Hugh Laurie can play dumb like nobody's business. Best known for his naïve befuddlement in classic English series such as Jeeves and Wooster and Blackadder, the actor took stupidity to sublime new heights. So it's interesting to find Laurie so good at being smart, playing the brilliant but cranky Dr. Gregory House in the Fox medical drama House. Laurie headlines a cast that includes Omar Epps and Robert Sean Leonard. The show is one of the few bright spots on the new fall schedule, and it plays like Sherlock Holmes in the ER, as Dr. House and his team investigate various medical maladies. Produced by The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, the series stands out not only for its sharp writing and acting but also for putting a blunt, sarcastic, antisocial character in the lead—and making audiences embrace him.
Well, maybe not everybody. The previous evening, Laurie logged on to an Internet message board for House for the first time. "I was just curious to see how angry we've made people," he says. "There was an angry doctor saying, 'No doctor would do this, and any doctor that behaved like this would be fired.' He may very well be right, but of course if we did that, the show would be about four minutes long, and it'd be quite dull. A patient would come in sick, be treated properly, and leave. I'd like to see him pitch that show to Fox and see how far he gets."
Laurie may not yet be a household name in America, but those in the know have been watching him for years. He might be best-known to the masses as the dad in Stuart Little, but, long before sharing screen time with a talking mouse, he was a huge star in his native England for his frequent partnerships with Stephen Fry and appearances in films such as Sense and Sensibility and Peter's Friends. So why an American series now? "Although I'd love to be able to say that actors can plan their own destiny and put up a big chart on the wall saying, 'August 2006: Conquer America,' it sort of doesn't work like that," Laurie says. "It's a question of going where the wind blows. The wind happened to blow me a couple of pages of this script about a year ago. I had never thought of doing an American TV show, I hadn't thought of playing a doctor, I hadn't thought of any of that stuff. But good is good and when you read it, you know it. I was very intrigued by this and thought, 'Wherever it's being done and however it's being done, I would like to be involved in it.'"
Laurie was shooting a film in Africa when he first received pages of the script, and he was asked to put himself on tape. "I did it in someone's hotel bathroom; the light from the shaving mirror was the only light that was strong enough to get a picture," he recalls. "I sent that in and thought no more about it, and then, a couple of weeks later, I was asked if I would come to L.A.—coach—and meet Bryan Singer and the producers." He went through several more auditions before making it to what he refers to as "the semifinals," where he met with "30 executives who stare at you like you're a piece of meat in a butcher shop."
Clearly they liked what they saw—resist temptation to make a prime-rib joke here—and Laurie soon found himself perfecting an American accent to play House. There was, however, some consideration of making the character English in the beginning. "We tried it for about 25 seconds," he says. "Actually, not even that. I don't think I even got to the end of a sentence, and Bryan went, 'No, it doesn't work.' I just think this is the way it's been written and, to be frank, I don't expect Fox to put a foreigner at the center of an expensive drama show. I can understand that."
Perhaps the most rewarding thing about playing House is that Laurie gets to showcase his comedic and dramatic skills, often at the same time. The good doctor makes no bones about not caring for people—because "everybody lies," he doesn't feel it's necessary to take patient histories—and he frequently pops painkillers to deal with a condition that has left his right leg immobile. "The great opportunity for me here is that this has everything in it," Laurie enthuses. "Depending on where this character is in his painkilling-Vicodin cycle, he veers from the pretty broadly comic to manically tragic. There's so much in this, so many different tones going on in the same show, which is one of the things I really relish about it." As for the eternal question of comedy versus drama, Laurie remains philosophical. "Hard to say which is harder; usually I find that whatever I'm not doing is harder," he muses. "The writing is so good, most of the time I find it's a question of getting myself to not try too hard. I try very hard not to try hard. That, in itself, is quite hard."