For eight seasons on the Fox medical drama “House,” Hugh Laurie played a misanthropic, pill-popping doctor. In the new miniseries “The Night Manager,” he plays someone a lot worse – a character described as “the worst man in the world.”
That would be Richard Roper, a billionaire arms dealer who peddles nerve gas, rocket launchers and all manner of odious weaponry to militants in the Middle East, all while posing as a philanthropist working on behalf of refugees.
“He has a pretty broad streak of the psychopath in him,” Laurie said of his character in the six-part miniseries that premieres Tuesday on AMC. Adapted from John le Carre’s 1993 novel, “The Night Manager” follows the cat-and-mouse game between Roper and the enigmatic Jonathan Pine, a luxury hotel employee played by Tom Hiddleston who is recruited in an undercover plot by British intelligence.
Pine gradually ingratiates himself to Roper, becoming his most trusted confidant even as he fights an obvious attraction to Roper’s alluring young girlfriend (Elizabeth Debicki). “Pine, as an errant knight wandering the Earth in search of a cause, has always been looking for someone as a mentor,” Hiddleston said. “And in some respects, Roper is that man, in manner, in wit, in bearing, in sophistication. The only difference between them is their moral compass.”
Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Susanne Bier (“In a Better World”), “The Night Manager” is AMC’s first scripted miniseries since “Broken Trail” in 2006. It’s debuting in the midst of a creative revival of the format led by “Fargo” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson” on FX and “Olive Kitteridge,” “True Detective” and “Show Me a Hero” on HBO. Co-produced with the BBC at a reported cost of $5 million an episode, the lush series was filmed in picturesque locations in England, Spain, Switzerland and Morocco. Ambitious, pedigreed and timely, “The Night Manager” could help AMC regain some of the luster of its “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” days.
After a high-profile premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February, it began airing in Britain that month. The series was a ratings smash and sparked breathless media coverage of everything from a scene depicting Hiddleston’s bare bum to the stylish decor in Roper’s Mallorcan villa.
Besides Laurie and Hiddleston – one of the busiest actors around these days, he also portrays country singer Hank Williams in the just-released “I Saw the Light” – the cast is a panoply of esteemed British character actors, including Tobias Menzies, Tom Hollander, David Harewood and Olivia Colman.
“The Night Manager” is also the first television adaptation of a Le Carre novel in more than two decades (since “A Murder of Quality,” which aired on PBS' “Masterpiece” in 1991). And like seemingly everything on cable these days, it wound up on the small screen after several thwarted attempts at a film adaptation. Though Le Carre (real name: David Cornwell) has been one of Hollywood’s favorite authors for 50 years (his books have been made into more than a dozen films and television shows), “The Night Manager,” with its globe-trotting storyline, proved a tough nut to crack.
Laurie, 56, a longtime Le Carre fanatic, looked into optioning the book after he read it in the ‘90s. He’d approached it with some trepidation, fearing what the end of the Cold War might mean for an author who’d dramatized the conflict so memorably in such novels as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”
“I feared that not only would spies be out a job, but spy writers would too,” Laurie said. “I immediately saw that Le Carre had found a subject matter that if anything had more meat on the bone.”
Published at a time when the Iran-Contra scandal remained fresh in the public imagination, “The Night Manager” shifted focus away from the East-West binary of the Cold War to explore the murkier relationship between the established powers and the Third World. In the novel, Roper sells his deadly wares to a Colombian drug cartel; in the miniseries, it’s shadowy groups in Syria and Egypt.
“That character just stood up off the page and was real as real could be,” Laurie recalled. “Even though I never met anyone like that, I felt like I could see and hear how he talked, and moved, and dressed, and how much eye contact he made with people and when, and why. It was ready formed.”
Unfortunately for Laurie, the rights had already been scooped up by Paramount for a top-of-the-line project with Sydney Pollack directing from a script by Robert Towne. That project went nowhere, as did a more recent version developed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B.
“The Night Manager” was eventually rescued by Ink Factory – a production company that just so happens to have been founded by Le Carre’s sons, Stephen and Simon Cornwell, and that oversaw recent adaptations including “A Most Wanted Man” and the upcoming “Our Kind of Traitor.” Writer-director David Farr, known for his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, wrote the teleplay, relocating Le Carre’s story to present-day Europe and the Middle East while leaving the Oedpial struggle between Roper and Pine intact.
At six hours that play out over as many nights, “The Night Manager” is not a minute too long, said executive producer Stephen Garrett, whose series “Spooks” (known in the U.S. as “MI-5”) was inspired by the author. “It certainly can’t be shorter. This happens so much with the adaptations – you end up with just plot beats, none of that emotional and psychological complexity, which is what distinguishes Le Carre from people who write airport novels.”
Laurie said he “babbled incoherently” when he was approached about the possibility of playing Roper. After so many costume dramas and superhero films, Hiddleston – he’s Loki in “The Avengers” and the “Thor” movies – was similarly excited about the possibility of a contemporary role with political resonance. “It felt new for me as an actor,” he said.
Both actors looked to Le Carre’s writing as their gospel. “Really, my biggest problem was just not messing it up,” Laurie said. “It’s like someone’s given you a Faberge egg and all you have to do is walk across a stone floor without dropping it.”
Explaining how he tapped into his elusive character’s psyche, Hiddleston quotes a passage from the novel (cue swooning English majors) in which Le Carre describes Pine as a “perpetual escapee from emotional entanglement” and a “self-exiled creature of the night.”
The 35-year-old observed of his character: “He does a very brave thing, which is to be willing to live outside the system, to eradicate his own identity, to take on another identity, and live without the privilege of intimate relationships.”
Garrett noted that another challenge with Le Carre – and spy stories in general – is that characters are often lying or masking their true emotions. So it was important to find a director who was “a master of the spaces between words.” Enter Bier, who as a Danish woman also brought an outsider’s perspective to the material.
“One of the things that in updating this, was moving away from the white, public school-educated male world,” she said.
To that end, the filmmakers switched the gender of the idealistic intelligence officer who recruits Pine. In the book, the officer is Leonard Burr; in the miniseries, it’s Angela Burr, played by Colman of “Broadchurch” fame, who with her Northern accent and down-to-earth bearing is the polar opposite of the upper-crust Roper.
Bier had been impressed by Colman’s performance in the 2011 film “Tyrannosaur” and was determined to cast her as Burr. “She can be quite rough and tough and still be incredibly endearing,” Bier said. There was just one small problem: Colman was pregnant and would be quite far along by the time production began. Bier and her collaborators saw the actress’ condition as an exciting creative opportunity, a way of emphasizing Burr’s vulnerability in a ruthless, male-dominated world. Like Marge Gunderson in the original “Fargo,” Burr emerges as the story’s (heavily pregnant) moral center.
Even Le Carre, known for being protective and often dismissive of adaptations of his work, has praised the series and its contemporary revisions. “With all those changes, what’s left of ‘my novel’?” he wrote in a column for the Guardian. “And the answer, surprisingly, is: a great deal is left, more than I dared hope.”
The success of “The Night Manager” has perhaps inevitably led to speculation that Hiddleston might take over the role of James Bond. There’s also been talk of a second season, even though Le Carre has written only one Jonathan Pine novel. For now, those hungry for more tales of nefarious international dealings will just have to follow the real-life drama of the Panama Papers. “Le Carre probably right now is kicking himself for never having thought of the name Mossack Fonseca,” Laurie joked. “Roper, of course, would have been a platinum member of that club.”