Finally, he lights up. Seven-and-a-bit seasons into the life of House, 52-year-old Laurie is at home here, sort of. Today the huge cast and crew are filming episode six of this 22-episode series, production on which began in September and won’t wrap until April next year. “We will have done about 180 shows by the end of this,” he sighs. “Which is ridiculous, really. Ridiculous.”
The season premieres in America three days after our meeting, and the wham-bam trailer is there every time you switch on the television. After driving his car into the front of the home of his boss/sexual-emotional nemesis, Dr House now finds himself in jail and on the receiving end of many prison beatings. “Yeah. Prison seems to sell, doesn’t it?” Laurie notes wryly. “It’s a very good script, a very good script,” he says again — Laurie has a habit of repeating phrases, as if to emphasise his point in the gentlest way possible. “But of course, it’s impossible to do any scene or have any imaginative thought about life in prison that isn’t coloured by 500 movies. I think we might have a bit of Shawshank Redemption in it somewhere,” he smiles.
When he read in the script that his character was heading to jail, did he worry that the long-running series may have lost the plot in an effort to keep the plot gripping? “Not really,” Laurie replies evenly. “Because I do have enormous faith in these writers. They’re very, very clever and tasteful people. And generally I think… not generally, this may be actually uniformly,” he qualifies.
Laurie, Cambridge alumnus and veteran of a thousand partnerships with noted wordsmiths such as Stephen Fry, Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, is a stickler for the proper use of language. “ Uniformly,” he continues, “it’s the case that it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. There’s almost no such thing as a good idea or a bad idea. It’s all about the execution.” As befits the unlikely megastar that he has become, Laurie’s trailer is a considerable cut above the normal on-set accommodation for actors. It has fitted kitchen appliances, a separate bedroom, a spacious lounge. The dining area is cluttered with books, and a packet of Chocolate Digestives, and a copy of a new, French edition of The Gun Seller, Laurie’s 1996 novel.
He leaves for work from his Hollywood Hills home at 5.30 every morning. Even if you have a Triumph Bonneville motorbike or a cherry-red 1966 Galaxie 500 convertible, the work-hours in between his commute are long and arduous. Luckily, he has coffee. “We have a better chance of making the show without a camera than without coffee,” he continues. “I am a coffee fanatic. Once you go to Proper Coffee, you can’t go back. You cannot go back,” he repeats.
“What happens if you end up living back in England full-time?” wonders his PR, hovering in the doorway. Judging by those comments, rumours of House’s demise and Laurie’s return to Britain may not be exaggerated. “You’re going to have a nervous breakdown,” she adds.
Earlier this year the actor turned musician with the release of his debut album, the blues set Let Them Talk. An accomplished piano player with an appropriately gravelly singing voice, he was first turned onto the blues sometime around 1971. He and his brother — Laurie is the youngest of four — were in a car when a song came on the radio. “It’s all a bit hazy,” he told me. “He was driving. So unless we’d stolen the car and he was only 13, I’m thinking I must have been about 11 or 12. I think it was I Can’t Quit You Baby by Willie Dixon. I remember the car being blue; the blueness might have been significant, now I think about it.”
Laurie is in some sort of rhapsody on this warm but rainy LA afternoon because Let Them Talk, a heartfelt and brilliantly executed homage to the music he loves, has been a great success. Laurie launched it with a small concert in New Orleans in April, at which he played piano and guitar and was accompanied by a crack squad of local musicians — led by the legendary Allen Toussaint — and, on guest vocals, Irma Thomas and Sir Tom Jones. It went on to sell half a million copies, mostly outside America. Later today Laurie is promoting the American release with an appearance on The Jay Leno Show and a gig in an LA club.
It follows a handful of appearances in Britain, notably at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and will be succeeded by another clutch of British and European shows this month.
All of which gives him good reason to escape the all-consuming House set. “At the weekend the band and I had one day of rehearsing — we needed four but we had one,” he recounts. “And I was sitting there, listening to the guitarist and the horn player work out something they were going to do. And I just said — out loud — ‘is there anything better than this, really?’ And normally — well, I don’t normally say things like that because I don’t normally feel like that! But that was a moment of ‘phew’,” he exhales, searching for le mot juste. “Close to bliss I would say. Just making the music and being with musicians.” Laurie stops and catches himself. “Are you coming to the show tonight by the way? Yes? Well, I’d better not say any more. ’Cause I can’t deliver on all of this. I’m making it sound much more… ahem,” he coughs, tamping down any expectations.
Hugh Laurie is great company: pithy, funny, urbane, extravagantly knowledgeable about, oh, lots and lots. But there’s also a public perception that he’s a neurotic depressive who tools around LA in his fancy cars, hiding behind tinted windows and scared to visit the launderette.
It’s an image partly fostered by his admissions of stints in therapy, and by interviews in which he gave a very good impression of a man mortified by his extravagant wealth, haunted and hunted by his own celebrity.
For example: in the summer Laurie was presented as the new face of L’Oreal Vita Lift 5. It’s a skincare line. When he spoke to the press in support of the hookup with the cosmetics company, you could almost hear his jaw clench. Now, when I ask him why this fame-phobic multi-millionaire is shilling for unguents, his face creases (he’s not getting enough Lift from his Vita, clearly).
“It’s a tricky thing,” he says. “I know exactly why I’m doing it.” Pause. “What I didn’t know was whether I ought to be saying that I know why I’m doing it. They call you up and say, ‘do you want to do this thing?’ I say, ‘no, you’re out of your mind.’ Then they say a sum of money, and it’s huge. I mean, it’s verging on the wicked, really. But: for that money I could build a school in Sierra Leone. Once that thought enters your head, you cannot turn away from it.
“Because if you do, what you’re really saying is that my pose, the way I present myself, is more important than kids getting an education in Sierra Leone. Who could do that?” Laurie took the job. No, he’s not establishing an actor’s charity vanity project. Laurie is as aware as anyone of the “terrible kicking” meted out to Oprah Winfrey and Madonna for the capital projects associated with their humanitarian work. Having sought out advice from the experts at Comic Relief, he’s putting the money into a fund to be administered by the charity.
Back in London, Laurie’s daughter, 17, has just started an internship in marketing, and his sons, 20 and 22, are at Edinburgh and Bristol universities. He says his daughter is strong-willed, and given to viewing her parents “as beneath contempt. But she’s great as well.” And his sons? “They’re very bright and they work hard and all those things. But, they get depressed if Arsenal lose and they’re happy if Arsenal win! They get depressed if there’s no cheeseburger on the menu, and they’re happy if there is. Those things are big in their lives,” he says wistfully.
When I met him earlier this year, Laurie told me that, “there have been moments in the course of making House when it has been really f—— hard to stay sane. It’s been overwhelming, and there have been moments where I would have resorted to almost anything to make it stop.” Now, this confession may have had much to do with Laurie’s punishing workload, as well as the domestic upheaval occasioned by House’s filming schedule: his family stayed in London when he shipped out to LA; his wife joins him two weeks out of every four. Little wonder he was lonely and stressed. But still, he sounded like a man on the edge. “Did I say that?” he asks, aghast, when I read that quote back to him. I nod.
“Did I really say that? Well, this is quite interesting. I wouldn’t say that now. And that, I believe, is a result of making music. It’s partly the physical sensation of doing it, and it’s also the companionship of musicians.” Acting is a strangely solitary profession. Even if you have been making a top-rated drama for seven years, you still spend a lot of time on your own. But now, finally, Laurie has the camaraderie of a group. And perhaps, I suggest, he’s been crying out for that?
“Maybe, yeah,” he nods. “It’s wonderful. That’s been a real blessing. I feel very, very lucky.” Thus, while he concedes that the portrait of him as a curmudgeonly, gazillionaire Englishman in LA is an easy one to paint, it’s not the whole story. Music, he affirms, has brought him contentment.
“That may be also,” he adds, “the feeling that wherever we are in the life of this show, we’re on the back nine.” He pauses with a Wooster-ish wince. “I just used a golfing term.” So will he be drinking in the 19th hole soon?
“Well, exactly,” Laurie grunts. “Whatever we’re doing now on the show, we’re doing it for its own satisfaction. I don’t feel like we’re struggling to prove ourselves to executives or critics. Not to be complacent about it, but I think we’ve moved beyond that stage and we’re now in the last year maybe, or the end bit.” So, he says, while there has been no final decision on whether this is the last season of House, it’s looking that way. The writers and the key cast are not contracted beyond the end of the season. But he won’t be drawn on his own plans after next April, when filming ends.
Does he have ambitions to make more films? He’s the voice of Santa’s eldest son in Aardman’s new animation Arthur Christmas, his ensemble film The Oranges recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and he shot the lead in Mr Pip (based on Lloyd Jones’s bestseller) in the summer. Will he come back to Britain?
Laurie can’t, won’t, give specifics on any future plans. Save that of course, he’d love to do more music.
“To be honest I don’t really have ambitions in an annual calendar, ‘August, invade Poland’ kind of way. My ambition is really about the next scene and the next story, and how am I going to do that? If I ever feel, ‘I think I got that right, I think I hit that in the middle of the bat,’ then yes, I do get real satisfaction from that.” And yes, he just used a cricketing term.
A few hours later, Hugh Laurie, all gangly limbs and crumpled suit, angles himself onto the small stage of The Mint. It’s his first concert in America, and judging by the screams, the lucky cadre of House fanatics who’ve scored tickets can scarcely believe their luck (or, for some, his accent — “what, he’s English? And posh?”).
Earlier, back in his trailer, Laurie and I had discussed the Dilettante Question. I described how Elvis Costello is enraged whenever anyone questions him about going off-piste and working outside his proven field — an opera here, a classical work there. Costello sees a man indulging his passion and enthusiasms; a fair few other people see someone mucking about in an area in which he’s woefully underqualified. Hugh Laurie, Mr Reasonable to the end, sees it both ways.
“Don’t tell Elvis Costello, but I do understand that. I think when people decide that they’re going to engage with an artist’s work of any kind, whether it’s painting or ballet or whatever, they’re entitled to expect some commitment. I mean if, for example, you were about to go under the knife and the surgeon let slip, ‘oh, I don’t do this full time, I have an accountancy business, that’s what really pays my bills — but I just love working with appendices’ — you would go, ‘hang on a minute, can I have a full-time person please? Someone who’s committed to this?’
“Not to say that commitment makes good art and dil-ett-ant-ism,” he says, carefully rapping out the syllables, “makes bad art. But I can understand why people take it as a sort of baseline — ‘if I’m going to commit to listening, I want to know the bloke’s committed to playing.’ But from my side of it, what can I do? I can’t get around the fact that I have been an actor and I’m only in the position to be able to make a record because I’ve been an actor. I can’t un-be an actor now. I can’t go back and restructure my musical commitment.” So, while Laurie will admit to a sneaking sympathy for the dil-ett-ant-ist argument, he offers a reasonable get-out clause for all concerned.
“I was listening to [the blues musician] Skip James last night, for example. There’s an awful lot of Skip James out there — people should go and listen to that instead. ’Cause that’s the real thing.”