We’ve all heard stories about movie couples who create a lot of heat onscreen but hate each other in real life.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church — the stars of HBO’s Divorce, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday — had the opposite situation.
They’re the best of friends, but the only heat they generate in the show is escalating animosity.
Parker’s character, Frances, is frosty at first with Robert, her husband of 17 years and the father of her two children. She’s cheating on him, by the way.
Robert is heartbroken when she asks for a divorce. He didn’t see it coming. Then he learns about her infidelity and turns vengeful.
He’ll give her that divorce, but it won’t be an “easy, friendly” one. “I’m going to make you miserable,” he promises.
And the series, ostensibly a comedy, is off and running. Unhappily ever after.
Meanwhile, when the camera wasn’t filming Parker and Church, they got along famously.
Thomas Haden Church is a longtime Texan who as a kid lived in Fort Worth and later attended the University of North Texas. He now lives in Kerrville.
“It’s not hard for us to be mean to each other onscreen, because that’s just a performance,” says Church, a longtime Texan who as a kid lived in Fort Worth and later attended the University of North Texas. “Actually, I take that back. Sometimes it IS hard to be mean.
“It’s hard because I love making her laugh and she enjoys me making her laugh. That’s something we have to be careful about, because we can’t get caught entertaining each other as Frances and Robert.”
Divorce isn’t a “sitcommy” comedy in any way. Nor is it a spiritual continuation of Sex and the City, Parker’s airy HBO hit comedy of more than a decade ago.
The show is funny but in a sad way, funny in an awkward-moments way.
Church likes that it might make viewers squirm as much as it makes them laugh.
“We all were on the same page with this,” says the actor, formerly of Wings, Sideways and Spider-Man 3. “Between S.J., myself, [series creator/executive producer] Sharon Horgan and [executive producer/showrunner] Paul Simms, we felt that a funny bit or a funny line should never be what drives the story.
“We didn’t want this to become like a comedic O.K. Corral, a nonstop exchange of sarcastic gunfire. All of the humor has to come organically out of the story.”
Divorce also stars Molly Shannon and Tracy Letts as Diane and Nick, a married couple whose volatile love-hate relationship inspires Frances to make a change.
After Diane pulls a gun on her husband at her own birthday party, Frances wonders, “How do you go from eight years of a happy marriage to wanting to blow someone’s head off?”
By the time the series ends its run, Frances might know firsthand.
Church, who lives in Kerrville, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, landed the role as Parker’s leading man thanks to the friendship they formed while making and promoting Smart People, a little-seen 2008 film.
“Even though the movie wasn’t that successful and we didn’t have many scenes together, we just hit it off,” Church says. “We had a lot of fun doing press together at the Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca and the premiere.
“Sarah Jessica is easy to like, of course. She’s just a delightful person, always in a good mood, boundless energy, even at the end of a 15-hour work day.”
Parker, who’s also a hands-on executive producer, told Church he was her first choice for the role when she sent him the script.
“That, of course, was remarkably flattering,” he says. “So I read the script and I liked the perspective and the honesty of it. This is a story about a marriage, a family that’s getting ripped apart. It’s tragic and nobody is going to get out without emotional injury.
“But in making it real, you’re still going to have comedic moments.”
Church has a feeling that viewers will repeatedly switch loyalties from Frances to Robert and back again throughout the 10-episode first season, which was filmed in Westchester County, N.Y., during a particularly frigid winter (metaphorically perfect for the icy onscreen relationship).
“I think it’s going to be like a tennis match, back and forth, five hours of story with undulating allegiances,” he says. “There will be times when viewers are going to like Robert more than Frances, but there will be times when Frances is going to appear to be in the right and Robert is dead wrong.
“Which is often what it’s like being friends with a couple going through a divorce.
“But no matter who you side with, you know one thing for sure: It’s going to be messy. I quote the great Jim Morrison on this one: ‘No one here gets out alive.’ ”
- 9 p.m. Sunday