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Playboy Interview - Hugh Laurie
  • February 17, 2009 : 02:02
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PLAYBOY: You don’t watch the show?

LAURIE: I would if I weren’t on it. The attitude and the wit are very much in keeping with my sensibilities, but it’s simply too hard to watch myself acting.

PLAYBOY: Does your American accent bother you?

LAURIE: Well, that’s certainly difficult to get my head around. I’m still an Englishman to my core. And being British, I’m quite dubious anytime I hear any of my countrymen playing American. I think that’s why House doesn’t do so well in England. The show has done stupendously well in other European countries. It may even be the number one program in Spain and Germany. But the British are wise to me. Any sort of linguistic affectation drives the English absolutely mad. I mean, we are a nation of Professor Higginses, and we’re all out to detect falsehood and artifice in the way English speakers speak.

PLAYBOY: Are there certain words that especially trip you up?

LAURIE: Well, the r words are the biggest problem. Coronary artery—that’s a bad day when that comes up. Court order—also bad. New York, oddly, is a nightmare. The most difficult is any speech in which I have to repeat a word. It’s impossible to maintain the same inflection. So if you watch the show and I’m going on about cancer, listen to the way the word cancer changes each time I say it. You’ll understand why I can’t watch the show.

PLAYBOY: Several shows this season have non-Americans playing Yank parts: Aussie Simon Baker and Englishman Rufus Sewell, to name two. On the big screen Russell Crowe, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett frequently speak American English. Are there not enough American actors to fill those roles?

LAURIE: I think it’s because people know too much about actors in their home territory. One of the reasons I got the role of House is, coming from England, I was largely unknown to Americans. There were no preconceived notions or expectations about how I was supposed to look or sound. I was new, and that was attractive. It’s also a sign of the End of Days, I believe. Once you start having foreigners do your TV shows, it’s pretty much over. The Romans found that to be the case. They had a lot of Australians coming into the Colosseum right before the whole thing started to implode.

PLAYBOY: Very funny. When did you realize House would be a hit?

LAURIE: Well, it was very gradual. In the first year we went unnoticed. I mean, nobody watched. It wasn’t until we followed American Idol in season two that it started to pick up.

PLAYBOY: Did people start saying, “Hey, did I go to high school with you?”

LAURIE: By the second season, people began staring at me, definitely. Or squinting in vague recognition. You suddenly realize the cell phone and the digital camera have changed the nature of what it means to be in public. It’s not paparazzi you have worry about anymore as a celebrity. It’s everyone.

Then we had some very big episodes, like our Super Bowl episode last year, when 30 million people were watching, and that’s when things got really strange. People want to know everything about you. They believe your life has changed. But the truth is, success changes nothing. I think it was General MacArthur who said no piece of news is either as good or as bad as it first appears. That’s a wise way to regard fame as well. It’s neither as good nor as bad as you expect it to be. Thirty million people watch you on television, but the next day things aren’t a different color. They don’t taste different. If your back hurt yesterday, your back will hurt today. It may hurt even more.

PLAYBOY: How much have you learned from the show? Do you know the treatment for osteochondritis?

LAURIE: Absolutely not.

PLAYBOY: The cure for fibromyalgia?

LAURIE: I’m not even certain I know what that is.

PLAYBOY: You are a very good actor, indeed.

LAURIE: I might have known those answers a week or two months ago. Or in 2002. But I retain absolutely nothing in the way of medical information. It’s frightening, really. The demands on my short-term memory are so great for this show. It’s an astonishingly good exercise in keeping my brain fresh and active, but it all goes out of my head 20 minutes after the scene is done.

PLAYBOY: With all those weird diseases on the show, have you become a hypochondriac?

LAURIE: It gives you pause to realize just how close we all are to so many nasty, ravaging ailments. But, touch wood, I’ve been extremely lucky in that department. We don’t deal with too many run-of-the-mill problems on our show, so it often feels like fantasy more than stark reality. We are a drama, after all. Also, if you look at what we do medically, it doesn’t really add up. We make a million mistakes. We fix illnesses in 42 minutes that would take eight months to cure in reality, and doctors could never carry out as many procedures as ours do. There would be an MRI technician, a radiologist to interpret the MRI and another doctor to present those findings to the patient. But we can’t have a cast of 85 people. It’s more satisfying to have these characters do everything rather than show patients waiting around in an office for results. That would be slightly less exciting to watch.

PLAYBOY: About as exciting as watching people try to meet their insurance deductibles.

LAURIE: That’s something I do think about, by the way. Coming from England, where we have a very different health care system, I do think about America’s in the context of this show. Insurance in many ways is the elephant in the room on House. It’s something we rarely address, but the question remains: Who’s paying for all this treatment? Do all these people really have the insurance to cover these procedures?

PLAYBOY: Right. Because it can’t be inexpensive to see Dr. House.

LAURIE: Not at all. I mean, just look at our set—corridors that would be a ward in Britain, the sort of sumptuous and endless well of resources people who come into the hospital seem to have on the show. But of course, they wouldn’t really have that. Only on TV do they have that. We have MRI machines coming out of our ears and every luxury to try experimental treatments and every test in the world. The reality is, for millions of Americans, the situation is quite different. It’s not our role to change a system like that, obviously, but I do think about it.

PLAYBOY: Have you had any lasting effects from limping for five seasons?

LAURIE: Yes, I get some shoulder pain or, as I like to call it, the makings of a massive civil suit against Fox. Then again, the rewards of doing my job make up for any physical distress the show may be causing.

PLAYBOY: Since you bring it up, is it ironic that you are paid far more than most real doctors are?

LAURIE: It’s a peculiar aspect of what I do, yes. I often think about my father, who was a physician, and how strange it is that I am better rewarded for faking this job than he ever was for doing the real thing. Go figure. It doesn’t seem right. He certainly treated more patients in an average week than I do.

PLAYBOY: Did you ever go on rounds with him?

LAURIE: I went on house calls with him. Usually I would sit in the car while he was inside lancing a boil or whatever. I mostly remember being at home answering the phone for him. This was in the days before answering machines. Being my father’s son, I sounded like him, and before I could say, “This isn’t the doctor,” they would jump in and say, “Doctor, thank God! It’s all exploded. I can’t stop it.” And with no obvious juncture for me to step out of the way, I would, you know.…

PLAYBOY: Make a diagnosis?

LAURIE: Let’s just say I’d reassure them. You’re an adolescent. You’re craving stimulation. “Well, it sounds like you’re doing the right thing there,” I’d say. Or “Oh yes, it will probably be all right. Call back if the swelling worsens.” As far as I remember, I never lost any patients.

PLAYBOY: Were you a rebellious teenager or just bored?

LAURIE: I think I suffered from the arrogance of youth. When I was 15, I and a group of school friends took a sort of pledge that we wouldn’t live beyond 40. We decided we’d kill ourselves. In fact, there were some hard-core members of the group—I wasn’t one of them—who wanted to make it 30. “I hope I die before I get old” sort of thing. Talk about arrogance. The arrogance of youth, it trumps all. We felt we knew absolutely everything there was to be known and the future held only decay and compromise and defeat. We vowed to get out of here before that happened. It’s an interesting problem, isn’t it? Because it’s hard to know whether your 15-year-old self is the true expression of who you are and everything that follows is a sort of diluted, watered-down, compromised version of that, of all those ideas and dreams you’ve had and that sort of fiery essence you had at 15. Or whether actually you’re just a sort of pencil sketch at 15. Which is the true you?

PLAYBOY: Your father didn’t live to see you on House. What would he have made of a doctor like that?

LAURIE: He would have been appalled. My father was a very polite man, a very gentle, soft-spoken fellow. He did not like arrogance, and he would have been appalled by the way House occasionally conducts himself. Very English, my dad. Reserved in that way. I remember when I wrote my novel, The Gun Seller, I dedicated it to him, which I thought he’d be rather pleased by. But suddenly it dawned on me that actually he was, if anything, slightly embarrassed by the fact that he had received a dedication in a book that contained profanity, not to mention sex and violence. He didn’t quite know how to cope with that. But I don’t know. I refuse to believe he wouldn’t have been pleased to see me on House. I think he would have been proud. He would have enjoyed seeing all the medical equipment, if nothing else.

PLAYBOY: I take it your father didn’t wear his Olympic medal around the house when you were growing up.

LAURIE: No. He did not wear it around the house. In fact, it was quite odd, but he hid it in a sock drawer. I didn’t even know about it until I was around 12. I remember I went fishing with my mother on a lake, or the loch, as they call it in Scotland. We got into this boat and my dad took the oars, and—I remember this moment—I rather anxiously said to Mother, “Does he know how to row?” But then I found this medal. Hey! What the hell is this? Very odd. Although it wasn’t actually gold. Because this was the first postwar Olympics, gold, like a lot of things, was in very short supply. It was gold leaf over tin.

PLAYBOY: But still.

LAURIE: Absolutely! And later at university he ended up coaching me in rowing. I rowed with him; we’d sometimes go out on a boat together. He was ferociously strong, a very powerful force to behold.

PLAYBOY: That was at Cambridge, where you also got your first taste of performing.

LAURIE: My first taste came when I was around 13. That’s when I realized I quite liked being onstage. I knew especially I liked making people laugh—and girls, most especially. I was scared to death of girls at that age, but onstage—as a king in a school play, for example—I would actually be seen by them, which is to say I wouldn’t be completely invisible, as was my normal condition. When I started performing for a living, I always thought of my audience as female. The audience was to be charmed and flirted with, seduced. But in reality my audiences very quickly became male. I’d go onstage, and it would be a group of very sullen-looking blokes with arms folded as if to say, “Okay, then. Whaddya got?” The audience was something that had to be beaten.

PLAYBOY: Your Cambridge cohort and former girlfriend Emma Thompson once described you as “lugubriously sexy, like a well-hung eel.” What exactly did she mean?

LAURIE: It’s quite a confounding image, isn’t it? I mean, are eels even hung at all? Those were blissful days, I must say. We couldn’t even imagine a life in Hollywood back then. Hollywood was as distant and impossible as El Dorado. It was all about fun. Watching Emma was like watching the sun or wind or some other elemental force. Her talent even then was inescapable. I remember she once did a monologue as a sort of gushy actress winning an award. I still remember the first line: “This award doesn’t really belong to me.” We thought, This woman is so gifted, she will win an award like that one day, maybe even an Oscar. That was also around the time I met Stephen Fry.
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