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For the past eight seasons, actor Hugh Laurie has played Dr. Gregory House on the Fox medical series House. House is brash, narcissistic, unsympathetic, addicted to painkillers, confrontational — and 100 percent American.
Laurie is none of those things.
"I am not playing House today, so I am dressed as an Englishman and speaking as an Englishman," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I'm wearing a bowler hat and carrying a frilled umbrella. It's nice to have a day every now and then off from the vocal exercises."
Those vocal exercises include letting his "throat go floppy" and lowering his vocal register. Still, there are certain words and phrases — "New York" and "murder" — that he says he just cannot master.
"I suppose it's R's," he says. "R's are problematic letters. But I do find that I cannot think of a single word or a single syllable that really comes out the same in English and American. ... Almost everything is alien to me. But I got more comfortable with it."
Laurie has had a lot of time to get comfortable. House, which is wrapping up its final season, has been on Fox for the past eight years. During that time, Laurie's character has diagnosed dozens of patients suffering from rare ailments, while continually mocking his colleagues and maintaining a serious addiction to Vicodin, which he uses to manage a chronic leg condition. (Dr. House walks with a cane.)
Playing a character with chronic pain — and a limp — did not come easily for Laurie, he says.
"I think pain is an extremely hard thing to empathize [with] moment to moment," he explains. "You often don't remember your own pain. That moment that you broke a limb or injured yourself ... the memory of the pain is hard to summon up and hard to relive, thankfully. ... And it's also hard to imagine someone else's."
Laurie spoke with physicians about House's injury to find out things like how his character would sleep and how he would move. But he says House's leg injury occasionally took a back seat to other more pressing issues, like how to stage a scene.
"It is just sometimes dramatically more important that he can skip over a desk with a certain amount of agility and brio, never mind the fact that he's obviously dragging a severely damaged leg with him," he says. "So it's a constant mixture of things, trying to make a judgment about what is believable, what is an accurate presentation of the pain that he's suffering — but also what actually plays a scene in the best possible way."
And limping continuously on screen for House has occasionally presented problems during other acting gigs, says Laurie.
"The first time I had an acting engagement outside of House, the first scene I did, oddly enough, was set in a hospital," he says. "And the director called 'action,' and I started limping. And I think that's a bigger problem for me now, that I just have a Pavlovian response to cameras. If I see a camera or if someone says 'action,' I will start limping."
On directing several episodes of House
"Directing is the best job going. I don't understand why everybody doesn't want to direct. It's an absolutely fascinating combination of skills required and puzzles set on every level — emotional and practical and technical. It calls up on such a wide variety of skills. I find it completely absorbing. I just love the whole process."
On Gregory House and the ending of the series
"The character is so inherently self-destructive to the point of being virtually suicidal, that a fictional character cannot sustain that suicidal tension indefinitely. You can't have a man on a window ledge threatening to jump forever. At some point, he's got to jump or get back into the building, because the crowd below — who are either urging him to jump or not jump — eventually will lose interest. And I think because the tension must dissipate eventually. And I certainly felt — and I think that was a general view — that we should fold up our tent and steal away into the night before the tension had lessened."
On his father, who was a physician
"I think my father gave me a great reverence for medical science. He was about as opposite to the personality of House as one could imagine. He was polite and easygoing, and would have gone to great lengths to make his patients feel attended to and heard and sympathized with. He probably would have been somewhat horrified at House's behavior, but at the same time, he had a sort of steely honesty about medical and psychological truth — that one must be humble in the face of facts. And he was not someone who would allow sentiment to cloud an issue. And if a truth had to be spoken, he would speak it."
On how his character in the BBC sitcom Blackadder is like House
"It became a common tactic of House, a strategy that House used, to demonstrate the vacuity of his opponent's argument, was to mimic, what in his eyes was their stupidity. Sometimes I found myself calling upon that same idiotic set of notes that I played as Prince George, because I've always found it quite comfortable playing stupid people. Now why would that be? I don't know. But it's felt like a natural thing for me. But it's something House does too, in a sarcastic fashion. He plays stupid too, in a sarcastic fashion."