A bit of Laurie
As House hits Dubai, Hugh Laurie talks to Time Out about his unexpected role, prescription drugs and the embarrassment his American accent is going to cause…
The terribly British Hugh Laurie may be better known on home soil for his eccentric aristocratic small screen acts (playing a bumbling idiot in Blackadder and a plummy-voiced clown in the PG Wodehouse-based series Jeeves and Wooster), but the 47 year-old has recreated himself in recent years with a metamorphosis that Madonna would be proud of. For his latest role as the eponymous Doctor Gregory House in the medical drama House, he’s ditched the public schoolboy caricature and has developed an impeccable American drawl, an impressive tan, and an IQ to rival Stephen Hawking – winning him some rave reviews and an entirely new fan base along the way.
‘I have played stupid people. I don’t know if it’s something about my face. I appear to be well suited to play stupid people and it is a difference in style between British TV and American TV,’ Hugh Laurie splutters in the upper class English accent he has become famous for. ‘American writers tend to write about clever people. That’s just what they do. They write about people they admire. In Britain, we tend to write about people we don’t admire. In fact, most British writers write out of revenge,’ he says – and having penned more than a few comedy series himself, we can only trust his theory. ‘As a character, House has got his stupid moments too though,’ he says, eventually getting to the point. ‘There’s a pretty strong adolescent streak in this character, which appeals to me greatly.’
The prickly character in question is an irreverently controversial infectious diseases specialist whose concept of bedside manner is totally absent. He’s offensive and arrogant and doesn’t give a damn what his patients or colleagues think of him, but in true TV fashion there’s a heart hidden somewhere under the white coat and the good doctor will do everything in his power to diagnose the exotic illnesses trying to kill his patients on a weekly basis. And as if that potent cocktail of winning formulas weren’t enough to get the viewers onside, he also walks with a limp and is addicted to the painkiller Vicodin.
‘It has been a terrific challenge to try and do the character justice and the whole issue of chronic pain and drug dependency. It was a big challenge,’ he emphasises before admitting to a spot of contentious method acting: ‘I took a single Vicodin just to know what that was like, and very pleasant it was, too. I think I lost half a million brain cells, and I didn’t have that many to start off with, but I did it once,’ he says.
It is clear that Laurie has developed a firm affection for his grouchy alter ego and he is quick to defend his character’s lack of social graces: ‘If my life was hanging by a thread, I would go to the good doctor rather than the kind doctor, definitely. Kindness is lovely, but if lives are at stake, then you want the best.’ It’s a sentiment the 18 million or so regular House viewers in the US would probably agree with. ‘It was brave to put such a coarse and unsympathetic character at the centre of a drama, but I think the audience feels the sort of freedom I do in playing the character,’ Laurie says. ‘Maybe TV is the best place for this guy. In real life, he’d be in jail or someone would have punched his lights out,’ he says, ‘but there’s an exhilaration in seeing someone say the unsayable.’
Laurie has been lauded for his latest role since the pilot took off in the States late 2004. The Washington Times, for example, described his performance as ‘perilously close to perfection’. With compliments mounting, Laurie seems content to ride on the crest of his wave of popularity: ‘I don’t think about the future,’ he quips. ‘I did it once in the late ’70s and it didn’t work out. I’m just enjoying what I’m doing. Honestly, I go from day to day expecting to be fired,’ he says with feigned modesty.
But the investment taken to make a success of this unlikely show hasn’t all been easy: ‘I have never worked this hard in my life,’ he readily admits. ‘I have to be in a dark, windowless studio for 18 hours a day. I don’t get out. So I get home; I eat spaghetti bolognese out of a plastic bucket and fall to sleep. That’s my life. The hardest thing is being away from my wife and children,’ he says sincerly before adding with sarcasm: ‘You do what you can with Jacuzzis and huge amounts of cocaine to fill in the gaps, but somehow it doesn’t work.’
With the second season currently making an even bigger impact in the US than the debut (currently showing in the UAE), it seems everyone is a fan. ‘I do anticipate big difficulties with British people hearing me playing an American,’ Laurie says. ‘It’s rather like British people getting very embarrassed of hearing their friends trying to speak French. You know, if your friends start speaking French in a shop, you have to walk outside, it’s just so embarrassing. And I think the same will happen for people watching me play an American.’ After several unfinished sentences he clarifies: ‘But I hope they get over it because there’s so much else going on in this show that is worth their attention.’
While the likes of Hugh Grant and Rupert Everett may have been satisfied to carve a stereotypical Hollywood career out of the awkwardly posh act, it is refreshingly satisfying to see that Hugh Laurie has not just attempted an unconventional transformation, but has flourished in the new role – which we think deserves the attention of not just the British expatriates in Dubai, but all of the city’s discerning residents. Michelle Byrne.
House, TV Land, Mondays 22.00.