Not often does someone become a star by playing an unlikable curmudgeon week after miserable week. But that’s what happened to Hugh Laurie with House, the phenomenally popular medical drama on which he has turned the limping, pill-popping misanthrope Dr. Gregory House into one of the most memorable and oddly appealing characters on TV.
With shades of Sherlock Holmes by way of Hawkeye Pierce on a crabby day, House isn’t out to heal the world or make patients happy. He doesn’t have a soft spot for kids and old ladies, and he would rather watch monster-truck jams than read a stupid CT scan. No matter how antisocial he is, no matter how bitter (his favorite diagnosis is “The patient is lying”), House inevitably saves the day—even when it kills him to.
But those are mere character tics. What really separates House is Laurie’s star quality. Unlike almost every other hit drama series now—Lost, E.R., Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Heroes, the CSI trilogy—this one isn’t about the ensemble cast. House is about House the way Kojak was about Kojak and All in the Family was about Archie. Okay, yes, there’s Kiefer Sutherland on 24 but nobody holds together a top drama quite the way Laurie does.
Watching him rattle off American medical speak week after week, it’s easy to forget Laurie is British. Born in Oxford, England in 1959, he is the youngest of four children. His mother died following a lengthy illness shortly before Laurie turned 30, and his father, a physician who won an Olympic gold medal for rowing, died just before Laurie landed House.
A national youth rowing champion himself, Laurie contemplated an athletic career but let those dreams go after being sidelined by a nasty case of mononucleosis while at Cambridge University. He took up acting instead and was soon part of a talented circle that included Emma Thompson, whom he briefly dated, and Stephen Fry, who became his comedy partner. No highlight reel of U.K. comedy from the 1980s or 1990s would be complete without a clip of Fry and Laurie in twit or fop mode on sketch programs like Blackadder or their own A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
Those antics made Laurie a household name among BBC viewers, but he never quite broke through in the States. There were one-off guest roles on Friends and Family Guy, and he played the dad in Stuart Little. But the audition tape he recorded in a hotel bathroom in Namibia, where he was filming Flight of the Phoenix, was what got Laurie the role of his career. Since 2004 House has earned him a pair of Golden Globes, three Emmy nominations and the distinction of being one of the most-watched scripted TV programs, even though the actor has never quite let go of England. His wife of 20 years, Jo Green, and their three children still live in north London. It’s anyone’s guess how the California house Laurie bought last summer will change things.
Playboy dispatched Contributing Editor David Hochman to meet with Laurie over the course of several weeks as House’s fifth season got under way. They met at various hotels and on the show’s set at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles. Hochman’s report: “For all House’s crankiness and sarcasm, you would expect him to be played by an actor with at least a trace of mean-spiritedness. But Laurie is as gentle and self-effacing as House is a grouch. Each time the issue of his success came up, he looked as if he wanted to hide under a pillow. It embarrasses him to celebrate his achievements, even though he has done so much. It’s almost as though he’s afraid if he believes in his success, he’ll lose the jones for all the long hours House demands. Every actor should take a cue from the way Laurie handles his fame.”
LAURIE: I’ve put down, not quite roots but more like a flowerpot. My family still lives in London, but I finally had to accept that House has some sort of permanence. I was so convinced in the first few years that it was never going to last—because nothing does. Simply statistically, the odds are very much against it in television. But here we are.
PLAYBOY: In fact, you’re coming up on the 100th episode. That makes Dr. House one of the crankiest success stories on TV since Archie Bunker, right?
LAURIE: Oh dear God. Don’t say that. Success on a cosmic level like that completely eludes me. I’m deeply suspicious of things being too good. It’s part of my superstition, I think, to generate pain in order to give the illusion of gain. That’s my MO. I’m not saying I reject success, but honestly, I don’t quite know how to deal with it. It’s an old feeling: As soon as you have the thing you’ve been going after all your life, that reasonable degree of security, you start kicking against it, doubting it. That’s why I get uneasy whenever journalists assemble lists. The best! The crankiest! I don’t feel worthy of any list. Lists are for bright and shiny people. Lists are for people on big and shiny shows like Lost, Desperate Housewives, Heroes. I’m more stubbly and grumpy than bright and shiny.
PLAYBOY: That sounds a little like House talking. How much of you is in him, and vice versa?
LAURIE: I guess we have certain similarities. We both look at the world with one eyebrow arched. We’re both quite serious but also have a childishness. He and I are eternal adolescents but with this morbid gravity. The other thing is, we both have issues with joy, in so much as we think it’s beyond us. I often picture that scene in the Woody Allen movie when he’s on the train and looks into another car that’s full of people laughing. They’re drinking champagne; somebody has a trombone. And Woody is very much on the outside of that, looking in. I’d say that sums up my view of the world, as well as House’s.
PLAYBOY: Hasn’t the show’s continued success improved your mood?
LAURIE: Not really. I think being moody is part of my nature, though looking back, I am much less moody and depressed now than when I was 25. Gradually I’ve mellowed. I was probably depressed all the time back then. Now it’s more occasional.
PLAYBOY: What changed?
LAURIE: It’s tiresome to be so wound up in yourself and dark, and it’s hard on others. My moodiness probably has a greater effect on other people—the people I live and work with—than it does on me. Nobody likes being around someone who’s bemoaning his fate all the time, and I didn’t want to be that person. I also understand now what gets me out of my head when I get depressed: physical exercise, doing a chore. I’ll hang a picture, let’s say. Or perhaps I’ll take a toothbrush and clean the spokes on my motorcycle.
PLAYBOY: What about antidepressants?
LAURIE: They have been an answer, yes. They’re something I’ve tried that has helped. They’re probably good for my work because they help with confidence, and confidence is the prerequisite of all successful endeavors. But then again, as I said, I get suspicious if things start to feel too easy or comfortable, so that’s not a perfect solution either.
PLAYBOY: Do you worry that being under the spell of medication will overthrow your powers as an actor, particularly when you’re playing a curmudgeon like House?
LAURIE: It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Pharmaceuticals do raise the question of who we are as human beings. What are moods and feelings if we can change or even do away with them? Does that reduce the essence of who we are? Then again, I tend to overthink these things. I overthink everything, I think. But if your eyesight fails, it’s okay to wear glasses or contact lenses, is it not? If you feel cold, you put on a sweater. Is that changing the nature of who you are? No.
I worry sometimes that I’ve said too much on this subject. It gives the idea that I’m some sort of near basket case who has to be coaxed out of his cave on weekends. I’m okay. Really, I am.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of pharmaceuticals, House sure does love his Vicodin. He doesn’t have any close friends or family. He has that famous limp, and he’s nasty to just about everyone. Remind us again: What’s his appeal?
LAURIE: It’s a combination of things. His being a skilled healer is an attractive quality. We’d all like to feel there is somebody out there who can save us when we’re up against it, when our life or our loved ones are in peril. God knows it would be nice if someone out there right now had the answer, and House almost always has the answer.
Also he’s free from the social gravity that holds us all down and prevents us from saying what we think and doing what we want. That gravity keeps us down. But because he doesn’t seem to obey those laws, because he doesn’t care if people like him or approve of him, he’s a character who flies. Dreams of flight or weightlessness are very common to us. We all dream of being able to rise and sort of float above the world, and I think that’s what House is doing socially.
PLAYBOY: He’s also funny.
LAURIE: Right. There’s that, too. I find him a very funny character, but it’s not just that he’s funny. There was a line, a moment of absolute encapsulation for me, from a scene in which House has to interrupt an operation. His colleague Wilson is in the operating theater, and House has to take a patient in to introduce him to Wilson. The first line, to one of the other surgeons, is “Mind if we play through?”
PLAYBOY: That’s funny.
LAURIE: I remember thinking at the time that the line was somehow superfluous to the scene, which was actually about Wilson’s appraisal of the patient. All it called for was a line to the effect of “Hey, Wilson, meet this guy.” But [head writer and show creator] David Shore found exactly the right phrase to characterize House in that moment. Yes, House is dark and tortured and lonely and gruff and all those things, but there’s something terrifically connected and exuberant about him. He takes pleasure in language, pleasure in a good joke. He is a believer, as I am, in the power of humor. In a world of death and misery where people are dropping all around him, where fate is often cruel rather than kind, humor is his only meaningful response to existence.
PLAYBOY: Not to make this a “list” question, but what are some of your all-time favorite House episodes?
LAURIE: There are good things in lots of them, but as a complete episode, I think “Three Stories” is the best—very ambitious and by and large very successful as these things go. It’s the one in which House gives three lectures, and each one tells a different story about human suffering—in particular, leg pain, which is his malady. It’s the story of what happened to House’s leg, and it’s told with great compassion and ingenuity. The show’s brilliant writers found a way to tie all three stories together, involve the entire cast and create a fantasy sequence featuring Carmen Electra playing golf. You can’t ask for more than that in a single episode.
The other one that comes to mind is also one of the very first we did, called “Autopsy,” written by Larry Kaplow. Absolutely exquisite. It’s about a little girl suffering from a brain tumor, and everybody in the hospital constantly sings her praises as a brave little angel. But House commits this absolute blasphemy of doubting her bravery. You’re not allowed to do that, especially on TV and especially with children. People who suffer from cancer are sanctified. But House being House, he makes the shocking but nonetheless inarguable point that not everybody can be as brave as everybody else. If everyone’s a hero, the word has no meaning. I love House for being able to say things like that. It’s quite liberating to go against the grain, even as an actor reciting lines. House then goes further and actually starts to doubt the bravery is hers but is rather a symptom, a tumor, perhaps, that’s affecting her personality. But the most brilliant element of it is that he’s wrong!
PLAYBOY: But House is never wrong.
LAURIE: Precisely. But he is wrong. And it forces him to admit there are eternal qualities and inarguable virtues like bravery. It’s moments like those—or like the ones this season when House reveals just how vulnerable and alone he is, to the point where he sends a private investigator to keep an eye on Wilson, his only real friend—that bring this character alive. Honestly, though, I’ve seen only about 10 of the 100 episodes we’ve made, so I’m probably not the best judge.