A Philosophical Chat About Spies, ‘House’ And Playing “The Worst Man In The World” With Hugh Laurie

He's exactly as smart and intimidating and perfect as you think.

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Even when playing an American, Hugh Laurie is a wonderfully British baddie: highly educated yet morally lacking, silver-tongued and with a wit as sharp as his suit. As the star of hit TV series House, he tossed around sourpuss lines like “It’s nothing personal, I just don’t like anybody. He showed the world that he was a gifted dramatic actor, following his long career in bookish, UK cult comedy series like Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry & Laurie with his Cambridge bud Stephen Fry.

When House ended in 2012, the multi-talented Laurie released his second acclaimed blues album and toured with his band, before signing up for another slate of screen scoundrels including Julia Dreyfus’ running mate in Veep, the sinister Governor in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, and now the exceedingly British yet equally as suave arms dealer Richard Roper in The Night Manager. The new BBC miniseries premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month, where I spoke to Hugh Laurie. To my total delight, he’s not so different off-camera.

Well, mostly.

Playing “The Worst Man In The World”

The Night Manager is an adaptation of iconic British spy writer John le Carré’s novel of the same name, blessed with a fat budget and an A-list Hollywood cast. It tells the story of former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Avengers star Tom Hiddleston) being recruited to infiltrate the inner circle of Laurie’s Richard Roper — an arms dealer unmoved by the human suffering in which he trades. As with most espionage thrillers, there’s an excess of fast editing, exotic locations and gratuitous sex to keep the show romping along. But le Carré’s thriller is also given a contemporary update: the book’s middle-aged, white male intelligence spook Mr Burr becomes Angela Burr (a very pregnant Olivia Colman) and the illegal arms trade relocates from Columbia to the Middle East, backdropped by the Arab Spring.

Roper, however, remains your classic billionaire crook with a young blonde on his arm (Australian Elizabeth Debicki), and an entourage who get to deliver threats like “I’ll hood you and hang you up by those lovely ankles until the truth falls out of you by gravity”. Raising the stakes, Roper is introduced to us as “the worst man in the world”. Which, yes, is a pretty big call.

“You have to ask yourself, what does evil mean?” muses Laurie, launching into one of his characteristic long-winded answers (perhaps a well-honed strategy to deflect questions, having once likened interviews to “putting your testicles out on a chopping board”). “How does one measure evil? In the number of casualties? Spanish flu killed 45 million people in 1919, is Spanish flu evil? Are mosquitoes? We’re now considering wiping out the entire species from the planet, but is a mosquito evil? What makes Roper ‘the worst’?”

“It seems to me he is one of the angriest things [le Carré] ever wrote, this character. There is something appalling about a man who has been blessed with every privilege. He’s an upper middle class Englishman who’s had a very comfortable, privileged background; every opportunity that the world could give, he has taken. And in response he has despised the world. Instead of feeling any sense of his own good fortune, he has responded with cynicism and spite, and I think that is a terrible thing.”

Laurie shakes his head in disgust. “That’s an offence against the universe. That maybe is what qualifies him for this title, or to at least be a contender.”

The Show That Took Two Decades to Get Made

The Night Manager has been a long time coming. Laurie devoured le Carré’s bestselling novel back in 1993 and tried to option it right away. “I don’t even know what optioning means,” he said. “I’m not a producer, I just thought it was that good.”

The rights, however, had already been nabbed by Hollywood director/producer Sydney Pollack, and a feature script was written though never made. When Pollack died in 2008, the story became available again and was realised as a six-part TV miniseries instead — which Laurie believes is more fitting.

“There is a detail to the way le Carré writes that isn’t just about a love affair, a couple of car crashes and then the villain’s arrested — I’m not saying that’s what movies are, but there is a sort of density to the way he writes, and maybe it’s better in this form.”

Initially, Laurie envisaged himself as playing the young hero, Pine. “He’s a sort of medieval knight who’s looking for a cause, who’s looking for something he can sacrifice himself for. He’s like a Rōnin.” But the two-decade gap between first reading the book and its production meant the 57-year-old Laurie was instead cast as Roper, and his dream role went to Hiddleston. “It was a little bit painful,” he says. “To see this young, handsome, strapping fellow… But that’s an element of the story. Roper is the old lion, both attracted to and angered by this younger generation who is coming up and is one day going to take his place. I’m happy to say we got on very well.”

Spies And Cowboys

While The Night Manager speaks to contemporary political events, the series is strongest when it embraces overblown storytelling and clichés. Its goodies and baddies lounge in Swiss chalets and Majorcan villas, trading soapie-length dramatic stares and playing out Faustian themes of desire and betrayal.

“Stories are always better if they’re about something that matters,” Laurie says. “I don’t think that saying illegally selling weapons to illegal organisations is immoral is a particularly controversial view. I think most people will agree with that as a first premise.” He throws a sly grin. “I don’t think that’s necessarily what the story is about. It’s more to do with the characters: it’s about a lost soul looking for a cause, it’s about a man who has put himself beyond damnation and yet who knows at some level that he is guilty and possibly wants to be betrayed.”

Laurie is not just an actor and musician, but also a writer and novelist, and there are strong parallels between The Night Manager and Laurie’s novel, The Gun Seller in this way. The spoof spy thriller (which was originally submitted under a pseudonym) is also stacked with arms dealers and shadowy types from MI6, plus typically twisted Laurie lines like this:

Rayner’s ears had, long ago, been bitten off and spat back on to the side of his head, because the left one was definitely upside down, or inside out, or something that made you stare at it for a long time before thinking ‘oh, it’s an ear’. And on top of all this, in case you hadn’t got the message, Rayner wore a black leather jacket over a black polo-neck.”

I asked Laurie what it is about spies that he finds so appealing.

“From the point of view of the storyteller, spies perform the same function as Westerns used to do. They are a world where both the storyteller and the audience has a certain set of rules that they can understand, which allows the storyteller to go deeper than they would otherwise.

“I mean, I enjoyed The Martian very much, but if you set a story on another planet, none of us know what that is like. On the other hand, we have been educated over decades to understand something about the workings of the spy world, as we were educated over decades to understand the morality of the Wild West and what High Noon really meant, and what Gary Cooper’s character was really going through… It’s partly about creating a world that has certain rules that we all understand, whereas I don’t really understand gravity on Mars.”

The Good Doctor

House made the record books as one of the world’s most popular TV series, watched at one time by more than 81 million people in 66 countries (and reputedly earning Laurie £250,000 per episode). Its selling point was always Laurie: misanthropic, daring, with a cane and a stockpile of caustic facial expressions at his disposal.

“Some actors get put in a box that they don’t want to be in,” he says. “There’ll be a man or a woman advertising some constipation medication and they become known as the face of laxative powder, and you think ‘Oh god, that would be just…’” He grimaces. “Whereas I, on the other hand, got to play a character that I loved and admired and found endlessly funny and interesting, so if people connect me with that experience then what can I say, it was an honour to do it, so I’m lucky, very lucky.”

What’s in store for Laurie now? While House precipitated a slippery slide of villainy down to Roper, Laurie’s next major confirmed lead role is another type of doctor: a psychiatrist, in the television series Chance. Based on the novel by Kem Nunn, Chance will stream on Hulu later this year.

Did Laurie hesitate before taking on another medical role?

“For about two minutes. I opened the script and thought, ‘Oh, this is good. It’s a shame I can’t do it because it’s medical’. After three pages I’d forgotten. We’ll have to wait and see but I think it’s very different, the whole atmosphere is very different. It’s about psychiatry and about consciousness and identity and obsession, and what about this three pounds of — I can’t do that in kilos, whatever the brain is — but whatever it is in there that forms who we are. This extraordinary piece of matter that we know so little about.”

One thing we do know is that with killer role after killer role, Laurie’s three pounds of genius are showing no signs of tiring.

The Night Manager screens on BBC First on Foxtel in Australia in March 20.

Annabel Brady-Brown is a founding editor of Fireflies, a film magazine, and an online editor for The Lifted Brow. She tweets at @annnabelbb.