HBO’s Divorce is an odd anomaly for Sunday night TV audiences: a comedy about one of the most devastating and stressful things that can happen to a person (short of a Trump presidency). It helps that the show is created by Sharon Horgan of Catastrophe (no stranger to wringing humor out of seemingly unfunny events), and includes writers like Larry Sanders and NewsRadio vet Paul Simms (ditto). But selling this surprisingly funny, cutting dialogue is an exemplary cast, with Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church as the splitting couple, bolstered by a supporting cast that includes the likes of Molly Shannon, Dean Winters, and Talia Balsam.
We’ve been pretty vocal in our praise of the series in our weekly reviews, so we were excited to get the chance to talk to Thomas Haden Church about the series. Haden Church’s first big break was as dim-witted mechanic Lowell on the long-running sitcom Wings. He then jumped from that series to Debra Messing’s first couples sitcom, Ned And Stacey, playing a Manhattan ad exec. Throughout, his deep, melodic voice landed him a bunch of voice-over and animation work, as he selected various projects while living on his farm in Texas. Most notable of these was his award-winning turn as a casanova voice-over actor in Alexander Payne’s 2004 seminal movie Sideways. Haden Church was content jumping from gig to gig, until he got a fateful letter from his old Smart People co-star Sarah Jessica Parker. The rest, he tells us, is Divorce history. Before he had to pick up his daughters from school, Haden Church talked to us about the series’ tough sell, how the creators make those phenomenal retro music choices, and yes, what the deal is with the mustache.
Thomas Haden Church: I was on the phone with a buddy of mine last week. And he said, “Man, I’ve read some great stuff. One of my friends is really enjoying your show.” And I was like, “So you haven’t seen the show?” And he was like, “Nah, man. You know. I went through that really painful divorce a couple of years ago and it’s really hard for me to watch something about divorce with kids involved and all. I can’t find any sort of entertainment in that.” And I said, “Well. We haven’t set out to be necessarily nonstop entertaining.” And Sarah Jessica and I along with Sharon and Paul Simms and then, you know, supported by HBO… We never set out to make this like, “Yay! Yay for them!” That’s what I’ve said in interviews, and I think it’s taken people the long way around the problem to understand that this isn’t the bouncy, cheerful Carrie Bradshaw show.
I have to say it’s really been aggressive in trying to get people to understand that. We set out to make this as true to life as we could possibly make it. And then all the comedy was going to come out of ridiculous circumstances, as you’ve been witnessing. Nothing is set up like a comedy bit. I did sitcoms for 10 years. Literally from 1989 to 1999. That’s almost all I did. Whenever I got away from television I was like, “Phew, thank God that’s over. I am never going back.” Until, it was the beginning of 2015 and you know, I had worked with S.J. And really, she’s a delightful person. And she gave me the script with a letter saying, “Hey, I know we don’t have the same dreams for TV, but please read this and please talk to me.” And of course, who’s not going to respond to that? I read it, and I thought there was something very unique and challenging. And we started talking, and the conversation expanded and you know, here we are.
Again, I’m addressing what I appreciate about your writing, is you really do get it. This isn’t like the Da Vinci Code of TV shows. I’m not saying only a secret society is going to understand divorce. But it is a very specific show. And I don’t know if you looked at a lot of the press. There’s been some unpleasant reviews. And I’m not faulting those people but, they’re really just not getting what we’re trying to do. Which is to say, look. That may not be some people’s taste. And that’s fine.
AVC: Were you familiar with Sharon Horgan’s work, like with Catastrophe? She really likes to go to that dark side.
THC: I was not. It all started with Sarah Jessica and HBO with me. And then they were like, “Are you interested? Would you consider doing it?” I said, “Yes, but I do need to talk to the showrunners.” But then I had these conference calls with Sharon and Paul, and you know, I’m a very collaborative guy. And people know that about me. And I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been an actor. I wrote short stories like crazy when I was in high school and college. I worked in advertising before I moved to L.A. to pursue acting. And I’ve always just been a very collaborative person. And I said, “I have a lot of ideas, not always specific to [Divorce character] Robert, but just to scenes and how the stories fold.” And they were like, “Hey. Bring it. Give it all to us. We welcome your ideas and you with open arms.”
AVC: Oh, that’s so cool.
THC: Yeah, it was really cool because the very first call, I gave them a bunch of notes and I said, “Look. I can’t fully commit to this until I know the bonds of what we’re saying we want to do are really going to be intact.” And they literally turned a whole new draft around on the pilot in two weeks and sent it to me. And that virtually incorporated every single idea that I had.
AVC: What were some of the things you brought?
THC: I don’t want to get too specific, because I don’t want to take anything away from them, you know?
AVC: That’s understandable.
THC: There’s a writer-producer. In fact, he worked on Sex And The City as a producer. He called me yesterday and goes, “I know your tricks, Mr. Church. I see all the things that you’re doing. And I know they didn’t write it. And I know you, and I know what you do.” And so people who know me know the stuff.
Oh, I’ll give you one example. The whole opening scene in the pilot with, you know, using the coffee can as a potty in the garage. That was all my idea. They had something else completely there and I was like, “You know what. I think this is going feel a bit familiar. How about this idea?” And I pitched it to them, and Sharon absolutely, was crying on the phone in laughter. She said, “Oh my god. We have to do that. Are you kidding? That’s a brilliant way to open the first episode of an HBO series.” But it also sets the stage for the level of bizarre, kind of repulsive level of discontent. And while I say I may or may not have actually crapped in the can, the truth of the matter is, he did. When I pitched it, I was like, “He did it. That’s how desperate he was to use the bathroom. He did do it.” They wanted us to qualify it a little bit because they thought it was maybe too disgusting. And so, we decided to qualify it with, “While I may or may not have.” But anyway, there you go. Behind the scenes, Gwen. The making of Divorce.
AVC: It’s interesting you mention your sitcom history because there’s stuff that you do that you do on the show, that we’ve seen you do similar stuff before. Like, when you’re fake-talking on the phone after you lock Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Frances out of the house. It doesn’t seem out of character for the characters we’ve seen you do. But there’s something so funny and tragic about Robert. You just seem really vulnerable and you’re bringing a lot to it.
THC: I was doing a movie in Canada last year right before I had to move back to New York to start the series. And way beyond, two months before we started shooting, Sharon started sending me script and, “Let’s start getting our notes from you and our conference call in,” and got all that going. And you know, at one point, Paul [Simms], we were on a call. And there were some other writers on the call. And they’re like, “If you could describe him in one sentence, what is inside of him, what would it be?” It came out of me immediately, I was like, “He’s holding back the doom.” There’s a doom, it’s like always sort of lingering around Robert’s perception of his life and his future but it’s indefinable. But he is just trying to keep it manageable. And I know that sounds like, “That’s not very precise in terms of a character development.” But it’s just something that came out of me.
And it’s just like any performance that’s given where I really just completely lost myself in that life. Sideways… that was probably the first time that I really felt that I did it. That I completely put myself in another man’s life. And I definitely feel that way with Robert. I’m so completely immersed in it. You know, [Sarah Jessica] is so authentic and I think that she is doing some really wonderful character work herself. And Molly—you made a note of the scene between Molly and I. I’m overjoyed at being opposite of Molly. People have no idea of Molly’s—because of her SNL characters—they don’t really have a good idea of what Molly’s real profile is as a person, as an actor. I think Molly really flirts with genius because in non-dramatic scenes—she’s so specific, but so believable. And with Tracy Letts, it’s really a strong ensemble, I believe.
AVC: Another thing I really like about it, which you don’t see on every show—I can’t imagine that it would be easy to go on screen and play these characters that are inherently unlikeable. We’ve never seen Molly Shannon like this. Sarah Jessica Parker snapping at somebody to get out of the conference room. That’s not usually the side of her that we see but that’s the way people are in real life, and I think that really helps bring it across.
THC: I remember there were a lot of conversations whenever we went post-production on the pilot. And I remember specifically talking to S.J. and there were opinions, and I don’t know if it was focus groups, but there were opinions on, “Well, you know, are a lot of people going to come with the expectation that she’s as likable as Carrie Bradshaw?” And I remember her saying to me, “I don’t… that has never entered into my mind about is this character likable?” And clearly, especially with the way the pilot ends and the things that I say to her, I think it’s pretty obvious I’m not too concerned about how likable Robert is.
And this comes back to what I was saying. We never set out to make this show this nonstop entertaining. We want the show to be compelling. There’s moments that are very personal. There are moments that are sort of unwatchably vulgar or intimate or pathetic. I even had this conversation with my mom. My mom saw the pilot and she was like, “I just thought that some of it seemed nasty.” I’m like, “Mom. You’re from a whole different generation. And yeah. There’s some nastiness that goes on. It’s marriage. These people have been together for over 20 years. And he’s got some pretty intense baggage that they whip on on each other, you know, during any sort of conflict.” But yep. I know what my mom is referring to—they have a talk show on Sirius XM by Jason Ellis. That line, “Lick your vagina and tongue-dart your anus,” he got that on a button on his show. He’s a good buddy of mine. In fact, I’m doing his show next week when I’m in L.A. But yeah, my mom was like, “Oh I just can’t stand it sometimes. It’s just so nasty.” Well. Maybe people are. I feel like I’m not letting you ask a question, Gwen. I’m just eager to talk. I’m talking too much.
AVC: No, not at all. I did want to mention, the Christmas episode is my favorite so far. I love when you’re telling her, “I love your parents.” You’re getting divorced, but it’s hardly about just this one relationship, about how everything shifts and how wrenching that is. Like even with everything they’re going through, the last thing we see is Robert with that really evil lawyer, which looks like it’s going to be hilarious, that they can still be there for each other during the holidays.
THC: Now, Dean Winters [who plays the lawyer Tony Silvercreek] is fantastic. I mean, every scene I have with him. And I always tell him my favorite scenes are when we have to get into like these depositions and stuff with our lawyers. Dean is fantastic and after the Christmas episode, I’m pretty sure he is in every episode.
I like the Christmas episode too. It was one of the more emotional ones because we had those scenes when we’re in bed together, which I thought were very touching. It was very poignant moments between Robert and Frances.
I thought the parents, oh my God. They just were selected so carefully. And it gives the kids an opportunity to start getting them more character and getting them more of the bandwidth to understand what they’re going through. I really do think that those relationships start to become very, at times, sort of tragic. But at times tragic-comic with Tom and Lila with the kids. That episode with them, breaking the news to them about the divorce. How do you feel about that, like at the jump, they’re sort of indifferent. Did that feel authentic to you?
AVC: Oh totally. Because I have two kids—they’re a little younger than the kids on the show—but they know everything. So if my husband and I are fighting or we’re not getting along about something, the kids are like, “You guys are so mad at each other right now. You’re pretending like you’re not but you totally are.” So, I feel like kids absorb everything anyway. That rang really true.
I also feel like divorce is losing that stigma it once had. I was married before and got divorced really young. And at the time it was the worst thing. I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t get divorced. Nobody is ever supposed to do that.” And now I work with twentysomethings that are like, “Divorce is the greatest thing that ever happened to my childhood because my parents obviously hated each other and they stayed together for the kids and as soon as they broke up, we were so much happier.” And your show is helping to show how that’s possible. Yeah, it’s going to be hard, but in the long run, nobody goes through divorce because they think they’re going to be more miserable after it, right? It’s going to be good eventually. It’s going to be better.
THC: Right. And I’ve never been married, and I’ve never been divorced. But I have had some very serious relationships. I was engaged twice. And you know, the way that those relationships ended, it was very very heartbreaking. And the second time it happened, we have two daughters together. So, initially, whenever we split up, my older daughter I think was like 5 or 6. And you couldn’t really get a good response from her. But now she’s 12, she knows. And we’ve discussed it. She’s like, “Yeah. I really thought you guys were unhappy. But I didn’t really know how. I thought it was just going to go away. And it didn’t go away.” And she completely understands it now.
The two next episodes, we really do start to flesh out Tom and Lila [the couple’s two childen], and it’s pretty heartbreaking for them. And there’s a couple of places where they’re both so plainspoken about it. With not giving anything away, there is an attitude of, “Why can’t you just figure it out? And why can’t we just be a family? Why is this what you’ve chosen to do? Why can’t you guys just be back together and get along?” And he’s supposed to be 16 in the show, and she’s supposed to be 12 I think. And they are—I think Charlie [Kilgore, who plays Tom] turned 17. And Sterling [Jerins, who plays Lila] is a year older than my daughter, so she might be 13 now. They’re both such smart young people and they really do get the specificity of all of the stories and what their characters are doing. I think, God, if you look at Sterling, she’s heartbreaking. Her eyes are so expressive. But I also love the way that Charlie—there’s this amiable, enthusiasm to him all the time—but if you go right past the surface, there’s so much going on with him. And I think that just really comes out, you know, as a performer. The intelligence of the individual.
AVC: I don’t know how much you are involved in this but all of the music in the show is all the classic rock music I grew up with. I love it. I think it’s such an interesting choice, because they’re songs from decades ago but they’re all so spot-on. Are you involved at all with the thought-process behind that?
THC: I am involved in it. But I’m not going to take credit for it because from those very early conversations, Sarah Jessica, Paul, Sharon, were all sort of—Sharon’s a little bit younger. I want to say Sharon is in her mid to late 40s. But S.J., Paul, and I… I mean, I’m older, of course. I’m always the older guy now in everything I do. But we’re all in our 50s and, that music from like the mid-late ’70s, like you’re describing, there’s a defining coming of age, rite-of-passage thread going.
I’ll give you an example, like that scene in the third episode when Robert is lying on the floor in Lila’s room, that song is “Starship Trooper” by Yes, and it’s one of my favorite songs. The first incarnation of Yes predates me with my three older sisters. My sister Nancy is eight years older. My sister Rita is four-and-a-half years older and I have another sister who is two years older. My sister Nancy was kind of a hippie like in the early ’70s. She was real hippie. And then my middle sister, I would go into their room because we didn’t have a stereo, my brothers and I—my sisters always had stereos in their rooms. I would go into my three different sisters’ rooms in the early-mid ’70s and they had very specific different tastes in music.
I specifically remember lying on my different sisters’ bedroom floors and listening to their record collections. And “Starship Trooper” was one of my sister Nancy’s favorite songs and favorite album. And I told Paul, I was like, “I really would like to have a scene lying on Lila’s bedroom floor listening to that song.” We talked about the scene and he had picked Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And I said, “Dude. ‘Starship Trooper’ to me just fits thematically, and also a very mournful song.” And that’s why we did that song. The whole thing was laid out between Paul and I, of even how it was going to be shot. Of Robert lying, literally Christ-like on the floor, playing a stuffed animal. Paul and I are very much in step. As is S.J. But I can tell you that everybody kind of wanted to create, sonically, a ’70s timeless vibe with a lot of the music.
So there’s this song, spoiler alert, unless you’ve already seen this episode—have you seen the one where Robert ends up sleeping with a mom from school?
THC: Okay. In that one, Paul and I talked about the music and we came up with the exact same song by a band called the Raspberries. It’s a song called “Go All The Way” and we had literally came up with the exact same song to end the episode. Like that’s how in step we are. S.J. has had her ideas, Sharon’s had her ideas, and then the other writers and producers and the music supervisor—everybody is involved. But Paul and I are probably the most aligned. And then he and I both thought “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” was a cool song in that scene when Robert is going through his record collection. But then the other stuff, I’ve got to tell you this, whenever they button the third episode with that Poco song… that was somebody else’s idea, but I love that song and I thought it was so poignant for the end of the episode.
And again, I don’t want to take credit for it. It had all been discussed way before I signed on. But it was something that once we started talking about, “Well hey, what is the music going to be like?” You know, when we were shooting the pilot. When everyone was sitting around, “What have you guys been thinking about?” And Paul and I and I think S.J. was sitting there too and probably Sharon and we just started talking about it and everybody was so completely just out of the same book. And it would create this sonic atmosphere of a bit of a forgotten time.
But as I’ve already described, that music is so defining for me. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, I worked in radio. When I was in high school, I worked at two different radio stations. And then when I was in college, I worked at my college radio station at University Of North Texas. So I was way off in that all Billboard and you know, the Hot 100 and all the ridiculousness that was so big then.
AVC: You have such a great voice for it.
THC: Thank you, I don’t’ do as much voice-overs as I used to. I periodically get a voice-over campaign. But I used to do a ton of voice-over stuff.
AVC: I have one last tiny question about the mustache. I remember it coming up at the TCA panel this summer. That you had come from a movie with a beard and a mustache and you said you looked like a Civil War general and then there was just the group decision to keep the mustache for the character.
THC: A month or so, I guess, before I did a small role in this movie Daddy’s Home with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. And my hair was kind of long and I didn’t have a beard, but I had a really bushy mustache and a really bushy goatee. And so I thought, “I’m going to keep my options open and keep everything that I have and see what happens.” I don’t think they even asked for a picture of what I look like.
So I just showed up in New York and I had this longish hair and goatee and mustache. I don’t even think Sarah Jessica had an opinion. But Paul and Sharon are like “Mmm…” But the back story of Robert is that he was a manager guy. Only a few years before the show begins, he was a real buttoned-down, Wall Street guy. And so we thought, okay. Well, now he’s a contractor. He’s going to want to separate himself a little bit and look a little more blue collar so he fits in on the construction stops. So it was like, maybe we leave the goatee and the hair is a little shorter but maybe the mustache.
And I’m not kidding you, it’s such a random thing. Paul and Sharon were like, “Shave it if you want.” Nobody even really had a strong opinion on the length of my hair, the goatee. Nobody really had a strong opinion about it but as I’m describing it, it’s like well if he was that guy, he probably wouldn’t go all the way to looking like a Civil War general. Or trying to look like a hipster. He wouldn’t go that far. But it was really just, “It’s up to you, man. Do whatever you want. You’re playing the guy, you do what you think is authentic.” So that’s how the mustache just kind of took on, as you have witnessed, the whole other thing. I don’t know if the mustache is going to survive to the second season.
AVC: Do you guys know if there’s going to be a second season?
THC: We do not know. In fact yesterday I was on the phone with Paul and HBO… no, we don’t have anything official. But honestly, I think it’s looking pretty good. Yeah, I don’t want to jinx anything but the ratings are good, the reviews have been good. I think that HBO—look, that’s why everybody wants to work there. Because they give their shows room to breathe unless it just doesn’t come out strong—like Vinyl didn’t and it doesn’t come to the end they hoped. They’re very smart people over there. I think they’re the best in the business. My money is on Sarah Jessica Parker and HBO. I wouldn’t have signed on if I thought they weren’t going to give it some room to breathe. But there’s nothing official yet.