"Sometimes," says Hugh Laurie, "you look around and think, ‘I should not be at the wheel of a speedboat driving around the Mediterranean being chased by a helicopter.’”
Laurie is talking about shooting The Night Manager, the AMC-BBC1 adaptation of John le Carre's 1993 novel, and he's feeling a little bit guilty.
"This is one of the reasons that people, very appropriately, hate actors — because actors are very lucky, and they get to do things like that. And people should hate actors for that reason. I hate actors for that reason. Nobody should get paid for doing this. It's outrageous. It's not a fair world."
But it is the world of Richard Roper, Laurie's character in The Night Manager. Roper is a British arms dealer of creepily seductive charm whose criminality has brought him riches beyond imagining.
That bounty includes a Mediterranean villa the size of a medieval hill town, which is why Laurie — along with Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki, who play Roper's upright pursuer, Jonathan Pine, and Roper's girlfriend, Jed — spent two weeks last year shooting in such glorious locales as Morocco and Mallorca.
"Anything in the film world that looks inherently glamorous is not. Usually," Debicki says. "However, this was a very unusual project in the sense that shooting in Mallorca was absolutely heavenly! You had to pinch yourself. The fact that you could wake up in the morning, go for a swim in this perfect Mediterranean sea and then shoot was really bizarre. Not at all the usual experience."
The Night Manager — which debuted April 19 on AMC — is not, however, a hymn to the magic of the Med or a paean to the perks of dirty money.
Written by David Farr, first and foremost it's a high-stakes spy thriller, one that sees Pine, the eponymous night manager of an exclusive Swiss hotel, recruited by a British Secret Service operative named Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) in her bid to bring down Roper. As Pine becomes more and more deeply embedded in Roper's operation, his unwavering moral righteousness is put to the test.
As Hiddleston puts it: "It's cat and mouse, but along the way you lose track of who is the cat and who is the mouse."
The book was Le Carre's first novel set after the Cold War. When it came out, Laurie, already a devoted Le Carre fan, had some misgivings.
"Having devoured all of his Cold War novels in the 70s and '80s like everyone else, with the fall of the [Berlin] wall I imagined not only would spies be out of work, but spy writers would be out of work, too. I couldn't really imagine what Le Carre was going to turn his attention to and whether he'd find enough meat on the bone."
The author turned his attention to the international arms trade and how it conspired with corrupt intelligence agencies.
"When I read The Night Manager," Laurie says, "I thought, 'My God! He's found an even richer world of intrigue and betrayal and suppressed, though sometimes not suppressed, violence to write about. Within about three chapters I tried to option the book. I still honestly don't really know what optioning a book means — I've never done it before or since. But I knew that was what grown-ups did."
He was too late. Film director Sydney Pollack had already optioned it pre-publication. Rights later went to Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B, but neither managed to make anything, so it reverted to Le Carre and the Ink Factory production company, run by his two sons.
"Simon Cornwell [Le Carre's son] came to me about two years ago," Laurie recalls, "and said, 'Are you interested?'I said, 'I've loved this for 20 years. I'll do anything! I'll make the sandwiches if you like.'"
Forget the catering. Cornwell thought Laurie was better suited to playing "the worst man in the world," as Le Carre calls Roper.
"He was beautifully formed in the book," Laurie says. "I can't take any credit for having created the character.
"Roper is such an indictment of a particular class and a particular notion of entitlement — entitlement to the fruits of the earth — but also a feeling that rules, the rules that bind us all together, don't apply to the Ropers of this world. It's that maddening assumption that rules are for little people. He seemed to be the focus of such anger on Le Carre's part."
And yet Roper — who makes millions from an immoral, criminal trade — is incredibly charming and affable. He's kind to his son and loyal to his colleagues; he's witty and tells good jokes. He's Hugh Laurie — warm and urbane and impossible to dislike.
Casting Tom Hiddleston as his nemesis is a sharp piece of symmetry. Both are blue-blooded Brits, old Eton College alums, with warm smiles, fast brains and crisp vowels. The uneasy equilibrium is not lost on Hiddleston.
"Pine is drawn to Roper because actually they're quite similar in lots of ways, and Roper is drawn to Pine because he recognizes that similarity," Hiddleston says. "It felt strangely new for me as an actor — I've played at the extremes of my range — Loki [super-villain of Thor: The Dark World] and Hank Williams [I Saw the Light] and Coriolanus [of the Shakespeare tragedy] are quite far away from me. But with Pine, there was a lot that I could relate to."
On this particular day, the actors are on set in east London, where a key scene is being played out: Burr, the Secret Service agent, is asking Pine to help her nail Roper, The windows are brightly lit and covered in parchment because this is supposed to be Pine's apartment in the Swiss mountain resort of Zermatt. Hiddleston paces the room as he considers the offer. "I think Pine is essentially a lost soul in search of a purpose," he says afterwards.
Colman, meanwhile, sits on the futon holding her belly. In the novel, her character was Leonard Burr, but then became Angela Burr and now the character is pregnant — Colman was expecting her third child during shooting.
"Olivia came to me and told me she was pregnant," says director-executive producer Susanne Bier. "Burr, being the moral heart of the piece, it certainly adds to her vulnerability. I don't think any of the producers disagreed. The insurance company was a bit concerned."
Simon Cornwell, also an executive producer, says his father approved the sex change for the character before Colman auditioned; he later approved the pregnancy. "Once he'd met Olivia and then saw her on tape, he said that he couldn't imagine Burr as a man anymore."
"She's a wonderful person to play," Colman adds. "She's incredibly principled, and she would not be persuaded to take money for the wrong reason, unlike some of the other people that she's fighting."
Aside from the gender swap of one of the principals, there were several other changes to the book, not least its being brought forward to the present day. The settings were changed, too. In the novel Roper was providing arms for a Colombian drug cartel; here the recipients are mercenaries on the Turkish-Syrian border. Still, the miniseries retains the book's worldwide scope.
"There's something fabulously global about Le Carre's writing," says executive producer Stephen Garrett. "Whatever else you feel about this story, there's nothing parochial about it — it feels like a big, universal tale. It's got that feeling of being of the world at this moment in time."
Hiddleston stresses that a story as big as this one could only have been made for television, citing two (failed) attempts to condense it into a feature film.
"It would be very difficult to compress it into two hours," he says. "If there is any delight to be had in watching it, that comes from the subtlety that emerges over a longer period of time."
For Hiddleston, film and television are interchangeable, as long as certain stipulations are met. "I don't see a difference," he says. "If there's a commitment to quality and aiming for the highest ground, trying to make the best thing you can, I see no exclusive reason to attach myself to either medium. If it's a cracking role with an interesting script, I'm in."
For her part, director Bier — who has had two of her films Oscar-nominated for best foreign-language film — had never worked in television before. But she was happy to move to the medium. "Undeniably the best writing is in television at the moment," she says, "so for quite a while I'd been wanting to do some. It's been thrilling dealing with such an immense amount of material and having this vast ensemble of exciting, interesting characters, the sort you don't normally see in feature films."
In its television adaptation, The Night Manager — like Le Carre's original — remains keenly topical.
"We went the other week to the Berlin film festival," says Laurie, referring to the series' European premiere, "and on the day we traveled, there was a story about sarin gas being used in northern Iraq. People were not sure where the sarin had come from or how various terrorist organizations might have got hold of these weapons."
But Laurie is sure — the weapons come from the Richard Ropers of the world.
"While we were shooting The Night Manager, a Mexican army helicopter was shot down by a very sophisticated surface-to-air missile," he recalls, "The Mexican government said, 'We're now basically at war with the cartels, and we don't know who's supplying them with weapons. And we might lose this.' That was their military estimation! That's 25 years after Le Carre wrote the book. It's an absolutely vast, unseen industry.
"Every time you go into a hotel lobby and you see businessmen with briefcases open, having a cappuccino, they might be selling each other shower curtains or time-share investments. They might also be selling anti-tank missiles."
The world of espionage — Britain's MI5 and MI6, the CIA — is also just as relevant as it was when Le Carre was writing about men in spectacles behind newspapers at train stations, Hiddleston observes.
"We live in an apparently transparent age. Everybody knows everything about everyone. It's a wonder there are any secrets left. Yet the biggest political decisions we have to make depend on the intelligence and security services.
"My understanding is that intelligence gathering is still very dangerous and necessary. And it remains a closed world — we don't know how this intelligence is garnered, what goes on behind closed doors. That's why it strikes a chord."
It certainly struck a chord among the cast during filming.
"I know that Le Carre is deeply political and has become more and more passionate as he's gotten older," Hiddleston says. "And I think that as we made The Night Manager, we all felt quite passionate about it. I know I did."
Not so impassioned, however, that there wasn't a little time to relax. "I remember one of our producers saying to me, 'What have you done today?' And I said, 'I've had a Jed morning,'" says Debicki, naming her character.
"That meant I didn't really know — swimming, reading.... There were moments where shooting in those locations directly reflected the reality of the characters. In Mallorca, you're within Roper's world of speedboats and oceans and dinners and private jets and things."
There was even time for a game of tennis between the two leads. In episode three, Roper and Pine are friendly enough to have a knock on the courts at the villa, meaning Laurie and Hiddleston — both keen sportsmen — got to face each other across the net.
"It was very short and quick," Hiddleston says, "because we were running out of time. I'm proud to say that my first serve of the day was an ace. I aced Laurie, it's on camera and he found it, frankly, absolutely infuriating. Because he's brilliant at everything."
Laurie's response is not surprising.
"That's just a flat-out lie. Listen, if he wants to believe that, far be it from me to take away his little imagined triumph. If he's going to start throwing down like that then, yes, I'm going to have to call him on it. The rematch is on."
Given that the series garnered strong ratings in the U.K. — 6 million viewers tuned in for the first episode — a second season of The Night Manager is reportedly under discussion. So another match between the worst man in the world and his nemesis might yet happen.