Hugh Laurie is having a rough morning on the set of House, which, for the moment, is actually the cramped fuselage of a passenger plane. But the 47-year-old actor, who seems to have been born with a furrowed brow, takes care to ensure that all his workdays are as rough as possible. On this harried morning, the crew of Fox’s medical drama — which lately has been neck and neck with “Grey’s Anatomy” in the ratings — is gathered on a Hollywood soundstage to shoot in a mock 767. Gregory House (Laurie as a world-renowned diagnostician and world-renouncing misanthrope) and Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein as his supervisor and sparring partner) are returning from Singapore, and passengers are inexplicably falling ill. A blonde morsel of an actress is sipping from a cup of fruit smoothie so that she can spit it out as vomit, and the call sheet suggests that the half-dozen extras will follow suit.
The medicine man, however, is sick with worry. There could be unpleasant compromises as the 16-hour day wears on, settling for decent takes instead of pushing for great ones. Waiting for the next setup, the six-foot-two actor presses his temples hard, kneads his forehead harder, and, in a therapeutic effort, lets loose an animal howl. When he finally makes his way over to me, his blue eyes — customarily described as buggy or boggling in connection with the comic roles he mastered in his native England — dart around, as if searching for the next spot of bother. “I’m about to have a brain aneurysm,” Laurie says, his character’s American accent still intact. “I can say that now because I’m a doctor.”
Physician, gather thyself. Forty-eight hours later, on Laurie’s first day off in months, “House’s” snappish inflections and caustic humor have yielded to the actor’s own Eton-bred burr and dry waggishness. “I seem to be talking far too much,” he says. “I’m gonna try and give surly one-word movie-star answers and see how it goes.” He’s perched at Hugo’s, an industry standby in West Hollywood, where he’s rented an apartment for two of “House’s” three seasons: “I spent most of the first year living in a hotel. While everybody else was taking out year-long leases, I was thinking to myself, ‘You’re mad. We’re gonna be cancelled next week.’?” His wife, Jo, and their three teenagers — two boys and a girl — still live in London, and the next of his rare trips home is to watch his older son in a school play. The commute poses a rather different set of parenting problems than those Laurie faced as the human father of a mouse in the Stuart Little franchise.
On “House,” leagues away from kiddie fare, Laurie stalks through nearly every scene, flouting medical ethics, hospital rules, and the standards of basic civility while tending to patients with baffling symptoms. The formula for this drama is more eccentric than most procedurals, and Gregory House would appear to be a tough sell even as anti-heroes go — the grizzled looks and the Vicodin habit, the callous jeers and icy superiority. Without the limber wit Laurie brings to the role, House might be cartoonish or even repellent. “There are a lot of adjectives for ‘House’, like ‘cantankerous’ and ‘curmudgeonly,’?” says co-star Robert Sean Leonard, whose Dr. Wilson is a Watson to House’s Holmes. “That’s all great, but it’s very tiring unless the person’s enjoying it.”
By now, Laurie’s ardent commitment to his role has earned him two Golden Globes, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and no small share of the credit for House’s overall vision. “Hugh co-directs every show we do,” Leonard says. “It’s not an exaggeration. He really does say, ‘Are you cutting from that shot to this shot? Because if so, that would be awkward.’ Are you kidding me? I’m thinking about what I’m having for lunch.”
Laurie’s been a Wodehouse addict since his teens, which accounts for the droll flavor of The Gun Seller, the comic spy novel he published to enviable reviews in 1997. Penguin UK is rolling out its sequel, The Paper Soldier, in September — years later than planned, a consequence of the author’s intense day job and sophomore anxiety. “I wrote the first one strictly for me,” he says, “and when I submitted it to a publisher, I did it under another name. I can’t fool myself the second time around. I’ve just got to bite the bullet and be me, but that’s the difficulty of life, being me — I mean, being oneself.”
Protests aside, he actually means being him. Laurie’s defining trait is his discontented streak, which Leonard goes so far as to call “major self-loathing.” Here’s a man who loves his latest hobby, boxing, precisely because it’s the hardest thing he’s ever tried — and probably because it hurts. “To throw a good punch is as hard as hitting a good forehand or a good golf shot,” says Laurie. “But those guys hitting good forehands and golf shots don’t have someone hitting them in the face while they’re doing it, which, I can tell you, throws you off your game a bit.”
In Laurie’s existential reckoning, struggling with punches, and punch lines, is its own satisfaction — the only meaningful type. “Probably, I fear happiness because I don’t know what follows,” he ventures. “To say ‘I’ve accomplished something,’ or ‘I look around and I see that my life pleases me,’ that would feel like a kind of death. If things ever were good enough, I wouldn’t know what to do afterwards.”
Laurie claims that he’s never planned a moment of his marvelous career, and “House” is so consuming that there are no new projects on the horizon. His retirement, however, is all sorted out. “I am going to form a jazz trio along the lines of a Ramsey Lewis or Herbie Hancock kind of thing,” he says. “I’m gonna find some regular gigs, and we’ll play a very groovy set. If girls in tight-fitting cocktail dresses want to drape themselves over the piano, that’s fine, but the music’s the thing.” He levels an earnest look. “That’s one of the few things I’m sure about — I know, I just know, that will make me immensely happy.”