Sharon Horgan: ‘I don’t believe age is just a number. That’s b****cks’

Writer-producer-actor is not ready to make a comedy about post-50 phase of her life just yet

Sharon Horgan is in a car on the way to a television shoot. The woman who wears more hats than Philip Treacy  – writer, producer, actor, international deal-maker, mother – is often in a rush. Her time is limited and we don’t have long to talk. That’s okay.

We are, in a way, continuing a much longer conversation we started 10 months ago, back in October when Herself, the first feature film from her production company Merman, a partnership with Element Pictures, was about to be released.

“Ten months? It can’t be that long,” she gasps. “It feels like a few months ago.” And for a moment we marvel at the mind-boggling sorcery this pandemic has wrought on the normal passage of time.

We knew the Forty Foot couldn't be closed down because it belongs to the public so we thought let's take our chances. But you forget that your footprint is rather wide and it's very difficult to hide

Back then, just when Herself was due to hit screens, cinemas closed. The interview I did with her was shelved, to be dusted down from the Zoom archive another time. Now is the time.


Ten months have passed and because she is Sharon Horgan, one of the busiest, most productive people in film and television, we have quite a bit to catch up on. There was the fantastic third series of delicious parenting comedy Motherland, then Frank of Ireland starring two Gleeson brothers, the release of Together, a pandemic drama she starred in with James McAvoy, and the acclaimed second series of This Way Up with Aisling Bea.

Next year there’s the not insignificant matter of a turn in a meta-sounding movie with Nicolas Cage. She stars in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent as the ex-wife of Cage’s character, who plays a fictional version of himself.

So there’s lots to discuss, but the first thing I have to ask her is what she was doing recently with a camera crew at the Forty Foot in south Co Dublin. “We’re not allowed to talk about it at the moment,” Horgan says, sounding apologetic. “It’s a tricky situation because we are waiting for it to be announced by the people we are making it for… so it’s a bit hush-hush which is ridiculous considering we were in plain sight.”

Horgan was spotted “in plain sight” wrapped in a swim robe at the popular Dublin swimming spot last month. A security guard told an Irish Times reporter that it was for a television series starring Eve Hewson and Brendan Gleeson. While Horgan can’t confirm anything, she does say that she was really keen to film there “because of the history of the place… we knew it couldn’t be closed down because it belongs to the public so we thought let’s take our chances. But you forget that your footprint is rather wide and it’s very difficult to hide.”

She brought her two daughters over for the filming which is not yet complete. “It’s a long shoot,” she says. While in Dublin she was staying in Ranelagh, a place the London-born, Co Meath-raised Horgan lived as a teenager. She hung out with family and, while filming other parts of the series in the North, was reminded of the “stunning beauty” of the country she was raised in. Apart from that, she can’t say much more.

What she can talk about is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the movie version of the West End musical about a young boy in Sheffield who wants to be a drag queen. When she was asked to star in it her first response was, “You want me to be in a musical? That’s insane.”

But Jonathan Butterell the director convinced her “and I am just really glad he did. It’s one of those life-affirming stories… it’s about the struggle to find yourself. Sheffield is not the kind of place where it’s that easy to make your dreams happen.”

Her daughters went from being thrilled she was doing it “to being completely mortified”. She is rapping and singing in the movie which is out in September. “When I looked at the trailer it did make me feel a little bit giddy.”

If I can avoid it at all, I'm not working with or for anything that doesn't feel like it's got a good sort of energy in it. That's the big one

Since we spoke the last time, she also starred in Together with James McAvoy written by her former Pulling co-writer and longtime collaborator Dennis Kelly. The drama was critically acclaimed but the project went even deeper for Horgan. She says the story of a couple in lockdown, fighting, grieving and co-parenting, showed up some of the “stupid, negligence” of the British government’s response to the pandemic.

The show explored the death of her character’s mother in a care home. “I can’t help escape the feeling that my mother was killed,” her character says at one point. The storyline resonated with viewers. “Dennis kept sending me emails from people bereaved during Covid who had seen it... they had felt forgotten about, unheard and hidden… it made a massive difference to people,” says Horgan.

She feels like she has “a mad energy” at the moment. Turning 50 over a year ago has contributed to that. “I mean, I don’t believe that age is just a number. I think that’s a load of b****cks. I think it means you’re getting closer to the time you have to scoot off.”

Horgan’s post-50 “energy” and “power” has sparked “a different kind of ambition… I have no time for spending my time doing something that I don’t love, you know what I mean? Like, if something looks like it’s gonna be a pain in the arse, to sell or to write, or to make, I’m kind of saying, ‘I’m out’.”

“Of course it’s about finding the right projects and stuff that you love... but to feel happy in your work has to be everything because when you’re not, it sort of bleeds into what you bring home… so yeah, if I can avoid it at all, I’m not working with or for anything that doesn’t feel like it’s got a good sort of energy in it. That’s the big one.”


Back in October 2020 when we spoke on Zoom Horgan, wearing orange shorts and a grey top, appeared to be conducting the interview from a bicycle shop. “No, it’s my house!” she exclaims when I query the unusual choice of venue, explaining that the four very cool bicycles hanging on the wall were an ingenious space-saving storage system.

It was a challenging, uncertain time for many sectors including cinema – Cineworld had just announced closing in UK and Ireland – and her company Merman had just released Herself. The critics, including Variety magazine, raved about the film which was a hit when it premiered at the Sundance Festival earlier that year. While it has since had an Amazon release, the film will, at last, be shown in cinemas across Ireland and the UK from September.

Herself is directed by heavy-hitter Phyllida Lloyd, whose past credits include Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady. It tells the story of Dublin woman Sandra, played by Clare Dunne. Sandra has escaped an abusive marriage and declared herself homeless in order to get on to the housing list. As the movie opens, we see Sandra with her two small daughters in the cramped hotel room they call home.

But Sandra wants more, for “herself” and for her daughters. We follow her as she fights an intractable legal and social system and tries, against the odds with a motley crew of helpers, to achieve the dream of building her own home in a generous benefactor’s back garden.

When you read about Horgan or ask people about her, what always emerges is the passion she brings to each project. The story of how such a movie as unique as Herself came to be made is a good illustration of her instinctive, energetic approach. Horgan first got the script from Dunne, writer and lead actor in the film, in 2016 when she was in New York working on Divorce, her HBO series starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

Horgan did what she always does, sent it on to a development person in Merman. The answer came back “it’s not for us” but Horgan found herself drawn to the script and rang Dunne saying she wanted to make it. In the meantime, Dunne had shown it to Phyllida Lloyd who was insistent she wanted to be involved as director.

Horgan, Lloyd and Dunne were thrilled when Element Pictures also came on board to co-develop Merman’s first feature film. “That was amazing. Everyone wants to work with Ed Guiney and Element,” Horgan says.

Herself, co-written by Malcolm Campbell, features the bleakest of themes, yet still manages to be hopeful and life-affirming. Was that contrast and the challenge of that on everybody’s mind making it? “Oh, yeah, completely. And it was important to Clare from the very start that she never wanted to paint this woman, or these women who Sandra represents, as victims. She wanted there to be a strength to her… and by pushing for herself and her children, she’s also able to find a way to accept help from others. It’s that idea of being able to rely on community and open yourself up to help.”

Horgan says she hoped it might have an impact especially as the housing crisis continues. The film also highlights “the crisis situation that so many women find themselves in over lockdown and anything that brings that to people’s attention is a good thing, isn’t it? It can’t just be a good story. It has to also be political and you are hoping to make a change.”

The Variety reviewer was certainly convinced: “If the story sounds tiny, think of it instead as a kind of metaphor for all the single women struggling against a system that’s tilted against them – which is as true today of Ireland as it is of the film industry, and the world at large. When the patriarchy fails, sometimes a woman has to take matters into her own hands.”

“It’s a really feminist film,” Horgan says. “If patriarchy lets you down, you have to do it for yourself. I love that message. It’s so empowering.” Dunne, she adds, was “such a badass, such a strong woman and that strength is in every bit of Sandra’s character, even when she’s desperate and low, that strength shines in every scene”.

There's something about helping someone bring their vision together… at the moment probably 75 per cent of the stuff we make is female-authored

You can tell, talking to Horgan, that cheerleading and supporting Dunne and other women in the industry is important to her. How gratifying are these projects?

“I can’t tell you how great it is,” she grins. “And in a way, it’s a selfish thing, because I think I would be so jaded if I was just hauling my own ass around trying to get stuff picked up… it’s like, what’s the point? There’s something about helping someone bring their vision together… at the moment probably 75 per cent of the stuff we make is female-authored. And a lot of it is from first-time writers like Aisling Bea, who has an incredible career already, but This Way Up was her first sort of narrative storytelling and it’s the same with Clare. It gives me an enormous amount of pleasure.”

It might never happen, but after talking to Sharon Horgan I reckon she has it in her to write an engaging riposte to all those Sort Your Life Out self-help books, a book that gives two fingers to Marie Kondo and the like. The inevitable bestseller would be called Horganisation, after the pervasive family trait she says translates into “an inability to plan ahead”.

She brings up Horganisation when I asked her about living on a turkey farm in Bellewstown, Co Meath, and how the stressful annual Christmas deadline, that so preoccupied her parents Ursula and John, affected her own life.

“What it brought into my life was an enormous amount of anxiety,” she laughs. “Like, myself and all my brothers and sisters will say the same thing. There’s an enormous sort of anxiety bubbling under the surface. And no ability to plan ahead because I think with mum and dad, they never knew how the year would go, they’d never know if it’d be a good one or a bad one. And there was never anything beyond that point. So we are all terrible planners… anyone in our lives calls it Horganisation.”

She is clearly proud of all her siblings, heaping praise on her brother Mark’s multi-award-winning podcast Where is George Gibney? “So beautifully done,” she says.

I kind of had to change things very recently because, you know, my life changed

Horgan has quite the collection of industry accolades herself. How did her parents create such talented, driven individuals? “They inflicted Christmas turkey time on us, and we just thought anything but that,” she laughs. “No, they were hard workers and they wanted us to work hard. And I guess, you know, a lot of it has to do with our eldest sister, Maria, who was the first one to sort of get out there and start, you know, making TV documentaries, and we were like, ‘Jesus, Maria’.”

She mentions her sister Lorraine, an actor and voice over artist and then Shane – Horgan’s rugby-playing brother – “is just like some sort of weird miracle”.

There is an interesting, delightful contrast to be found in Horgan. On the one hand there’s all the messy, silly, awkward content Horgan channels into autobiographical shows such as Pulling, Catastrophe and This Way Up. And then there is the dynamic, plate-spinning producer Horgan, who is running around putting out fires and lighting up new projects. How happily do those two Horgans co-exist?

“Yeah, I really still don’t know how it works... Think I’m really just good at one thing. I think everything else sort of suffers but I’ve just had to let those things go. You know, like, I can keep an entire show in my head – at the moment we’re working on this 10-part series. I have the whole thing in my head, and I can sit on a Zoom with nine people and answer every question. Then I can send notes on three other shows to various different people and then get off the call and watch and edit.”

“I can do all that but I can’t tell you what I’m doing tomorrow. Like, my diary has to be so sort of worked out. I miss appointments. I kind of had to change things very recently because, you know, my life changed.”

She is referring to the amicable ending of her marriage to her partner in Merman, Jeremy Rainbird, and the co-parenting adventure she’s been on since then.

“I had to get rid of my Horganisation and really genuinely try and adjust things to be more functional. Because you can’t just live in this work bubble... I mean, it’s a work in progress, which is also interesting at this stage of my life. I’m trying to broaden my horizons a little. Have I answered your question?” She has.

My autobiographical project is my own personal journey, and I don't know where I'm going with it yet. It's in my phone, and it's in my laptop, and it's in various bits of paper around the house

I tell her I’ve read that she owned a property underneath the Hollywood sign. “An investment,” she confirms. In pre-pandemic times, Horgan was regularly back and forth to LA pitching television and movie ideas. Those meetings sound like the worst job interviews ever, I say. And terrifying. Has she become more confident in them over the years?

“Like, I think they’re ridiculous. I think they’re a waste of everyone’s time. And it’s a big, you know, whatever it’s called, a big dog-and-pony show.”

Her laptop is about to die, so she keeps chatting as she trots up several flights of stairs in search of a plug. She sits down in her attic office in front of a glaringly empty white board.

So, those Hollywood meetings? “I think they’re still kind of terrifying. But the fact that they’re ridiculous, well you can’t be too scared of something that you find ridiculous. And, you know, the idea of pitching something that someone could otherwise just read in a document bothers me. The amazing thing about lockdown is not having to travel around the planet unnecessarily because there’s so much unnecessary travel.”

Back in October, Horgan was in the middle of reading More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which explores the challenges of middle-age. How much more confident does she feels at this stage of life? “My confidence is in my work and I suppose my family… but I wouldn’t say I am brimming with confidence as a woman. That’s on my to-do list. Maybe I should put it up on the white board.”

It will have to take its turn behind everything else. I ask where the next Catastrophe or Pulling is right now, by which I mean her next autobiographical work. Whenever it comes it will, as they all do, make some of us groan in recognition at less socially acceptable aspects of our characters.

“My autobiographical project is my own personal journey, and I don’t know where I’m going with it yet. It’s in my phone, and it’s in my laptop, and it’s in various bits of paper around the house. Anything bad or funny or ridiculous that happens to me goes in there.”

She gave me an example of one of these nuggets she has been squirrelling away, a scene so perfect it makes me yearn for the next real-life inspired Horgan work of televisual art. This one is box-fresh. It happened yesterday, she says.

“I’m having some building work done on my daughter’s bedroom, and I’ve got this carpenter. He’s quite soulful. And he was kind of in and out of the house the other day. He walks in and he walks out the front door and he goes to me: [She adopts a vaguely eastern European accent]

“I work a lot because, bad memories.”

“And I was like, me too! Yes! That’s how I… you know… and I was just like, f***ing hell, that was deep.”

“I realised later, when he was going back and forth to his van a few times that what he had actually said was, “I walk a lot because, bad memory.”

I can’t help but cackle loudly both in empathy and in appreciation for Horgan’s ability to spin gold from these hilarious life moments. “I write down these little things on my phone, because I’m a ridiculous idiot but funny things happen to me,” she says.


And now, 10 months later, she’s in a car rushing to another shoot. I ask her whether the autobiographical project is any further along. It sounded, the last time we spoke, as though she wanted to make something about this time in her life, in women’s lives.

She says that the “hush-hush” 10-part Irish-based television series has “elements” of what she has in mind. It’s an ensemble cast with “lots of different stages of womanhood within it”.

But the other project is “still percolating… it’s something I want to examine that I feel hasn’t been examined and people might appreciate that. The more I do this job, the more I want to make something people are actually waiting for… it’s good to have it percolating, but I do still feel like I need to live this moment in my life a bit more.

“Sometimes you think you are ready to write something and you’re not... I feel like I need to fully live this time so it comes into focus.”

Like everything Horgan does, one thing is certain: it will be worth the wait.

Herself is released exclusively in Irish and UK cinemas on September 10th,