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Hugh Laurie Plays John LeCarre's 'Worst Man In The World'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hugh Laurie plays the worst man in the world and plays him beautifully.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHT MANAGER")

HUGH LAURIE: (As Richard Onslow Roper) See, children grow up thinking the adult world is ordered, rational, fit for purpose. It's crap. Becoming a man is realizing it's all rotten. Realizing how to celebrate that rottenness, that's freedom.

SIMON: "The Night Manager," a six-part BBC miniseries that airs on AMC, drawn from John le Carre's 1993 novel about an international arms merchant, and the meek hotel night manager who's recruited by British intelligence to wind his way into the arms dealer's trust. Tom Hiddleston plays Jonathan Pine, the night manager who's also a former British soldier. Hugh Laurie is Dicky Roper, the ruthless, vicious but sometimes rather charming merchant of death. Hugh Laurie, the man who's played the cranky principal Dr. House and the gentle father of Stuart Little the mouse among so many other roles, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURIE: It's excellent to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: You're not playing the father of a cute little mouse in this one, are you?

LAURIE: I very definitely am not. Whatever the opposite of that would be, I'm doing it in this (laughter).

SIMON: Is that what attracted you to the role?

LAURIE: Not specifically. I wasn't sort of seeking villainy. But this happens to be a character that has been very vividly in my mind since I read the book 20 odd years ago. And it just felt like I knew this character so clearly. And I - when the chance came to play him, I just leapt at it, and with sort of indecent haste.

SIMON: "The Night Manager" is one of the first post-Cold War novels from John le Carre, who is part of the production team along with you and Tom Hiddleston. How was - has the story been updated, do you think, from when some of us first read it in 1993?

LAURIE: Well, the - originally in the novel, the villainous arms dealer, the target of Tom Hiddleston's mission, is actually selling weapons to the Colombian drug cartels. The updated version actually takes place during and shortly afterwards the Arab Spring in Egypt.

SIMON: How do we explain the coldness in Richard Roper's heart alongside the fact that he clearly adores his son?

LAURIE: He does. He's not - this is not a psychopath. It's not as if he's so impossibly damaged he has no concept of physical or emotional connection, which in a way I think makes him worse. It's the fact that all the equipment is obviously working and yet that this is the posture he's chosen to adopt. That almost makes him worse.

I don't know what the explanation is. I think - and I mean, I still - honestly, I still find the character mystifying. But then again, that is true of all of us. It's like can we all honestly account for every single one - every single thing we've ever done or said? There - we do things all the time that don't seem to make sense that we look back at and think, what on earth was I thinking? With Richard Roper, I think it is probably his greatest sin, what probably qualifies him for the title of the worst man in the world, is the fact that he has no palpable cause beyond cynicism.

He is born into a comfortable, secure family, well-educated, he has access to all sorts of privileges and the levers of power, et cetera, et cetera. And the way he responds to his good fortune is with cynicism. And I think that's probably his great - that is sort of cosmically unforgivable. He has simply chosen this. He has made this moral or rather immoral choice.

SIMON: I've read that you were on a line to become an Olympic rower at Cambridge when you discovered theater.

LAURIE: I did - well, what I discovered actually was illness. I discovered mononucleosis. I decided I couldn't make a career out of that. So unable to pursue my athletic ambitions, I sort of cast around for - basically it was a question of finding anything that didn't involve academic study. So yes, I fell upon acting and was just incredibly lucky to fall in with some very brilliant people.

SIMON: Whose names we would recognize now.

LAURIE: You might, you might. Emma Thompson was one of them. A fellow called Stephen Fry became my writing and performing partner for the next 20 odd years.

SIMON: You've - in interviews, I'd heard you've spoken openly about depression.

LAURIE: Yes, I have, he said cheerily (laughter).

SIMON: (Laughter) Is that an ongoing factor, challenge even, in your life?

LAURIE: Well, yes, as it is in so many people's lives. I recognized the onset earlier than I might otherwise have done 20 years ago and take steps accordingly to try and have - or at least if not take steps to avoid it, at least not be panicked by it, not at least to be cast down by it but simply to ride it out and just simply think this is what it is. This is happening to me now, and tomorrow might look different or it might not. But one day soon I will wake up and feel better, as I might feel better from, you know, a bout of the flu.

SIMON: I wonder if it can sometimes help invest you with certain powers of empathy that you can use as an artist.

LAURIE: The whole (laughter) I'm very sort of suspicious of the whole idea of the suffering artist. It is, apart from everything else, it's so untestable, isn't it? Because how can we ever know that a happier artist might have produced better art? It's impossible to know whether people who are in the sort of creative field are more or less disposed to feeling depression. I don't know. I think the idea that is - it is a price one pays for a particular kind of perception. I mean, I can see the attraction of it as a theory. But I just - I'm just a little bit suspicious of it. I just sort of prod it every now and I think is that really true?

SIMON: Many people who have seen the entire season, the six-episode arc of "The Night Manager," are clamoring for a second season and would tell you that they won't be satisfied until you accept your responsibility (laughter) to go ahead and produce one.

LAURIE: (Laughter) Well, first of all, of course, is it wouldn't be my responsibility. But they - that - I suppose...

SIMON: Well, you were - you and Tom Hiddleston are executive producers.

LAURIE: We are. But what does that mean really? I mean, I feel slightly embarrassed. It's like getting the order of Lenin, you know? What do you do with that? Do you stick it in the drawer? I don't know what to make of that.

SIMON: You did get the Order of the British Empire.

LAURIE: I did actually, yes.

SIMON: Did you stick it in a drawer?

LAURIE: No, I did not. No, I certainly did not. No, I display that proudly. First thing you see when you come into my house and then you see photographs of it everywhere else. That's all...

SIMON: (Laughter).

LAURIE: ...That's the only decoration in my house (laughter), and also I wear it every single day.

SIMON: I thought I heard a clanging.

LAURIE: Sometimes that and nothing else.

SIMON: (Laughter) So you won't say yes or no about a second season?

LAURIE: I'm not authorized. I, of course, loved the experience and I will continue to play the character within the confines of my own bathroom...

SIMON: (Laughter).

LAURIE: ...Until the day I die.

SIMON: Hugh Laurie with Tom Hiddleston in "The Night Manager" on AMC. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURIE: Well, thank you very much. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.