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‘The Night Manager’: Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston Put New Spin on Cunning Spy Tale

Introducing the “worst man in the world.” That dubious honorific is bestowed on Hugh Laurie in AMC’s new six-part limited series “The Night Manager,” as he masterfully embodies Richard Onslow Roper, a charming yet cunningly ruthless international businessman.

Lifted straight from the 1993 John Le Carré novel on which the spy thriller is based, that line “is the sort of thing a child might say,” concedes executive producer Stephen Garrett. “With the people around the world we read about in newspapers on a daily basis, that’s quite a high bar.”

Yet perhaps even more daunting was the idea of adapting a 20-year-old spy thriller for modern audiences. Two previous efforts at translating the novel to the screen had failed. But this time out, Le Carré’s sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell, with the help of screenwriter David Farr, tried a new approach: updating the Cold War action to the present day.

The narrative was transplanted from Central America to the Middle East. Roper’s illicit deal was turned from drugs to weapons. And most crucially, a key character became a woman.

The sumptuously shot, $30 million series bowed earlier this year in the U.K. to rave reviews and record ratings, averaging 6 million viewers per episode. The hope, of course, is that American audiences will similarly swoon.

AMC had tried its hand in the spy game once before with the short-lived “Rubicon,” an original concept, back in 2010, but when approached about partnering with the BBC for a co-production, the network eagerly jumped back in, hoping for more success this time out. “It just came from good old-fashioned shaking the tree and opening up dialogue with the right producers at the right time,” says Joel Stillerman, AMC’s president of original programming. “It’s been a long ride and a lot of heavy lifting.”

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Laurie says he’s been trying to get this project made since he first read the book in the early ’90s. Three chapters in, he made a few calls hoping to option it, only to find out that Sydney Pollack had beaten him to it. After the legendary director’s death, the rights reverted to the Cornwell family, and they reached out.

“I found the reinforced investment put me even deeper into the project,” says Hiddleston. “It was truly collaborative.”
Frederic Auerbach

Unfortunately, the part they envisioned for Laurie meant a bit of an adjustment for the actor. “I’d imagined myself in the role of Jonathan Pine, the hero,” he explains. “But time moves on, hair falls out, knees get creaky. So I had to move up to the veteran, older-50s division, and take on the role of the villain.”

Tom Hiddleston was enlisted to play the titular character, a former British soldier driven by revenge to bring down Roper, but who inevitably must compromise himself along the way. And then there’s the romantic complication of Roper’s alluring girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) and his right-hand man, Corky (Tom Hollander), who’s not quite as trusting of Pine’s motives.

Producer Garrett (“Life on Mars,” “Hunted”) was recruited by the Cornwells to help turn “The Night Manager” into a high-end TV series.

Garrett embraced their notion of putting a modern twist on the tale. “Telling these kinds of stories is massively complicated in a world with cell phones, internet and DNA [evidence],” he says. “But none of those factors informed the story that Le Carré was trying to tell.”

Still, the author’s world was very British and very male — and Garrett wanted to bring on a director who was neither of those to reimagine that world on screen. Enter Oscar winner Susanne Bier (“In a Better World”). “What distinguishes her work is the space between words,” Garrett says. “It’s as much what people don’t say as what they do.”

That’s what made Bier particularly well suited to the milieu of espionage. Notes Garrett: “When you’re a spy, you can’t really confide in anyone. And if you do confide in people, you’re not necessarily telling the truth. So to have a director at the heart of that storytelling process who seeks out these extraordinary subtleties of character felt like the right [way] to go.”

Bier’s first suggestion was to turn Pine’s spy-handler into a woman — a notion to which all parties quickly agreed. “The lack of a strong female presence was a black hole, really,” says Garrett. So Leonard Burr in the book became Angela Burr onscreen.

For Bier, the part had a short list of one: Olivia Colman (“Broadchurch”). Bier had been on the Sundance Film Festival jury in 2011 when “Tyrannosaur” swept four awards, including actress for Colman, and had wanted to work with her ever since. The good news: Colman was game. The bad news: She was pregnant. It took “a bit of wrestling” with the insurers, reports Garrett, but the matter was resolved, and the pregnancy was written into the script.

The decision to make the character a woman was the right move, says Colman. “I think had they kept Burr as a man, quite rightly, there would have been a lot of people going, ‘Where are the prominent women?’ ” she says. “We do have a lot of female spies. Had they left it to be all men doing the work, it would have been foolhardy. I, for one, would have found that quite annoying.”

And she had no qualms about filming the show while pregnant. In fact, she says, it worked out rather well. “It reminds you that these people are normal,” she says. “They have to get bread in for breakfast, and yet they’re doing these extraordinary things during office hours. I think like Frances McDormand in ‘Fargo,’ it added a certain security, even if Burr herself wasn’t aware of it.”

Le Carré — now 84 and living and working in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of England — was part of the creative process throughout, contributing extra scenes, answering spycraft questions, sitting through the table read and, yes, cringing at the changes to his book. But ultimately, he was satisfied.

“It seems to me that this time ’round we may really have got it: Film doing its own job, opening up my novel in ways I didn’t think anyone had noticed,” he wrote in The Guardian. (Keen-eyed viewers will even spot him in a scenery-chewing cameo in an early episode.) “And what I like best of all is how Susanne Bier goes on chewing at the bone of the drama long after other directors would have given up.”

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The series was filmed on location in four countries over the course of 75 days. Bier approached it like a very long feature, shooting scenes out of order. She gave the actors ample freedom to explore — beginning each day by allowing them to improvise in rehearsals to see how a scene might play out. Making sure she didn’t stray from the story, while still maintaining creative freedom, was “like having a number of chess games running at the same time,” she notes.

Laurie and Hiddleston were given executive producer credits so they could be part of the creative process. “I found the reinforced investment put me even deeper into the project,” says Hiddleston. “It was truly collaborative.”

I’d imagined myself in the role of the hero. But time moves on, hair falls out, knees get creaky.” – Hugh Laurie
Frederic Auerbach

The first time the love triangle of Roper, Pine and Jed filmed a scene together, there was no dialogue, but Bier made sure the camera caught the looks and tension between the three actors. Debicki recalls thinking of her character: “ ‘Jed, if you make a move — any move in any direction — you’re going to reveal something you don’t want to. I always felt like if anyone was going to slip, it was going to be her.”

Debicki’s role was shifted significantly from that in the novel, creating a backstory with her family to further explain her attachment to Roper. Bier explains: “Jed in the book is a little bit of a figment of imagination, particularly of a male imagination. We tried to make her a real character.”

The cast members credit Bier not only with demasculinizing the traditional spy story but with pushing them to deliver truthful performances. “If she feels like the scene is moving away from something that’s believable or grounded, or is not fitting well in the actor’s skin, then she will reject it,” says Debicki.

Indeed, Bier’s message on set was: “I’m allergic to fake.”

Take the matter of a gun. Laurie felt strongly that Angela should not have one; Bier was insistent that she should. The argument went on for weeks.

Laurie admits to meddling — after all, he’s not even in the scene. But for him, “It was really thrilling to engage with someone of that intelligence and taste.”

Ultimately, he says, the back-and-forth resulted in a better product. “You always hear the bands that fought a lot made much better records than the ones that were just a band of brothers.” (Tune in to see who won the fight.)

As for Hiddleston, his exchanges with Bier often took place over email, on their day off. She’d send him a note Sundays at 8 a.m., and by 8:04, she’d have his response. “We learned that we were probably the only two who were crazy enough to do this,” she laughs.

“You make something you think is really substantial, and then you read, ‘Who has the best bum?'”
Susanne Bier

Notes Hiddleston: “She has an extraordinary psychological acuity about people. She questions everything, and she’s very rigorous about truthfulness on screen. She’s tough, in a good way. If she doesn’t believe something I’m doing, she’ll tell me.”

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The show had barely debuted in the U.K. when there was buzz that Hiddleston would become the next James Bond. (“Deeply hypothetical situation,” he demurs.) But the biggest surprise, says Bier, was the social-media frenzy sparked by the shots of the actor’s naked butt in the show. “You make something you think is really substantial, and then you read, ‘Who has the best bum?’ ” she laughs. “I had no idea I [had] done anything that would have produced that result.”

For AMC, the intent is to use “The Night Manager” to open up Tuesdays as another night of original programming, following “The Walking Dead” on Sundays and “Better Call Saul” on Mondays. But it’s also a strategy for the network to get back into limited series and event programming.

“With John Le Carré, Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, you could probably have them write and read the phone book and it would be an event,” says Stillerman. “But this is definitely an event piece of television for us.”

Naturally, given the success of the U.K. run, talk has already begun about a potential second outing. Which brings up the ending: Sticking the landing is always a dicey proposition, concedes Stillerman, and in this case, it was particularly treacherous. The biggest change the producers undertook was (spoiler alert!) altering the plan Le Carré had laid out in his novel.

“We felt that his ending worked from a literary point of view, but it wasn’t necessarily one that was going to work for a television audience,” Garrett says. “I think we’ve honored the spirit of his ending but come [at] it from a different angle.”

Still, as there’s no sequel to the book, the matter is firmly in the author’s hands. “It’s fascinating to hear that Le Carré himself is up for it and considering writing new material for characters he created 25 years ago,” says Hiddleston. “I think it would be the first time he’s ever done that. The chance to continue the journey would be very exciting if it presented itself.”

Laurie, too, is up for the challenge. “We really need Le Carré to write another novel, and we need it sharpish. I don’t have that relationship with him. Can you tell him?”

Consider it done.

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