Hugh Laurie was in pain. This is often true, but usually it’s because of self-inflicted psychic wounds. The immediate source of his torment, though, was a female voice, flat and affectless, inside a glass elevator at the Natural History Museum in London.
“Over 100 scientists work here,” the recorded voice said, “and it is the home for millions of specimens.”
Laurie winced, putting his hands on his temples and looking around for a way to escape. No luck. We were still in an elevator.
“I hate this woman’s voice so deeply,” he growled.
“Have you picked up a NaturePlus card yet?” the voice continued. Laurie, hunched over, made inarticulate noises to block her out.
As the elevator doors opened, he mimicked the voice’s blank institutional tone. “Welcome to heaven,” he said. “Through the door on the left, an eternal fire awaits.”
We strolled out into “Cocoon,” a Darwin-themed exhibit. Laurie said he hadn’t visited this museum in years. He chose it for our meeting because he believes that “I have no natural habitat.”
It’s true that Laurie has built his career on being an “invasive exotic,” a species that thrives outside its native bioregion, like the walking catfish in Florida. Successful first as a comic actor and writer in his native England, Laurie spent the last eight years in Hollywood, collecting large checks and Emmy nominations for playing an American: the misanthropic Dr. Gregory House on the TV show “House.” Now, to further thwart attempts at classification, he is releasing an album of New Orleans blues, titled “Let Them Talk,” that is scheduled for release in the United States on Sept. 6. It has already hit No. 2 in England, blocked from the top spot only by Adele.
At “Cocoon,” Laurie considered a vitrine filled with insect specimens. “Darwin — a good contender for the biggest single idea anyone’s ever had,” he said. He recently thought about buying a replica of Darwin’s ship, the H.M.S. Beagle (“it’s a pleasantly unprepossessing ship, given the weight of the ideas it was carrying”) but decided against it, on the logic that it would inevitably lead to acquiring the Golden Hind and then the Cutty Sark and H.M.S. Victory — “and suddenly you’re that guy with the boats.”
He headed past an array of interactive touch screens explaining evolution, then questioned a security guard about where he could find a less high-tech section of the museum. “Glass cases, mahogany cabinets, no people,” Laurie specified. Thus directed, we decamped for the mineral gallery and found a bench between the sulfides and the silicates.
Throughout our tour, Laurie had been unfailingly witty and gracious (automated elevator voice notwithstanding), yet he also radiated such self-consciousness and discomfort that a dark cartoon cloud seemed to hover six inches above his head. Sitting in the mineral gallery, he barely had time to offer his opinion on the cultural gap between England and the United States — “We differ by only 5 percent in almost every field, except when it comes to religion, and then we seem to part company by about 300 percent” — before he was approached by a young Asian tourist, asking if he was Dr. House. He signed an autograph but declined to pose for a photograph. “I really hate pictures,” he said apologetically. “I’ve got a bit of a thing about it.” She walked off, slightly disappointed, and Laurie tried to explain. First, he went for glib but funny: “Schrödinger’s cat notoriously refused all photographs,” then “it steals some of my soul — and I don’t have much of a soul to begin with, so I can’t spare much.” Furthermore, he said, it implies a fundamental mistrust between the photographers and the people closest to them. “Can’t you say to your friends, ‘I met Steve Martin?’ Why is that insufficient? Do your friends not believe you?”
Then he spotted someone taking his picture while hiding behind a nearby pillar and he decided it was time to leave for lunch.
“Hugh is the most miserable man alive,” says Robert Sean Leonard, who plays Laurie’s best friend on “House,” Dr. Wilson. “Hugh is complicated, Hugh is moody, Hugh can be a royal pain in the ass.” Leonard’s tone is almost admiring.
That misery has been fermenting for 52 years: Laurie, born June 11, 1959, grew up, not especially happily, just outside Oxford, England. The youngest of four children, he was a self-described “horrible child” and a constant source of frustration to his mother, who suffered from mood swings that may have been clinical. (She died in 1989; his father, who was a doctor, in 1998.) Despite his habits of cheating on French tests and smoking in school bathrooms, he attended the ultra-exclusive Eton school, where he won a British junior rowing title, and then Cambridge, where he majored in archaeology and anthropology. A bad case of mono ended his promising sports career, so he joined the Cambridge Footlights comedy troupe, which also included Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson. (Laurie and Thompson dated at the time — she has described him as “lugubriously sexy, like a well-hung eel.”) After graduation in 1981, Fry and Laurie became a comedy duo, starring in “Jeeves and Wooster” on TV and in a four-season run of the sketch show “A Bit of Fry & Laurie.” Soon Laurie became famous in England as a comic actor with a specialty in playing upper-class idiots. Later, he became famous
worldwide for playing Dr. Gregory House.
“House” made its debut on Fox in November 2004; by 2008, it was the top nonreality show in America and the most-watched program in the world. (Oddly, it’s not a particularly big hit in England. Fry says he has even been asked, in London, whatever became of Laurie.) The show dabbles only lightly in the usual tropes of hospital soap operas; instead, it’s fundamentally about faith in a hidden order to the information overload of our modern world. It’s also about hope that, after the requisite number of wrong turns (and commercial breaks), a correct diagnosis will be made and the secret architecture to life will be revealed. That might seem like a particularly 21st-century conceit, but Dr. House was based on the most iconic of 19th-century characters, Sherlock Holmes.
Laurie never expected the show to do so well. “Everybody assured me it would end in a few weeks,” he says, a little sadly. “It took me a long time to believe it was real.” His family never relocated to Los Angeles; he’s married to Jo Green, a theater administrator, and has three children, 18, 20 and 22. He thinks this season is probably the show’s last. The ratings have dimmed slightly of late, though it remains a mainstay of the Fox schedule, placing No. 13 last season among viewers 18 to 49 years old. “We’ve had a fantastic run,” he says. “Long enough for me to become not just a professional doctor, but a specialist.”
Many actors take a blithe pleasure in pretending to be somebody else, but Laurie seems more interested in blotting out his own personality. When he’s acting, he doesn’t have to be himself. From this perspective, the role of House is a first-class vacation: an abrasive and acid-tongued American doctor. The longer Laurie plays House, though, the more of himself comes through in the part: his comic timing, his musical ability, his fondness for motorcycles. He has slowly remodeled House in his own image: a charming rogue trailed by a black cloud. Escaping yourself, it turns out, is never as easy as it seems.
Eating beef and drinking beer in a nearly empty Scandinavian restaurant, Laurie discussed his approach to the character. He said that other actors might see six ways of playing a scene and then agonize over which is the best one. “When I read it, I know exactly what it should be. My struggle is trying to do what’s in my head.” He shrugged. “Which might be wrong.”
Fry told me, “If the ‘House’ set has a reputation of being a place of some tension, which I think it does, it’s because of his perfectionism.” When they wrote together, he said, “I’d be the one saying: ‘We’ve got to do something. We can’t not do anything because it isn’t perfect.’ ”
Is Laurie happy playing House? “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s not a question I ask myself very often. I equate happiness with contentment, and contentment with complacency, and complacency with impending disaster.” Laurie doesn’t make pronouncements like this in the morose tones of Marvin the Paranoid Android; he remains affable, as if he were describing somebody else. “I have spent part of my life projecting what’s expected,” he said. “People expect me to be foolish and goofy, but essentially cheerful. But I am closer to myself than I used to be.”
He recently received his sixth Emmy nomination for “House”; he has never won. He cited the aphorism, which he attributed to General Douglas MacArthur, that no piece of news is as good or as bad as it first appears. “The politic thing is to say that the nomination is a great compliment, but there is hassle involved,” he said. “However it may look on television, the reality is four hours of uncomfortable clothes and other people’s aftershave and the constant dread of vaguely knowing someone: have we actually met or do I only know him because he was in that film? And then there’s the stomach-churning anxiety of what is going to happen if I win. I’m going to have to stand up and say something. Please, please, please let it be someone else. . . . Anyway, you can’t say that. You have to say, ‘I am deeply flattered and humbled and indebted to the members of the Academy’ — whoever they are.” He thought for a moment. “Wait — I probably am one of them.”
On a recent sunny Monday morning, Laurie drove down Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles behind the wheel of a cherry-red 1966 Galaxie 500 convertible. His mood had brightened. We were discussing reports that named him the highest-paid actor on television. He flatly denied it, but stipulated that he is “ridiculously” well compensated — paid much better to simulate the work of a doctor than his father was as an actual physician.
“I’ve never been clever with money,” Laurie said. “I will buy anything at the top of the market.” He had coveted the Galaxie since he was 19; recently, he purchased it without blinking. “In a funny way,” he muses, “the biggest difference now is not that I have the car, but that I lack the coveting. I genuinely love the car — it puts a spring in my step — but the coveting was almost more beautiful.” (Two days later, he e-mailed me, having spent the intervening hours obsessively overthinking various “fatuous utterances” he made during our interview. “How dare I complain of such a predicament, which isn’t a predicament at all? I could regain the coveting in an instant simply by getting rid of the car.”)
Laurie pulled onto the Fox lot; it was his first day back at work. Unfortunately, he forgot his ID. “This will be an interesting test,” he murmured as we approached the front gate. “We’ll see just how big the show is. I’m going to try bold confidence and a winning smile.”
He waved and said, “Hey, how are you?” — abruptly switching from his native English lilt to a flat American accent. The security guard waved and opened the gate.
After parking, Laurie cut through the studio lot’s New York street set and discussed the differences between British and American TV. “I think good-looking people seldom make good television,” he said. “And American television studios almost concede before they start: ‘Well, it won’t be good, but at least it’ll be good-looking. We’ll have nice-looking girls in tight shirts with F.B.I. badges and fit-looking guys with lots of hair gel vaulting over things. So at least we’ll have achieved that base standard of entertainment.’ ” He shook his head. “I think that’s hugely misguided. The glory of American television is Dennis Franz.”
Laurie headed to the makeup trailer to get burnished for a camera test. Odette Annable, a model-perfect brunette who was playing a prison doctor in the season’s first episode, sat in the chair next to him. He turned to her to make sure she was being treated well by the show. She said she was.
“My door is open,” he told her.
“Thank you,” she said.
“That’s not actually true,” he joked. She smiled uncertainly.
Laurie headed to his trailer, a beautiful stainless-steel torpedo, for a costume fitting. Outside the front door were two plastic flamingoes, each in its own pot of dirt. “I may have mentioned flamingoes as a joke,” he said. “I have to be careful. I’m a bit of a big cheese on this show, so jokes have a way of coming true.”
Once, when they were younger, Fry and Laurie were asked by their mutual agent to name the person whose career they would most like to emulate. Fry nominated the playwright Alan Bennett. Laurie opted for a cross between Peter Ustinov and Clint Eastwood, perhaps with a dash of Mick Jagger.
In retrospect, Laurie finds this choice fickle verging on bizarre: “The whole point of being Peter Ustinov is you were being six people, because he was a very gifted actor, writer, director and raconteur. It seems flawed to choose someone because they have so many faces and then add two more. Clint Eastwood and Mick Jagger very definitely had one each — they were who they were.” Laurie longed for that singular focus and unfettered expression of self, but “settled for spread betting. I wouldn’t be able to act like Al Pacino or play the piano like Dr. John, But I could probably act better than Dr. John and play the piano better than Al Pacino.”
About Laurie’s musical inclinations, Fry told me: “I had given up on the idea that Hugh would ever come out about his music. I knew where his passion lay, and I didn’t think he’d do anything about it. But when he said he’d agreed to do an album, and he’d actually sing and play and it wouldn’t be a joke, I thought that was a sign of something wonderful.”
Making an album is treacherous territory for Laurie: for the most part, people are suspicious of celebrity hyphenates, whether they be painter-directors, rapper-designers or actor-novelists. Laurie has also written a novel, in fact: “The Gun Seller,” published in 1996, is an odd but enjoyable cross between the international intrigue of Robert Ludlum and the mannered comedy of P. G. Wodehouse, leading to prose like “there I was, the model in diagram (c) in the chapter headed ‘Neck-Breaking: The Basics.’ ”
To produce the record, Laurie approached Joe Henry, whom he revered for his work on Solomon Burke’s “Don’t Give Up on Me.” “I did a little bit of homework,” Henry recalls, “and Elvis Costello told me in an e-mail that he had visited a set with Hugh, who had been playing piano during a break. Elvis said: ‘This guy is a musician before he’s anything else. He’s probably a better musician than an actor.’ ”
So Henry and Laurie met for coffee in Henry’s kitchen. They both knew that the track record of most actors making music ranges from dismal, craven hit-making (Don Johnson) to eccentric vanity projects (Crispin Glover). As a career move, it doesn’t even have the advantage of novelty: this past summer alone has seen debut albums from Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins. So Laurie told him the simple truth. He wanted to make the album because he loved the blues.
The resulting disc of 15 cover songs was recorded in eight days of sessions in Los Angeles, and one in New Orleans for Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangements. It features a few luminaries: Irma Thomas, Tom Jones and Laurie’s idol, Dr. John, who sings on a relaxed, sexy version of “After You’ve Gone,” with Laurie on piano. “He can be quite ornery,” Laurie says fondly, “but he was in really good form. We played for half an hour, and then he sat in the control room and told stories for a while. It was such a good day, I wanted it to end so I could have the chance to replay it in my head.”
As for himself, Laurie says, “There’s a hierarchy of piano players in New Orleans, and I’m not even ranked.” He is being modest but accurate. Still, with music, he says, he can take pleasure in the moment instead of continually berating himself for his flaws. Which is why he hopes to make another album. “Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have dared,” he says. “Too nervous, too shy, too pessimistic. But now I’ve had a glimpse of this most wonderful existence, and crikey, it tastes good.”
Long Winded SOURCE
Hugh in the pic looks hilarious and flawless at the same time! Also, Let Them Talk is now available in US Starbucks stores, so get rid of your illegally downloaded copies!