‘Divorce’: Thomas Haden Church on Making “Unlikeable Watchable”

     November 6, 2016

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The 10-episode HBO comedy series Divorce tells the story of Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) who, after more than a decade of marriage and two children, has suddenly begun to reassess her life and her strained relationship with her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church). As he struggles to come to terms with their marriage falling apart, she discovers that making a fresh start is not an easy task, especially with so much history between them.

During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Thomas Haden Church talked about what drew him back to TV, after 20 years away from it, the open door policy between the actors and writers, how much his input has found its way into the series, making unlikeable watchable, how he approached his character, balancing the humor with the darkness, and why he thinks there’s still story to tell.

Collider: Divorce is not a pleasant or happy subject to explore, so what was it about this show that made you want to be a part of it?

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Image via HBO

THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: Principally, I’ll give anything a chance, only because the greatest challenges are the ones that you never see coming. But the first thing I heard about Divorce was that Sarah Jessica [Parker] was doing it. Having worked with her previously, and more importantly promoted a movie with her, I knew that I really liked her a lot and I admire her. I hadn’t done TV in 20 years, but I wanted to be professionally diligent because it was Sarah Jessica and HBO. So, I read it and, honestly, I wasn’t that interested in doing a show about divorce because it seemed – and this is a stupid assumption – like a bit of a dead-end topic. If you’re doing a show about divorce, then they’re probably going to get really deep into the divorce and all of the problems, confrontations, and upheaval, along with the funny because it was described as a dark comedy.

But, I read it and felt there was something there. We started having conversations and I came up with a lot of ideas. We discussed those ideas and they said, “Let us go do another draft with your ideas in hand.” They turned the draft around very quickly, and I read it and realized that these are sincerely collaborative people. They’re not bullshit collaborators. They never said, “We’ve all decided that this is the way this is supposed to be. You can change it a little bit, but we really need you to do it exactly the way it’s scripted.” Nobody ever approached me with, “You need to do this the way it’s scripted.”

That shows a lot of trust in the cast of actors, which must be nice.

CHURCH: That starts with Sarah Jessica trusting me, from doing a movie together several years ago, and I’m going to be there on the day and help convince the audience that it’s worth their while. It’s the full spectrum. Making it is one thing, but getting out there and being a foot soldier and supporting what you did, sometimes a year ago or longer, is all part of the professional process. So, we shot the pilot and it was a very good experience, in spite of shooting in the dead of winter in New York when it seemed like a blizzard was coming at the top of the hour. We got through that, and then HBO picked it up pretty quickly. We got picked up in April, but we didn’t start shooting until November, so there was a seven-month run-up of what the continuing story would be. It was always an open door policy, and we can call them or shoot them a text whenever. I’m not a big email or computer guy, but the door was always open. And then, a month before we started shooting, I went to New York and we read the next three or four scripts at a table read, and then there was a production meeting, script meeting, a big Robert meeting, and SJ had her meeting. Everyone worked through it in such a thorough way, and no way was that my experience, 20 years ago in television. It’s not exactly the uniform experience on movie after movie after movie either, which is all I’ve done. There’s no way not to appreciate that. I’m 27 years and counting, as a professional actor, but also as a writer, a director and a producer on different things. I really respect, admire and appreciate how thorough all of it was, and that started with HBO. It’s elite television. If Sarah Jessica Parker came to me with this show and it was going to be done at NBC or TNT, my interest in it would have been less. I watch sports, I watch movies, and I watch HBO. That’s really it.

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Image via HBO

Your character in this could easily have been unlikeable and forgettable, but there are so many more layers to these characters than that.

CHURCH: I think I’ve made unlikeable watchable, in some of my performances, like Sideways. Not to make it sound dogmatic, but in a certain way it is dogmatic, in the sense that we’re so lined up to not do what’s familiar. I know that’s an ironic interpretation of dogmatic. SJ and I, and Sharon [Horgan] and Paul [Simms], and everybody else that became involved, like Molly Shannon and Tracy Letts, was like, “Let’s make something really unique.” Is the subject matter familiar? Of course, it is. Who doesn’t have divorced friends, divorced parents, divorced grandparents, divorced children, or know children, friends or pets of divorce? It’s a universe of its own. So, since that part of it is familiar, we wanted to introduce a totally unfamiliar tableau of divorce. How do you do that? Make it so personal and so accessible and so identifiable, but at the same time, hard to watch, tragic, absurd and shameless. These two people have been together for 20-some odd years and they have children to protect from this slow-motion ugliness and indignity. But at the same time, they’ve still got all the fibers of, “We used to love each other. We used to really respect one another. Every now and then, I still love and respect you. I don’t know if you still love and respect me, but at this moment, I’m too vulnerable to care. I can only expose myself.” We just want it to be raw.

How have you approached finding who Robert is?

CHURCH: I had to start figuring out his pre life and his post life of the divorce. If marriage is the life, is the divorce the death? It’s about figuring out what Robert’s real human experience is, and how to manifest that in me, on screen. That’s how I go at it. Not to sound real actor-y or arrogant, I just try to craft a human being with a human experience, with the soon-to-be ex-wife, the children, the friends, her parents, and all the people that we pull in, like the lawyers, the counselor, the therapist and the mediator. They all have to be uncomfortably involved in it. And there’s always the question of, isn’t there another way to work this out and leave all of that ugliness and carnage? And then, you feel guilt, remorse and responsibility that you’re messing up everybody else’s life and day. It’s a dark comedy, so we don’t shy away from the dark and we accept the comedy. It’s the human experience, however ridiculous, tragic or pathetic it is. We just let that come out.

Everything this guy goes through forces him to rediscover who he is without his family and without his wife. How is he going to handle that?

CHURCH: In the beginning, Robert is a mystery. You learn more about Frances while Robert is a bit more mysterious. The mystery comes out in what seems like a really socially awkward, personally inept, emotionally clumsy guy. With Frances, you find out that there’s a lover and that she’s not just unhappy, but she’s falling in love with somebody else. But, that’s just the beginning of the bigger situation. The loose structure of Robert is that, as he becomes less mysterious and more defined, the more disturbing it becomes. The more you know about him, the more you realize that he’s holding back doom. There’s a lurking menace that’s around him and in him, and he’s just trying to figure out how to deal with it. I don’t think he’s a dangerous guy, but I’m not going to stay that he’s incapable of dangerous situations.

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Image via HBO

How does Robert really feel about his wife’s lover, Julian (Jemaine Clement)?

CHURCH: I won’t give anything away, but that’s one of the places that things become a little unhinged, at times. Initially, it involves ego, sexual possession an emotional possession because nobody has been with her but him, for 20-some years. Every now and then, they came up with something where I was like, “No, I don’t see that, at all. I don’t see Robert doing that. I don’t see Robert behaving that way. This is how I see Robert behaving.” And I made some pretty dark suggestions that they embraced and they’re in the show. There were some malevolent things, particularly with Jemaine. And poor Jemaine. He’s such a sweetheart. He’s a big, gregarious, hilarious New Zealander, and a very good actor, too.

The young actors (Charlie Kilgore and Sterling Jerins) who play your kids are pretty remarkable because they’re so believable. What was it like to work with them?

CHURCH: The actor who plays Tom, I think he has actually tested as a genius. And the girl who plays Lila is really smart, but still very innocent. She’s so pretty and has so many interests. She’s a little bit older than my daughter, and she’s training as a professional dancer and singer, but still has this wonderful open innocence to her. The situations that she’s put in, in dealing with her father and her mother, and the discord and ugliness and awkwardness, are just some honest, authentic moments. They’re both terrific, and they were expertly picked. I watched the auditions for both of them, and I remember thinking, “There’s no way I could be Sterling’s father. She’s just too pretty. There’s no way my DNA delivered someone as pretty as Sterling.” And then, I saw the real Sterling, and she’s silly and girlish and she’s trying to be more confident than she really is. When I saw that, I thought, “Yeah, this could be my daughter.” 

Are you hoping to continue playing this character?

CHURCH: Yeah. We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of the story to tell, and there’s just a good team of people to make it happen. Paul Simms is a legendary producer and he’s just such a great guy. He’s become a good friend of mine and a confidante. There’s such a great balance with Sharon and Paul and SJ, and we have some really incredibly people on the staff, young and old. We have some great writers, producers and directors.

Divorce airs on Sunday nights on HBO.

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