On HBO’s Divorce, Thomas Haden Church plays Robert, husband to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Frances, who blindsides him in the premiere episode when she asks for a divorce. The HBO show, created by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe), follows the married parents of two as they navigate the logistics of getting a divorce with both humor and pathos. On a recent trip to New York from his home in Kerrsville, Texas, Church dropped by the Vulture TV Podcast to talk Robert and Frances’s backstory, how marriage can complicate relationships, and whether that moustache is real. (Listen to the conversation, and read an edited transcript below.)
Jen Chaney: You were still pretty new to acting when you started out on Wings, a high-profile show on a major network. What was that like? Was it intimidating or overwhelming?
Thomas Haden Church: I think that I was too uncultivated and unevolved to really understand — it immediately was a fascinating, learn on the job kind of situation. And nobody else really — they didn’t know how inexperienced I was. It wasn’t something that you just walked around with on your sleeve: I was really terrible in Equis in college. You don’t walk around saying those things. And I’m sure it still goes on today, although all you’ve got to do is Google somebody and you can find out what the truth is, but then I think people did fabricate résumés. I didn’t even know enough to do that.
Gazelle Emami: You’ve obviously done a lot of film work since your early days in TV. And Divorce is the first series you’ve starred in in quite a long time …
GE: You had met Sarah Jessica Parker working on Smart People, and as I understand it she approached you about this show. What was your conversation with her like?
At the beginning of last year, she reached out to me, which was flattering, and said, “Would you consider doing this with me? Obviously you need to read it. And we need to have some talks about it.” I read it. I had a lot of ideas. And we started having calls with Sharon and Paul Simms and SJ [Sarah Jessica]. I realized they were willing to be very collaborative straight out. There was not going to be any formalities or any corporate navigable waters that I had to be concerned about. It was them and me. And they did exactly what they said they would do. They sent me a new draft of the script. And it was in an evolved state after our talks, and I felt great. I remember Sharon telling me, “We will take all of your ideas” in the first call. And they backed it up.
GE: That must be pretty unusual.
No, when you’re almost 30 years in, people know what to expect from you. They talk to other people that you’ve worked with. And then people adjust their expectations based off of talking to other people that you’ve worked with, other studios. And they’re like, “Tom has a lot of ideas, he’s a spontaneous guy, he’s an improvisational guy. And if you want that on board, then he’s willing to bring it.” Typically if somebody is not willing to do that, then you modify. I did a film, Killer Joe, that was based on a Pulitzer Prize winner’s play, who happens to be one of my co-workers on Divorce, Tracy Letts. This was Matthew McConaughey, myself, Emile Hirsch, a lot of really great actors, Juno Temple. He told us straight up, “I think the play is exactly where it needs to be.” And Tracy did the adaptation to the screen. Even McConaughey accepted that because the script was excellent. And the characters were very carefully crafted. It was a play that Tracy had written in the ‘90s, and it had evolved through different iterations throughout 20 years, different, you know, runs in Chicago and New York and London, so they felt it was exactly where it needed to be in terms of being filmed. And that was an example where, I’m not going to argue about, “I want to improvise.” So you just modify to the circumstances.
JC: You mentioned earlier that this was your first series in 20 years. Why has it been so long? I’m sure you had opportunities to do other television. Were you just not seeing the right kinds of projects? And what was it about Divorce that made you say, “Okay, this is the one that’s worth going back for?”
There were other worthy opponents. But a friendly opponent, you know, like in a chess match, you shake hands at the end. It just wasn’t the right thing at the right time. And especially after Sideways I really wanted to dedicate myself to writing and doing feature roles, because in the ‘90s it was almost uniformly defined by television, that’s pretty much all I did for ten years. Whenever I got clear of television, which was about 2000, I just wanted to focus on writing and producing and directing. And then Sideways came along and it opened up a lot of opportunities. But it was Sarah Jessica Parker and it was HBO, and HBO is a really cool place to do it.
GE: Were you familiar with Sharon Horgan’s work?
Not at all. In fact, whenever we did it, the first season of Catastrophe hadn’t even aired. But she was known in the U.K. She had done, I think a number of other shows in the U.K. But she’s a very self-deprecating individual. And when we first met, we would talk about the other things she had done in the U.K., she [would always go] “There’s no reason you would know about it. It’s culturally insignificant.” But I think Catastrophe is really starting to gain some momentum, right?
JC: Yes, definitely.
GE: Even though I was familiar with Sharon Horgan, I wasn’t expecting [this show] to be so funny. The humor has this goofy sensibility that I really love. Goofy isn’t quite the right word — but you expect it to be really serious and then all of a sudden something really ridiculous is said.
I think everybody’s sort of mission statement was that. We wanted it to be compelling, but we wanted it to be completely unpredictable. And you know, Sarah Jessica and I were completely unified — and not to say that everyone else was opposed to it — but she and I as the principal characters, because we’re defined by our divorce throughout the series — we wanted to have a human experience, really authentic to what they’re going through, the complete unknown and unforeseen and the challenges and the absurdity of having confrontation and lawyers. You know, all of the challenges that divorce brings, and then you have to sit benignly in your daughter’s basketball game and act like everything’s cool. We wanted it to be an authentic mix of everything a family is going through as they’re molecule by molecule being torn apart.
JC: Robert, your character, and Frances, Sarah Jessica’s character, they’re already at a point in their relationship where they’ve grown apart. But did you and Sarah Jessica sit down and develop a whole backstory for what their relationship would’ve been? Is that something that we’ll maybe see at some point during the show?
It wasn’t something that we really mapped out. But it was absolutely the topic of, I dare say, hundreds of hours of conversation. And not just with she and I — with us, with the other actors, with all the producers and writers. Especially before we did the pilot, we had a lot of conversation about who they were professionally, personally, previous relationships, and we haven’t really drilled into that as much as we have, quite frankly, with the other characters. We know the other women and what their other marriages were like. In the first season we learn more about everyone else before Robert and Frances launch into the divorce. Because it’s just a race to keep up, with all the lawyers coming in, and everybody has a commentary, and trying to protect the kids and trying to keep the battleship from sinking.
GE: How would you describe who Robert is when we first meet him?
He’s a lost guy. She kind of blindsides him. But it’s a blindsiding that, to some extent, he’s accountable for out of just emotional desertion. Somewhere along the way, they just started drifting. And at various times it was like, “Hey, we’re drifting apart!” or she was like, “Hey, come back here! I feel like I’m losing you.” But I think that, maybe with a lot of couples that end up in divorce, there’s a desensitizing, and they probably aren’t aware of it because everybody’s like, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” But along the way somewhere, you’re too far apart and you just can’t get the lifeline back over there. One of my favorite lines is in a Crosby Stills and Nash song, “Southern Cross:” “We never failed to fail because it was the easiest thing to do.” I think a lot of times in divorce that’s what happens.
GE: Do you have an idea of what his personality was like when he was younger?
We talk about not too many years prior to the story beginning he was a Wall Street guy, a mid-level money manager guy, made a six-figure salary, she was in corporate public relations, made a six-figure salary. They met probably in their mid to late 20s, maybe had had fairly significant relationships, as much as you do in your 20s, and then they met. And they were ready, it was a great emotional converging point for both of them. They fell in love and they had a life together for a number of years, and then they had their first child and then they had their second child. So when we meet them, we imagine Robert to be around 50 and Francis to be a little bit younger. You’ve kind of already explored most of your potential, emotionally and professionally, by the time you’re in your late 40s. You’ve already made a lot of good and bad choices and you’ve settled into where you think you are going to have a productive, happy 20 or 30 more years. And that’s where the story starts. She’s like, “This is not a good choice. I thought this was a great choice 20 years ago, and this is no longer a great choice for me.”
GE: This is the kind of show where I feel like people are going to identify with in a lot of ways. My co-worker was saying that watching it made him just question his own relationship. I’m curious what it felt like for you doing it. You’ve spoken in interviews about marriage, and how when marriage came up in your own life, sometimes that was what made the relationship go downhill. Why do you think that is?
I’ve never been married. I’ve been engaged a few times. And, you know, in those relationships, it seemed like as soon as “Will you marry me?” was introduced into the dynamic, unfortunately in those relationships, it wasn’t so much you start going downhill but it immediately brought a whole bunch of other sort of expectations and challenges, I think on both sides of, “Do you really mean it? Is this really what you want?” And Do you really mean it? and Is this what you really want? are very hard questions if you’re having some instability in other areas, like family or career. And both of those engagements ended for that very reason. Looking down five years, ten years, Are our goals going to stay the same? I think that with marriage, people go ahead and pull the trigger and get married after a yearlong relationship or a two-year relationship. And sometimes those questions get answered in a very positive, loving way. And sometimes those questions become bigger and bigger unknowns and uncertainties. It’s just so individual and so circumstantial. And I have to admit, my friends that have long-standing marriages that have worked, I’m really, really proud of people that stay in there — they stay in the box and manage to work out whatever comes into that box.
JC: Obviously TV has changed enormously since you started doing it, when Wings was on, and just as a viewer, viewing it from the outside and writing about it, the landscape feels so different than it did 20 years ago. As someone who’s on the inside creatively, does it feel like a different process to you?
No, it mostly feels the same. It always comes down to working through the scripts with the producers and the writers and the director. The only thing that’s different is that the TV that I did on the ‘90s was very sitcom formulaic. And what we’re doing is clearly not that. However, even then it was just, How do I make this authentic? Regardless of the formula, everyone was pursuing the same honesty. If you’re going to get a laugh, get an honest laugh. Don’t get a laugh because you said a word wrong or you made a fart noise. It’s the same thing with Divorce. Even though I consider it to be a balance of drama and comedy, it was always just, Let’s just find the honesty in moment to moment in these people’s story. There’s going to be moments where it’ll be uncomfortable to watch. And I mean because of the intimacy, because of whatever pathetic or unpleasant or sexual or emotional gravitas of what’s happening, it’s like, Wow, this has gotten really personal. And I don’t feel comfortable right now. That’s great. I’m all about uncomfortable viewing.
GE: Last thing — is the mustache real?
It was absolutely real. I shaved it off. They told me I was wrapped and I was going home to Texas the next morning. I shaved it that night. It’s in a sewer somewhere in New Rochelle.