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A quick Q&A with Hugh Laurie about playing the bad guy in new spy series

2016-02-23 22:00

Cape Town – Hugh Laurie best known as the acerbic physician, Dr House stars in AMC's new series, The Night Manager based on John le Carré’s spy novel of the same name. 

Laurie plays Richard Roper a well-born, well educated, billionaire businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist and gentleman.

But behind the public masks lurks a bad man. He has built an empire from his trade in human life and selling arms to the highest bidder.

In this Q&A Hugh talks about playing Roper, the relationship between his character and Tom Hiddleston's (Johnathan Pine) and what it was like working on the series.

How long ago did you get involved with The Night Manager and what was it that attracted you to the story in the first place?

I fell in love with the book when I first read it back in 1993. I’d worshipped le Carré since I was a teenager - not an unusual thing, obviously - and was completely enthralled by the romance of the secret struggle, the friction between the inner and outer worlds. But this story in particular I found endessly intriguing, mythic almost. I’ve absolutely no skill or instinct for producing, but this was the only time in my life I’ve ever tried to option a book. As I remember it, I tried to get the rights before I’d finished the third chapter. I was unsuccessful, of course - the great Sydney Pollack had jumped on it and wouldn’t let go - but the character of Pine (and yes, back in 1993 I impudently imagined myself playing Pine…) is a fascinating one: the errant knight roaming the landscape, looking for a cause, a flag to fight for. Better still, to die for. I thought it was such a beautiful story. Having said all that, I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground. I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.

This is a contemporary adaptation of the novel, how does that change the story and fit in with our world right now?

I suppose it’s a characteristic of myths, that they’re in some sense eternal. Stories that can stand to be told and retold at any time, in any setting. Usually I would say that trying to make things contemporary is a mug’s game, because events will always overtake you. The original story involved an arms dealer – Richard Roper, played by your humble servant – selling weapons to the Colombian drug cartels. And perhaps the cartels seemed less “relevant” these days. But a couple of months ago, while we were filming, a Mexican military helicopter was shot down with a surface-to-air missile and the Mexican government essentially admitted they were at war with the cartels, and had no idea where their weapons were coming from. So there you go: le Carré writes it, and 20 years later, it happens. But in any case, we have transplanted the story, beginning in Cairo with the Arab Spring of 2010 (another event, by the way, that no one saw coming – for all the CIA satellites circling over our head, no news organization, no intelligence agency predicted it) and moving to the present day. David Farr, the writer, has done an incredible job of reinventing the last third of the story to accommodate a different continent and a very different kind of conspiracy. I hope that we have been able to give it a sort of contemporary freshness, while retaining something of that mythic quality.

This is an epic production. Can you talk a little bit about the locations that were visited?

You see, this is why people hate actors – one of the reasons, anyway – because there is no reason why I should get to sit in a beautiful place like this. None. Undeserved. We began in Switzerland, which is the setting for the quiet hotel implied by the title. It’s quite something to open your bedroom window and see the Matterhorn staring down at you. A metaphor for the heights we were trying to scale. About a third of the story takes place in London, which is a metaphor for London. I wasn’t actually involved in that part, but I went along anyway, just to eat the sandwiches.

We then spent six weeks in Morocco, and have been here in Mallorca for five weeks. Not a day has gone by without a member of the cast saying, “I can’t believe that I am actually here doing this”. It’s our good fortune to be playing characters who live a very luxurious, jet-setty life and that means, in order to do it, we have to live it. It’s hard, it’s gruelling...

At the heart of the story is the dynamic between Roper and Pine, can you talk about that dynamic and the dynamic between you and Tom as actors? 

You’ve used the word dynamic there, I can’t help noticing. Hmm, let me see. The character of Pine is a lost soul - I suppose that’s one of the things I responded to when I first read the novel and kept on responding to whenever I’ve read it since. He is noble, courageous, decent, but also lost. He is looking for a purpose, and decides that he will risk his life to take on an enemy who is described to him by a lover as “the worst man in the world” – that is Roper’s legend, and that’s what I’ve got to try and inhabit. But it’s an ambiguous story in as much as Pine’s original goal is to bring down this monster, but at the same time resist the monster’s charm. The Siren voice, the Medusa gaze, choose your mythic power. Because Roper gives his monstrosity and the evil things he does a kind of logic, even a glamour. There are moments when Pine teeters on the brink of the dark side, when you wonder which way he will go. At the same time you might wonder whether Roper is teetering too - that somewhere inside himself he wants to be caught, to be betrayed. The audience has to judge for themselves where Pine and Roper come close to crossing the line in opposite directions - where Roper might plunge the dagger into his own chest and where Pine might become the very thing he set out to destroy. It’s an absolutely fascinating exploration, and I think this about so much of le Carré’s writing. Some describe him as a spy writer, but his stories so far transcend the notion of genre; he uses the world of the spy and the intelligence business to examine some profound questions. My God, I hope we can do it justice. 

See a clip here:

Catch The Night Manager Mondays at 20:00 on DStv (140).

(Photos: AMC, The Night Manager Limited)

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