A Single Word Helped Hugh Laurie Switch Between British And American Accents [Exclusive]

If you haven't watched the HBO comedy series "Avenue 5" yet, you're missing out. The first season premiered days before lockdown began in 2020, and maybe you were occupied with other things. Funnily enough, because of the plot, the show actually gets a lot right about isolation. It hits differently now, as the kids say. It's also one of the funniest, most absurd, and delightful shows on television. 

The story is set 40 years in the future, where a group of civilians is aboard a massive spaceship for an eight-week cruise. When the ship gets knocked off course and ends up with a 3.5-year travel time, everything goes haywire. Not only that, but the ship's billionaire owner (Josh Gad) has hired a bunch of actors to play crew members, so he and the passengers don't have to look at anyone who isn't attractive. The ship's "captain" is played by Hugh Laurie ("Veep," "House M.D."), who uses an American accent, because people find it reassuring. His character Ryan is actually British, as Laurie himself is, and has to switch back and forth between the two accents, often several times in the middle of a scene.

I recently spoke to Laurie and creator Armando Iannucci ("Veep") about the upcoming second season and how he kept those accents straight, and it turns out there's a little secret that the actor learned to make the transition as easy as possible.

'A kind of mental agility'

Hugh Laurie starred as an American doctor in "House M.D." (though one brilliant scene did have him faking a British accent on the phone). I mentioned to Laurie that I hadn't realized he was British back then, because he was so good at the accent. But "Avenue 5" offered a new challenge.

Laurie said switching between accents is hard on "Avenue 5" than when he was working on "House M.D." In that series, he would start doing the accent the second he entered the studio lot to keep from slipping up. "From that moment on, for the next 14 hours, in my head, I don't know if it sounded that way to everyone else, but in my head I was American. I didn't step out of it." But that's not really possible on "Avenue 5." Laurie explained:

"But to be in 'Avenue 5' where, well, first of all, the pace of the production is so very different, and the speed, the back and forth of the different characters cannoning into each other means a kind of ... yeah, it needs a kind of mental agility that, frankly, I don't think I ever had in the first place. Nevermind having it still now."

Adding to that, he's working closely in many scenes with Lenora Crichlow, who is also actually British but doing an American accent for her character. There are also a variety of accents around him at any given time. Laurie's never slips for a second, which is an absolute marvel. So how does he do it?

The word that is impossible to say in an American accent

Iannucci witnessed Laurie staying in character for an entire shooting day on "Veep" (seen above). He said, " ... you stayed in character in between takes. So I wasn't expecting to speak to you as an American. But we'd be talking about something very English like cricket, but you'd be doing it in American accent."

As it turns out, "cricket" is a rough but important word, and it's actually key to keeping the accents straight. Laurie said:

"Yeah. Whereas in actual fact, it's almost impossible to say the word cricket in an American accent unless you conjure up the actual insect. And then you've got a chance, you've got a fighting chance. But if you actually think of the game, the whole thing comes crashing down."

Laurie is clearly good at keeping these versions of "cricket" straight, though I cannot for the life of me understand how he makes each version so perfectly precise. 

"Avenue 5" returns for season 2 on HBO and HBO Max starting on October 10, 2022.