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A Lot To Like

Think you might confuse actor Hugh Laurie with Dr. Gregory House? Not bloody likely.

June 06, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

HUGH LAURIE isn't too worried that Gregory House will steal his soul. Often, when a character becomes as entrenched in popular culture as House has, people forget there is an actual actor in there somewhere. An actor who may not share many, or any, of the characteristics, tendencies and tics the writer -- yes, there's usually one of those too -- has bestowed upon said character.

Fortunately for Laurie, all he has to do is walk across a room and open his mouth to make that pretty clear. He is tall and lanky like House, but able-bodied and, in casual conversation, not prone to insults. The blue eyes are very much in evidence though they are not nearly as lamp-like as Laurie makes them when House is focusing his attention, or venom, on some poor suffering soul. There is a certain sarcasm and assorted dry asides, but then he's British and that accent -- high Cambridge to a non-native ear -- is what finally pries him away from House's shadow.

"I don't talk like House, or walk like him," Laurie says, settling into a chair on the set of Dr. Cuddy's office after wrapping production for the day. "I certainly don't think like him. I don't like to think for more than 15 minutes at a stretch actually; I am a fragile flower."

A fragile, tired yet highly professional flower. It is after 5 and he has been working all day and now here's this interview, another thing to which he must turn his considerable attention. But if House is a man ready to spring out of his skin at any moment, Laurie is at least a bit more relaxed. Comfortable may put too fine a point on it, but at least he's not noticeably fraying at the edges.

Portraying someone else is, after all, the point of acting. Or at least where Laurie comes from. "In Britain, the tradition involves creating a character that isn't like you," he says. "In America, there's more imagining, how I would react if this thing happened to me. So often here, one gets cast for who you are rather than who you can become."

Two Golden Globes and a SAG award later, it's a darn good thing that, in 2004, creator David Shore and producer Paul Attanasio were casting their new medical detective series in the British tradition. Because House is famously based on Sherlock Holmes, there is poetic justice in this. But certainly Laurie, with his pop-eyed comedic past -- there remain some public television die-hards who cannot think of him as anyone but Bertie Wooster -- wasn't the first image anyone had for the sardonic, irascible lead of Fox's "House."

House is a Vicodin addict so far from the carefully carefree world of P.G. Wodehouse that he sees nothing amiss in eating other people's food or giving himself a catheter to relieve the drug's side effects.

"Oh, that holds no terror for me," Laurie says with a small sideways smile when asked about scenes that included him sitting on the toilet and wetting the bed. "I have no sense of personal beauty. What I found more bizarre," he adds, leaning back with watchful humor, "was the application of an ice pack to the scrotal area. Every man on set seemed to be familiar with this procedure but me. I still don't understand its purpose."

As it turns out, it is precisely this comedic timing that saves House from the one characteristic that is the death knell for a TV character: being unlikable. For all his cold and callous ways, House, as played by Laurie, is likable. At least in an at-arm's-length kind of way.

"As a real person, he wouldn't last a minute, would he?" Laurie says. "But drama is about imperfection. And we've moved away from the aspirational hero. We got tired of it, it was dull. If I was House's friend, I would hate it. How he so resolutely refuses to be happy or take the kind-hearted road. But we don't always like morally good people, do we?

"I was just thinking about a big movie star," he adds, refusing to name him, "whose entire career seems to have been about finding moral perfection. And it just drives me mad."

House may not care if no one likes him, but Laurie is not one of those "audience be damned" type performers. He is invariably self-deprecating -- the only glimpse of fame he claims to have seen is that, occasionally, when he forgets his Fox ID, "the guard will let me on the lot anyway."

Although he has been spending most of the past three years in L.A. -- "they say eight months, but now it's closer to 10" a year -- he still considers London his home. Not surprising, as his wife and three children still live there.

"I suppose somewhere there is a group of Brits out here who get together and eat roast beef," he says, "but I'm not one of them. I don't really see anyone who doesn't work on the Fox lot."

Popularity, however, is not really a concern -- "House" will close the season as the No. 2 scripted drama for the season and recently scored the enviable post-Super Bowl spot for 2008.

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