Do you realize you're a sex symbol? we ask Hugh Laurie. The actor turns a bright pink and stares at the floor. ''That's plainly absurd,'' he says. It's enormous fun watching the erudite and unflappable actor Hugh Laurie who plays the equally erudite and unflappable Dr. Gregory House on Fox's dramatic hit mumble and look, well, flapped. So we elaborate: No, really. You're the thinking woman's sex symbol. ''Oh?'' responds the Emmy nominee, with notable lack of enthusiasm. ''What I am and I'm sure everyone knows this is a profoundly unsexy person playing a sexy character.'' His British aplomb resurfaces. ''I'm actually crap in bed.''
Fans of Laurie's caustic American doc might not realize that the 46-year-old actor had a very different career in his native England. ''For 25 years, I was the clown [on TV series like Black Adder], pulling faces. Playing the clown is a form of hiding, I suppose.'' And yet here he is, very plainly not hiding in magazines and on their covers most often these days with guest star Sela Ward, 49, who popped up last season as Dr. House's former girlfriend, the now-married Stacy Warner. (House saved her husband from one of the show's mysterious diseases that only he can diagnose in approximately 40 minutes.) This season, Warner's back as the hospital's new legal counsel for seven episodes, thus offering further challenges to House's preferred state of tetchy misanthropy.
Ms. Ward was another conundrum for Laurie to ponder. ''It's a peculiar position to be in the only person in the country who hasn't watched Sela Ward in all these award-winning shows [Sisters, Once and Again]. So when they were so excited that she was going to play Stacy, I said, 'Great!... Who is she?' It made me feel like an Englishman.'' Laurie has subsequently become a big fan of the actress, who got the part simply because she's Sela Ward. ''As the writers became interested in the idea of Stacy, she started being described as a Sela Ward type,'' says executive producer David Shore. ''And, literally, I don't think another name came up. Sela's intelligent and a grown-up somebody you believe House could have been with.''
Amen to that. As fetching as the show's two other potential love interests are (young Dr. Cameron and youngish Dr. Cuddy), neither is (sorry, girls) in House's league. ''Stacy's the one character who is able to spar with him on a level playing field,'' says Ward. The amusing Mr. Laurie must be an entertaining colleague. ''Every show has its own particular culture and makeup of personalities,'' says Ward. ''On Once and Again, Billy Campbell brought out the little girl in me. We laughed our entire three seasons. Hugh is very intense about his work and doesn't have a lot of time for levity; he has an immense amount of dialogue. I've never worked on a medical or procedural series it's a serious business, much like the show.'' One would assume that House and Warner's relationship will build into something. ''I hope so. If it doesn't, that would be unfortunate,'' says Ward with a laugh, and a whiff of frustration: She's shot three episodes for the new season and nothing much has happened.
Which, to our minds, is just fine. Ms. Ward is a joy, but we've watched shows go down this Mulder-and-Scully road before, where romance is inserted where it doesn't belong. House is appealing not only because he's heroic and a seeker of truth, but because he's bitter and alone. ''What was that show Moonlighting!'' says Laurie. ''That idiot who said, Hey, these two are attractive, why don't we put them together? Death knell.''
Mary Kaye Schilling