‘I’ve been preparing to play a baddie all my life’
Hugh Laurie on his darkest role yet – and his real life scrap with a champion boxer. By John Hiscock
House Blackadder III. The Night Manager. The Night Manager Manager Tapes, The Night The Cellar Veep Chance.
How evil is Hugh Laurie? The reason for the question will become apparent below. But the answer kind of depends on which side of the Atlantic you watch television. If you watch it in the US – where his long-running series was a huge hit, and made Laurie the highest paid actor on US television (earning a reported $700,000 per episode) – you might think of him as a bit of a misanthrope. So not evil, by any stretch, but definitely a “serious” actor. Laurie’s image in the States is almost wholly based on his character in that drama; a combination of medical whizz and grumpy sociopath who was rude to patients, colleagues and friends alike. (Sample quote: “It’s nothing personal; I don’t like anybody.”) Laurie’s image over here, in contrast, was formed decades ago when he starred in a whimsical sketch show alongside his university chum Stephen Fry, then played the upper-class twit Wooster in a TV adaptation of the Jeeves novels, and then essayed the role of the brain-dead Prince George in (Sample quote from this: “I’m absolutely top-hole, sir, with a ying and a yang and a yippiedeedoo.”) These roles won him a place in our hearts, but they simultaneously froze him in the imagination of the British public as an actor who specialises in bumbling toffs. Which makes him a surprise choice for the role of an evil arms dealer in the new BBC One drama Hence my question. Can he play the bad guy? “I’ve been preparing since I was a young boy for being bad and I’ve done a lot of background work and I am profoundly bad,” he jokes when we talk in a suite in the W Hotel in Hollywood. Then he adds, more seriously: “Villainy serves a purpose in all good storytelling. It’s a very well trodden path, in all kinds of stories, so when I was offered the chance to play [his character] there was no way I could possibly pass it up.” And Laurie is brilliant in the role. An adaptation of a John le Carré novel, is about a former soldier (played by Tom Hiddleston) who infiltrates the entourage of Richard Roper, an arms dealer described by one character as the “worst man in the world”. When the series opens, we are in the midst of the Arab Spring and Roper is supplying the Egyptian government with arms and tear gas to quell the pro-democracy uprising. Laurie plays Roper with a combination of seductive charm and unnerving menace. How did he manage to get under the skin of the character? “I just felt like I knew who this guy was,” he says. “I could see and hear him; I could sort of sense his peculiar snobberies but also his weird sentimentality, which would show itself in all kinds of ways. This idea that he’s very fond of animals, he could watch unspeakable cruelty being visited on human beings but he would be brought to tears by a dog being hit by a car or something. It’s that weird collision of sentimentality and cruelty.” The job was particularly daunting for Laurie because he was such a big fan of the book. “I was a devoted admirer of le Carré from a very young age and consumed all the Smiley novels and worried, as a lot of admirers of le Carré also worried I’m sure, that at the end of the Cold War, not only would there be a lot of unemployed spies, there would also be a lot of unemployed spy writers. “But then I read [when it was published in 1993] and, about three chapters in, I actually resolved to try – and I’d never done this before, or since – to option the book in the role of producer, which it turns out I am absolutely pathetic at. “But back then I rather arrogantly dreamed of playing the character Jonathan Pine and then had to sit back and watch Tom Hiddleston be virile and charming and it’s f---ing galling to watch. But yes, I always believed this story was irresistibly noble and thrilling and important. I just think there is a sort of righteous anger about le Carré’s writing in this story.” A conversation with Hugh Laurie is always interesting. The son of a GP in Oxfordshire, the actor was a house captain at Eton, a Cambridge Blue (Laurie’s team lost the 1980 Boat Race by 5ft) and president of the Footlights, where his castmates included Stephen Fry and his then-girlfriend Emma Thompson. They took their revue, to the Edinburgh Fringe, then to the West End and to television, where it aired in 1982. That was the start of his successful career in TV. But the role that took him into the stratosphere was Dr Gregory House. The series, which started in 2004, introduced him to international audiences and won him back-to-back Golden Globes and three Emmy nominations. For several years, he commuted between his home in London’s Belsize Park and Hollywood, which was reported to have put a strain on his marriage. But now he and Jo, his wife of 26 years, are living permanently in Los Angeles where he has a recurring role on the sitcom and will soon begin filming a new series, the psychological thriller In it he plays Eldon Chance, a San Francisco-based forensic neuropsychiatrist who gets sucked into a violent world of mistaken identity, police corruption and mental illness. “It has a sort of noirish feeling to it but it also feels very, very contemporary,” he says. Laurie has been quite open about his own experiences of psychotherapy and once admitted to a writer: “If I don’t have a stone in my shoe, I’ll put one in there.” Today, Laurie tells me he is also something of a control freak. He has a compulsion to be totally involved in all aspects of the production in which he is appearing, whether it is a film or a television series. “I can’t help meddling in other people’s business. It’s something I try and keep under control, but I am a meddler,” he says. “I think it actually comes from my insecurity about my ability as an actor. It’s obviously my hope I’m contributing something, but if I see a piece of prop or a piece of the set design or if an actor is dressed in a particular way I don’t think is right I can’t just ignore it; I have got to get involved. Once I have committed to a thing I love every detail and I am fascinated by the