“He is playing with fire,” Hugh Laurie says of his character in Hulu’s new drama Chance. “Gretchen Mol is playing the role of fire in this analogy. Will it warm him or will it burn down the house?”
Laurie stars as San Francisco-based forensic neuropsychiatrist Dr. Eldon Chance and Mol as Jaclyn, a patient who may or may not be suffering from multiple personality disorder but definitely appears to have an abusive husband who is also a police detective. Streaming weekly on Wednesdays, starting Oct. 19, “It’s a story of obsession,” Laurie says. “A man whose life stands to be either destroyed or rescued by his obsession.”
After eight seasons as the titular doctor on Fox’s House, Laurie admits that he had reservations when he was sent novelist Kem Nunn’s psychological thriller upon which the series is based. “About five pages in I thought, ‘Well, this is great, but it’s a bit of a shame I can’t do it because it’s medical,'” he says. “Then about 10 pages in, I’d completely forgotten that, and I was absolutely absorbed by the character and the tone of the story.”
Here, he offers us a preview.
The opening moments of the series establish very quickly that the show isn’t going to pull any punches as we hear about the traumatized patients Chance has evaluated who never recover. The audience has to know how dark Chance’s life and work is so we understand why he’d respond to someone like Jaclyn, who appears to have a bit of fight left in her. What does he see in her?
I suppose what he sees is just enigma. He cannot figure her out, and I hope the audience will have the same sort of response: Is she for real? Is she genuinely the damaged creature who’s coming to him for help, or is she a sort of figment of his rather fevered imagination? How much of this is he imposing on her through his own fantasies of rescuing someone from the clutches of the monster, which is, I suppose, every adolescent male’s fantasy? When I say “adolescent male,” I mean, of course, “male,” because adolescent male fantasies don’t really change very much through adulthood, I’m sad to say.
She is the unanswerable question. I watch Gretchen Mol do this, and I have no idea. She’s just so fantastically enigmatic. It’s a rather exciting thing not to have the answers. In a way, one could say one of the premises of the whole story is that human beings certainly don’t know each other, but they don’t even know themselves. We don’t know why we do things. We have an illusion of conscious control, that we’re driving the machine, but in actual fact, so much of what we do, and so many of the ways we respond to things, is happening at a level that we are actually not aware of and not in control of. It makes for some very interesting exchanges. If Gretchen delivers a particular word while looking at me, it means something very different than if she delivers that word, say, looking down at her hands. The scene then becomes something utterly different. That kind of subtlety is absolutely fascinating to explore.
What was it about Eldon Chance that you wanted to explore?
Well, it’s a story of almost unremitting melancholy, and that appealed to me. Maybe I’m a melancholy soul, or maybe I’m just so cheerful that melancholy appears exotic to me. I leave you to draw your own conclusions. Which am I? No, all right, I’m the first: I’m the melancholy soul, and I’m drawn to that kind of contemplation. He’s sort of adrift, has lost his way, and is on the point of becoming overwhelmed by the suffering he not just sees around him, but actually deals with as part of his professional life. Human beings come to him damaged, they come to him out of control, looking for help, and he has become overwhelmed by his inability to do anything.
It’s an interesting thing. My father was a doctor, a general practitioner. I remember come Christmas time, some grateful patient would knit him a pair of socks or someone would send him a bottle of wine. I spoke to a forensic neuropsychiatrist in London, and I said, “Does that ever happen to you? Do patients send you birthday cards and Christmas cards?” He said, “No, they don’t. Because ultimately I don’t heal anybody.” There was something so mournful in this confession that the best a psychiatrist can hope for is to manage a problem, not solve it. No one’s leaving his office turning cartwheels saying, “Thank you, Doctor. I’m now healed.” The best you can hope for is the least bad option. It’s just trying to find the least bad option in a sea of misery and damage and pain. That’s the world Chance is in. I don’t think I’d last a week. It probably takes a very particular kind of temperament to actually be able to survive that; I can honestly say that I don’t have that temperament, but mercifully there are people who do. But even Chance, I think he reaches a part of his life where he is just weighed down by it, and overtaken by despair, and is looking for some sort of human contact, some sort of spark of life and joy and love that can make it all make sense.
Without spoiling too much, there’s another interesting relationship forming by the end of the first episode, an unexpected friendship between Chance and a man named D (Ethan Suplee). How would you describe that?
I think Chance has a sort of immediate crush on D. I think D represents to him a sort of physical confidence, a physical certainty about life and how to navigate it, that Chance’s life has not brought him. He has lived so long in grey areas of nuance and gentleness and trying to pick your way through complicated problems without making things worse while delicately handling the sensibilities of this vast system of mental health care. Then he comes across someone for whom life is frankly much less complicated, somebody who’s decided to make life less complicated. We will subsequently discover that actually that, too, is an illusion, that D has his own levels of complication. But in the first instance, D appears not to have a moment’s doubt about the path he’s chosen through life. I think Chance is all about doubt, and he sees this beacon of certainty and it’s incredibly attractive to him.
Coming off of your Emmy-nominated turn in The Night Manager, in which the various locations were integral in building that story, it seems like you’ve found another project where the setting is key. San Francisco is almost a character in Chance.
It’s fantastic to be [filming] in San Francisco, but I will honestly say it doesn’t come without its set of problems. Shooting in real locations is a tricky thing, and it can be frustrating at times. Where the hell do you park the vehicles? The city doesn’t want you there, and they tell you that you can’t shine bright lights after 8 p.m. and all that kind of stuff. It’s complicated, but there’s no substitute for being in a real building of brick and mortar with real people on the streets, and real people in the bar and the coffee shop, whatever it might be.
It gives a sort of texture to the thing that is very, very hard to replicate on a Burbank soundstage, although people do it. I’m not saying that people don’t pull it off; they do. One of the interesting things is when I was on Veep, I noticed that the stage we were shooting on at Paramount was the stage where they’d shot most of Vertigo. When I first read the novel Chance, I kept thinking of Vertigo and that sort of weird obsession with this mysterious woman that pulls James Stewart down a rabbit hole. It was so odd to see that Vertigo had actually been shot on the stage. Hitchcock shot for about four or five weeks in San Francisco, and then the rest of the movie was made in L.A., but we’re doing it all in San Francisco. We’re going the whole way.
You mentioned Veep. You were so brilliant as Tom James. Will we see him again?
I have no idea. All I can say is, it was just such a thrill to be a part of it. I think that’s one of the most extraordinary casts on television, maybe ever, actually. I think it’s an incredible assembly of performers, and to have a front row seat and watch those guys do what they do, and in particular to watch Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] do what she does — I mean, she’s as good as I’ve ever seen. No, better. The best I’ve ever seen. It’s just breathtaking to get to see her at work up close. So if I had the chance to do it, I absolutely would, but I will understand if they tell me they’ve sucked that character dry and they’ve decided to go in another direction.
Chance premieres Oct. 19 on Hulu, with new episodes streaming weekly on Wednesday.