Interview: Hugh Laurie – from House to music

The world's highest-paid actor in a TV drama is falling back on his first love - the blues

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There are certain things Hugh Laurie does six days out of seven. He rises before dawn. He roars to work on a motorbike along empty (ish) Los Angeles freeways around 5.30am. Then, on the set of American medical drama series House, the 51-year-old Englishman gets down to the actorly business of being America’s favourite bit of rumpled, crumpled, grumpy, brainiac, foxy-doctor eye-candy.

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He’s been based in the US for a long time now. His wife Jo joins him two weeks out of every four; their children, aged 17, 20 and 22, have their own lives in the UK. The family are used to the transatlantic routine, even if it might be coming to an end – after filming this summer for the forthcoming eighth series, “the end of that season, right now, looks like the end of the show”.

Is that Laurie’s choice? “Well, that’s as far as they’ve got me for,” he replies carefully, referring, presumably, to the limits of his contract.

But even at this point, seven seasons into House’s ratings-busting run, Laurie stresses that his days of playing Dr Gregory House are far from routine. “No, the acting muscles don’t know what they’re doing, actually. Perhaps they should, but they don’t. There’s very little about it that is…”

This tall, distinguished-looking, well-spoken man, grizzled with stubble, head hair finer than it is on telly, pauses. “I dunno,” he reflects, “maybe there’s a repetitive action in music – if you do your scales and your fingers are nimble, then there are certain things you just know you can do without too much difficulty. Acting for some reason isn’t like that. It doesn’t become automated in quite the same way.”

He’s talking about piano-playing because this is the thing Laurie does seven days out of seven. Playing music, listening to music, living music – this is the actor/writer/comedian’s passion. “I play for pleasure,” he says, an almost rhapsodic look on his face. No, he can’t read music, “but I can work it out – I know it’s ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.’ ”

Sat daily at the piano in the well-appointed LA home that his huge US TV remuneration has afforded him (a reputed £256,000 an episode), “that’s the time when the clock just stops. I can do that for ten minutes or six hours and not really notice the difference.”

He’ll try a bit of classical and sometimes jazz. “But jazz is a very complicated subject. Probably no two people mean quite the same thing by the word ‘jazz’. There are things about jazz I love; there are things about it that I find… troubling,” he smiles.

“There was a point I think where jazz went from [being] dance music – body music – to head music. I’ve seen some jazz recently that was just lots of people sitting at tables, nodding. That’s just not for me. I think jazz went down a weird alleyway – well, it’s not an alleyway, it’s a freeway. It’s a big, wide freeway. And good luck to them. But,” he concludes with the gentle, gentlemanly twinkle that dazzles women of a certain age all over America, “I will not be joining them.”

Hugh Laurie’s thing, musically speaking, is the blues. It’s the music that first pricked up his ears as an adolescent in Oxford, the form that has sent him scurrying into record shops all his life. It’s the (mostly) black American culture that has shaped his surprising – and surprisingly good – first album, Let Them Talk, a collection of covers of blues standards.

And it’s the reason that he travelled to New Orleans to be filmed in concert with some top-notch local players for a special show to be broadcast as part of ITV1’s Sunday-night Perspectives strand.

It’s a riveting performance from the man who counts Muddy Waters as his long-standing “pin-up” (“He still is – I have a picture of him on my wall at home”). Held in the covered courtyard of the old Louisiana State Bank, the gig is intimate, relaxed and rollicking fun.

And, to any naysayers questioning a millionaire English posho’s facility with a music born of misery, deprivation and enslavement, it is also brilliantly, convincingly bluesy. Laurie knows, appreciates and gets this music, and has the voice and skills on piano and guitar to do it justice.

The first song performed is Junker’s Blues. It’s not on the album, but it’s almost the sine qua non of blues songs – the lyric covers cocaine, marijuana, whiskey and, finally, prison. Is that why he opened the show with it? “Pretty much. Yeah, it’s all in there. I wanted something that we could sing and play and loosen up a little bit on…

“Well, that I could loosen up on – they other guys didn’t need loosening up,” he qualifies with typical humility. “They’re ready to go. You just switch them on and they purr into life. I needed a bit of a loosener. Although I don’t think it really helped, ’cause I still f ***ed up the next song I did!”

Laurie, 18 in 1977, was the perfect age to be a teenage punk. But gobby blokes in spiky hair with angry guitars did not move him. Nor was he a pop fan.

“I’m not saying this with any sort of aggressive defiance, but I don’t own any David Bowie records. I admire him greatly, and if you’ve ever got two tickets and you want me to go with you, I’ll happily go and see a David Bowie show. But I just didn’t get into all the things my school friends were listening to through the early 70s. I don’t know, it just didn’t really give it to me.”

The Rolling Stones, he supposes, were an exception. “But that’s partly because the Stones were ploughing the same sort of furrow, if I dare put myself in the same sentence as the Rolling Stones – well, I’ve done it now, it’s too late,” he jokes, immediately calling to mind the limber, comic performances he was known for in the UK for two decades before US TV stardom came knocking.

“But I don’t think I ever bought a Beatles record. I’m not proud of that – I’m not saying, yeah, f***ing Beatles… It’s just the way I’m put together. So I missed out on all that pop stuff.”

His album’s overture, if you like, and the song that opens it, is Saint James Infirmary. Laurie’s six-minute-plus performance of the anonymous folk song, which begins with the actor’s long fingers running coolly over the piano keys, is spine-tingling to see, and to hear.

In New Orleans, he tells the audience that blues cultural lore has it that the song is based on an old English tune, The Unfortunate Rake, that made its way over to America and was reborn. I ask him: is it the album’s cornerstone because he likes the parallel with his own professional and personal journey?

“I do like that parallel,” he nods. “But I’m gonna come clean and say that I’ve loved and been playing Saint James Infirmary long before I knew anything of its origins…” He pauses. “The thing is, I was quite aware that one of the expectations was that [on this album] I was gonna hide.

“I would probably have expected it myself: with a bit of help and a bit of artful management, you can surround yourself with brilliant players, and you can get someone to Autotune your voice – and have someone protect you. You can hide behind great players and great technology. You can make a perfectly serviceable piece of music without expressing yourself.

“And I thought, no. I’m not gonna do that. I’m going to come out naked and just have the piano and there’s no Pro-Tools jiggery-pokery going on. It’s just me and a piano.”

This, he says, was the attraction in recording the album with minimal musical adornment, and in beginning it with Saint James Infirmary. “That was the idea I had in my head. I wanted to be as naked and as vulnerable as I could be.”

Laurie can’t compete with the heritage of the musical guests who joined him in New Orleans. Off camera during a rehearsal before showtime, Tom Jones and Irma Thomas (“A truly royal visit,” Laurie later tells the audience; she’s “the Soul Queen of New Orleans”) exchanged hugs and memories. “We met in Manchester, England, in ’66,” says Thomas to Jones, “and we’re still at it. So I guess that means we got something going!”

But Laurie doesn’t want to compete. He wants to pay homage, and to introduce a new audience to this music, and this world.

“There were some songs that I just felt, ‘it’s a crime that people don’t know this…’ I’m gonna sound like such an old fart, but kids these days don’t know Lead Belly.” In the end he could only do 15 songs on Let Them Talk.

But after a short run of European gigs with this band this month, and around his commitments on what may be the final season of House, “I can only hope that I’m lucky enough to get a second chance and to continue to delve into these songs that I love so much, and they’ll all get to see the light of day one way or another. Well, they already have seen the light of day, but ah, with my torch…”

He trails off with a shake of the head. That, he concludes with a chuckle, was a really poor metaphor.

As for his one-off engagement in the South’s home of the blues, Laurie is still thrilled by, and honoured to have had, the experience. Even if this seasoned, almost veteran performer in a range of artistic worlds was rather nervous as he sat on his piano stool and faced his band. And faced – for the first time from behind a microphone – the music that has moved him his whole life.

“It’s a very peculiar thing – as an actor you get used to the fact that part of your job is to conceal the tension of performing. A lot of acting is about concealment. When you actually have to do things with your hands, it’s rather different. You can’t lie about those; if your hands won’t move, they won’t move. You can’t overcome that with will.”

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He pauses. “I should have probably tried. I think the next time I’ll try slightly more vodka. I’ll just up the dose a little bit.”