When Hugh Laurie first discovered the John le Carre novel “The Night Manager,” the role of Richard Roper — a smooth and seductive arms dealer around whom all the players revolve — wasn’t the one he was interested in. But that’s because it was the early ’90s, and Laurie was just the right age to play Jonathan Pine, a young man who becomes a spy after Roper’s world intersects with his own in a tragic fashion.
What it might have been like, to watch Laurie as Pine, will be one of the universe’s tragically unanswered questions. But over 20 years later, Laurie still gets to participate in an epic miniseries adaptation of le Carre’s novel as Roper, and it’s hardly a surprise to discover he’s totally captivating.
Laurie is also hilarious, brilliant, self-depricating to a fault, and a joy to speak with, especially on topics he feels strongly about, like the many advantages that television has over film. (Even if there are an awful lot of TV shows on the air right now.) An edited transcript follows.
Congrats on putting this together. How did it come to you?
Well, many, many years ago, when the book first came out, I loved this book. And I thought, “This has got to be screened in some form.” I actually tried to option it. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever tried do that.
Because I don’t really know what that means — “optioning.”
But anyway, I was too slow, and the great Sydney Pollack had it for years. They wrote the scripts, but no film was forthcoming and long after I thought it was dead and buried, le Carre’s two sons, Simon and Steven Cornwell, resurrected it. And I don’t quite know why they came to me. I have a long list of poeple who’d be much better at playing the role than me. Maybe they went to those actors and got turned down. I don’t know. It’s probably best not to know stuff like that.
I met Simon Cornwell, and I fell on my knees in a slightly undignified way saying, “I would do anything to be involved in this. I just love this book. I love this story. I will make the sandwiches if you want. I will do anything to be involved.”
What is it about it that you love?
I just think it’s a fabulously romantic and poignant story. This… Tom Hiddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, is sort of a lost soul. He’s heroic, he has all the obvious equipment of a hero and yet he’s looking… He’s somehow lost, he’s adrift, he’s looking for a cause. Looking for something to sacrifice himself for. And I just found that very romantic.
And it was also, I think, the actual subject matter. The cause he takes on is such a.. what it was then, 25 years ago, was a very powerful, gripping one and it has only got more so in the intervening time. And now, the release of the Panama Papers two days ago, with Mossack Fonseca… I mean, le Carre would be kicking himself having not having thought up that name. Mossack Fonseca in Panama, of all places. It’s perfect. And obviously Richard Roper would’ve been, you know, there would be a big fat file on him with all the deals he’s done with that crowd.
When you first read it, were you thinking about yourself for Roper or for Jonathan?
No, I confess to you, I was thinking about myself as the night manager, as Jonathan Pine. But it’s probably a damn good thing it didn’t happen because I would’ve made a dreadful hash of it. And as soon as I saw Tom Hiddleston half an hour after we started, I thought, “Oh, he’s plainly the absolute right guy to do this.”
In fact, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it. Even though I would tease him about it because he would tease me. He would say… Just before a take, I would say, “Tom Hardy, he’d be good.” And he would say to me, “Hmm. Jeremy Irons. What’s he doing?” And we’d sort of go back and forth. We both have got our lists, but the truth is, I can’t see anyone else doing that role. It’s so beautifully done.
The whole project seems like everyone you got was the top of the list.
Well. Yes! You’re asking me to include myself in that list. I can’t really do that. I can’t go along with that premise. I’m superstitious about that kind of thing.
Of course. But everyone else!
But everyone else is great, yeah. Yeah.
[laughs] It’s a new choice for you, I feel, the character– It’s not like you’ve never played a bad guy, but it feels like a different direction for you. Was that exciting?
Yes, it was. I mean, I wasn’t really thinking of it in those terms. But I suppose it is a bit of a difference. But, you know, you only really respond to… Ultimately the good and the bad of it, playing the hero, playing a villain, or playing a science fiction character, or being in a Western or whatever it might be, all of those categories are secondary to the main distinction which is: Is it good? There’s only good or bad. If I ran a Blockbuster store — there aren’t any Blockbuster stores anymore — but I would’ve had all the good ones down one end and all the bad ones down the other end. Probably would’ve sold off the bad end and open a restaurant.
Right. Just have the good end.
Just have the good end. Because it’s the only thing that really means anything. And it’s just such a good story, such a good character — a good set of characters. I mean, I think le Carre really excelled himself. And that’s saying something because he’s created many, many memorable figures over the years. I just think it’s an amazing cast of characters.
I think what struck me about it wasn’t the fact that it was updated for contemporary times, but that it was written in the early ’90s…
…and it still feels so modern.
My god, it does. We were only a couple of weeks into shooting when — I don’t know if you remember this — but there was a Mexican army helicopter shot down with a surface-to-air missile. And the Mexican government said, “This is the cartels. The cartels are getting weapons from we-don’t-know-where, but we have reached a point now where the cartels are better armed than we are. We’re in a civil war, and we might not win it.” And I thought, well, that is amazing, that 25 years later, le Carre’s absolutely… He’s got this one. And even though by that time we’d updated the story to accommodate the Arab Spring, some things, I suppose, are just eternal. And wickedness is one of them.
So even the original story hasn’t gone away. But there’s also something about le Carre’s writing that I think is sort of, you know… They can be contemporary and they often are, but there is a sort of mythic element to them. They’re sort of eternal in some way. They’re about the endless quest. And maybe they’re just stories you can tell at any time.
In terms of taking it on for television, I mean, television seems like it’s always been a staple for you. What is it about TV that makes you excited to keep coming back to it?
I think, in a funny way, the rhythm of television more accurately reflects how human beings live. What films are often trying to do is trying to tell a story in 90 minutes, a hundred minutes of some complete transformation in the central character’s life. Generally speaking, people’s lives are not transforming in a hundred minutes. That’s not how we live. We transform over long periods. The rhythm is slower. I mean, it doesn’t have to be slower within the particular given hour, but the sort of overall rhythm is different. Particularly for English people [laughs], I think. I think we change slow. We don’t sort of imagine, you know, “Oh, I threw out my job and I went off to rob banks.” Or, “I met the girl of my dreams and we’re gonna pack it all in and we’re gonna move to…”
That can happen occasionally, but it’s not the way most of one’s life passes. Most of one’s life is about little gradual deviations in a routine that turn into something else. And then you look back and you think, “My god, how did we get here? That was a windy path we’ve taken.”
So I don’t know. I suppose that appeals to me, that way of telling stories. And I think it probably suits le Carre as well. I mean, it’s not for me to say that he writes television novels as opposed to feature film novels. I wouldn’t say that. Even though, once upon a time, that would’ve been a disparaging comment. It isn’t anymore because, actually, films are, I think, in a terrible state. I don’t think they know what to be or how to tell stories, unless they’re superheroes. I don’t think they have any clue about the tools of the trade anymore, whereas television seems to be going from strength to strength.
And it’s evolved so nicely.
It has, yeah. I don’t know whether it’s evolved to the degree that it can sustain the 700 or so scripted shows that are on TV. I mean, that’s just mad.
It is arguably too many.
[America] is a big country with big appetites for everything and the States are enormous, but 700 scripted shows? I mean, it’s just ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And therefore, it’s quite daunting to try and find an audience somewhere in the middle of that, is obviously a challenge for these guys. Yeah, you guys. But if you can do it, if you’re lucky enough to do it, the connection is a very deep one. To be in someone’s house, to be in someone’s home once a week or in a binge over a weekend or whatever, that’s a very intimate and powerful connection to make with someone.
[Editor’s Note: The actual tally of original scripted series is closer to 412 (but rising).]
“The Night Manager” airs Tuesdays at 10pm on AMC. Check out our video interview with director Susanne Bier below…
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