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Q&A: Hugh Laurie Takes on Villain Role in AMC’s ‘Night Manager’

As the title character on Fox’s long-running medical drama “House,” Hugh Laurie managed to find empathy in the grumpy, sarcastic diagnostician. Now he’s taking on an even more challenging task: starring as the so-called “worst man in the world” in AMC’s miniseries “The Night Manager” (premiering April 19).

In this modern-day adaptation of the John le Carre spy novel, Richard Roper presents himself to the world as a successful businessman — but behind the scenes, he’s exchanging in illegal arms deals.

Here, Laurie tells Variety how he went from playing the hero to the villain in a project that was twenty years in the making.

Why did you decide to sign on for the role?

I was, first of all, immensely flattered to be approached by the actual, the Cornwell family themselves, Cornwell being John le Carre’s real name. I had loved this book since I first read it when it was published in 1993. As a teenager, having devoured all of le Carre’s wonderful Cold war novels, I was a little nervous, as I’m sure a lot of people were, that the end of the Cold War would mean not only would spies be out of work, but spy writers would be out of work. I didn’t know what le Carre was going to write about, if he could find another subject worthy of his talents. I was about three chapters into “The Night Manager,” and I actually put the book down and tried to option the book. I’m still not entirely sure what that means. I’m not a natural born producer. I’ve heard the phrase bandied about.

And what happened?

Sydney Pollack already had it. He sat on it for, I’m not sure how long. Possibly until he passed away. Then, for one reason or another, it reverted to the Cornwell family and they decided to revive it and I was just so excited that this thing that I dreamed of, that I’ve been in love with for so long, nearly 23 years, was finally coming to life. Of course, back when I first read it, I imagined myself in the role of Jonathan Pine, the hero, the night manager. Time moves on, hair falls out, knees get creaky, and I had to move up to the veterans, older 50s division, and move into the role of the villain. It was still an honor to be involved. I would have done anything. I would have played any role or done anything to be involved in it.

The producers decide to put a modern twist on it, and set it in the modern day. How did you feel about that?

I was nervous, honestly to begin with. I think that as a general rule, the attempt to modernize something, to keep up with the times, you’re often chasing your own tail, really because modern times, by definition, are unpredictable. For example, no one saw the Arab Spring coming when it happened. For all the NSA spy satellites circling the globe, no one saw that one coming. No news organization saw that coming. I thought it would be just as likely that we would change the story to accommodate the new set of global events and in between us making it and the show coming out, maybe the Colombian drug cartels would hit the headlines again, which is where the story was originally set.

Under the sure hand of the director, Susanne Bier, I think it’s turned out really well. It seems to be just getting more and more topical with every week that goes by. There have been stories in the press recently about ISIS getting ahold of chemical weapons and no one knows where they got them from. Who’s been selling them these weapons. This is a trade and it’s a pretty unpleasant one. For better or worse, well probably worse, the British and the Americans are involved in it. There’s a great deal of money to be made. To some extent, we are actually dependent on it. In the end, it just feels it was a very smart decision. I don’t know who made it, but whoever made the decision really needs to take some credit for it.

I’d imagine taking on the role of Richard Roper, who’s described as “the worst man in the world” was a bit ominous. How did you find your way into it?

In my own deluded imagination, I felt like I knew this character the instant he appeared on the page when I first read the book. I just thought, “God, I could believe this guy, I could see the way he moves.” Le Carre was so specific about the rhythms of his speech, and his body language, his manner. I just felt like I knew him incredibly well, which is useful because when it comes to actually researching the role of the worst man in the world, it’s rather difficult. You can’t call someone up and say, “I’m playing the worst man in the world and I’d like to base him on you. Can we have lunch?” That doesn’t go terribly well.

I think Tom Hiddleston had a much easier job because he’s only got to say, “I’m playing the hero.” Everyone, of course, they fall all over themselves to unlock the vault and let him have the run of the place. The worst man in the world, it’s a little more difficult. Fortunately, I just I felt like I’ve known this guy for 20-odd years. He’s stayed in my mind and my memory so vividly.

Is there any good in Roper at all?

I don’t know if it’s good, exactly. There are things that I like about him even though he’s probably irredeemable. One of them is, I think that he at least has the guts to know he’s terrible. He knows that he’s going to hell. In fact, I even wonder whether he’s hoping to go to hell. He knows he’s a damned soul and he wants to be caught. I think it’s one of the interesting dynamics of the whole thing is that I have this feeling that Roper wants to be betrayed. There’s a strange sort of Christ allegory here. You know when you read about these crazy serial killers, these psychopaths, the police eventually come knocking on the door and the guy says, “What took you so long?” They’re almost relieved to be caught. They know that something in them has gone wrong. They know they’re going to hell and they want it to be over. I think there is an element of that in Roper. As psychopathic as he is, I don’t think he’s not someone who would whine about being treated unfairly. I think he knows what he’s done and he knows what he deserves. That I thought in a strange sort of way, I slightly admire. I try not to, but I do slightly.

What did Susanne Bier, the director, bring to the project?

Everything. I mean, absolutely everything. If there’s any credit to be had for this entire adventure, it’s all hers because she was just remarkable. What’s she’s managed to achieve here, making effectively, three feature films back to back, or six movies, in half a dozen countries with 200 actors and a crew of God knows how many, thinking and working, operating in a second, sometimes a third and fourth language, controlling all these elements, doing it with such grace and good humor, intelligence, and taste and skill is just remarkable. I can’t say enough about her. She’s been absolutely remarkable.

She was a surprising choice, I think. I mean, she obviously is an immensely well regarded film maker. She’s won an Oscar, and she’s done an enormous amount of really terrific films, but first of all, she’s not English. She is, I think as far as I know, has no sort of connection to this world, either the world of intelligence gathering or even the more general description of this particular tribe of Englishmen. Either Pine’s tribe or Roper’s tribe.

But as soon as I met her, I thought, this is going to be absolutely great. I know we’re going to disagree, and we did. We disagreed a lot, but in the best kind of way. It’s great to be made to justify why you think something and be forced to think things through. If you agree with everyone around you, I think it tends to not make for good results. It’s certainly true in music, isn’t it? You always hear the bands that fought a lot actually made much better records than the ones that were just a band of brothers. Their records always sound a bit dull because of it. I think the disagreement is healthy and good. I really enjoyed it. I hope she did, too. I hope she didn’t think I was a pain in the ass for disagreeing. It was really thrilling to engage with some of that intelligence and taste.

Talk about working with Tom Hiddleston. How was he as a scene partner?

I couldn’t imagine myself doing the role. That’s how instantly he inhabited it. I’d thought I’d be going into this thing going, “That could have been me 20 years ago. I’d have done it differently.” Actually, I saw him do this thing and instantly he became the character of Jonathan Pine, he filled it to the brim. He’s an incredibly committed and conscientious guy who will never walk away from something if he’s got anything left in the tank. He’s immensely intelligent. When he thinks things through, they really get thought. They stay thought. He throws himself into things physically and emotionally with such absolute commitment. He’s never trying to protect himself or hold anything back. A lot of actors do, I think. They feel they got to protect themselves. They go, they mustn’t risk anything here. I’ve got to make sure I don’t come out of this badly. I’ve got to look out for myself. Once he’s in, he’s in. He’s in all the way. It was a glorious experience. We got along really, really well. Probably too well for the sake of the story. Maybe we should have had a little bit more friction, but we couldn’t generate any.

And Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jed, your love interest.

She was just magnificent. Absolutely magnificent. She’s very tall, as you know. That’s good for everybody’s posture on the set. We all got taller, I think working around Elizabeth. Some of the characters, Roper and Pine, particularly, I suppose one could argue that they treat Jed as a token to be moved around the chess board. It would be easy, I suppose, for her to just passably allow that to happen without actually creating something real and meaningful. \She was so fiercely intelligent and funny, and just determined not to be that chess piece.

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