Hugh's the man
'I'm not sexy,' he says, but Laurie puts his L'Oreal income to a worthy cause
Over the last 30 years, Hugh Laurie has worn many hats: journalist, comedian, actor, novelist, musician. It's probably fair to say that 'model' is one title this most self-deprecating of stars never thought he'd adopt.
And yet, here we are, ensconced in the Maria Callas Suite in London's Savoy hotel to discuss the 54-year-old's ongoing role as 'Ambassador' for L'Oreal Paris' Men Expert range.
For the record Laurie looks appropriately moisturised for our meeting, but otherwise is dressed casually in black cords and a blue shirt, his wispy greying hair tidy but unstyled.
As he stirs a coffee (that he guesses "cost around 18 quid"), I enquire about Laurie's level of vanity. "I'm so vain, it is desperately important to me for you not to believe I'm vain," he deadpans.
"Actually, I think I have a low-to-middling level of vanity for someone of my age and nationality. I don't think English people are vain. They certainly weren't when I was a lad. It's not that they weren't vain; you just weren't allowed to be."
Alas, as he learned recently during an excursion to his son's bathroom – "Looking at all the bottles, I was like, 'What the fuck is this? They can't all be toothpaste?!" – modern men are much more enthusiastic and open about their beauty regimes.
"Though I feel particularly out of it because I didn't shave for 10 years when I was doing the TV show," he says, referring, of course, to the eponymous bearded character House (more of that later).
"In fact, when I started doing the show, the big fancy razor was the Gillette twin blade. When I came out of prison, as it were, there were five. Five of these fucking things! So I missed three whole blades' worth of human development."
But isn't every actor, almost by definition, image-conscious? "It's funny: in some ways, I think actors are much less preoccupied about how they look, because it's in the nature of the mechanics of an actor's job that it's someone else's responsibility," he says.
"I sit in a make-up chair and I do a crossword and someone else does all the tweaking, plucking or shaving."
He continues: "I think in America there is a lot of pressure, certainly on women – the most ferocious pressure – to look gorgeous when, time after time after time, it has been shown that gorgeous people don't make good television. I'm not even sure if they make good movies, quite honestly.
"When they have shows of good-looking people, when they decide, 'Well, we don't know if the show is any good, let's put pretty people in it, that'll make it alright', it doesn't make it alright. It makes it dull. So the pressure is misguided, I think. But you can almost tell: the better looking the cast are, the worse the show is going to be."
Try not to take it personally, Hollyoaks cast, but Hugh speaks as something of an authority. After all, thanks to his decade-long stint on US medical drama House – which was once the most-watched TV show on the planet, making Laurie the highest-paid actor on American television ($400,000 per episode, by all accounts) – he is a full-blown sex symbol.
Not that he sees it that way, of course. "I could see how House was a romantic character – he was a tortured hero," Laurie says. "There was something Byronic and sexy about this limping, angry, complicated man."
Oh come now, Hugh, it's not all about the character. People got to know you too.
"I think it's all about him," he stresses. "I don't know of anyone or anything that is less sexy than I am."
So one assumes he approached his L'Oreal modelling duties with an arched eyebrow?
"Arched – and shaped," he smiles. "At first I thought it was some terrible mistake. Then I thought, 'This is ridiculous, I wouldn't dream of it'. And then I had this thought about how, with this huge sum of money they're offering, I could actually build a school or something.
"Once you've had that thought, then you have to do it. You can't then just say, 'Yeah, I could do that but I can't be fucked'. It's sort of immoral not to do it.
"We'd been supporting a Comic Relief school-building fund, so I asked if they'd spend the fee, which they've done. In January, we went to these two projects in Uganda for orphaned children, refugees of civil war. Just the most horrendous situation, but people have been brilliant in terms of getting things done to help it."
To be honest, it comes as a bit of surprise to find Laurie is the most delightful company, given that, throughout the House years, he often came across in the press as being a tad miserable about the show's success and the level of fame it thrust upon him.
Not true, he explains. "I think some of my response was almost superstitious: that if I sit back and think, 'Yeah! Fucking nailed it!', then God will punish me. It was like, 'I must never be content or comfortable with this because I'll be punished and others around me will be punished for my hubris'. I sometimes did it in a jokey way and sometimes not.
"But my theory is that I have a bit of a hangdog face. All my life, I've had people going, 'Cheer up!' and I'm like, 'I'm perfectly cheerful! I'm fine. Don't keep fucking telling me to cheer up!' But because of that, I think people have perceived me as a rather miserable old git. I'm not really!"
That perception probably hasn't been helped by the fact that his most high-profile work lately has been as a blues musician (his second album came out earlier this year).
"Oh yeah, I see what you mean," he says. "But, now you see, that really didn't occur to me because, to me, this music is so joyful.
"The blues, as a word, came to be interpreted a certain way, and it is about loss and pain and all that, but it's also funny, joyful and sexy. To me, it's the whole horizon: whichever way I look, I see certain emotions and experiences represented in this music."
Our time is up and, as I leave, Laurie, the brat, encourages me to take the plate of biscuits from the suite. It must be him channelling his inner, Callas-esque diva.
"I honestly don't think I have any diva tendencies," he clarifies. "If you speak to someone else and they tell you I do, I'll be so upset."