NEW YORK >> The premise of "The Night Manager" is simple. Or might seem so.
Jonathan Pine, a former soldier now in a different kind of service as night manager of a luxury hotel, is drawn into a risky mission to bring down international arms dealer Richard Roper by posing as a fellow merchant of evil.
But this six-part miniseries (which premiered at 10 p.m. Tuesday) is based on the John le Carre spy thriller of the same name, which should strongly suggest this is no simple cloak-and-dagger affair.
Somehow "The Night Manager" manages to be as menacing and methodical as any film noir, yet at the same time teem with color, sweep and action cloaked in stillnesss.
Meanwhile, its brilliant co-stars, Hugh Laurie (who plays Roper) and Tom Hiddleston (the intrepid Pine) — well, they speak for themselves. Literally.
The series, Hiddleston explained in a recent interview with them, "deals with the more fascinating aspects of the psyche and identity and to what extent we tell lies to ourselves to justify who we are."
"I think that sums everything up," said Laurie, pretending to take his leave. "Our work is done."
Laurie said he had yearned to appear in a movie version — even attempting to option the novel himself — ever since its 1993 publication.
But the book seemed to resist being shoehorned into a feature-length film.
"There is a pace and a density to the interior lives of the characters that makes it hard to do justice to (in a movie)," said Laurie. "Le Carre is writing thoughts rather than deeds. Everything is oblique and concealed, and it's the painstaking discovery that's the fascination of it."
Originally, Laurie saw himself as Pine, but when the chance arose to play Roper, "I fell to my knees in an indecent display of pleading."
Who indeed could resist playing anyone so charismatic yet so wicked that he is described as "the worst man in the world"?
"That's quite a complicated metric to establish," Laurie acknowledged with a laugh, "but clearly he qualifies for the semifinals. He does it with charm and skill and daring, and he's fun to be around, the way one imagines the devil would be. If he was just a tattooed thug with 'Devil' on his forehead, we'd all give him a wide berth. Richard Roper is NOT like that."
In effect, Laurie spent two decades preparing for the role.
"From the moment I read the book, I felt like I could picture and hear and almost smell this character."
And from the moment viewers confront this character, Laurie, 56, guarantees with his performance they will forget his eight TV seasons on "House M.D." playing the crusty yet lovable Dr. Gregory House.
As for the 35-year-old Hiddleston, whose past projects have included "Thor," Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" and the role of Hank Williams in the recent "I Saw the Light," he described the first "Night Manager" script as "immaculate." After reading it, he was in.
Infiltrating Roper's world, Pine is a model of disarming polish and suave restraint.
"I wanted to do as little as possible," said Hiddleston, "and trust the audience to join the dots. I worried that I wasn't doing enough, but there's something very active about the way Pine is passive. It was a fascinating challenge to try to communicate how deep those still waters run."
"The tendency that all actors have," said Laurie, "is to constantly tell the story with every line and every look, and the audience very quickly reacts against it. But Tom is able to BE, to simply be.
"The audience wants to participate in the construction of the story. And often that requires an actor who has the confidence to just be. There probably aren't more than a half-dozen actors who can accomplish that, and I couldn't name the others. So let's just say 'one' — and he's sitting right there."
"Goodness," said Hiddleston on hearing this accolade, then, recovering, turning the tables on Laurie: "I'll tell you one thing I've never said before."
"Bloody hell!" Laurie responded in mock dread.
"Hugh has a rigor about his work," said Hiddleston, "that's as far away from ego as you can imagine. Sometimes actors are shy about that kind of active involvement because they don't want to rock the boat. But if something doesn't feel right, Hugh is unafraid to say so, and it's all in the service of the whole."
That tribute left Laurie speechless. But only for a flash. The inevitable James Bond question must be dealt with, and Laurie waggishly went for it.
"I refuse to deny that I'm being considered for Bond," he replied, deadpan. "I also refuse to deny that I'm being considered for Cleopatra."
With that, he turned to Hiddleston, who in fact has been buffeted by gossip recently that he might headline the next Bond sequel. "Poor bloke," said Laurie. "What can he say? There's no way of answering the question that doesn't increase this tabloid dialogue."
"I'm just trying to take it as a compliment," said Hiddleston, for now very pleased to play a breed of spy even James Bond would applaud.