Although acting the big dramatic emotional stuff has its challenges—and Laurie pulls it off brilliantly every week—it is the little moments that add detail and grace notes to his performance. They are often moments ignored, dismissed or simply missed by House’s colleagues, but for us they transform our understanding of the story—and of House.
In “Broken” we witness House’s several-week journey through in-patient psychiatric care through Laurie’s expressive eyes, traveling through anger, bitterness, insolence, resolve, despair, horror, regret, remorse, delight, joy, sorrow, and triumph (I’m sure I left a few out.) He is in every scene—virtually every frame of every scene through a 90-minute feature film of an episode. It’s brilliant and he never overplays it. The writers put him through the proverbial wringer and it’s never overwrought.
Only an actor who is completely in the moment, listening to his fellow actors, embodying the character even when the focus is on someone else, reactive and responsive in the smallest ways—these are artistic strokes that make a performance great. It would be easy for Laurie to back off the intensity (and understandable given the number of pages he performs in an average House episode, let alone those episodes in which he’s present in every scene), but he never does—even after six seasons.
“Broken” and “Help Me” are obvious examples, but watch his performance in the early season six episode “Brave Heart,” as he derides his fellows for trying to convince the patient he should connect with a son he never knew. It’s a simple line and a straightforward moment, easily missed for its import to House (and to his story in this particular episode), but the way Laurie delivers the line and acts the moment lends it subtext that speaks to House’s personal experience with his own father. Laurie transforms the line from throwaway to revelation, made all the more important when, by episode’s end, House is reconsidering that very troubled relationship.
These are moments of wonderful drama big and minute, broad and nuanced, and on that basis alone, Laurie would be considered a superb actor. But before House, Laurie was mostly known for broad comedy in England (Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster, A Bit of Fry and Laurie). And it is something he brings to playing House so naturally that it fits as perfectly as the bitterness, passion, introspection, and intelligence.
When Laurie brings that wonderful (often very physical) comedy to the role, it often forms a perfect counterpoint to the intensity of the situation. Who can forget the moment in season five’s “House Divided” when House, on the verge of emotional collapse and being tormented by the hallucinated Amber Volakis, attempts to set fire to a line of shot glasses. A dry run for Chase’s bachelor party, House juggles a bottle of liquor lit like a Molotov cocktail, accidentally setting fire to a nearby corpse. Laurie is brilliant trying to put out the fire while conducting a diagnostic session with his subconscious (in the guise of the dead Amber). It’s an amazing bit of physical comedy.