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Playboy Interview - Hugh Laurie
  • February 17, 2009 : 02:02
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PLAYBOY: A Bit of Fry and Laurie was a huge comedy hit in the U.K., but you two haven’t worked together in a while. Any plans for a reunion?

LAURIE: I certainly hope so. It’s something we talk about a lot. Neither of us is a very good planner, though, and I think we’re both spoken for until, like, 2012, but we have some ideas for the stage, television and movies we think could work really well. Right now he’s putting the finishing touches on a documentary about the U.S. He has traveled to all 50 states. I suspect the people who commissioned the series were half hoping he would do some sort of sardonic satire on the foibles of Americans, but that isn’t Stephen’s way. I mean, he’s capable of being pretty savage, but he’s also a very generous and good-hearted soul. He looks to see the good in everything.

PLAYBOY: For those Americans who are unaware, can you please tell us who Ted Cunterblast is?

LAURIE: My God, I haven’t thought about that character in a very long time. He was a fictional author we created for a Fry and Laurie sketch, and the name got us into a lot of trouble with the controller of BBC Two. He called the producer the next day and said, “They used the word c-u-n-t!” And our producer said, “Well, actually, they used a name, C-u-n-t-erblast.” I wouldn’t dream of asserting there was anything clever or witty about that, but for some reason it amused our childish selves at the time.

PLAYBOY: Where do you fall on the famous rift between English and American comedy?

LAURIE: There is an old chestnut English people use to comfort themselves: the notion that, first of all, Americans have no sense of irony. Absolute nonsense. I don’t know who came up with that. Demonstrably, manifestly untrue. British comedy is simply more idiosyncratic and a bit less polished, but that’s because it’s usually done by one or two people rather than a committee of dozens of sitcom writers. When John Cleese did Fawlty Towers he and Connie Booth wrote all 12 of them. Almost all the great landmarks of British television are the product of one or two minds. Basil Fawlty is a magnificent creation because he’s a singular creation. As is Captain Mainwaring, from Dad’s Army, which you probably wouldn’t know.

By and large, British people align themselves with the underdog more than Americans do. Americans rather like the idea of being able to top the joke. I remember someone pointing that out in Animal House, in the scene when John Belushi is walking up the stairs at a frat party and someone is playing “Kumbaya” or something on the guitar and he smashes the guitar. If that had been an English film, the guitarist would have been the hero. That would have been Norman Wisdom. Belushi would have come off as a brutish, thuggish lout.

PLAYBOY: How important was it for you to make it in the States?

LAURIE: It wasn’t at all. No disrespect, but in England there’s an element of treachery in going abroad to ply one’s trade. It’s rather frowned upon. There were two beacons on that front: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Both were fantastically talented, but Peter stayed in London and Dudley left. Because he left and because he lived in glorious California, Moore was widely assumed to have made a deal with the devil that involved beautiful blonde women and beaches and sunshine and Ferraris. Peter maintained the slightly drizzly temperament we revere in England. Moore was perceived as a traitor.

PLAYBOY: Do you worry people in England say that about you now?

LAURIE: Not really, but it’s because my life is still in England, even though I have a house in Los Angeles. It would have been different if I had relocated my entire family here, but my kids go to school and university there, and my wife still lives there. I suppose I have too much of a Presbyterian streak from my parents ever to rejoice in the fruits of my labors and give over completely to whatever it was Dudley Moore succumbed to. I’ve actually always rather enjoyed Los Angeles. It’s partly to do with what people tell you to expect. People said, “Los Angeles is the most terrible place of all. You’ll go crazy. You won’t last a month. You’ll be going out of your mind, it’s so superficial.” Well, I am superficial, so it suits me down to the ground. For instance, I like fast cars and motorcycles, and there’s no better place to be for that.

PLAYBOY: It must drive Fox crazy that you risk life and limb. Have they tried to add a no-adrenaline clause to your contract?

LAURIE: Fortunately, I signed the contract before anybody was watching the show, so they couldn’t be bothered whether I wiped out or not. I hope it doesn’t bother them too much that I drive my motorcycle to work, for instance, and generally enjoy speeding around the hills of L.A. But I maintain that no one has a greater interest in my not falling off than I do. I claim supremacy in that area.

PLAYBOY: By the way, are you the guy on the 405 freeway zipping by at 80 miles an hour while we sit in traffic?

LAURIE: I may be that guy. Are you the guy in the four-ton SUV who’s texting? I mean, I have had moments when I actually wondered about the way I’m going to die. To see some bleached blonde putting on eyeliner at 60 miles an hour in her Humvee without any concept of the forces involved in controlling that vehicle or its capabilities or limitations! None whatsoever. It’s absolutely amazing to me. I pass an accident in Los Angeles at least twice a week. In London—and I’m not saying we do things better over there; I don’t believe in that—but I’d say it’s about twice a year. Here people just cannon into one another almost as a sport. It’s just a gigantic pinball machine. Dry sunny days, no traffic, and some car’s on its roof. I don’t think it’s America. I think it’s limited to Los Angeles, but it makes the ride to work interesting.

PLAYBOY: Has it been a strain on your marriage to be so far away from home? What kind of husband are you?

LAURIE: Wow. I have no idea, having no idea what to compare it with. I do my best, though I suspect it’s not great a lot of the time. I don’t know. I’ve probably created a fair amount of disruption and frustration for the family, but my wife is very grounded, and things could be worse. I once met a guy who worked on a nuclear submarine. He had to check a box on a piece of paper, saying whether he wanted to be informed in the event that something horrible happened back home, because if something horrible did happen, he wasn’t getting off that sub. Something did happen to a friend of his, and he didn’t hear about it until they returned to land. At least I don’t have to make that choice. I know if something happens, I can always fly home.

PLAYBOY: Does it surprise you that people view House—and you—as a sex symbol?

LAURIE: Completely. It’s utterly absurd. Weird. Deranged. I can’t explain it.

PLAYBOY: How do you explain it?

LAURIE: House is a sexy character in his own way. You know, he’s that sort of wounded genius. There’s a Beauty and the Beast element and a bit of the Phantom of the Opera thrown in. House is a scarred figure hiding in the upper reaches of the opera house. I can see there’s something attractive about that. Women want to fix him. For some reason women find that terribly sexy.

PLAYBOY: But he doesn’t get a ton of action. Why doesn’t House have more sex?

LAURIE: I think he does want that, and I think he’s getting it somewhere, somehow. I hesitate to speculate on the liaisons he has when he’s not at Princeton--Plainsboro. But he’s primarily a loner, a character driven by torment. It’s hard to get close to someone like that. But that’s the case with a lot of men.

PLAYBOY: Men are loners by nature?

LAURIE: I was having a chat on the set recently; we were discussing what the bathroom stands for besides the obvious function of what the bathroom stands for. Most of the men agreed the bathroom was sort of a refuge, a place of “Oh, world, please go away,” whatever that may mean—either the conversation or the worry or the phone call you don’t want to take. It’s a sanctuary where you can retreat and silence the world. By contrast, most of the women were thinking, I go to the bathroom because I want to chat with other women, then they rush to get back to the table because they fear they’re missing something. Men and women are very different in how they relate to other human beings. Except on Facebook, of course.

PLAYBOY: What do you mean?

LAURIE: Well, I was with a group of people the other night who were comparing—I don’t have a Facebook page—their own Facebooks or however you put it. “Oh, I’ve got 450,” one said. “Oh, I’ve got 600,” said another. It turned out they were talking about friends—Facebook friends. Now, I don’t think I’ve met 450 people in my life. I certainly can’t keep track of them, and I certainly don’t want to stay in touch with that many people. I don’t know how on earth you do that. I realized very quickly I am too old for this level of social engagement.

PLAYBOY: You’re about to turn 50——

LAURIE: It sounds so ominous when you put it like that.

PLAYBOY: What are some things you wish you knew earlier in life?

LAURIE: To tell you the truth, the older I get, the less I know. I keep meeting people, both older and younger, who seem to have accrued so much more knowledge or expertise or certainty about who they are and the jobs they do. I just marvel at it. I don’t know how they get that certain about what they’re doing. I certainly don’t have that. I look back on what we’ve done on House and think, Wow, it’s like we’ve come through a minefield. One wrong move, one bad casting decision, one story line that didn’t work and the air would have gone out of the thing. People would have started to whisper, “Oh, that show? It’s not very good.” And suddenly we’d be canceled. I don’t know how anything works, frankly. I’m quite conscious of the fact that no secrets are being revealed to me with age.

Which is not to say I don’t have things I want to learn and do as I look ahead. For example, I had my first earthquake the other day. We were shooting, the camera was rolling, and everything started to sway. The lamps started to move. I loved it. I loved it. It passed quickly, and we were back to work. But let’s say that had been, you know, the big one, if that were the end. I can’t tell you how many things I would regret not having done. The list would have a billion things on it, a billion things. I do feel it’s something about, I suppose, my infantile nature. I don’t really feel as if I’ve got going yet. Like so many eternally adolescent males, I still feel I’m going to live another thousand years and there’s plenty of time.

PLAYBOY: But then the earth starts rocking and——

LAURIE: Exactly. You’re shaken out of your dream. I’m deluded, obviously, because, as you say, I am approaching 50. But part of me still fears, for instance, that I haven’t chosen my profession yet. I certainly haven’t worked out who I am. I haven’t worked out what to do with my life. I haven’t made half the choices and decisions I want to make. It’s insane, I know, but that’s sort of how I felt. I think that’s what I like about boxing: You’re forced to live intensely.

PLAYBOY: Boxing? Are you any good?

LAURIE: I’m hopeless, but I love it. I absolutely love it. Well, I sort of love it. But it’s love mixed with fear. Not fear of physical harm, because unless you do it repeatedly and get hit in the head a lot, you’ll survive. It’s more the fear of being humiliated, which sort of messes with your perceptions of, I suppose, maleness. To question your maleness is a very intense experience. But there’s something else. When I’m making a television show, eight months go by just like that. It’s a wonderful thing to have a completely opposite experience, which is to get into the ring for three minutes and have time essentially stop. You cannot believe how long three minutes is until you’ve spent time in a boxing ring. If we could live our lives as intensely as one does in those three minutes, it would be like living for 10,000 years. I love that feeling.

PLAYBOY: Do you ever wonder where you would be if House hadn’t come along?

LAURIE: Yes, I do. I mean, I was aware of the fact that this was my shot. Not a shot at just anything but a shot at doing an American network television show—to play the lead on one, anyway. Because I was already too old for that. I think if their dreams had come true, Fox would have found some chiseled fellow of 28 who could have kept going for 20 years, for one thing. That would have suited their demographics. So this was my shot. I thought, If it doesn’t work, fine. I’ll be playing the neighbor or the kindly uncle or Mr. Smithers, the geography teacher, but I won’t be the main guy. Fortunately, things worked out differently.

PLAYBOY: How would you like to see things end up for House? What do you imagine he’ll be like in the final episode?

LAURIE: Happy. In a relationship with a kindred spirit. Understood. But if it doesn’t happen, it’s probably just as well. See, I have these practical theories about television, which is that characters don’t grow and change. They can’t, or you wouldn’t have a series. Columbo didn’t grow and change; he just solved more stuff. My theory with House is he’ll continue to be separated from joy right to the end. That’s just who he is.

PLAYBOY: And what about you?

LAURIE: No, no. Joy is absolutely the essential thing for me. It has become my obsession to find it, to hold on to it. One of the biggest things I fear is happiness. Fear is probably my only obstacle to it right now. I have a very good life. I am fortunate in so many ways. Now the secret is simply to delight in every breath and every step. Oh my God, that was a Sting song! I can’t believe I’m ending this on a Sting song.
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