"There's a righteous anger to le Carré's writing in this story"
He was dubbed TV's most-watched man in House, but can Hugh Laurie score the same glory with BBC One's new adaptation The Night Manager? Gemma Dunn finds out
Being described explicitly as "the worst man in the world" may be a hard pill to swallow, but if it meant actor Hugh Laurie was in any capacity involved with BBC One's adaptation of The Night Manager, it was a cross he was willing to bear.
"Interested doesn't really cover it," says 56-year-old Laurie. "I told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer - anything I could do to make it go."
An adaptation of John le Carré's 1993 thriller novel of the same name - and the first television adaptation of a le Carré novel in more than 20 years - the contemporary espionage drama is directed by Oscar-winner Susanne Bier.
It follows former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), who is recruited by intelligence operative Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of international businessman Richard Onslow Roper (Laurie), and detonate the unholy alliance he has ministered between the intelligence community and the secret arms trade.
For fan Laurie, it's a story he's long had in his sights.
"I was a devoted admirer of le Carré from a very young age and consumed all the Smiley novels and worried, as a lot of admirers of le Carré also worried I'm sure, that at the end of the Cold War, not only would there be a lot of unemployed spies, there would also be a lot of unemployed spy writers.
"But then I read this, and I found it endlessly intriguing - mythic almost," he adds of The Night Manager. "About three chapters in, I actually resolved to try - and I'd never done this before, or since - to option the book in the role of producer, which it turns out I am absolutely pathetic at.
"I always believed this story was irresistibly noble, thrilling and important. There's a righteous anger about le Carré's writing in this particular story."
Two decades on and the Oxford-born star - who has three children with his wife, theatre administrator Jo Green - is excited to play baddie Roper, although he has no qualms admitting he "once rather arrogantly dreamt of the possibility of playing Pine: the errant knight roaming the landscape, looking for a cause, a flag to fight for - better still, to die for".
"Now I've had to sit back and watch Tom Hiddleston be virile and charming and it's galling to watch," he adds, grinning.
But does Laurie - the bumbling, well-born and educated Brit who's gone from starring alongside lifelong friend Stephen Fry in various comedy sketch shows to a multi-award-winning US actor known for his portrayal of antisocial Dr Gregory House in US drama series House - have the malice to pull off the role of evil arms dealer?
"Villainy is a much represented characteristic; it serves a purpose in all good storytelling and is a very well-trodden path," says the Cambridge-educated actor.
"Richard Roper had always been incredibly vivid in my mind, from the novel to the script. To describe someone as 'the worst man in the world', what does that really mean? Are we talking about intention, because there may be lots of incredibly villainous people out there who mean harm, but are incapable of executing it.
"What's so frightening about Roper is his competence, intelligence, confidence, imagination and daring: these are the qualities that make him dangerous besides his malice and cruelty.
"I just felt like I knew who this guy was. I could see and hear him; I could sense his peculiar snobberies, but also his weird sentimentality that would show itself in all kinds of ways. I had this idea that he was fond of animals; he could watch unspeakable cruelty being visited upon human beings, but he would be brought to tears by a dog being hit by a car. It's a weird collision."
As the series moves on, Pine must withstand the suspicious interrogations of Roper's venal chief of staff Major Corcoran (Tom Hollander) and the allure of his beautiful girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) to get to the heart of Roper's vast empire - a quest that took the cast to a number of luxurious spots.
"You see, this is why people hate actors, one of the reasons, anyway, because there is no reason why I should get to sit in a beautiful place. None. Undeserved," Laurie states.
"Not a day went by without a member of the cast saying, 'I can't believe that I am actually here doing this'. It's our good fortune to be playing characters that live a very luxurious, jet-setter life and that means, in order to do it, we have to live it. It's hard, it's gruelling."
So, will the promise of speedboats and glistening waters determine which roles he takes on in future?
"The only two categories that mean anything are 'good', or 'bad', that's all," he answers. "If you find something good, that means something to you, then you go towards it in any form, whether it's good-funny, or good-tragic, or good-frightening, or good-anything.
"One is drawn to a story or a script or the people you might have the opportunity to work with. As I've said, if I had a chance to do it, there was no way I could pass it up.
"It's an absolutely fascinating exploration, and I think this about so much of le Carré's writing. Some describe him as a spy writer, but his stories so far transcend the notion of genre; he uses the world of the spy and the intelligence business to examine some profound questions," Laurie continues.
"My God, I hope we do it justice."
The Night Manager, BBC One, tomorrow, 9pm