LOS ANGELES — Hugh Laurie was on location in Namibia for the upcoming movie “Flight of the Phoenix” when it was suggested he audition for two roles in the offbeat medical series “House.”
On his first glance at the script, he presumed Dr. James Wilson was the “hero” of the drama premiering Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on Fox, because the character was described as having “a handsome open face.”
“I’m not going to get that,” the British-born, self-deprecating Laurie recalls thinking, explaining he was once nicknamed Boris because his features are vaguely reminiscent of “Frankenstein” star Boris Karloff.
So he chose “the other chap, and to my amazement, discovered he was the central role.”
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That “other chap” is Dr. Gregory House, an acerbic diagnostician with a ruthlessly honest approach to solving obscure medical maladies. He’s also exceptionally ornery for a lead character in a prime-time drama.
And he’s American.
Finding his inner Yank
Laurie is probably best known to U.S. audiences as the very, very English gadabout Bertie Wooster in “Jeeves and Wooster,” which aired on PBS from 1990-95.
But he’s also played Americans before, including the father in the “Stuart Little” movies and director Vincente Minnelli in the television biopic “Life with Judy Garland: Me & My Shadows.”
“House” creator David Shore says the title character was very “tricky” to cast: “He’s such a jerk, but on the other hand he’s so brilliant.”
The trick was to find someone who could “do these horrible things and be somehow likable without just, you know, petting a kitten.”
Laurie’s natural speaking voice reflects his schooling at upscale Eton, where he says his report cards often included the adjective “ghastly.”
He jokes that his American accent includes “a touch of Hungarian and Pakistani, depending on how tired I am,” but he sounds at ease as a Yank.
Laurie, 45, is the son of a doctor, and there was a time when he thought of pursuing that career. “I forget now why I didn’t. It’s hard work. Maybe that put me off.”
High hopes for ‘House’
He lives in London with his wife, Jo, and three school-age children. Whether the family moves to Los Angeles depends on whether “House” attracts a healthy audience.
“You sign on the line for theoretically a large amount of time, but, of course, they can send you packing,” the actor muses. “I still haven’t really unpacked my suitcase. I haven’t rented a house...I’m very superstitious. I’m sure the moment I did that it would be whisked away.”
Laurie demurs about the personal and professional demands of his chosen career. “It’s all odd when you are pretending anything — whether you are pretending to be the father of a mouse or to have medical knowledge, which you don’t really have.”
As House, he also pretends to have a limp and an intensely sharp mind. But only one of them is actually false.
He admires the writing on the series for “avoiding the obvious” and managing to be witty “without being pleased with itself.”
House is usually in conflict with his fellow physicians, who include Robert Sean Leonard as Wilson and Omar Epps as Dr. Eric Foreman.
Laurie says his character reasons against emotion, and “in this touchy, feely age, reason is not a popular thing. Facts are not popular things. Logic is not a popular thing. Warmth and emotion and sympathy are very popular things...
“I think it puts an interesting question to the audience: Would you rather have an unkind person who is right, or a kind person who is wrong?”
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