Parenthood, break-ups, friendship, weird crushes… they’re all played out hilariously in Sharon Horgan’s mega-hit series Motherland. So is it inspired by her own life as a solo mum? Absolutely everything happens at the school gates, she tells Cole Moreton
Sharon Horgan looks happy this morning. ‘I feel like I’ve had a bit of a mental turnaround,’ she says brightly. ‘I’m feeling pretty nimble at the moment.’
That’s great to hear from the British-Irish comedian and actor who has made us laugh so much (and wince at her hilariously accurate observations of modern life) in shows like Pulling, Catastrophe and the great Motherland, which she co-writes.
Sharon has admitted to struggling a bit over the past year or two, with Covid restrictions and a crisis in her industry as well as the aftermath of a divorce. So what’s brought on the change?
‘I stopped drinking,’ she jokes. ‘Not for any particular reason. Like everyone in the world, my lockdown year-and-a-half was a bit gin-infused, so I thought: “I’ll just knock that on the head.” It’s only been about four months, but I have a mad amount of energy.’ The bigger truth is that she is naturally energised by work, writing and performing.
Sharon didn’t find fame until she was in her 30s but she turned 50 a year ago and seems to be working incredibly hard to make up for lost time. Besides her own shows, her production company Merman makes series like There She Goes with David Tennant and Aisling Bea’s This Way Up, in which Sharon plays big sister Shona. Then there’s the acting career, which has seen her lead the movie Military Wives with Kristin Scott Thomas and match Hollywood star James McAvoy for sheer moving brilliance in the recent BBC Covid drama Together.
Sharon will soon be seen shimmying for all she’s worth in the movie version of the hit West End musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. And for the past month she has been in Ireland, where she grew up, filming a secret project of her own. ‘I got the last plane out of Dublin last night and I’m a zombie,’ she says, flapping her hand to indicate weariness. ‘It’s a short distance, it’s just that it was such a scramble the last couple of days. Then a late night flight, dragging two kids and a bunch of suitcases back. Anyway, I’m clapped out.’
But her version of clapped out is very different to mine – and probably yours – as Sharon is still fizzing with wit and words, even as she’s making coffee in the kitchen of her big house in Hackney, East London, and talking about the dog. ‘I’ve got a half bichon frise, half King Charles. Half genius, half idiot. He is called Ozzie.’
This is very much the off-duty Sharon Horgan, wandering about in a comfortable sweatshirt, looking sharply beautiful even early on a Saturday morning, with her long hair loose and a bit wild. ‘They’re making me go and get it done for work,’ she says, showing her roots coming through and laughing. All very different from the tense, commanding teacher called Miss Hedge she is about to play in Jamie.
Like the West End show, the movie is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell from County Durham who dreamed of being a drag queen at 16 and was refused entry to his school prom in a dress until the pupils and parents rebelled in his support. ‘I went to see the musical. I took my girls along and I found that a joyous experience,’ says Sharon, who has two teenage daughters with the businessman Jeremy Rainbird. They split in 2019 but remain friends and partners in Merman as well as sharing the raising of Sadhbh (an Irish name pronounced Sive) and Amer, who are 17 and 13. The show’s songs are by Dan Gillespie Sells of the band The Feeling. ‘I love the music and I found the story really life-affirming. We were all hugging at the end, having a cry and a dance. Then I heard from Jonathan Butterell, who was going to direct the movie, and I honestly didn’t think I was going to do it. But his email was so nice and his vision for the film was inventive. It sounded like a cool thing to be part of.’
Butterell is an acclaimed choreographer making his directing debut. Newcomers Max Harwood as Jamie New and Lauren Patel as his best friend Pritti are joined by Sarah Lancashire as Jamie’s mum and a fabulous Richard E Grant as a former drag queen turned costume shop owner who comes out of retirement to mentor the boy. Sharon says, ‘I did my usual thing of saying: “Why would you want me? I can’t sing and I definitely can’t dance.” Jonathan said: “None of that matters.” He wanted me because of the characters he’d seen me play. Miss Hedge could come across as quite brittle, so she needed warmth.’
Sharon actually does a fine job of singing and dancing like a breathy, teacherly ‘Vogue’-era Madonna in one of the film’s set-piece numbers. And in other scenes she manages to convey with just a glance or a tone of voice that the teacher is a woman with frustrations and regrets all her own.
The movie was shot in Sheffield, where Butterell comes from. Sharon admits it challenged her emotions. ‘We were in a proper school and going back to one of those gives you the heebie-jeebies! But we spent so long in that hot classroom with all those kids, they ended up being so helpful.’ How so? ‘This is an amazing job to have but sometimes, like any job, it’s hard,’ she says. ‘You get jaded. You feel like a piece of meat. You get into your make-up chair at six in the morning and you won’t see your own kids until you get home at eight in the evening. And your ego gets battered during filming or you feel like you haven’t done your best. All the niggles get under your skin, especially as you get older. But I was sitting in this room with all these teenagers and you just can’t be jaded around them. They’re so happy to be there performing. They were really life-affirming.’
Jamie is all about following your dream, so I want to find out how Sharon got to where she is. And it turns out this took her a surprisingly long time. ‘I didn’t even earn my first pay cheque doing what I do now until I was at least 31,’ she says.
Sharon was born in London in 1970, but her parents moved to County Meath in Ireland to run a turkey farm when she was four. After convent school Sharon studied art. ‘I worked as a chambermaid and a barmaid and saved up so I could pay for this drama course at the weekends, while I was at art college during the week,’ she says. ‘God, what a work ethic! But then I dropped out of both and went to London.’
Then all her dreams came true? ‘No! I went to London and worked in Kilburn Job Centre for six-and-a-half-years.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, she says, unless you don’t want to be there. ‘I wasn’t interested in progressing. It’s like when an actor takes a job waitressing, and they don’t want to be the manager, but after three years carrying plates, they’re like: “Oh s***!” That’s what happened to me.’
Why did she get stuck for so long? ‘I can’t explain that, other than I thought writing and performing was too impossible. Or I didn’t have the tools. Or I was afraid of failing.’ She wasn’t from a privileged or showbiz family. ‘Sometimes it can be your background, but my four brothers and sisters all grew up on the same farm in the same tiny village and we’re all doing really well for ourselves.’ Maria Horgan is a successful producer; Lorraine an actor who has been in Peaky Blinders. Mark has just made a highly acclaimed podcast called Where Is George Gibney? and Shane is a former Irish rugby star. ‘There must have been a sense of “If you work hard, things are possible” drilled into us.’
Are the siblings competitive among themselves? ‘Oh yeah. We’re still ridiculously keen to get pats on the back from our parents. From each other as well. It feels wonderful to have your siblings congratulate you on something you’ve done. I get affronted if they don’t. I try to hide it, but if something that I’ve made has gone out into the world and I don’t hear from them, I’m gutted.’
She’s being very friendly but Sharon is formidable and I can imagine her getting fierce, so do any of them ever dare to say they don’t like something? ‘The one who dares to say that is my dad. He will always just say: “I wasn’t sure about that one, Sharon.” And I kind of go: “Well, OK.”’ She acts out taking a deep breath to calm herself and hold it in. ‘But he’s so complimentary if it’s something he loves. I get beautifully composed emails and messages when he’s blown away. It’s addictive, isn’t it? Praise. But we are a tight-knit family and supportive of each other. I’m lucky to have that.’
Young Sharon got out of her rut at the Job Centre by going to study English at Brunel University. She also met a writer called Dennis Kelly who became her collaborator. ‘And so I woke up. I saw a point in the distance and figured I’d go for it. It’s about having the right people around you, and for me that was Dennis.’ They sent off sketches to the BBC which led to their first hit Pulling, about a single young woman with a chaotic life. ‘We were both living in shared, low-level accommodation and doing jobs we didn’t like and in relationships that were going nowhere. The bones of Pulling were our lives.’
Next came the Bafta-winning Catastrophe with the American actor and writer Rob Delaney. The show was a huge success for Channel 4, although neither stopped to take that in. ‘I don’t often sit back and reflect. Every time Rob and I made a new series of Catastrophe we’d say: “We should go for a burger at least, and just sit and talk about how great it is to be doing this.” But we never did.’ Why not? ‘We both had families. And once you finish writing something you’re making it, then promoting, then you’re starting a new one again.’
Catastrophe was about a woman in her 30s who became pregnant by a businessman she barely knew and had to decide whether to try to make a go of it. In real life, Sharon met Jeremy Rainbird at a party in Lewisham when she was 34, conceived Sadhbh early in the relationship and married him in 2005. They then had Amer but divorced amicably after 14 years.
Though she doesn’t like talking about her private life, nor her current relationship status, Sharon did say publicly over the summer. ‘I’m havingtogrowup.Jeremywouldprobably laugh at that because I still have an enormous amount to learn and my girls tell me regularly that I don’t know how to “work” the house, like it’s a Hoover or something.’ That’s changing, she added: ‘But, you know, recently I got builders in and did some renovations and this is sounding ridiculous because I’m 50, but it was the first time I’ve done that on my own. I do stuff on my own now and I kind of like it.’
Because so much of what she writes is clearly inspired by what she sees around her, do friends and family know they are all potential sources of material? ‘Well, not my daughters. I am madly interested in the teenage brain, especially because of how hard it is to be a teenager at the moment, but I would never write about a teenage girl. I think that’s completely unfair and I just wouldn’t,’ she says intently. ‘But friends? Yeah.’ And family? ‘Yes.’ And partners? ‘I have done. So, I think it’s OK. I don’t think I take the p***. If I ever do take anything wholesale, I let them know or ask permission.’
And that’s certainly true of Motherland, the wonderful series starring Anna Maxwell Martin, which Sharon co-writes and produces. It dares to say the unsayable about what it’s like to be a modern mum, struggling to hold it all together and secretly resenting your kids for stealing your life. ‘There are definitely mums in Motherland who are based on my good local friends here in Hackney. But they like it. They’re happy for me to do that.’
How do her daughters really feel about her career? ‘It’s a bit embarrassing for my girls. There are sex scenes out there ready and waiting to be watched by their peers. That’s mortifying. I have embarrassed them hugely.’ Have they said so? ‘Yeah. I mean, my daughters have told me when kids at school have said: “Why did your mum write a show where she has sex in the first five minutes?” You know, it’s a good question…’
Are they interested in her work? ‘Yeah. My elder girl does media studies and has a really good eye. She’ll tell you what’s s*** and what’s not and she’s right a lot of the time.’ Would she like them to follow her into the business? ‘I think it would be terrible to become an actor; that’s a hard slog and it doesn’t often work out. I’d much rather there was something else in their futures. But I think they’re interested in the production side of it. There’s something magical about watching a set be built then come to life.’
Television is a much better place for young women than it used to be. ‘There is really affirming content out there now for them. My elder daughter totally devoured Fleabag. Watching a female character struggle or be funny or smart on TV, that kind of thing wasn’t there before,’ says Sharon, who has been a major force in that change herself.
‘I guess all the people they come into contact with in my life are women who are running their own production companies or creating their own shows. Our director, script supervisor, second unit director and one of our producers are all women. Before it would have been a sea of white men,’ she says. ‘It’s a good thing for girls to be around that.’
After Catastrophe was up for an Emmy she starting working some of the time in America, writing the comedy drama Divorce for Sarah Jessica Parker in New York. Sharon must be worth a tidy sum by now, so how does she keep her girls down to earth? ‘I’m a bit of a ballbreaker as a parent. It is important for me that they don’t feel the privilege too much. I’m definitely not a parent who lavishes anything. I’m really tight-fisted actually,’ she says proudly. ‘And there’s this constant conversation we have about what happens when they reach the age when they’re – sort of – kicked out.’
Has she seen rental prices lately? ‘I know! And the other part of me desperately wants to just lock them in the basement. But I talk a lot to them about how hard I had to work to get where I wanted to be. I take nothing for granted and I’m grateful for everything.’
Some people say there’s a liberation that comes from turning 50–so, a year on, has she got there yet? ‘Yeah. I think so. Myself and my friend Zoe turned 50 at the same time and we were both a bit depressed about it. So we just gave ourselves a good talking to and looked at the alternative, which is being in the ground. So I have this positive connection with it now, which is: “I’m alive!” And I do feel kind of alive at the moment, even though I’m exhausted.’
She sounds surprised to find herself so at ease with the world. ‘Yeah. This is a slightly positive attitude I’m not really used to having!’ Long may she enjoy it, because everybody’s talking about Jamie but it’s Sharon who keeps making us laugh.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will be released on Prime Video on 17 September