Actor Hugh Laurie

Golden Globe-winning star of the medical drama House explains how the seventh season of the hit Fox series takes a bold step that is ultimately a gamble.

British actor Hugh Laurie is respected on both sides of the Atlantic.  Before finding fame and garnering several Emmy nods and two Golden Globe wins for his role in Fox' hit series House, he was a member of Cambridge University's Footlights Revue and a familiar face—as a comedian—on British TV. He's directed TV shows and commercials and written a novel, The Gun Seller, that's been adapted into a screenplay. Laurie is also a talented musician who has composed and recorded original songs and plays in the charity rock group Band From TV.



Tavis: Pleased to welcome Hugh Laurie to this program. The six-time Emmy nominee continues his role on one of TV’s most popular and unique dramas, “House.” The show just kicked off its seventh season earlier this week. It airs, of course, every Monday at 8:00 on Fox. Here now, a scene from “House.”
Tavis: Hugh Laurie, good to have you on the program, sir.
Hugh Laurie: Thank you very much, good to be here.
Tavis: You doing all right?
Laurie: I’m fine, I’m fine.
Tavis: So I’m going to tell on you. There’s a monitor over my shoulder here.
Laurie: Right. (Laughs)
Tavis: And while the clip was playing, featuring one Hugh Laurie (laughs) you had them turn the monitor around.
Laurie: Turn, turn, turn it away.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs) So you have a problem watching yourself?
Laurie: I do. I do have a huge problem, a huge problem. In fact, worse than watching is hearing. I cannot stand to hear my own voice. When it’s coming out of my mouth right now it sounds fantastically interesting to me. (Laughter) It’s rich in light and shade, it goes up and down. But when I hear it either on TV or even on someone’s answering machine, I just sound like I’ve had half my brain removed. It’s just so – I can’t bear it.
Tavis: Every actor has his or her own process. If you don’t want to hear yourself and you don’t want to see yourself, then how do you critique yourself?
Laurie: Yes, that’s a good question, although I would say even before that question I would say, “Why am I even an actor?” But anyway, let’s just leapfrog over that one.
Tavis: No, no, no, hold up, wait a minute. (Laughter) I’ll follow your lead here. We will start with the actor question. So why are you an actor?
Laurie: No, well, that’s only – why has that only just occurred to me, that question? Because if it’s really that unbearable, what am I doing? And I don’t know the answer to it. It’s some deep-seated need that I can’t explain. I wish I could. I wish I could. I’m going to have to come up with something right now.
Tavis: (Laughs) No, you can marinate it on it and come back on the show again.
Laurie: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. I suppose actors crave attention of some kind or they have suffered some form of arrested development and are still living in a sort of child’s fantasy existence at some level in their psyche. I don’t know.
Tavis: Why can’t it be as simple as this is your gift, this is your calling, this is your vocation, and you’re awfully good at it? You are, indeed.
Laurie: Well, thank you, Tavis. Thank you very much for rising to my bait. (Laughter) Thank you. Well, maybe that’s what it is. I won’t deny that I did know from a very young age that this was something I could do when school friends would think about appearing on stage as the most frightening, the most awful, intimidating experience ever, I knew that it was something I could do.
I don’t know why that is but I just did, and so maybe in that sense there is some sort of sense of calling there. Anything you know at a very young age. I also – let’s be honest, it’s a way of showing off to girls. (Laughter) Let’s not skip that part.
When I did it for fun, when I did it at school and university, it was definitely a way of showing off to girls. When I started doing it professionally, the odd thing is that in my mind the audience changed from being predominately female, or female in character, I don’t mean made up in women, I just mean female in character, it changed and became male.
The professional audience was a lot of guys like this, going “Okay, then. Okay, what have you got?” And then the audience was something to be outwitted. They had to be beaten somehow. You had to trick them or fool them or overwhelm them, which was not as enjoyable an experience.
The showing off to girls is a much better way of thinking of it, and I’ve sort of lately come back to that. I’m not talking about really showing off, I just mean having in one’s mind the audience as a female entity, as a female character.
Tavis: Do you recall, since you were so good at this so early on, beyond the showing off part, do you recall what play you were in, what you were doing when you felt something more than just showing off? But you know, like, “I really enjoy this and I’m pretty good at this, and this means something to me.”
Laurie: I do.
Tavis: What was it?
Laurie: I do, and it was – actually, it wasn’t even a play, it was a short sketch, and it wasn’t the moment on stage that I remember. What I do remember is that I won a prize. It was a school – everyone in school had to do something and I did this little sketch, and my parents were supposed to come to the show; they were late. Often happened. Oh, woe is me. They arrived late, so they missed me doing the sketch but they were there in time to her my name read out as the winner of this prize.
Tavis: That’s all that matters.
Laurie: (Laughter) That’s what matters, right. I was sort of peeking through the curtain and I saw them smile at each other when my name was read out, and I will never forget that. That was a very big thing. I had sort of brought them pleasure and satisfaction, and that was a good feeling, to feel that I had not let the side down. That was a very good feeling. Although what I was actually doing on stage I don’t remember, but I do remember that moment very clearly.
Tavis: So now that we’ve figured out how it is and why it is that you are an actor, we will go back to the initial question.
Laurie: Okay.
Tavis: That I think I still remember, which is if you don’t like to hear yourself and don’t like to watch yourself, what’s your – this is like one of those “Inside the Actor’s Studio” questions.
Laurie: Right.
Tavis: How, then, do you know whether you’re hitting the mark, whether you’re delivering what you want to deliver? Do you rely on others for that?
Laurie: To a degree, but I’m also watching myself at the time when I do it. I’m watching myself and listening to myself. I feel slightly embarrassed saying this, because I know that some actors, some part of me feels that a proper actor is so subsumed into the character, so immersed in the moment that they are unconscious of any other consideration, not even aware of a camera, not even aware of the fiction.
That’s not me. I am very, very aware at all times. I’m watching myself, I’m listening to myself, I’m judging myself, critiquing myself all the time, and I will know when I do something and I will immediately say, “Can I do another one, because I didn’t quite get that thing,” or that I wanted to do something there and it didn’t quite work.
So I’m doing that on the spot. When the show is actually done, there’s nothing more I can do. I think that’s what it is, is that feeling of powerlessness. I can’t reach into the TV and change it and redo – I wish I could, but I can’t. So that feeling of being out of control means that I just can’t – I find it really hard to look at.
Tavis: Your comment now makes me think of something. I was just reading a piece the other day about Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra – I’m paraphrasing Sinatra’s quote, but I’m pretty close to it. Sinatra made the comment that you should never ignore an inner voice that tells you that something can be better, even when everybody else says it’s okay.
Laurie: Right.
Tavis: So obviously, you have that inner thing. So on the set they’re like, “Okay, moving on,” and you’re like, “Well, wait, let’s do that one more time.” So you obviously have this inner voice, when you know that it can be –
Laurie: I do. Of course, I’m hesitating to ally myself with Frank Sinatra, because the chairman of the board, and we’ll all hail. But what the heck, you raised it. (Laughter) You raised it, so I’m going to go with it. Yeah, me and Sinatra, we’re sort of like that.
Yes, I would agree with that. I would agree with that. I think that voice, which is there all the time, it’s a really peculiar thing, psychologically, that one is able to be within the drama, within the scene, within the character and yet have another part of one’s brain that is actually outside and judging and saying no, that could be better, that could be better, why did you do it like that? That’s not the way to go, go the other way.
That voice is always there. It’s a strange thing that those things are – but then the brain is a peculiar thing in itself.
Tavis: Since we’ve struck a music chord here, let me stay with this and we’ll get back to “House” in just a second here. So I mentioned Frank Sinatra. We owe this conversation to a mutual friend of ours, James Taylor.
Laurie: Right.
Tavis: We’ve been trying to get you on this show for a while now and your schedule’s busy and you’re always ripping and running and doing a bunch of stuff, including music, which we’ll get to in a second. But obviously, you’re a James Taylor fan, as I am.
Laurie: Yes. That was a great night. Was that not a great night? We saw –
Tavis: Yeah. I had a blast, as I always do.
Laurie: It was absolutely fantastic, and he was so – well, the songs are so beautiful, but his – the vibe that he gives out, he’s so – he’s so funny, and yet at the same time there’s something so romantic about him. There’s a great nobility about him, which is a hard thing to pull off, that someone could be – he’s sort of self-deprecating and he kind of clowns around a little bit, but there’s always that beautiful strain of melancholy in his songs. That was a great night. It was a terrific night.
Tavis: He’s a great artist.
Laurie: Was that the last night? That was the last night.
Tavis: He and Carole had been on tour together.
Laurie: Right, and they said, I think, that they had no plans to do that again. I felt like we were witnessing the last night of a piece of American history, really.
Tavis: I felt the same way. It was a great tour. I saw them I think two or three times on that tour, and I was there for the last night, so it was great. So Sinatra, Taylor, Laurie.
Laurie: Right, right. (Laughter) It’s a natural.
Tavis: You are a musician as well.
Laurie: Well, I’m a fantasist, is what I am. I fantasize about being a musician, yes. Whether I am, that’s not for –
Tavis: I’ve got a picture right there that says you are.
Laurie: Oh, really?
Tavis: Yeah, it’s on – you can’t see this because you don’t believe in watching yourself. But on the monitor I can see you playing keyboard.
Laurie: But that’s not – that might be plugged in. (Laughter) In fact, there are some nights when I strongly suspect it was not plugged in. They just –
Tavis: How did the music thing happen for you?
Laurie: Well, it’s something I’ve always loved. I didn’t love when I was a kid and I went through the normal piano lessons that people go through. That I hated, I don’t deny it. I hated that part of it. I think classical music tuition is, well, was when I was a child, was an abomination.
I still think in some ways it is one of life’s great tragedies for everybody who gives up an instrument. I think everybody who gives up an instrument has lost a big part of their –
Tavis: You’re making me feel really bad now.
Laurie: Oh, no, no, no, I don’t mean – I’m sorry, I don’t mean to do that.
Tavis: You took me back 35 years.
Laurie: I don’t mean to do that.
Tavis: I’m about to slit my wrists. (Laughter)
Laurie: I’m sorry.
Tavis: I should have never stopped taking piano lessons. I should have never stopped taking saxophone lessons.
Laurie: But answer me this – is there anyone you can think of who is glad they gave up learning the piano? No such human being exists, right?
Tavis: I bow down, you are correct. I think you’re right. Anybody who’s ever played an instrument, as they get older, they regret that they ever stopped playing.
Laurie: Absolutely. Which is not to say that they didn’t have extremely good reasons for giving up. Everybody does. In fact, I gave up. I went on hunger strike, I hated it so much. I actually didn’t eat for four days.
Tavis: I didn’t do that.
Laurie: Well, at the age of 12, it’s quite a lot time. Although I did actually have a bar of chocolate, but my mother didn’t know that. (Laughter) So as far as she knew it was four straight days without eating. Eventually, she cracked, so I won that one.
I gave up and I didn’t touch the piano for probably – actually, nearly 10 years after that and then sort of came back to it.
Tavis: What brought you back?
Laurie: Well, I just would hear – I would just hear piano players and I would hear music, and just think – I don’t just want to sit here and passively listen; I want to get inside it. I want to climb inside this and understand how it works and be able to do it myself and be able to express these same emotions, these same feelings that I hear on a record. I want to climb inside that and do it myself.
Tavis: How often do you get a chance to do that?
Laurie: Well, I played the – those pictures you have of me with the unplugged keyboard I do a couple of times a year with a band from TV, which is a terrific outfit and I must say has got pretty darn good. We started four or five years ago, and in the early days we were loud and enthusiastic. (Laughter)
But lately, the last few that I played, I have to say if I’d been in the audience I would have actually really enjoyed these shows. They were not embarrassing shows at all. They were really, really good. But more recently than that I’ve actually started – amazingly – I’ve started making a record. A record company came and said, “Do you want to do this?” and I sort of beat down that natural response I’ve had for most of my life, which is, “Oh, I’m not ready, I could never do that, I need 10 years of,” and I thought, oh, to hell with it, I’m going to go for it.
Because in this life – well, I only know this life; I don’t know other lives. But in this life you tend not to regret the things you do; only the things you don’t do. I thought if 10 years go by and I don’t get this chance again, that will hurt me a lot. So I’m going to seize this one, and I have, and we’re about halfway through now. We’ve done five or six tracks.
Tavis: I knew this, I must confess. I knew you were working on an album before you just told me and the world that you were doing this, because in that chair just some weeks ago was a great artist who was rushing out of my studio to get to a recording studio to spend some time with you.
Laurie: That’s right.
Tavis: I said, “You’re going to play with who?”
Laurie: That’s right.
Tavis: “You’re going to do what?” And that artist was –
Laurie: That was Dr. John.
Tavis: – Dr. John.
Laurie: Although I didn’t – the weird thing is I didn’t know he’d come from here. (Laughter) I knew that he was in town one day. We’d got like two hours with him, we could get him, so this is the actual chair he sat in.
Tavis: Dr. John was here, yeah.
Laurie: Well, that was an – because I worshipped that guy for about – well, as long as I can remember, 30-odd years, and that was an amazing experience. In fact –
Tavis: How was the session?
Laurie: Well, the session was great. I’d planned to get there before him so I could rehearse with the bass player and everything would be – and he could just sort of sweep in, in a regal fashion, as is his due. I don’t know, maybe he cut the interview short, because he was there early. (Laughter) You were too quick. He was there early, before I got there.
He was already sitting at the piano and I had to kick him off and say, “Look, I’m going to play this. You’re just going to sing.” And to kick –
Tavis: I was about to ask. Hold up, hold up – how do you kick Dr. John off of a piano.
Laurie: I know, I know. Well, he was actually, bless him, he was very relieved, because he just said, “Oh, that’s great, I don’t have to learn it.” He was so – because let’s face it, there’s a man who has nothing else to prove on the piano. But even just hearing him play those chords, I just melt.
Tavis: You have an affinity for New Orleans and the music it has birthed, obviously.
Laurie: I do, yeah, yeah, and he is to my mind really the great – well, I can’t say – one can never really say so-and-so is the greatest. It just happens to be my favorite sort of living exponent of that particular form, which happens to also be my favorite. My favorite all the way back to Jellyroll Morton and – whose birthday it is today, or a few days ago, depending on (unintelligible).
Tavis: Exactly, yeah.
Laurie: Yeah, this week.
Tavis: Great artist, to be sure. Let me circle back to “House” now, as I promised. Your life is so fascinating, so I’m glad we got some of that out of the way, but I want to get back to “House,” though. Speaking of this chair, months before Dr. John was here another great actor on “CSI,” Robert David Hall, plays the coroner, in real life walks on a cane, was on this program, and your name came up in the conversation, and he was saying how grateful he was to you and the producers of “House” for putting you on that cane, because he is a national spokesperson for Americans with these disabilities and these kind of challenges.
He was saying how grateful he was to you that you all put that character on a cane. I suspect you must hear that from time to time – people who are grateful to see that.
Laurie: I do, I do, but in some ways it’s a very difficult subject because – it’s a very complex issue. There’s no denying the fact that House’s reliance on the cane has somehow affected his character. He is a man who – well, he’s a man in physical pain, for one thing, and he’s also a man who yearns for a physical wholeness that has been denied him.
At the same time, the outside world, and I think this is undeniably true, give him a kind of license that he might not otherwise get were he not to walk with a cane. That the cane is a sort of – it’s almost a sort of cane of truth. While I’m holding this thing, you can’t touch me.
Now, you may say that that’s hypocritical and it should make no difference, and why would people treat a man with a cane any differently. Well, yes, those are all valid questions. The fact is, they do. They just do, and it’s a very complicated thing that it’s bound up both in what has made him the character he is and what allows him to get away with the behavior he gets away with.
I don’t know if that second part of it is a good thing, but it’s a real thing, and it operates both as a dramatic device as a character on television, but also in real life. I think people sort of defer. They feel a kind of awkwardness that means that they will allow things to be done and said that they wouldn’t otherwise do. It’s a peculiar and complicated subject.
Tavis: What’s peculiar for me, although I’m a part of the group that loves the show so I bought into this peculiar, strange craziness of this character House, what is it about him – you guys are starting this week, just started season number seven, so obviously people love the show. You’ve been nominated for Emmys a multiple number of times.
People love the show, they love you, they love the character, and yet this guy is cranky, he’s weird, he’s – you can describe him a variety of ways. What is it about this character that keeps us coming back season after season?
Laurie: I’m really nervous of trying to deconstruct it and work out what are the successful ingredients and what are the less successful ones in case that one, because I think as soon as you consciously try to lean on particular things it’s – is it like opening an oven door before the soufflĂ© is risen, then it won’t rise?
That’s a really hopeless analogy. (Laughter) I don’t know why I chose that, and I don’t even cook soufflĂ©, so why did I even bring that up?
Tavis: It worked, though.
Laurie: But you know what I mean.
Tavis: You got your point across.
Laurie: If one starts to examine too closely. But I suppose I personally like the character. I know he’s cranky, people describe him as mean and all kinds of things, which he is, but I nonetheless like him. I find him extremely funny. I find a sort of – there’s an exhilaration I find in inhabiting someone or spending time with someone who doesn’t care, who doesn’t care about the social consequences.
It’s both frightening, but also very exciting to have someone just unconstrained by well, being liked, for one thing. He doesn’t care if he’s liked, doesn’t care if he’s applauded or booed. That’s a thrilling thing. But also the fact that that allows him to get at truths that other people would not dare confront I think is –
Tavis: You used two words I want to pick up on – frightened and excited. I can confess this to you now that we’re chums and you’re on the show here. When I saw you at that James Taylor concert backstage in James’ dressing room, I wanted to immediately run up and speak to you because I’m such a huge fan, and you would think that as one who does this every night, I should know better.
But I was excited to meet you and frightened because I didn’t know whether Hugh Laurie was like House.
Laurie: Oh, that I was going to start getting all sort of mean and sarcastic?
Tavis: (Laughs) I didn’t know what to expect in that moment. When I saw how nice you were to James, I said, “Well, let me just venture out and introduce myself to Hugh Laurie.”
Laurie: No, I am –
Tavis: People ask you – do you get this sometimes from people on the street?
Laurie: I am sweetness and light and puppy dogs’ ears, that’s me. (Laughter)
Tavis: People tend to confuse actors with characters.
Laurie: They do, they do, yes. I suppose there may be – but of course I wouldn’t be aware of it that much, because that means people would simply avoid me. Come to think of it, they do. (Laughter) That may be for a whole raft of reasons that I’m not – yes, I suppose they might do. If that’s the case, I suppose I should be able to turn that to my advantage somehow. (Laughter) I should be able to use that to propel myself into – I could intimidate people into various situations.
Tavis: I should know better, though, so I’m glad I got past that fear.
Laurie: Well, thank you.
Tavis: I know how these things work – you’re not going to tell me too much about the new season, but what are you going to tell me about why we should tune in this year?
Laurie: Well, we’ve taken a bold move. We’re having sort of teased a relationship between these two characters, between House and his boss, Lisa Cuddy. We’ve teased this thing and played with it and flirted with it for six years now. We’ve finally taken the leap and it’s a gamble with the audience. Some people will like it, some people won’t.
I think we had to do it because I don’t think you can just go do the same thing year-in, year-out, particularly when part of what you’re doing is about characters. We’re not about just solving crimes, where you can sort of process endless fingerprints and DNA results have come back and all that sort of stuff.
We are actually telling stories about characters, and I think eventually we had to do something of this nature. But it’s a gamble, and that in itself is frightening and exciting. People may say, “I won’t have anything to do with it,” and other people may say, “This is where it was always headed.”
Tavis: House and Cuddy – Huddy.
Laurie: Huddy is (unintelligible) yeah.
Tavis: We’ll see how that works out.
Laurie: Right.
Tavis: I’m so glad you came on. It’s an honor to meet you.
Laurie: Thank you; it’s a real pleasure, a real pleasure.
Tavis: Oh, I’ve enjoyed the conversation immensely. Good to have you here.
Laurie: Thanks.
Tavis: Hugh Laurie from “House,” Mondays at 8:00 on Fox.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 15, 2014 at 12:47 am