Sharon Horgan: “You have to be learning all the time, or you get lost”

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Photo credit: Gareth Cattermole - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gareth Cattermole - Getty Images

“Every single time I make anything, I decided to not continue,” says Sharon Horgan, laughing. “Every. Single. Time. Most people in this industry would say the same thing because, as lucky as we are to be doing something we love, bringing our dreams to life is quite exposing.” She is talking from the set of her latest project, Jack Thorne’s BBC drama series Best Interests, where her tightly packed schedule means she has only just broken for lunch at 3.30pm.

Best-known for creating bitingly funny and widely acclaimed British comedies, including Catastrophe, Pulling and Motherland (the former two she also starred in), Horgan says she has been relishing working with someone else’s script because it allows her to hone in on acting. “You can switch off the bit of your brain that is usually overloaded,” she says. “Most of the time, I’m writing or producing my own things, and it’s very hard to concentrate on what you should be concentrating on.”

This is something she enjoyed about her latest film, too – Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten’s meta action-comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which follows the antics of Nicolas Cage as he portrays a dramatised version of himself. At the beginning of the movie, we find him creatively frustrated and on the brink of bankruptcy, so he is forced to accept an offer of one million dollars to attend the birthday of a superfan (played by Pedro Pascal) – who also happens to be a cartel runner. Things take a riotously unexpected turn at this point, when Cage is recruited by a CIA agent (Tiffany Haddish) to gather information on the criminal. Chaos ensues.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Horgan plays Cage’s – fictional – ex-wife Olivia, a role that is less comedic than we’re used to seeing from her, though she very much rises to the occasion of taking on the straight woman. “Sometimes you go: ‘No, I don’t want to be an eye-rolling wife or girlfriend,’” she says, “but, sometimes, it can be more than that. I think you have to bring something of yourself to a part like that.” Indeed, her performance is nuanced, carefully balancing the strain Cage’s ego puts on his family, while subtly lacing in moments of dry humour with the dizzying pace of the plot.

Of course, another draw for Horgan was the chance to work alongside Cage himself, who happens to be one of her Hollywood heroes. “Genuinely, genuinely, I’m a huge fan of his,” she says, beaming. “I wanted to watch what he did, and I wanted to absorb that energy.” The script was written specifically for him, which Horgan describes as an “intrepid” move, but one that paid off, for it is rare to come across a project that has a fully attached star like that.

“It was surreal from the very first Zoom read we had, when Nick came out wearing his pink leather jacket and shades,” says Horgan. “He had learnt the whole part entirely, from start to finish. I was just like, ‘Bloody hell.’” The fact that Massive Talent filmed in Budapest during the pandemic made the experience all the more surreal, because the city was in lockdown for the majority of production, meaning there was little opportunity to explore and clear your mind. “There were no restaurants, there was nowhere to go, nowhere to eat, nowhere to let off steam… We were stuck in this brightly lit foyer having our dinner every night just going: ‘This is weird’,” she says.

The experience sounds like a movie plot in itself, and perhaps it will be one day, for the unbearable weight of Horgan’s own talent lies in her ability to find art in real life, writing semi-autobiographical scripts that are both honest and relatable. “There are little things that happen, which I immediately write down and think: ‘I’ll find a place for that somewhere,’” she says, though notes that she tries to avoid doing this too often. “I slightly worry that if I think ‘That’s a story!’ too quickly, then what kind of a life is that? I should just live it a bit rather than waiting to write it down. It’s more healthy to realise after the fact sometimes.”

The process of reflecting on a situation and writing about it afterwards has its advantages, she says, for it allows you to come to terms with it in a way you otherwise might not have. “It can be helpful for your brain to figure stuff out; it makes you feel a bit less crazy,” says Horgan, adding, “but often you’ll find yourself writing something that you wish you’d had the smarts to think of at the time.”

Photo credit: Gareth Cattermole - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gareth Cattermole - Getty Images

At the moment, her focus is on the stage of life she has reached – having turned 51 last year – and telling the stories that come with it. “I just think it’s a really difficult but also interesting time for a woman, when you hit your fifties. I’m paying attention, having my own perspective on it,” she says. It’s a safe bet that Horgan will be cooking up something with her production company, Merman, which she cofounded with Clelia Mountford in 2014. Bonding over a mutual passion for telling stories “with female protagonists, who are not afraid to be less than likeable sometimes”, the pair has produced a number of series told from the perspective of women, including Sarah Kendall’s Frayed, Aisling Bea’s This Way Up and Horgan’s own Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker. “I like to make stuff that’s funny, but also dramatically nuanced and truthful and real,” says Horgan. “I feel really lucky that, across the course of my career, I’ve been allowed to do that, trusting that the story and the character is good enough and relatable enough to not have to sugar-coat it. It’s just my favourite way of telling stories.”

Her work, she says, is an ongoing curve of testing and discovering, pushing different boundaries and exploring new genres. Nevertheless, having won several IFTAs and British Comedy Awards, not to mention the multiple BAFTA and Emmy nominations, I find it hard to believe there haven’t been moments when Horgan has felt wholeheartedly satisfied with her work. “OK, the ending of Catastrophe, I think Rob and I couldn’t have done that any better,” she says matter-of-factly. “We felt like we came into our own there. We were able to envisage what we wanted and then bring it to life on screen with the help of lots of talented people around us. That was a bit of a moment… But, yeah, I think you have to be learning all the time, or you get a bit lost.”

Being unafraid to try things is especially important to Horgan’s process, having allowed thoughts of not being good enough and trepidation about putting herself out there to hold her back early on. But, as she says, “You’ve just got to strive forward, and not listen to that niggling self-doubt, because it’s always going to be there.” She pauses, before adding, “I mean, mine’s still there. If I waited until that went, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.” This is advice not to take lightly, for the world would be far less bright without Horgan’s sharp wit.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is in UK cinemas from 22 April.


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