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To hear Hugh Laurie tell it, he didn’t so much choose to join AMC miniseries The Night Manager. Rather, he was such a big fan of the novel on which it’s based that he had no choice but to accept when he was offered the role of corrupt billionaire Richard Roper — even if he once dreamed of playing the younger role of hotelier-turned-spy Jonathan Pine, which went to Tom Hiddleston.
“Honestly, I would have played anything going,” Laurie tells The Hollywood Reporter during a sit-down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. “If they’d asked me to play the chef in the kitchen, I’d have done it. I’d have done the catering on the film set, actually. I just wanted to be involved. I just thought it was such a great story and was so happy that it was finally coming to the screen.”
Passion projects appear to be the key to the actor’s return to television. After finishing eight years of Fox’s hit medical drama House, Laurie had the luxury of taking time off from TV in 2012. For the next few years, he toured with his jazz band The Copper Bottoms and even released his second album.
It wasn’t until HBO’s acclaimed comedy Veep that he returned to TV last year, and that appears to have opened the small-screen floodgates. (Multiple networks have repeatedly tried to bring him back to broadcast, with multiple straight offers on pilots — all of which the actor has passed on.) He currently stars in The Night Manager, reprises his role as Sen. Tom James for Veep‘s fifth season and has signed on for two seasons of Hulu’s straight-to-series drama Chance.
These projects share one thing in common: Laurie already loved them before being approached to star in them. In the case of The Night Manager, he was such a big fan of the John Le Carre spy novel that he tried to option the rights to it when he first read it.
“I had worshipped Le Carre all throughout my teenage years, and of course all of his novels of the Cold War I consumed and read many, many times,” Laurie says. “I think I was round about chapter three, I actually called my agent and asked would it be possible to option. I’d never done it before so I don’t know what it means, actually optioning a book. But I was too late. It had already been snapped up by Sydney Pollack.”
Although a big-screen adaptation never got off of the ground, Le Carre’s son Simon Cornwell reconceived the project as a six-part miniseries. Naturally, Laurie jumped at the chance to play Roper as “the worst man in the world,” a wealthy international arms dealer who masquerades as a humanitarian.
“I also thought that this was a subject that mattered: the sale of arms and high finance and high commerce. This was a worthy target for Le Carre to sink his teeth into, and by God, he did and does,” Laurie says.
A similar reverence for artistry led to Laurie’s involvement with Veep. Creator Armando Iannucci had learned of the actor’s love for the show, and after he met with Laurie over lunch, Sen. Tom James was born as Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) running mate in season four.
“I think the entire cast is the best cast on television,” Laurie raves. “Well, I can’t say that now. I’m supposed to say The Night Manager. Second best. I just wanted to sort of be present. Again, I wouldn’t really have minded if I was just standing there with a drinks tray. I would’ve been happy to watch her do what [Louis-Dreyfus] does.”
“She’s just the most astounding performer that I think I’ve ever seen, actually,” he continues. “I’ve never seen her equal. She manages to sprint for hours. There are some people who are able to have bursts of brilliance, but [with her] it’s like a continual hot flame that just burns for an entire season. It’s just glorious and done with such grace, good humor and fun. It’s like the best kind of HD, actually being there watching them do it. It was a 3D interactive experience.”
That experience continues for him in season five. “I’m in about six episodes,” he says. “There are about 10, and I think I’m in six. I come and go.”
Laurie’s participation in The Night Manager and Veep didn’t require that much time overall. After eight years on House, it’s not a surprise that the actor may have been wary of committing another chunk of his life to an ongoing series. But he’s done just that with his newest project, Chance, which is based on Kem Nunn’s novel of the same name. The Hulu series stars Laurie as San Francisco neuropsychiatrist Eldon Chance and was already ordered for two full seasons ahead of its premiere later this year.
“I wasn’t really thinking clearly about the two-year thing,” Laurie admits. “I was thinking about the novel. I love the novel, I love the character. The world of it is fascinating to me. It’s about neuropsychiatry. Neuroscience is the last sort of undiscovered continent. We’re going to have people on Mars in probably 10 to 15 years, and yet we’re still at the stage of leeches when it comes to understanding the brain and the extraordinary complexity of this three pounds of matter that makes up consciousness and who we are, or who we think we are.”
Comparisons to the actor’s previous role as Dr. Gregory House will no doubt be made, but Eldon Chance finds himself in far different circumstances when it comes to how much authority he can exercise.
“[Chance] finds himself in a sort of backwater of neuropsychiatry where his chances of actually healing anybody have diminished,” Laurie says. “So he’s become a sort of cog in the medical-legal machine. There are many legal and moral and ethical implications to the notion of responsibility. Is this person who got hit on the head or had a car accident and then a month later punched a guy in a restaurant — are the two things connected? To what degree are people responsible for the composition of this lump in the head?”
Self-reflection and questions of autonomy are subjects that Laurie ponders often — whether it’s Richard Roper’s trust in Jonathan Pine, Sen. Tom James’ thirst for power or Eldon Chance’s interest in cognition.
“All the time we’re adjusting things, and sometimes we look back at our own behavior and we can mystify ourselves,” Laurie observes. “Why the hell — why did I do that? Why did I say that? What was actually going on in my head? And of course there are all kinds of hidden tides and currents at work in our brains that we’re not aware of.”
Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO, and The Night Manager airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
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