a large hat, comedy glasses. “I think they think I’m watching them,” Sharon says. “And I am.”

Today, striding across the park with her coffee, laptop in her rucksack, Sharon looks like any other jobbing freelancer. Another disguise. In reality, she’s in the midst of one of those mid-career explosions, writing, directing, acting in or co-producing as many as 30 different projects at once. Getting a handle on the Sharon Horgan slate is like trying to pin down an oil slick. There are the big things, the multi-season TV shows she’s famous for: Catastrophe, whose final episode (“for now,” Sharon says) aired on Channel 4 on 12 February; Motherland, which she co-writes with Holly Walsh and Helen Linehan; and the Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle Divorce on HBO, which Sharon conceived and wrote the first series of and which is now in its third season. But on top of those there are film roles (Game Night last year; Military Wives, alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, out later this year), directing gigs (her first feature film, The New World, shoots this year), and all the shows being developed by Merman, the production company she co-founded with the producer Clelia Mountford.

“She likes to juggle a lot of projects at once,” Mountford says. “It’s how her brain works. It refreshes her, and each one inspires the other. And she works very hard.” Fiona McDermott, the head of comedy at Channel 4, adds that Sharon “never tires of coming up with ideas and fixes. She’s always searching to nail it.”

Often, and including the night before we meet, she’s up until midnight, dealing with calls from America, where in January last year she signed an exclusive two-year deal with Amazon. The company has a reported $4.5 billion content budget. Merman also signed a first-refusal deal that gives Amazon the option on any of its new shows to which Sharon is attached, as well as the right to remake any of its other future shows. Right now, Sharon says she has probably somewhere between 20 and 30 ideas in circulation for Amazon, with three already in development. These include Guru, about a socially awkward, broke single woman who launches a self-help group and is written by Sharon, John Hamburg and Ian Helfer, and Dirty, a “funny and filthy” show, as Merman’s press release puts it, that’s written by Danny Brocklehurst. “It does seem sociopathic,” Sharon says of her workload, a little anxiously.

Sharon doesn’t look like an obvious sociopath, at least not today. She throws you off the scent with mash-ups of colour and texture – a thick yellow woolly jumper, wide-legged jeans, beaten leather jacket, a chunky woven necklace. Just like her Catastrophe character, also called Sharon, real-life Sharon has the ability to inject glamour into oversized knitwear. If we were still in the 1990s, her hair would be renowned: the Sharon, demanded in hairdressers. There’s loads of it, falling in waves around her face, and she’s always shifting it from one side to another, only for it to flop back again.

And then there’s the distinctive Irish accent, which can travel at speed from soft uncertainty to hard-edged filth, frequently punctured by an easy, loud laugh. She’s funny, often – not in that exhausting way that comedians can have, where a conversation can only ever end with a punchline and their triumph, but in the way that she’s funny in her shows: with a sort of downbeat, casual subversion, as in Catastrophe when a friend suggests that she and her husband, Rob (played by Rob Delaney), have therapy, and Sharon replies casually, “We don’t really want to hear our terrible problems out loud.” You’ll be talking about something, anything, totally normally, and then she will gently skewer it with an aside that seems mundane but gets straight to a bitter truth. As when I ask her what she’ll do when her children leave home and she has more time on her hands, and she says quietly, “I don’t know, I think I’ll just hit the bottle. Fuck.”

Here and in the opening spread, Sharon wears a wool suit by GIULIVA HERITAGE collection and a silk top by AKRIS. The gold necklace with medals is by ANISSA KERMICHE and the gold hoop earrings are by J. HARDYMENT. The necklace with charm and the ring are Sharon’s own.

On the way to Merman, a journey she usually does by tube unless there are scripts to be read or notes to be written, Sharon realises she’s forgotten her keys, so we stop off at her tall Victorian house on the edge of the park. She rings the bell, pre-emptively apologising for the early-morning state of whichever family member is about to open the door. It turns out to be Jeremy Rainbird, her husband, formerly in advertising and now a partner at Mermade – the commercial digital wing of Merman (producing branded content and short-form series for streaming services, while Merman makes the comedy and drama). He doesn’t look too bad.

The house is sexy as hell: thick mustard-yellow velvet curtains at the front door part to reveal a low-lit den of a sitting room where the family watches films round the fire in winter, a rose-gold mirrored wall, stairs down to a vast industrial kitchen with pans hanging from the ceiling, a brushed concrete floor and white breeze-block walls. It looks like the set of a high-budget, LA-based celebrity chef series on Netflix. There are art books on shelves, a friendly dog. Sharon yells upstairs to her younger daughter, Amer: “Give me a quick kiss before I run off again!” Amer bounds down, showing off her newly red hair. Sharon’s daughters are 10 and 15, Amer in her last year of primary school, Sadhbh (pronounced “Syve”) long-transformed. “Suddenly there’s a woman in your house,” Sharon says, as if still bewildered by the change. A couple of weeks ago Sadhbh had a house party, and Sharon, Jeremy and Amer reluctantly left them to it and went to see a film. They came back to the inevitable. “I just don’t know how that level of destruction can happen in three hours.” Sharon’s life, she says, essentially contains two things: her family and her work. She and Jeremy rent a house in the countryside in Kent, to which they escape at weekends. She works her arse off all week, then walks the dog with the kids. “There isn’t really a third realm,” she says, trying to imagine what it might be. “There probably should be. You’ve got to live in order to have things to write about. There’s my friends.” She thinks again. “I don’t have any hobbies.”

Some people watch Catastrophe and Motherland and Divorce as a kind of primer on the reality of marriage and parenthood: instead of all those advice columns and parenting manuals that tell you how it should be; this is how it is. You want to be present and loving and successful and happy, but actually half your brain is trying to figure out who can pick your children up from school and the other half is trying to figure out how not to murder your spouse. This is Sharon’s home turf. “I suppose I kind of write about the human condition generally through the eyes of female characters,” she says, back in the car, having blown a kiss to Amer waving from an upstairs window. “Over the years it’s become more domestic-based, or relationship-based. You know, I haven’t written a thriller. I write about a certain kind of person-place-time demographic-type thing.” She pauses. “It’s like, how do you keep that fresh? You don’t want to be saying the same old stuff. Or if you’re saying the same old stuff, you’ve got to say it in different ways.”

This is Sharon’s motivating thought, repeated often in our conversation: how to make work that feels new, how to stay at the edge of things. She has rich material to draw on, having grown up in her own special kind of domestic chaos. She was born in Hackney, east London, in 1970, the second of five (one brother, Shane, is the former Irish international rugby player). Her father ran “a proper East End pub” called the White Thorn (long gone), where she remembers messing about on the piano. There were a few too many local gangsters, she says, so the family moved back to her mother’s native Ireland, to Bellewstown in County Meath, when Sharon was eight. Her father, who is originally from New Zealand, ran another pub, the Green Kiwi (also gone), and then reinvented himself as a turkey farmer. “I don’t know how you make that jump into turkey farming,” Sharon says, perplexed. “But I guess he was trying to find something that would work for us as a family.”

And it did work, sort of. Looking back, Sharon recalls her “poor Mum”, feathers in her hair for weeks; the children all being taken out of school to help pluck; her dad so stressed in the run-up to Christmas that he’d start smoking again. “We all have post-traumatic stress from the turkey farm,” she says. But it seeded, perhaps, that frantic work ethic, and it made the family close. In 2012, Sharon made a short film called The Week Before Christmas. It’s a love letter to the turkey farm, but in the Sharon Horgan school of love letters, so it involves her teenage self developing a doomed crush on a turkey plucker who gets his teeth knocked out, though there’s plenty of real love in there too – the family all gathered in the back of a white van on Christmas Eve, selling off the last few scrawny birds at a market for a fiver each. Sharon hands me her phone to show me her sibling WhatsApp group, where they have recently shared pictures that remind them of the old days: the weighing scales in the turkey sheds, the blue twine they’d tie up the birds with, the particular sweets the pluckers would suck. “We talk about it a lot,” Sharon says. “It had its own kind of weird magic.”

That’s the part she cherished – the togetherness, the sense of a joint project, everyone pitching in – and it’s found its way into her life now. “She’s so collaborative,” Mountford says. “She loves to hear other’s people’s ideas and opinions.” Every show Sharon makes is a team effort; the scripts are co-written, the laptop literally shared, one between two. Ireland is still a big part of her, and she keeps telling its stories – this year she is producing and acting in This Way Up, written by the Irish comic Aisling Bea, who also stars. Last year, the pair made a video begging fellow Irishmen and -women to vote yes in the country’s abortion referendum, because they, as expatriates, couldn’t. They did it their way, dressed as handmaids (scarlet capes, white bonnets), sitting on a staircase in Sharon’s house. “And if a lad votes yes for a woman…” Bea says in the video. “That is so hot,” Sharon finishes.

“As much as I will miss ‘Catastrophe’ horribly, I’m really glad it’s gone.”

After Sharon left Ireland in her early 20s and moved to London, it took a long time before anything happened. Recently, she posted a photo of her younger self on Instagram – a headshot from 1991 taken by a “chap” who used to come into the Jobcentre in Kilburn where she worked for a couple of years (“Things were really going according to plan in terms of the big dream,” she wrote in the caption). She tried art school, did a degree in English and American studies at Brunel University in her late 20s, lived in Camden, worked in a head shop, had multiple piercings, unknowingly gathered material for her first hit show about three young single women. But there were long fallow years. She’d been a not-very-successful jobbing actress for years before the writer Dennis Kelly, at the time also struggling to forge a career, showed her a script he had done, and they started writing some sketches that they sent to a BBC producer. That led to Pulling in 2006.

Sharon has said that her creative life only really took off after she had children, as though the limitations they imposed on her time somehow spurred her into action. “I mean, you ask anyone who has kids and they say, ‘What the fuck was I doing with my time before these people came along?’” she says now. “There’s only so much drinking you can do. I mean, I love it, it’s my favourite pastime, but you cannot drink your way through an entire day unless it’s Christmas.”

Now if she’s filming she can be away for weeks at a time. It’s not easy. For the first series of Divorce she lived in New York for several months just as her eldest daughter was starting secondary school. “I found it to be incredibly destructive for my psyche,” she says. “It wasn’t good for her either, and it’s just stayed with me, that feeling.” The guilt? “Yeah, and just separation. It doesn’t matter how many FaceTimes you do or how often you come back or they come over, it’s still a huge chunk of time where things aren’t normal.” Divorce now continues into its third season without her; it’s a severance about which she is studiedly diplomatic. “It can happen and it does happen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It made sense for the show and for me.” But leave a gap in the Sharon Horgan Mega-Schedule – as Divorce did and Catastrophe has just done – and it quickly refills. “It’s why I’m not in pure mourning for Catastrophe,” she says. “Because to me it’s like this huge chunk of time and responsibility has been taken off my plate. And as much as I will miss it horribly, I’m really glad it’s gone.”

Catastrophe has been broadcast in 133 countries and has become a show for which people have the kind of deep-in-the-guts affection usually reserved for ageing pets. It’s oddly hard to imagine Sharon and Rob Delaney apart – co-writers, co-directors, co-stars. Fiona McDermott has described their writing relationship as “maybe one of the most beautiful bits of chemistry I’ve ever witnessed.” Sharon and Delaney met on Twitter, took years to get Catastrophe together, got turned down by the BBC (as Delaney recently revealed at a BFI event) and were finally commissioned by Channel 4. The first series ran in 2015. Along the way, Delaney suffered the loss of his two-year-old son, Henry. Carrie Fisher, who played his mother in the series, died in December 2016. “It hasn’t hit me yet that it’s the last series,” Sharon says. “There is an awful lot of emotion attached to it. Those characters – like, I love them, you know? Not just the me and Rob characters; I mean everyone in that show.”

But she and Rob: how does it end? There’s a letter to him that she’s written in her head but hasn’t put on paper, let alone in his hand. It’s nice to imagine what it says. Yet she’s not one to be blindsided by sentiment. “We spent so much time together working on it,” Sharon says. “When we downed tools we were like, ‘See ya!’”

The Merman offices occupy all four floors of a red brick house on a busy corner of Blackfriars Road in Southwark, south London, next to a railway bridge and abutting a vast concrete office block. It’s not the obvious place for a production company, but that’s what Sharon likes about it. Soho makes her crazy. When she and Mountford first came to see the space in 2014, she panicked. “I was walking around this empty tall building just going, ‘What the fuuuuck.’” Previously, they’d been squatting in the corridor of someone else’s office, and that felt about the right scale: just the two of them, no pressure. “As soon as it became this,” she says – gesturing
at the desks, the people, the clocks on the wall showing the time in New York and LA (where Merman also has offices) – “I shat my pants. I just couldn’t visualise it, and I was like, ‘What the hell are we doing?’” Merman employs 18 staff, and plenty more come and go depending on which shows are in production. “But then, you know, it’s just working with people who are really good at what they do and have done it before. I’m only a cog in the wheel.”

If she’s only a cog, she’s surely the big one in the middle without which the whole thing would slow to a halt. “She’s greedy,” Mountford says – greedy for ideas, for new projects, even for notes. “And she loves notes,” Mountford adds, in a way that suggests this is not normal. The pair want to make more drama, and the company is now sufficiently established to fund their own productions. As Sharon shows me round the building, up narrow staircases to an elegant, award-lined conference room, across the landing to a tiny room where she’s writing Motherland with Holly Walsh, and then up more flights to yet more offices, you can’t help but notice the endless framed publicity shots filling the walls. “It’s kind of embarrassing how many pictures of me there are around,” she says, as if seeing them for the first time. “It’s nothing to do with me.”

At the very top of the building, there’s a room where her and Clelia’s desks face each other. The centre of all power and decision-making, I assume – except Sharon’s never there: she’s either writing downstairs or pitching shows round town or on set. “But it’s fun when we do eventually get to sit opposite each other,” Sharon says, looking at her desk, immaculate from underuse.

On every level below the power attic there are pods of activity. In the writing room Sharon occupies with Holly Walsh, there’s a whiteboard covered in plot points and a hastily drawn picture of a stadium (they’re in the middle of a sports day episode for Motherland). Walsh is there, waiting to start work. “A lot of what we write comes from spinning off on a subject and then talking about it,” Walsh says. You can tell they have a blast, riffing off each other as they talk. “The only time it becomes unenjoyable is when it’s not that,” Sharon says. “When you’re trying to figure out fucking annoying problems, like how you move the script from there to there. Logic things.” Their great ambition is for the show never to tread old comedy ground. “When it starts to feel like a sitcom, that’s when we start panicking,” Sharon says. But then, Walsh adds, the old sitcom tricks can have their uses. “Sometimes it’s like: embrace it. And someone falls in a swimming pool.”

At the time of going to press, Sharon Horgan had between eight and 10 shows in the works. Who knows how many more are percolating? Here, she is wearing a camel wool belted jacket by SONIA RYKIEL with a blue-and-white pinstriped camisole and matching trousers by SUNSPEL. The white trainers are by VEJA.

As with Motherland, Sharon’s other shows aren’t all vehicles for herself – she likes to root out and back talent. “Someone pitches you a great idea and you’re like, ’Thank you so much, like thank you, I fucking love it! Yes, of course!’” Currently, she’s a driving force behind Aisling Bea’s show for Channel 4 and has a clutch of shows in the works with Merman, including Frayed, by the Australian comedian Sarah Kendall. “She genuinely loves the energy of other performers,” McDermott says. “It’s telling that so many fantastic young writers flock to her and her company with their ideas.” On Sharon’s part, there’s a joy, she says, in getting behind someone else’s vision, and not always having to crank it out herself.

When it comes to her own stuff, you’d assume her position was unassailable – multi-season hits behind her, the ear of every commissioner in town, the Amazon deal. It’s not just that there’s a surge of timely energy to commission work from female comics and writers; there’s now proof, as if it were needed, that women writers make award-scooping hits, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Killing Eve and Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum. And if you’re a writer like Sharon, who can conceive of and actually execute a near-constant stream of ideas, then you will be in frantic demand from content-ravenous channels and streaming services.

But despite it all, Sharon is still nagged by doubt. “I think maybe over the years I’ve become a bit more together, possibly, or can at least disguise my lack of confidence better.” Is that really what it feels like? Still? “It’s always a little bit, right?” she says, shrugging. “It’s one of those businesses where…” She pauses. “It’s not steady. It’s really, really tough to get stuff picked up and made. You still find yourself in situations where you pitch stuff and it doesn’t go anywhere. Things like that can knock you,” she continues, “and you worry that you’re not going to have another great idea. You’re always surrounded by people who are really talented or doing something new or breaking the mould, and you kind of think, Oh shit, maybe I’m not doing that any more.”

“You still find yourself in situations where you pitch stuff and it doesn’t go anywhere. Things like that can knock you.”

People tend to assume, after Catastrophe, Motherland and Divorce, that she’ll keep on tracking the domestic life – what happens when your children grow up, middle age, retirement. But she’s not sure. “I think that’s an area that’s been done, so I’m more interested in looking beyond that, I suppose.” The prospect of her own kids leaving home fills her with visible horror. “I hope I don’t just become an insular, introspective fuck-up,” she says. “I don’t know. I’ll probably have to go into therapy.” She’s done it before – seen someone when she was younger, a bit of couples therapy.

To avoid repetition, she wants to direct and adapt other people’s stories more. But there’s no neatly plotted arc. “It’s a weird career to have a plan for,” she says. “Because what exactly are you hoping for? Are you hoping for world domination, or are you hoping to be someone who everyone’s talking about? What is it you’re aiming for?” She shakes her head. “I can’t imagine that any of it would make me happy, because you’d get it and then what could happen? You’d lose it, or you’ve got to sustain that level of work to keep it. And then what does that give you?Fucking heartburn and stress rash.”

She thinks again. “I would say my ultimate goal is to do less, I guess.” It’s hard to believe this, somehow, given her reluctance to turn down a good idea, her apparent addiction to taking on new work and her confessed inability to know what to do with free time; while filming Game Night in Atlanta she wrote three episodes of Motherland with Walsh over Skype, working every hour she had off. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a weekend to myself,” she says. But she’s adamant. “All I want to do is hang out with my little one because it’s her last year in primary school.” She looks nostalgic, tender; it’s the same expression she had when Amer tapped on the window to wave goodbye earlier. “I’m trying to bat away as much as possible,” she says. “Because you’re only 10 once.”