Hugh Laurie - a very English American icon

Gabrielle Donnelly / 01 September 2009 ( 29 June 2015 )

Hugh Laurie rocketed to international stardom in the US TV series House. We meet a modest, unassuming man who is torn by separation from his family in the UK.

“It tends to slip,” he says with a dissatisfied frown. Then he quickly corrects himself. “Well, it doesn’t really slip, because a slip would be something I was unaware of, and I am very much aware that I am constantly making mistakes. We are very aware of accents, we British, aren’t we? We’re terrible snobs, and obsessed by language and what it reveals about people’s backgrounds, their class and education – a nation of Professor Higginses, really. I hear myself making mistakes on the set all the time, and it drives me mad when I cannot get a word right.”

We are meeting – amid trolleys and off-camera bangs and crashes – on the set of House, the hugely acclaimed American TV show in which he plays the brilliant but insufferable doctor of the same name.

An English accent

He’s about the only one who does worry about the accent. During the five years since he took on the role of Dr Gregory House, misanthrope, painkiller-addict, and genius, Hugh has become so closely associated with the character that many American fans of the show have forgotten that he is British at all. Then, intrigued enough by the quality of the writing to go to Hollywood to check it out when he finished filming – he says he did not believe the series would last for more than a few weeks.

“It’s an unusual show in that House is so much not someone that anyone would aspire to be, that when I first read the script I didn’t even realise he was the main character. I assumed that he would just have a couple of scenes every so often... Well, it didn’t turn out that way, and five years later, here I am!”

Here he is indeed, and fulfilling what is pretty much every actor’s dream of appearing in a long-running, critically acclaimed show that also makes him enough money never to have to worry about it again. He is reported to earn $400,000 per episode, making him one of the highest paid actors in television.

Family values 

The problem is that his family – his wife, theatre administrator Jo Green, and their children Charlie, Bill and Rebecca – live in England.

When Hugh signed on for House, he and Jo made the decision not to disrupt the children’s lives by moving them to Los Angeles for what appeared to be a highly uncertain prospect. He still thinks they did the right thing, he says, but it is plain that he misses them terribly.

“If this had come along a few years earlier, when they were small, it would all have been much easier to stick them in schools here, but by this stage, they were teenagers with whole lives – school, girlfriends, playing in bands and sports teams and so on – and it would have been tough to pull them out of that. Maybe we didn’t properly think through the physical implications of my being away for such long periods... but we’re making do. We do a lot of flying back and forth, and each time the children come here, they feel more at home, more comfortable. And more confident, too.”

A boxing schedule 

Away from his family, he lives quietly, spending most of his time working or riding his Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, and, he says, occasionally boxing at a local ring – “it’s incredibly absorbing, a sort of physically realised game of chess.”

He has admitted that he struggles with depression, but is anxious not to play it for dramatic effect. “I don’t want to say ‘Poor me,’” he says firmly. “There are good days and bad days, but in comparison to some people’s, my condition is very mild.”

He has turned 50, an event which, he says, “passed by with a faint whooshing noise... I didn’t attach any great significance to it, really. I suppose that if I think about it, I now have more parts of me that hurt – tennis elbow, a bad knee, that sort of stuff – than parts that don’t, which is a reversal of the way it was 10 years ago. But I don’t think 50 is what it used to be – I think 50-year-olds from 50 years ago would find today’s 50-year-olds unrecognisable. Being 50 is like the dollar and the euro – it doesn’t buy you what it did!”

A charity job 

His main pleasure apart from work is music, which he has, quietly, turned into a charitable enterprise by forming a group of TV actors called Band From TV – members include James Denton from Desperate Housewives and Bonnie Somerville from The O.C. – who raise money for charity through appearances.

Indeed, Emma Thompson recently told me that Hugh Laurie occasionally dreamt of being a jazz pianist. “And he’d be very good at it, because he’s a wonderful pianist. He’s got wonderful hands with huge, great long fingers like Rachmaninov. I think it would be a fantastic thing for him to do in another life, and possibly even in this one too, because he’s just turned 50 and that’s a wonderful time to think, for instance, ‘Right, now I really will focus on my piano playing.’”

Laurie agrees. “There is no greater pleasure I know of than making music,” he says simply. “I wish I were able to devote more time to playing. My dream would be to make music in the style of one of my musical heroes, like Herbie Hancock or Dr John. I was lucky enough to meet Dr John when he played in London and there’s a picture of me with him above my piano at home... But that’s a dream which will probably never come true – maybe that’s the best thing for dreams.”

Hall of fame 

“Although we’re all idiots,” he interjects. “British and American actors, I make no distinction. I would say, however, that we have different strategies for coping with the stress of exposure to the public, which is actually quite intimidating. And some people, mostly British, will deal with that by trying to downplay it, by saying, ‘Well, look, this is all nonsense, I shouldn’t be here, and you shouldn’t be here either.’ And others, mostly American, will tough it out. ‘Damn right I should be here! I’m handsome enough, I’m talented enough – I deserve to be here!’ I don’t know why there is that cultural difference between us. But it certainly exists.”

He didn’t set out to be an actor at all. The son of, oddly enough, a doctor (“although not a doctor like House,” he adds quickly. “My father cared about his patients”), he considered entering the profession himself, but decided against it (“too stupid or too lazy or both”). Instead he went to Cambridge to study archaeology and anthropology, and joined the Footlights, where he famously met and briefly dated fellow undergraduate Emma Thompson, who even more famously introduced him to another undergraduate called Stephen Fry (“there was something thrillingly adult about him at the time, even though he was, I suppose, 20 years old”), and so one of the leading comedy partnerships of the Eighties was born.

An acting career 

Hugh himself seems a little unclear quite when and how it was that he graduated from playing likeable upper-middle-class twits against Fry in Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster in the mid-Eighties to more straightforward acting on his own. However, it seems likely that Ang Lee’s casting of him as the grumpy Mr Palmer in Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility in 1994 paved the way for House a few years later.

He was, he says rather proudly, in Namibia when he received the first House script (“can you point to Namibia on a map? No? Thought not.”) shooting a film called Flight of the Phoenix. The series hit the 2009 Guinness Book of Records as the World’s Most Popular TV Show, with an estimated 81.8 million viewers in 66 countries. It has won fistfuls of awards, and earlier this summer Sky TV snapped up the new, fifth series for prime-time viewing in Britain. It is a huge hit in France, with more than 10 million viewers. There, Laurie’s maverick antihero has been dubbed “the greatest seducer in the world” which, considering their president’s antics, is some accolade. And all for a fictional character who, if you were unfortunate enough to meet him, would be every bit as likely to take away your painkillers as to take your pulse.

Questions and answers

“He’s certainly no angel,” Hugh agrees of his alter ego. “I think if he existed in real life, he would have been quite quickly punched by someone. But I think a reason that people seem to like him so much on television – apart from his entertainment value – is that all of us want to believe that, somewhere in the world, there is somebody out there who has got the answer.

“I think we’re all a bit baffled and bewildered by life. We can’t quite make sense of it, and are probably rather frightened by it a lot of the time. And to feel that there is someone who is smart enough and determined enough and ruthless enough to work out how things function and to reach the answer on how to deal with them... I think in a way that is a reassuring thing. I don’t know if those people actually exist, but it’s an attractive idea to have. Well, it is to me, anyway.”

He’s a very nice man, is the man who plays House. He’s also very attractive, with piercing blue eyes, a lanky frame, and the most beautifully modulated speaking voice, whether it be barking American-inflected insults on the show or musing genially on the way of the world as seen from the eyes of an Eton-and-Cambridge-educated actor transplanted to Hollywood – with perfect manners and his sense of humour intact.

A sex symbol 

That may explain the French poll and a recent American one, in which he was voted the world’s Second Sexiest Television Doctor – second, that is, to George Clooney (“The Governor,” he murmurs reverently, bowing to an imaginary shrine). He finds all this amusing, faintly embarrassing – “I do not,” he says, “walk around thinking ‘I am a sex symbol’” – but most of all plain old ridiculous. He’s a British actor, for heaven’s sake. Not at all the same as an American one.

Visit Hugh Laurie's official website here 

This article originally appeared in Saga Magazine  in the September 2009 issue. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month 

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