I sat down with Hugh Laurie at the Crosby Hotel in Manhattan last week to discuss his role as a cheating suburban New Jersey father who gets it on with his neighbor's daughter, played by Leighton Meester. So not typecast! The trouble with meeting someone like Laurie in the flesh is that I've spent so much time with him — first watching the British classics "Black Adder," "Jeeves and Wooster," and "A Bit of Fry & Laurie," and then spending hours of my life under the scalpel with the acerbic "House" — that it seems almost impossible that we're meeting for the first time.
In person, in a tailored blue suit, Laurie is solicitous and well-mannered, quick to entertain. He is less like Dr. Gregory House and more like P. G. Wodehouse's title character Bertie Wooster, the charmingly vapid hero of countless comic novels — only Eton-and-Cambridge-educated with a passion for playing piano and New Orleans blues (check out his debut album "Let Them Talk"). It feels almost unfair to have only 20 minutes to share a sofa with Laurie, 53, because he's so clearly someone who's good company, who loves to trade quips and tosses off pithy quotes from men as different as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Tom Waits.
Thelma Adams: In "House," your character is defined by his career. Dr. Gregory House is a doctor, first and foremost, obsessively. Yet in your first movie role since the series ended, you play David Walling, a suburban New Jersey family man who falls for the neighbors' daughter. He's not career-driven in the least. He's some kind of marketer whose career means almost nothing to him…
Hugh Laurie: Or certainly nothing to the audience of the movie. It's barely touched on.
TA: How did you build this guy?
HL: That's a very interesting question. We all have, and maybe men have it to a greater degree, the "who am I for a living?" thing. Whereas, in this movie, I was a father and a husband and then, horror of horrors, a lover.
TA: I see that you can't say that with a straight face.
HL: No. Not really.
TA: What drew you to this part?
HL: I thought the script was funny, and compassionate. By the way, I haven't seen the film. I've read the script. You have seen the film, so you have the advantage [over] me. It's weird: You have an envelope with all the answers in it. I thought the script managed to tell a story that was gentle and loving, and although it contains this sort of shocking transgression, it also does so in a way that doesn't have anybody seeking to exploit anybody or dominate anybody or…
TA: There's not really a bad guy.
HL: There isn't a bad guy. Certainly no one is seeking to take over the world or introduce smallpox virus into the water supply.
TA: Not even as a subplot. Romantic plot A, danger plot B, poison in water, not good. What would you say the script is saying about marriage?
I don't think it genuinely has to say something particular about marriage. It only has to say something about these characters, this fictional marriage. One of the things I find rather optimistic about it is that it actually is reassuring people that things are not as disastrous as they appear. Gen. MacArthur once said that no piece of news is as good or as bad as it first appears. That, in a funny sort of a way, almost encapsulates the film. Because the idyll, the sort of suburban life in which these two families are living, is of course not the paradise that we all hoped it would be. Because paradises don't exist on Earth: That's almost a definition. But then again, the upheaval of that paradise will not be the death of us, either. These characters can live and love and be kind and find honesty and growth and happiness with each other, apart from each other — it won't kill them. If the bubble bursts, we're not going to all suddenly be flopping on the ground unable to breath. The world the movie is trying to create at the beginning is buttoned up too tight. That feeling — that if the constraints are loose, then everything is going to unravel, that we will be spiraling into mayhem and madness and decades of unhappiness — is revealed to be false. Things will be OK.
TA: Things are more elastic.
HL: They are more elastic and will be OK. People will survive, and they will find happiness. Happiness only comes when you're not looking for it. It is the slipperiest of all bars of soap. The harder you grasp it, the more elusive it becomes.
TA: Would you say that in your own life, that now this is a happy moment?
HL: Yes. I would. I would. I have been incredibly fortunate in falling out of the airplane of "House" onto the deepest, softest mattress I could possibly have found, which is a career — well, not a career yet, but I hope it will become one — in music. I have just finished, three nights ago, a four-month tour with a band. We've been around the world and played 60-odd dates, and I've never known anything like it.
TA: So, happy?
HL: Yes. It's not without its problems.
TA: You take one look at Bob Dylan and you know life on the road is not easy.
HL: Right. There are plenty of places to crack your shin on, but an incredibly exciting and joyful experience.
TA: Circling back to your character in "The Oranges" — in his man cave, he has an open guitar case on a top shelf.
HL: Well-spotted. It's a guitar — I'm actually a piano player, it so happens — and I think there is an interesting psychological difference between those instruments and the attractions they exert over various people. Some people are drawn naturally — there are natural guitarists, and there are natural piano players, and I think guitar implies travel, a sort of footloose gypsy existence. You grab your bag and you go to the next town. Piano, by its nature, is a fixture: You become a fixture, you have roots, you have the same seat, the same nights, in the same bar, and then people come to you. But having said that, the guitar — for men of a certain age — the guitar is sort of a symbol of rebellion and youthful expression and all that sort of thing.
TA: Like those stacks of vinyl that every man of a certain generation has.
HL: Yes. I plead guilty to that, although I listen to them. I don't collect them but I do listen to them. I personally believe that the iPod is a frankly corrosive device because it encourages you to surround yourself with your favorites. The whole idea of a playlist is to surround yourself with your favorite things, and the interesting thing is that when you do that, they cease to be your favorites. It's rather like the elusiveness of happiness. If you think, "If I only had these 50 songs, I would be happy" — well, of course, as soon as you have them, that's not what makes you happy. As Tom Waits said, "The best music is the music that is coming out of someone else's bedroom window two doors down the street." It's someone else's choice. I'm actually the same with food, oddly enough. If I owned a restaurant, you would be given the food chosen by the person next to you.
TA: Please don't run a restaurant.
HL: I think it could work. I hate menus, I hate choosing food. I just want to be brought. Bring me dinner!
TA: I'll remember that when I take you out to dinner.
HL: Absolutely. Anything you choose, I'll have.
See the trailer for 'The Oranges':