Hugh Laurie made his name playing a dim-witted upper-class twit in Blackadder, and another in Jeeves And Wooster. Then he reinvented himself brilliantly as the curmudgeon Dr Gregory House — and became the highest-paid actor in America.
Now, he’s teetering on the edge of the typecasting trap so many actors fall into . . . by playing another American doctor.
This time he’s a neuropsychiatrist in a show called Chance, a thriller which has already gained him plaudits in America, and will be shown here later this month. In between those two medical roles, however, he shattered the mould in the most dramatic fashion with his spine-tingling menace as the billionaire arms dealer Richard Roper in BBC’s The Night Manager. Starring alongside Tom Hiddleston, he won several awards, including a Golden Globe.
Hugh Laurie shattered the mould with his spine-tingling menace as the billionaire arms dealer Richard Roper in BBC’s The Night Manager (pictured). But could he have played the hero?
‘I was surprised, actually,’ Laurie tells me when we meet for coffee in Beverly Hills. ‘Well, I’m always surprised that anything I do goes from beginning to end without causing people to throw bottles and rotten vegetables at the screen.
‘I never assume that I’ve done anything that is going to interest or touch people in any way, so the fact that we managed to strike such a chord with this one did amaze me. But it did seem to do very well, didn’t it? I was very proud of that.’
And with success has come an avalanche of offers which have made it even harder for him to fulfil his dream of selling up in Los Angeles — where one of his new neighbours is his former comedy partner Stephen Fry — and returning to live in Britain permanently.
‘I don’t actually know where I live right now,’ he says. ‘There won’t be anything to keep me in America for a block of time on the scale of House [which ran for eight series], because they aren’t making TV shows like that any more. But on the other hand, I do seem to be still working in America a lot. It’s just something I have sort of got used to.
‘I have certainly amassed an awful lot of air miles over the years — I could probably bankrupt Virgin if I cashed them in all at once.
‘There was a time when California felt a lot further away from England because you couldn’t get things like tea bags or Marmite or decent cheese. But the world has got a lot smaller these days, and you can get all those things there now — you can even get McVitie’s digestive biscuits, so life is bearable.’
Hugh Laurie (right) says he regularly winds up his co-star Tom Hiddleston about the possibility of being the next James Bond
A certain stress has lifted for both him and his wife, theatre administrator Jo Green, now their children, Charles, 28, William, 25, and Rebecca, 24, are all grown up and off his hands.
‘I think that if a parent is lucky enough to keep their child out of hospital and out of prison up until they are in their mid to late 20s, then they’ve done their job, and I’m very proud to say that my wife and I have gone that far. We do miss them around the house, though.
‘They have their own lives now, so unless we can lay on a good joint of beef for Sunday lunch, we might not see them for a while. They’re very, very funny and very good company, and I suppose I’m going to become one of those wistful parents who wishes the children would visit more, but that is the lot of the parent. Maybe my own parents felt the same about me, I don’t know.’
His own father, William — an Olympic rowing champion — was a GP in Blackbird Leys, the council estate built to house Austin Morris workers at the Cowley plant at Oxford. Laurie is quick to point out, though, that his dad was more along the lines of the BBC’s fictitious TV medic from the Sixties, the benign Dr Finlay, than either of the doctors he portrays on the small screen.
Laurie as the star of the hit US show House
Laurie’s new character, Dr Eldon Chance, is a more sensitive fellow than the egotistical and sardonic Dr Gregory House, but is drawn into the complicated personal life of an attractive blonde patient, played by Gretchen Mol. With a history of money troubles, and battles with a difficult spouse he’s divorcing, Chance is forced to confront his own demons.
Laurie says: ‘Apart from both men having a medical degree, the similarity ends there. I always felt House was a very guarded character — he has a big shield around him of sarcasm and wit, sometimes cruelty.
‘Chance is much more naked and vulnerable — he’s protected by his professional skill, but that skill has not shielded him from the injuries and insults of this world.
‘He’s not tough — he feels the pain of his patients very keenly. He’s a good man, a kind man.’
Another difference, he says, is that while House dealt with diseases of the body, Chance focuses exclusively on those of the mind. And that’s a fascinating place, because if you think about it, the 3lb of stuff we have between our ears — that’s the last undiscovered continent.
‘We’ve climbed all the mountains, we’ve gone down to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and in 20 years’ time we’ll have a Starbucks on Mars. But what is going on inside our brains is something we know almost nothing about, and that, in itself, is a fascinating premise.’
Given all this, why was The Night Manager so important to Hugh? ‘I’d been trying for 20 years to get the original story by John le Carre made. It was such a huge success that we are still reeling from all the reaction.
‘It was a complete thrill, but also sort of scary.
‘When you have something you have really wished for and hoped for and dreamed for, and it at last actually becomes real, then you have the worry of — oh, what if I don’t do it right? What if I don’t do justice to this creation which has been in my head for so long?
‘It’s that old thing that if someone tosses you a tennis ball you can catch it, but if someone tosses you a Faberge egg, then you have the anxiety about dropping it.
‘I loved this book so much that, yes, to have the series made was a gift, but it was also a gift that I was so anxious not to mess up.
‘I’d read all le Carre’s stories that had been set in the Cold War, of course, but by the time this book came out, the Cold War was officially over, and I was thinking “Well, now that the spies are out of work, maybe the spy novelists are out of work, too, because there are no more stories to be told.”
‘But with The Night Manager, I was three chapters in, and I thought, “Oh, yeah! I don’t have to worry about this, because le Carre has found, if anything, a bigger contest between good and evil.” I was gripped. Still am.’
This time he’s a neuropsychiatrist in a show called Chance, a thriller which has already gained him plaudits in America, and will be shown here later this month
Although he is not in the habit of taking screen options on novels, he says that he immediately snapped this one up. ‘I had never before this optioned anything in my life, I am not a natural producer. But I just fell in love with that world and the characters in it.
‘Back then, of course, I dreamed of playing the role of the Night Manager himself, Jonathan Pine, which eventually went to Tom Hiddleston. But the world turns, and we all got older and my hair fell out …’
Laurie smiles ruefully and passes a hand over his thinning locks. ‘But it’s just as well because Tom was absolutely magnificent in it, and I thought the character I did play, Richard Roper, was a magnificent creation, too, so it all worked out for the best.’
He and Hiddleston have become close friends. ‘I tease him all the time,’ he says, his long, lugubrious face lighting up with pleasure as he thinks of his young co-star, who is still one of the favourites to be the next James Bond.
‘We’ll have dinner together and I’ll pick on something about him … his socks, perhaps,’ he suggests happily. ‘I’ll say: “Aha! So you’re wearing socks! Bond wears socks, doesn’t he!” ’ He barks a triumphant snort of laughter.
‘Well, obviously, I can’t let the Bond rumours go,’ he explains. ‘The poor chap has to suffer the absurdity of everything he says, everything he wears, every person he speaks to, contributing to some sort of nonsense — and most of it about James Bond — so of course he has to put up with me making fun of it, too.
Laurie won of Best Supporting Actor in a Series
‘But on the other hand, there are worse rumours for a young man to have to put up with.’
Laurie’s own socks came into the spotlight last October when he — literally — cemented his place among showbusiness royalty with a star outside the Pig’n Whistle British pub on Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame. As a reminder of his roots, he wore Union Jack socks with his smart business suit, but it was no luvvie-fest.
Stephen Fry paid tribute to him as ‘preposterously talented’, but then came the sting — ‘He’s repulsively handsome, slightly knock-kneed and his nipples are too far apart, but otherwise he’s almost perfect’.
Fry himself could be forgiven for being envious of his friend’s success — after settling in LA last year with his husband Elliott Spencer, his U.S. sitcom The Great Indoors was cancelled after one series. Has Laurie offered him any advice about negotiating his way around the perilous world of Hollywood?
‘I wouldn’t presume to do that, good Lord, no! Besides — I don’t know what advice I’d give anyway, because I don’t feel I’ve learned anything at all in my time here, I just bumble on from day to day.
‘People sometimes seem to think that I have a very clever career plan that I’ve been following, but the fact is that I don’t have any plan at all, and never have had. In my own mind, I don’t even really think I have a career — that word sounds far too structured for what I do.
‘If someone said to me now: “OK, that’s it, you’ve had your turn, now you have to go and be an accountant for 20 years,” I would be all right with that. I wouldn’t be much good at it, because I can’t add up. But I’d be quite happy about it.’
- Hugh Laurie’s new series, Chance, starts on June 20 at 9pm on Universal Channel.