“I’m quite a shy person,” Sharon Horgan admits. The writer, producer and actress is slumped in a chair in the Booking Office bar at the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. She flew in from L.A. the night before and her jet lag is palpable. During this interview she seems far too welcoming to be considered shy, but apparently joining her first major Hollywood movie — the ensemble comedy “Game Night” — brought out Horgan’s introverted side.
“Maybe it’s not intimidating for everyone to walk onto a film set, but it is for me,” she says. “And I haven’t done it for so long. I’ve just done my own thing for quite a while. I was maybe a little bit nervous.” She adds, “Not that I didn’t enjoy it — I did have fun. And I relaxed pretty quickly, but despite my age I felt like the new kid on the block.”
Horgan, 47, is well-known in the U.K., particularly in her home country of Ireland, thanks to BBC’s “Pulling,” which ran for two seasons beginning in 2006, and “Catastrophe,” which she co-created with American comedian Rob Delaney. The latter premiered in 2015 on Channel 4 in the U.K. and Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. and has continued for three seasons. Horgan also created and wrote HBO’s “Divorce,” which is currently airing its second season, although until now she hasn’t appeared much on-screen in America.
“The opportunity comes up, it’s just I’m always making a ... telly show,” Horgan says. “Because I write I can’t just go, ‘See you, lads, I’m going to skedaddle for two or three months.’ I’m always up to some deadline.
“But ‘Game Night’ came up literally just at the right time. I had a space. I still had to keep writing, but I had a genuine space where I could do it. It’s something I’d like to do more of. Not in a big sort of game plan way, but just because I like movies and it would be fun.”
“Game Night” directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein knew of Horgan from “Catastrophe,” which Goldstein had recently binge-watched with his wife. She was one of their first choices for the role of Sarah, a woman who joins a group of friends (including Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as a couple struggling with fertility issues) for their weekly game night.
The evening quickly goes awry, twisting into a web of action-based hijinks when one of the characters is kidnapped mid-game. Sarah is the outsider, invited by the dimwitted Ryan (Billy Magnussen), and had to be played by someone who could act as the straight-man to Ryan’s zaniness.
“The role needed someone who could have this power dynamic shift over the course of the movie,” Goldstein says. “As it starts off she thinks she’s on a date with this handsome, somewhat younger guy from work. Gradually she realizes — or comes to terms with the fact — that the guy’s a bit of a dummy. And ultimately he is seeking her out and she’s not terribly interested in him. She brought this strength and confidence to it that made that totally believable.”
“We didn’t know how they were going to be together until the first day of shooting because she wasn’t around for our table read we did in Los Angeles,” Daley adds. “So much of it is riding on the chemistry working, so we were understandably nervous. Fortunately they couldn’t have clicked better.”
Warner Bros. executives weren’t familiar with Horgan, so the actress had to put herself on tape to audition for the first time in — well, she can’t remember the last time she auditioned. She asked her daughter to film her doing a few scenes from the script in their London attic on an iPhone and sent it into the studio. It worked.
Horgan was quickly cast in an ensemble that also includes Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons, Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury. The directors encouraged Horgan and Magnussen to spend some time hanging out off-set while filming in Atlanta last spring.
“We met a couple of days before we started filming,” Horgan says of her co-star. “His parents live in Atlanta, so I was expecting to see him and a bunch of his pals. I got there and Rachel McAdams was there and I’m such a huge fan, so I fan-ed out for a bit. And then [Billy and I] went for some drinks and hung out and we get on really well now. We’re proper pals. I think he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.”
“I know Sharon was the right actor for this role because of the size of her heart and her passion and love for humor,” Magnussen says. “It was very difficult to make it through a scene with her because she is so gosh darn funny and talented.”
Despite Horgan’s initial nerves, she found the set to be a remarkably fun environment, thanks to the two directors. And she didn’t see much difference between the set of a TV series and a big-budget Hollywood movie.
“There’s a lot more waiting around,” Horgan says and laughs. “In fact, I wrote two TV episodes while I was in my trailer because there was so much time. But it was interesting to look at the scale of anything that’s that big budget. When you see the studio builds, it becomes kind of magical. Not that TV can’t be, or you can’t create magic for the small screen, but it’s about the size of it.”
Another change from most of her small screen work were the film’s numerous action scenes, which Horgan had done only once before for BBC’s 2011 production of “The Borrowers.”
Doing the action scenes “feels like a caper and it reminds you of how silly your job is,” she says, noting the experience reminded her of the importance of feel-good, in-your-gut comedy. “Sometimes I think I can be a bit guilty of taking it a bit seriously. Like, ‘I’m telling some weighty stories over here about important issues.’ But it’s comedy. When you’re running around the place like you’re in the middle of a Scooby-Doo movie you can laugh at it and realize it’s entertainment and it’s fun.”
Horgan grew up watching American movies and TV shows and always connected with films like “Dumb and Dumber” and “Zoolander,” as well as the work of Steve Martin and Gene Wilder. “The Heartbreak Kid” is her all-time favorite (“I just think it’s the most perfect movie,” she says). After perfecting smaller scale character-driven humor on TV, “Game Night” reminded Horgan of the essence of “big, daft comedy.”
“It did make me think that it’s fun to go and watch those things,” she says. “It’s fun to switch off. Just ... switch off. If something is really weighty and worthy, that’s great. I really do think you can educate people in a way with a good message and make people think about things. But people need to escape as well.”
Horgan is in the finishing stages of writing her own “funny, stupid” movie. She’s never penned a completed film script before (“only half of one”) and the challenge has been exciting. She’s continuing to work on “Catastrophe,” with a fourth season coming soon, but film has been increasingly alluring.
She recently signed a television deal with Amazon, which could also include movies. “It’s not part of the deal, but it’s a great home if it’s feasible,” she notes. Her production company, Merman, which Horgan co-runs with Clelia Mountford, has multiple projects in the works as well. Horgan hopes to direct — she helmed a short film “The Week Before Christmas” for Sky 1 in 2012 — but finding the right project feels like a hurdle.
“I have a reverence for it as well where I think, ‘If I’m going to do that I’m going to do it right,’” she says. “Hopefully I won’t keep spending so much time thinking about it and I’ll spend more time doing it. You become frightened of something and it just becomes this big thing. Even directing a short was scary — and then it wasn’t scary as soon as I started doing it.”
That’s a common theme in Horgan’s career: There are nerves and then she faces a challenge head on. Being part of “Game Night,” in particular, suggested to Horgan that sometimes it’s OK to not be in control and just go with it.
“I was hoping I wasn’t going to be jaded by it, but I was really excited to be there,” she says. “In fact, it did make me think, ‘I need to do this more.’ I get so caught up in my own things sometimes that I miss out on opportunities. It’s nice to have someone wrestle that control away from you and say, ‘Trust me.’ As terrifying as it may be.”