Hugh Laurie, who plays Richard Roper on The Night Manager, discusses how to make the “worst man in the world” charming and the unconscious reason Roper is drawn to Jonathan Pine.
Q: You tried to option the book when it was first released and have long championed adapting The Night Manager. What is it about this story that speaks to you?
A: I just thought there was something about this story that was so endlessly romantic and haunting. The story of Jonathan Pine, who’s stalking the world looking for a flag – a cause to fight for and possibly die for – is terribly romantic. Twenty-odd years ago, I actually fancied myself as Jonathan Pine. Thank God that didn’t happen because I’d have made a terrible hash of it. But it was an amazing story then, and it has become, if anything, more relevant today. It’s a subject that just won’t go away.
Q: It’s interesting you wanted to play Pine because John le Carré says you brought Roper to life almost exactly as he’d imagined him. What does that mean to you? What do you connect with in Roper?
A: Well, first of all, let me sit down and get a hold of myself, because I didn’t know that le Carré had said that. That’s a hell of a thing. I might need to engrave that on a stone and mount that above my bathroom mirror. The character of Richard Roper — I can remember very clearly the first moment he appears when I was reading the novel. He seemed to stand up on the page and announce himself so confidently and charismatically, I felt like I knew this guy instantly. He was so vivid and powerfully real to me. I instantly knew the way he looked and sounded and moved and dressed. So, he’s been in my head for a very long time.
I think he may be one of le Carré’s greatest villains. I certainly think that the character depiction of Roper is one of the angriest le Carré has ever written. Richard Roper is the representative of a particular class, a particular kind of privileged Englishman who, instead of falling to his knees and giving thanks for his good fortune, his privilege and his access to power, actually responds with cynicism and arrogance. I think that is what got le Carré’s juices flowing, and it gets mine flowing, too.
Q: No villain thinks of himself as the bad guy, and yet Roper seems too intelligent and self-aware to kid himself. Do you think he just embraces the darkness of his work, or does he rationalize it so he can sleep at night?
A: It’s both things. He has rationalized a way of living and decided that his only responsibility is to himself. But at the same time, he knows that’s a cheat. He knows that is not the answer in terms of happiness or fulfillment. He’s made a decision from which there really is no going back. There’s no way he can answer for his crimes. He could spend the next 10 years working for UNICEF, I suppose. But even that is not going to atone for the terrible things he’s done, and he knows that.
Q: And yet, Roper is still a somewhat likable character. How did you pull off that balancing act?
A: I enjoy his charm. He’s good company. I know that it’s all built on something inexpressibly wicked, but the man has charm, as the devil always does. It’s a funny thing about the way le Carré set about writing the story. Jonathan Pine already knows who Roper is, and Roper arrives on the scene with this legend of being the worst man in the world. Because we know that, you can take your time revealing exactly why he’s so terrible instead of having to announce it right away and do a lot of mustache twirling and throwing puppies in the river. The longer you wait to reveal how awful he is and what terrible sin this whole empire is based on, the better it is somehow.
Q: As an executive producer, were you involved in the casting process? Did you want Tom Hiddleston for Pine?
A: I would so love the world to believe that I gave Tom a job, but it wasn’t really like that. Tom and I were both executive producers and his commitment right from the get-go was absolutely total. He’s furiously intelligent and hard-working and committed to what he does. It was a joy to see him. If I’d have done it 20 years ago, I’m sure I would have messed it up, but he is absolutely perfect.
Q: What do you think attracts Roper to Pine? He seems to have a great fondness for him, even though maybe he doesn’t fully trust him…
A: I think at some unconscious level, Roper actually wants to be betrayed. There’s some sort of Christ analogy. He wants to choose his Judas and control his destiny. Roper knows he’s a damned soul, and he wants to choose the guy who’s going to put the dagger in his chest. How much of that is consciously in his head, I don’t know. But that’s what I think is going on… Arguably, [Pine and Roper] are two sides of one person. Pine is attracted by the very thing he sets out to destroy, and Roper is attracted to the idea of justice or some sort of redemption. Maybe they’re drawn to each other for that reason. They’re sort of conspiring together in this weird dance.
Q: What do you make of Roper’s relationship with Jed? Do you think there is any real love there?
A: Like a lot of rich, powerful men, he felt like he needed a particular adornment to fill out the picture, but I think there actually is real affection for Jed. Love, I don’t know. I’m not sure if love is something he’s particularly capable of, but there is real affection. She represents the one strand of innocence and purity in his life. He keeps her apart from his ghastly acts so that she remains that one pure element in his life, which gives him some hope, or at least some respite from what he has to live with.
Q: Roper represents the evil that can exist when power and greed are unchecked. What do you think this character or story has to say about the world we live in today?
A: Whatever it does say, it is eternal. This is an eternal struggle: the corrupted emperor who has built his magnificent palace and his empire on crime and sin, and the hero who must confront the monster and bring him down. This is the stuff of eternal myth. The Panama Papers have revealed… that there are, apparently, a group of billionaires in the world who feel that paying tax is something that other people do. Roper has obviously decided he belongs to that select group. There’s an element of the pirate in Roper. He kneels before no other flag. In the novel, he lives and operates from a ship. He’s just decided he will not be a part of any other nation. He will determine his own taxes, his own obligations, his own duties, and the rest of the world can just take a running jump.
Read an interview with Laurie’s The Night Manager co-star Tom Hiddleston.
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