About an hour into my encounter with Hugh Laurie, in a suite at the Dorchester in London, he starts protesting at length about how boring his answers to my questions are. He had been talking – rather interestingly – about his theory that television, rather than film, was the medium through which the US “not just projects its image of itself to the world, but actually decides what its image is. It’s America’s way of conversing with itself about what it believes to be important.”
He has just finished telling me that he doesn’t think British TV is as interested in expressing grand ideas about identity and purpose – “I think that’s a bit highfalutin for us” – when he suddenly brings himself up short. This is all so boring that he is boring himself, he says. He gestures towards the iPhone on which I’m recording the interview. “If I get any duller,” he sighs, “I think your phone might actually go: ‘Fuck it, I’m not recording this. Really this application is designed to record things of value. I mean, the assumption was you weren’t just going to record a man scratching his arse. Because if that’s what you’re going to do, I’m quitting. Scramble. Escape.’”
This kind of thing is supposed to be par for the course when you interview Laurie. He famously loathes talking to journalists almost as much as he hates being photographed, and his attitude to being photographed would impress a 19th-century Native American: “I really do believe the camera steals the soul. But that may be because I’m worried about my soul. I don’t have much of a soul to begin with, I can’t afford to lose much.” That said, his aversion to being photographed has not precluded him becoming the “spokesmodel” for L’Oreal’s male skincare range. “Proudly so!” he says, explaining he uses the money to fund a variety of charitable projects in Africa and claiming he doesn’t really know what being a spokesmodel entails: “I made a commercial and I was photographed, I did a poster once. I’ll presumably have to do that again. If you’re going to ask me questions about skincare, there’s not much I can tell you. Don’t rub a cheese grater up and down your cheeks. That would be my advice. Don’t dunk your face in engine oil or other caustic substances. I don’t know anything about it. They sort of ask you to do this thing and you go: ‘You’re out of your fucking mind, not in a billion years would I consider such a thing.’ Then, as they tell you it’s a great deal of money, the thought crosses your mind: ‘With that money I could build a school in Senegal.’ And then you can’t say no. Because if you do say no, what you’re saying is that your public pose is more important than people getting a school in Senegal or polio vaccinations in Uganda or whatever. You can’t do that. You just can’t.”
Still, he once compared talking to the press to putting his testicles on a chopping board – and, judging by his past interviews, it almost invariably turns into an exercise in caustic self-deprecation and soul-searching, which journalists tend to take as symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Laurie has struggled with depression in the past, and seems big on depicting himself as a man who feels guilty about his apparently undeserved success, who doesn’t much enjoy being famous (something of a problem given his eight-year tenure as the titular star of House, which ended last year but at its peak was the most-watched TV show in the world, distributed to 66 countries and for which he commanded £250,000 an episode, getting him in Guinness World Records as the highest-paid actor ever in a TV drama), for whom life was “a gradually descending mist of confusion and doubt” and whose “version of happiness consists of not being happy”.
The thing is, today at least, he does not seem much like that at all. He does react a little suspiciously when I say I like his new album, Didn’t It Rain, a follow-up to 2011′s Let Them Talk, on which he once again performs classic blues songs, music he says he has loved since childhood. “Thank you for saying that, I’m very relieved,” he begins, before frowning. “Well, if you mean it. You have to say that otherwise it’s going to be awkward, isn’t it? ‘Heard your album, sort of hated it. Anyway, my first question.’ It’s a difficult way to kick off, I suppose.”
Then again he seems genuinely startled by Let Them Talk’s success, perhaps with good reason. Actors who parlay their fame into recording careers rarely have as smooth a ride as Laurie seems to have done. Despite a case of nerves in the studio that could be stayed only with “proper and sensible applications of whisky and beta-blockers and picking the right people to be around you – people who, even if they are rolling their eyes and going ‘What a wanker’, at least have the grace to do it behind your back”, Let Them Talk was both well-reviewed and big-selling. He says he didn’t read what anybody wrote about it – “it seems to me if you want to be protected from the unpleasant stuff, you can’t go just reading the good stuff, that seems wrong” – but he can’t have missed the gold albums and the sold-out tours. “I know that it did all right, and I was surprised by it. When people buy a ticket, that I sort of understand, it says my name on it and they’ve watched the television show, and they think: ‘Ah well, if nothing else, we’ll see the bloke off the TV.’ But buying a record, you don’t get that, you don’t get the visual. So I was very, very surprised that people were able to make the sort of adjustment. Because, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I would.” He thinks for a moment. “For example, Clive Dunn,” he says, a little unexpectedly. “Splendid. Clive Dunn, as I understand it, retired to the south of Spain, where he worked extensively in watercolours. I don’t own any of Clive Dunn’s watercolours. I loved him in Dad’s Army, loved him. But not enough to actually seek out his watercolour work.”
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