Hugh Laurie has only recently returned from what he insists was his first holiday in 13 years. It was to India and more than memories are lingering. “Let’s just say I won’t be eating curry again for a while,” he notes. “It’s been dry toast and flat cola for me these past few days.”
He may be suffering but the actor, 53, is bright-eyed, clear-skinned and looks in entirely better health and spirits here in London than he did when last we met in Los Angeles two years ago. At that time he was midway through filming the seventh series of hit medical drama House and the strain was etched on his grey and grizzled face.
In between cigarettes, he declared it impossible to talk openly on or around set in case others shared his thoughts with the Twittersphere (his therapist was the only one he trusted not to do so). He’d had his car windows tinted to avoid being snapped by phone cameras when stopped at red lights and said it had been years since he’d bought his own groceries. “I couldn’t stand people photographing the contents of my shopping basket.”
In short, while the role of brilliant but flawed Dr Gregory House had brought him two Golden Globes, two Screen Actors Guild awards and had made him the best-paid actor on TV (a reported £250,000 per episode latterly), it had also proved to be… “A gilded cage?” he offers now, warily eyeing the espresso proferred by an aide.
“At this distance [he completed the eighth series a year ago] it all sounds absurd. Ridiculous! After all, what was I doing other than playing about, telling stories with a very nice bunch of people? What could be constricting about that? But the repetition of any routine, day after month after year, can turn into a bit of a nightmare.
“I had some pretty bleak times, dark days when it seemed like there was no escape. And having a very Presbyterian work ethic, I was determined never to be late, not to miss a single day’s filming. You wouldn’t catch me phoning in to say, ‘I think I may be coming down with the flu.’ But there were times when I’d think, ‘If I were just to have an accident on the way to the studio and win a couple of days off to recover, how brilliant would that be?’”
When I remark that it must have required considerable adjustment, returning home after a near eight-year commitment to House and to Los Angeles (his wife Jo and three children, all now grown, were based in London throughout), Laurie nods his assent. “Difficult, yes, but probably more so for the family. For me it’s been a delight to be back with them, to walk the dog, to listen to music and to read. I’m still appreciating and enjoying it.”
And fortunately, there’s been his new sideline as a professional blues musician to help ease the transition, too. Back in 2011, he said to me of his debut album release Let Them Talk, “It’s going to get a critical kicking – I just know it.” In fact, that collection of standards (it featured Laurie on piano, guitar and vocals, with guest appearances by Irma Thomas and Dr John) was well reviewed and reached number two in the UK album chart. Some kicking, eh? Was that a smile that just fled across Laurie’s features? “Steady,” he warns. “Don’t you dare! I don’t really know what the record company was expecting, but of course they must have thought they could shift some units. I was just hoping they wouldn’t lose money and that I wouldn’t be a total embarrassment to them.”
In fact, Warner Bros were sufficiently happy to bankroll Laurie for a second album, Didn’t It Rain, backed by his Copper Bottom Band (Grammy-winning blues artist Taj Mahal is among the featured artists this time). An accompanying Perspectives documentary follows Laurie and his band across the States, from New York to Long Beach, California, on a journey in homage to one of Laurie’s heroes, pianist Henry “Roy” Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair. Does all this mean that primetime has lost its most self-deprecating leading man? Would he ever sign up to take the lead in another major, ongoing series?
“If the opportunity presented itself, I’m not sure I’d either want or could physically do it. I imagine sportsmen come to a similar crossroads. Maybe there’ll come a day when John Terry says, ‘I’m not up for the full 90 minutes any more. I can give you 60. Or perhaps I could just come on in the second half?’ The legs start to go and you realise you’re feeling the pain a lot more.”
That said, scripts are still being pitched to him, “some very good, some not so good and others so weirdly like House that you wonder what they’re thinking of. The big thing is that I’m a decade older than when I got that role. Even then the character was scripted as ten years younger at 35 – and Fox would have preferred 28, to keep advertisers happy. Now if my name comes up for the lead, there’d be a shaking of heads. ‘He could play the dad…’”
Laurie is sanguine about the shifting nature of Hollywood status. “One great benefit of not being on TV every week is that people will be a lot less interested in what I have in my supermarket basket. I could even un-tint my car windows – or at least opt for a lighter shade. When the ship goes down, the waves very quickly roll over the top of it and attention shifts elsewhere. It’s just the natural order of things in TV – in life – and is as it should be.”
Directing appeals much more right now. “I’d like to do something that involves wearing my own clothes for a while. It’s an odd thing to go to work each day and wear someone else’s. For House I also had a fake wallet with fake money in it, fake keys that didn’t open anything and a fake watch that didn’t tell the real time. All I can say right now is that there are things of my own I’m developing that I’m pretty excited about.”
I remind Laurie of how he told me last time that he was someone who always expected disaster to strike, who was always waiting for a plane to fall from the skies and hit him. Is that still the case?
“That’s a bit of a constant, I’m afraid. But honestly, I don’t spend my time looking nervously upwards. It will happen when it happens and if it’s not a plane that gets me, then it could equally be a bus.
“When you assume that the worst is going to happen, you’re freed up from any anxiety about the when and the where of it. Not that I’d ever be foolish enough to think I’ve finally got the hang of this life business,” he gives a sharp little laugh. "To think that way would be to actively encourage the bus driver to take aim.”
Watch Hugh Laurie in Perspectives on Sunday at 10:00pm on ITV
Didn't It Rain is released by Warner Bros on Monday 6 May