Hugh Laurie is back on television and back in the medical field, sort of. After eight years on the Emmy winning House, Laurie did the Emmy winning miniseries The Night Manager and guested on the Emmy winning Veep. On Chance, Laurie plays forensic neuro-surgeon Eldon Chance who gets drawn into a mystery. He’s not as acerbic as Gregory House but the mental ailments with which he’s dealing with are just as harrowing as the cases with which House dealt.
Hulu presented a panel on Chance to the Television Critics Association. Afterwards, Laurie stayed behind to speak with reporters further. Chance premieres today, October 19 on Hulu’s streaming service.
Was there any fun and levity on the set dealing with this very serious material?
Hugh Laurie: I think you probably get more fun and levity from terrible, terrible stories than you do from comedies. I think on the set of a comedy, everybody’s going, “Jesus, how are we going to get this show to work?” Everybody’s all sort of angsting about it. In actual facts, when people making a story about suicide watch in a jail, they’re probably laughing from dawn ‘til dusk.
House was both a drama and a comedy, so did you have a lot of humor on that set?
Hugh Laurie: Yes, it was. Thank you for observing that. People often just say, “He’s so dark and he’s so…” I thought, “This is a brilliantly funny show.” Thank you, we had both. We agonized over how do we make this joke work and we also had the sort of gruesomeness of you’re sitting with a scene, someone’s mourning the death of a relative or a loved one and sometimes the only way to release that tension and that worry is to laugh. You have to because the brain can’t deal with constant grief. In real life, I think the brain goes into a self-protective comic mode as a way of dealing with it.
How valuable was the book to you in playing Chance on TV?
Hugh Laurie: That was great. It felt like a sort of roadmap for all of us. I recommend it to tall of you. It’s a wonderful novel and this is a very rare thing. I think what Alex[andra Cunningham] has done, her adaptation, it’s very rare that you find an adaptation that captures a novel even to the point of possibly surpassing it. What she and Kem [Nunn] have done together is almost a step on from the novel which is a really remarkable thing because normally you find you read an adaptation and you’re going, “Yeah, all the bits are there but it just doesn’t quite capture the essence of it.” That’s what I believe. You may think very differently when it’s on your screen.
How did director Lenny Abrahamson help you lay the groundwork for the series in the pilot?
Hugh Laurie: Well, you couldn’t find a more perfectly suited character. Besides his immense skill as a filmmaker, he’d studied philosophy. He did a masters of philosophy at Berkeley and he’d spent three years in San Francisco, knew this whole world incredibly well. Also I think two or three of these people involved have come from families of psychiatrists. It’s in everybody’s DNA for some reason. He was a wonderful companion, guide and drinking partner. He’s just absolutely very funny, and he has what you’re always hoping for from a director is that fine balance between the confidence of a clear vision but also the other kind of confidence which allows you to alter that vision, to go with what’s there. Some people have the clear idea but then they become so fixated on executing it that they can’t accommodate any deviation. “Ve must follow ze plan.” He’s not like that at all. He’s very freeform, very relaxed and a wonderful collaborator.
What did the Emmy nomination for The Night Manager mean to you as opposed to the nominations for House?
Hugh Laurie: Oh, that was a very big thrill. I know this is going to sound cheesy and you’re going to doubt my word, but honestly what was a bigger victory for me was that the whole show, I think we got 12 nominations in all. The fact that the whole show got a sort of nod of approval from one’s peers, that was an enormous thing. In the various departments, that we got the approval is an incredible thing because I’ve loved that story for so long. 20-odd years later we finally get to put it on the screen. Of course after that amount of waiting, that amount of thinking about it, you worry that we’re just going to come horribly unstuck and people are going go, “Well, that was dull.” To have any sort of approval at all is an incredibly welcome thing.
How was your experience on Veep doing straight comedy?
Hugh Laurie: Well, there, I honestly felt like the luckiest spectator. It was like I had the best seat in the house. I would’ve cheerfully just stood there and not had any lines. I’d cheerfully play a Secret Service agent, just with my finger like that [on my ear] and just watch them do it. I think that is one of the most astonishing casts ever assembled, given its size. It’s 20 or so characters, each one of whom are beautifully done. Of course, Julia is the best there ever was. I think we will look back and say, “She was making that show when I was around.”