Sharon Horgan: “I still give a shit – but way less of a shit than I used to”

The wickedly witty actor-writer led a new generation of funny women – but now she's focusing on life's important things, like getting mashed to the Libertines at Glastonbury

Whenever Sharon Horgan is approached by fans, she assumes they’re going to talk to her about Catastrophe, her hit parenting comedy with Rob Delaney. She rarely imagines they’ll discuss Motherland, the more-recent sitcom she co-wrote about the tumultuous politics of mums at the school gate. Yet last month, praise arrived from unexpected quarters, as she stood side-of-stage at a mammoth Etihad Stadium gig in Manchester.

“I went to see Liam Gallagher play and as he was coming onstage, he came over to me and said…” Horgan recounts to NME, imitating the Oasis frontman’s distinctive Northern snarl, “‘Motherland! Fucking genius!’ And I thought: ‘What the fuck?!’ That was the last thing I expected. First of all, I never expect people to know me from Motherland, because I’m behind the scenes writing and secondly, I never thought Liam Gallagher would fit into its demographic. I always thought it would be mums in Green Park who watched it, so I absolutely fucking loved that.”

“Liam Gallagher told me ‘Motherland’ was ‘fucking genius'”

She may boggle that Motherland makes Liam laugh his parka off, but she shouldn’t be surprised, because Horgan makes appointment TV that everyone can connect to. Her relatable stories about grown-ups muddling along pull the grenade pin out of their characters’ lives and display the shrapnel in all its hilarious glory.

Today, via Zoom audio from her car, she’s channeling big Motherland energy, as she ferries a vehicle of teenagers to Glastonbury, and negotiates a pre-festival supermarket trip. She’s looking forward to watching Paul McCartney, The Libertines, The Charlatans and Metronomy at the Pilton piss-up. She’s even worked with the latter two bands, having sung backing vocals on the 2017 Charlatans album ‘Different Days’ – amid rumours of a romance with lead singer Tim Burgess – and danced in Metronomy’s ‘Old Skool’ video.

Sharon Horgan

“Life is busy and you’ve got to choose carefully what to do and then your teenage self taps you on the shoulder and goes: ‘What are you doing? Of course you’ve got to do this! Are you mental?” she says of singing back-up on The Charlatans’ record. “But I also think that’s the thing that makes you do stuff because of course I’m scared of singing on a record because I’m not a singer, but then you think the me that was hanging around [Britpop epicentre pub in Camden Town] The Good Mixer hoping to catch a glimpse of any musician would have karate-chopped me in the back of the neck if I’d said no!”

Horgan is prolific, with a work rate that makes TV impresario Ryan Murphy look like literary one-hit wonder J. D. Salinger. She runs her own production company, Merman, which produces her own shows and the works of others, including Aisling Bea’s This Way Up, in which she co-stars as Bea’s older sister. She’s inked a first-look deal with Apple TV+ for which she’s set to drop Bad Sisters in August. As an actor, she’s increasingly in demand, from serious roles – such as the upcoming Jack Thorne-penned Best Interests, where she stars opposite Michael Sheen as a couple battling over whether to let their severely disabled daughter die – to Hollywood comedy, like meta movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

“Nic Cage turned up [to a read-through] in a pink leather jacket and gold shades”

It’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent which we’re ostensibly here to talk about. It’s an action comedy that lands on home entertainment platforms next week. She plays Nicolas Cage (starring as a wildly exaggerated version of himself)’s ex-wife Olivia, fending off gangsters. Horgan’s own comedies put women at the scene-stealing centre, so it’s unusual to see her in the supporting part of eye-cartwheeling ex-spouse. She read the script and found it “fucking hilarious” and was attracted to the idea of working with Cage.

In the movie, Cage reveals himself to be in on the joke of his persona, and at times, Horgan confides that he went “Full Cage” in real life. Filmed during lockdown, their first cast reading was on Zoom. “All of us were in our little Zoom boxes and then Nic Cage turned up before we were about to start in a pink leather jacket and gold shades. I was trying to take pictures with my phone, thinking this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!” she laughs. “He’d learned the whole script off-by-heart and did a full performance – which never happens on the first read-through – and I was transported completely, thinking this is the greatest job in the world.”

The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent
Alongside Nicolas Cage in ‘The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent’. CREDIT: Lionsgate UK

Even so, Cage was more studious on set than she expected. Despite the OTT nature of the film, he never corpsed. “Sometimes I’d be doing a scene with him where he’s going ‘Full Nic Cage’ and I’d just burst out laughing ‘cause it’s fucking hilarious. He would just wait for me to stop laughing and then we’d do it again, whereas normally you’d both piss your pants for a while.” When Cage recorded a pivotal musical number for the film, he brought in a voice memo of the way he wanted to perform it. “He was playing us this memo as we’re waiting to begin, pissing himself laughing and falling on the floor,” remembers Horgan, struggling to describe the bizarreness of the situation. “Seeing Nic Cage go ‘Full Nic Cage’ in the laughter sense is really something to behold.”

Born in 1970 to parents who ran an east London pub, Horgan moved to a turkey farm in County Meath, Ireland when she was four. She has been nominated for Emmys and BAFTAs, but the younger Horgan’s aspirations were considerably loftier. As a teenager, she proudly informed her mother she was going to win an Oscar one day. Does she still have that ambition?

Horgan chuckles at the memory, before explaining: “I don’t know that I have any ambitions anymore. I worked out years ago – and this is the kind of thing that made me less of a mental person – that it was counterproductive trying to get to the top, ‘cause you’ve either got to work so hard to stay there or you fall.

“I’m working with PJ Harvey at the moment”

“This is a massive name-drop but Polly Harvey – who I’m working with at the moment – was talking to me about levels of fame.” Indie icon PJ has composed the theme tune and co-written the soundtrack to Bad Sisters. “She has this great fanbase and they’re crazy about her and she gets to make the music she wants without needing or wanting anything more than that. There was a time when I was younger when I was like: ‘No, I want to be U2′… but now I have a different perspective on how I want to spend my energy.”

She still wouldn’t say no to that Academy Award, mind you. “Listen, if an Oscar comes into my life, I’ll fucking it embrace it because it would make everything easier. You could get films and shows greenlit and it would open doors. I still give a shit – but way less of a shit than I used to.”

In Channel 4 hit sitcom ‘Catastrophe’. CREDIT: Alamy

Relatability is at the key of Horgan’s work, and her interview technique reflects this. Despite being a hugely in-demand auteur, working with big names like Courtney Cox and Sarah Jessica Parker, she’s self-deprecating, underplays her achievements and makes you feel like you’ve just bumped into her in the smoking area on a really good night out. She also has the gratitude of someone whose breakthrough came in her thirties after a succession of soul-destroying jobs: she spent six years working in Kilburn JobCentre, only quitting when her manager told her to clean up human excrement. She toiled in a Camden Head Shop (“Which was next door to The Good Mixer – one of the benefits of it”), waitressed, did bar work and was a chambermaid. The upside was that she poured much of these experiences into her prescient 2006 BBC sitcom Pulling, co-written with Dennis Kelly, about three housemates who behave badly, get insanely drunk, and sleep with rubbish men. Although not a ratings success, you can see its DNA in the recent trend of ‘messy millennial women’ sitcoms, from Fleabag to Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love. These are shows where women are allowed to wear their imperfections like a crest. Does Horgan feel Pulling was ahead of the curve?

“I think it was,” she concedes. “Dolly Alderton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have always been really lovely about talking about Pulling and what it meant to them and I love that. It completely was ahead of the curve, but we got lucky when we made it. We barely got a note.

‘Pulling’ aired on the BBC during the mid-2000s. CREDIT: BBC

“Lockdown was fucking horrible in many ways and I’m not making light of it by saying this, but Pulling finally coming out on iPlayer was one of the benefits for me,” she laughs, evoking the dark sense of humour Pulling had, which included one brutally funny scene where the characters euthanise a cat by battering it to death with a brick. “Nobody was getting to make TV shows during [COVID], so things had to be repeated. I swear to God, for years I’d call up the BBC asking for it to be repeated – and now suddenly it’s on iPlayer and people are finding it again.”

Horgan further mapped her life through Catastrophe, inspired by unexpected parenthood early on in a relationship, before making Motherland and the 2016 Sarah Jessica Parker-starring HBO series Divorce. She’s currently working on a project that has been inspired by her own divorce. Considering she mines her life for material, we ask what turning 50 felt like last year.

“You look at time in a different way after 50”

“Well, I’m only 40!,” she protests, mock-offended. “I don’t know where you get those figures from!” She holds the ensuing silence long enough to make us check our notes before continuing. “When I was 40 I was filming The Borrowers in South Africa, so I had my own kind of crisis then,” she says. “[British actor] Paul Kaye was singing in my kitchen and it was a bit mental, so 50 was a bit more chilled and the only difference is I’ve become really particular about who I spend my time with. You spend an awful lot of time on productions, so if someone comes and wants to attach me as a writer to someone who’s mega [famous], I now think: ‘Do I want to spend this decade doing that or do I want to tick a few boxes off the things I’ve always wanted to do? You look at time in a different way, which is morbid to say.”

Her next project, the aforementioned Bad Sisters, is a 10-part blend of dark comedy and thriller set on the west coast of Ireland. It follows the lives of the Garvey sisters who are bound together by the untimely death of their parents, and boasts an all-star cast, including Anne Marie-Duff and Eve Hewson. “It’s the most brilliantly fun thing I’ve ever done and completely different from what I’ve done before,” she says. “I was gearing up to do my post-Catastrophe, post-Motherland, post-Divorce instalment of that period of my life and then someone suggested I remake this amazing Belgium series called Clan, and it felt much bigger than anything I’ve taken on before. You don’t want to keep treading water – as warm and lovely as that water might be – so it felt good to push myself. And you get to have all the big boy toys on the streamer.”

Sharon Horgan

Although Horgan relishes playing in Apple’s sandbox, she still remains passionate about traditional broadcasting. Both Catastrophe and This Way Up, a programme beloved by Irish rockers Fontaines D.C., were tentpole shows for Channel 4 and she’s dismayed by the government’s destructive privatisation plans for the network. “I’m trying to get the word out there as much as I can that it’s a very negative thing for creativity and for the industry, so it’s not done and dusted yet, is it? It almost is, and it will be a fucking disaster if it happens. I can’t say anything positive about it at all – the world will be a less creative place if it kicks in.”

Horgan is always willing to speak out, and goes to places other writers wouldn’t dare, such as the infamous cat-boshing scene in Pulling. Ironically, a week ago Horgan’s own cat fell four floors and broke a leg. “I was talking to someone about how expensive it is to [pay] a vet’s bill and I ended up telling them about the scene in Pulling where the character of Karen looks at the cost, then tells the vet: ‘Yeah, we’d like to kill it please.’ And in my head that’s where the scene ended, but I’d completely forgotten about the fucking brick!”

The person she was talking to looked at her, horrified. “And I just thought: Jesus Christ, I can’t believe we actually did that”. And that, right there, is why even Liam Gallagher can’t get enough.

‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ is available on Digital from July 8 and Steelbook, 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD from July 11