Hugh Laurie: Taking the Pip

By Russell Baillie

Hugh Laurie loved every minute of filming his new movie - especially commuting in a canoe

Laurie's first major role since the end of his hit television series House is playing the eccentric central figure of Mr Watts in Andrew Adamson's big screen adaptation of Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip, which was shot largely in Papua Guinea and Bougainville. Our email questions found him somewhere between touring in his musical sideline as a bluesman - he's released two warmly received albums in the past three years - and playing the villain in Disney sci-fi film Tomorrowland.

Had you read the book before the movie came up?

I had read it and loved it. A haunting story, beautifully written. When I heard that Andrew Adamson was in the frame for it, my ears shot up, which they don't often do. Old droopy ears, they called me at school.

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How highly would you rate your enthusiasm for Dickens? And do you have any previous stage or screen experience of things Dickensian?

I have loved and admired Dickens for as long as I can remember. He also happened to be my father's favourite writer, so he came to me pre-endorsed. The only professional encounter I have had with the great man was reading Great Expectations for an audio book about 20 years ago. He's a challenge for the reader, to be sure. I believe there may only be eight full stops in the whole book, so if you get the emphasis wrong in one of the dependent clauses, you've had it.

When you read about the character of Mr Watts, did you think "I know the type"? Or was he someone to be figured out?

I felt an immediate sympathy for him - and an affection for his gentleness - but I wouldn't pretend to have understood him, either before or after the movie. He is enigmatic, to say the least.

You are possibly among the first non-fantasy live-action adult characters that Andrew Adamson has directed. Did that make it easy on you? Hard on him? A combination thereof?

I'm sure live-action actors are frustrating for directors - they just won't move their limbs and eyebrows according to the storyboard - but I hope we bring compensations too. We don't disappear every 50th of a second and have to be re-created. If it was hard on Andrew, he's far too much of a gentleman to show it.

You play the only white guy on a Melanesian island where the modern world is a long way away and who is married to a local. Do you see any parallels to being a white guy from England who is in love with old world blues?

I'd love to agree but I think that may be a bit of a stretch. I'm by no means the first white Englishman to love the blues - in fact, the English have preferred American blues to their own folk music for a long time. I haven't seen anyone morris dancing for years.

Was this the sort of role you needed - or wanted - after all those years on House?

I never really think of roles as fitting into sorts. If the role's any good, then it should be unique. But certainly the attraction of going to Bougainville, about as different from Los Angeles as a place could possibly be, was immense.

How did your fellow cast on this one compare to previous ensembles you've been a part of?

The cast were wonderful. I went to Bougainville thinking I was a big cheese - that this would be easier for me because I have spent many years as a professional actor - in fact, I wound up feeling much less qualified than the Bougainvilleans. This story is real for them. It happened. I was the imposter. But they were very kind and welcoming, and did everything they could to help.

Did spending time and working - as opposed to visiting as a tourist - in Papua New Guinea and Bougainville affect you personally?

It was a magical place to be. I think the whole crew had moments of thinking we had stumbled into the garden of Eden. I lived on a boat and used to commute to work in a dugout canoe. I recommend it.

The Mr Watts of the book is from Wellington, New Zealand. Yours is from London. Could you have played him as a New Zealander?

I don't think I could have played him as a New Zealander - much too intimidated by the accent - but I'm sure a New Zealander could have played him. But then again, perhaps it was necessary for Mr Watts to come from the other side of the world? It added to the strangeness, the out-of-placeness.

You're now making Tomorrowland for Disney. That must be quite a change from Mr. Pip. Or not?

The scale and pace of a big studio movie is certainly very different. You're part of a circus, instead of busking on the street. But when you come down to it, every movie, every story, every scene, is all about trying to find the best way of doing something. It all winds up being the same problem, wherever you are.

Who: Hugh Laurie
What: Mr. Pip
When and where: Opens in cinemas today

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