How Simon Pegg became a big fish
He works with his heroes, lives out his childhood fantasies, and has real Hollywood clout. And the ‘nerd’ from Gloucester’s stock is still rising
In the darkened interior of Shepperton Studios in Surrey, Simon Pegg wraps a robe around his fatigued body, stretches back on his personal recliner, and lets his entourage minister to his every need. Right now, this means a make-up artist tending to his tired eyes and a PR scuttling over with a message to the effect that, “we’ve had a note from Bruce’s people that he is supportive of the project”. Nearby lingers a former rock star and scion of an acting dynasty, hanging on his every word. But he’ll have to wait — Pegg is having his nails done. Next: a hairdo.
The actor/writer scrolls through his ever-present iPhone. What’s this? Another A-lister has been in touch? Yes indeed — Rastamouse is free for a meeting.
“Yup,” the actor nods coolly, “that’s the kind of company I keep these days.” It seems the Caribbean-accented rodent star of CBeebies is one of Pegg’s circle — probably because of Pegg’s infant daughter. “We met Mr Tumble the other week, too, at Legoland. He was ever so nice. He said someone who used to be Laurel and Hardy’s dresser got in touch and said he was a big fan of his slapstick.” Outside, it is August 2011, and wet. Inside it is day 23 on the 29-day shoot of A Fantastic Fear Of Everything, a small-scale British film in which Pegg plays lead character Jack, a children’s author-turned-paranoid slovenly wreck.
Pegg – last “seen” on-screen playing a Thompson twin in Steven Spielberg’s 3D, motion-capture Tintin – has worked hard to make this oddball comic film come to fruition. He’s been involved from its earliest days, and his association helped secure the support of Universal, the studio with whom Pegg made Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and Paul. Now he’s crammed filming of AFFOE into the hair’s breadth gap in his schedule between completing work with Tom Cruise on Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and beginning preparations to join, once more, the crew of the Starship Enterprise.
Today, grey suburban London in a mock-up of a ramshackle flat full of Victoriana tat. Tomorrow, Tom’s private jet and a transfer to the shiny deep space of JJ Abrams’s second Star Trek reboot. Even if he weren’t best friends with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, life for Simon Pegg – solidly middle class, Gloucester-born son of a civil servant and a musician – would be good.
But be reassured, Spaced fans: Pegg has not “gone LA”. Not quite. Not yet. The recliner is a decrepit sunlounger, matched only in shabbiness by the robe, a dressing gown of indeterminate vintage and design. The make-up artist is here to render his eyes not effervescent and twinkly, but more pouchy and red-raw. And on the set of AFFOE, “having his nails done” means having muck, grime and greasepaint crammed under the talons Pegg has been ordered to grow out – the better to mirror Jack’s disintegrating mental state and awful personal hygiene. The hairdo is more a hair-don’t, but the straggly ginger beard is the actor’s own.
The aforementioned Bruce is Bruce Robinson, author/screenwriter of Withnail & I, and also of Paranoia In The Launderette, the 1998 novella on which AFFOE is based. And that rock star/acting-royalty offspring is Crispian Mills, frontman with Britpop era also-rans Kula Shaker, son of actress Hayley Mills and director Roy Boulting, and grandson of Sir John Mills. The 39 year-old is co-directing AFFOE with Chris Hopewell, a Bristol-based animator who has worked on videos for the likes of Radiohead and The Killers.
“I’m totally amazed by Crispian because at first I was like, well, that’s the Kula Shaker guy,” admits Pegg of the first-time film-maker. He’s known Mills socially for more than a decade, courtesy of the actor’s wife Maureen. She worked for the band’s record label in Glasgow, her hometown – which also explains Pegg’s facility with the Scottish accent of the Enterprise’s chief engineer, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.
“But of course,” Pegg continues, “when you actually think about it for a second, of course he’s good at this – ’cause it’s in his blood. His mum came in to see us and was like, ‘I know this place’. She filmed [1966 comedy] The Family Way here, and actually met Roy Boulting on that bloody stage!”
Mills’s initial idea for AFFOE was a short film, based on Robinson’s 43-page novella. His character Jack is trying to escape the long shadow cast by his success as a children’s author by writing Decades Of Death, a series of TV plays that are based on true-life Victorian-era murderers. But his research into the terrible crimes of The Hendon Ogre and Long Ear have loosened Jack’s grip on reality. Now he imagines knife-wielding fiends in every corner of his fetid flat.
Mills then re-imagined his script as an hour-long TV drama. Pegg told him that if he expanded it further, into a feature film, then he’d be interested in taking the role of Jack. “So Crispian went off and came up with this third act. It’s one of the most interesting and ingenious scripts I’ve ever read,” Pegg says with genuine marvel of a screenplay that also encompasses stop-motion interludes overseen by Hopewell. “From such a little tale, this wilfully short story, it’s expanded into this sort of epic!” the leading man beams.
It’s showtime on set. Pegg bounds into the mock-up of Jack’s flat. Hopewell, who is also the film’s production designer, has imagined the chaotic interior as a reflection of Jack’s tortured mind. He has also, he acknowledges, imagined it in part-homage to the interior of Withnail’s Camden flat, notably the legendarily toxic kitchen sink – “a big nod”, Hopewell says.
Half-a-dozen or so crew gather around Pegg as he careens from taps to table to cooker, attempting to wash and dry Jack’s meagre wardrobe. The actor is juggling knife, basin full of suds, socks, pants and hob controls, all the while ranting away to himself. Any minute now, the oven will explode in his face. It’s a kinetic, clownish performance, one that harks back to Pegg’s early days as a stand-up while a drama student at Bristol University, and on the small-screen in Spaced, the cult late-Nineties Channel 4 sitcom written by the actor with co-star Jessica Stevenson and directed by Edgar Wright (director of Shaun and Hot Fuzz).
Then Pegg is back in his recliner. What should we call AFFOE? A gothic comedy? “Yeah. It’s different to anything I’ve done before. I mean, I’d hesitate to call it a comedy – we came up with this idea of psycho-comedy, a play on psychodrama, ’cause it is funny. But it’s also pretty scary.”
Zoom forward – because that’s how Pegg’s life is going these days – to May 2012. It’s 8.30am in the Sunset Tower hotel in Los Angeles. Assiduous sometime Hollywood player that he now is, Pegg should have been in the gym already. But he’s full of flu, so an interview it is.
Last week Pegg, 42, finally wrapped shooting on the second new Star Trek film, the follow-up to the almost $400million-grossing 2009 blockbuster. Scotty’s hair, it can be revealed with some authority, retains the same dyed dark hue of three years ago. What else can he tell us about it? Not much, it seems. “This time we had the benefit of being able to hit the ground running – we spent some time in the first one re-establishing the characters. Now we have a fully set-up group of people that we can just get on with straight away. So it ups the ante slightly, and we’ve all had more to do. So it’s totally incumbent on us to not drop the ball. It would be a disaster if it wasn’t as good as – or better than – the first one.” Is there more screen time for Scotty? “He’s in it from the beginning. In the last one I was the last member of the crew to be ‘discovered’ and brought in. So in this one, we’re all together from the top.”
Abrams, the Lost creator, Super 8 director and all-round powerhouse of American TV and film, remembers the thrill of seeing Shaun Of The Dead, Pegg’s “zomromcom”, at the cinema. “I was just blown away by Simon’s sense of humour – but also by his acting skills,” Abrams tells me. “He wasn’t just funny. He was also surprisingly emotional and convincing. I remember thinking, ‘holy s---, this guy can probably do anything’.” Abrams accordingly cast Pegg in his M:I III (2006),“because selfishly I wanted to meet that guy. And I knew he would make any scene he was in better.”
This time, Pegg isn’t the only Brit in the world of Starfleet. Benedict Cumberbatch has been cast as a villain. Pegg is full of praise for Cumberbatch’s baddy, whom he describes as “not just another disgruntled alien. It’s a really interesting… sort of… thing,” he squirms. “Obviously I can’t talk about it.” Given internet rumours that Cumberbatch has been cast as Kirk and Spock nemesis Khan, will this be a very different “wrath of Khan” from the 1982 film of the same name? “It’s not Khan,” replies Pegg, annoyed. “That’s a myth. Everyone’s saying it is, but it’s not.”
Is that misinformation from the famously secretive Abrams camp? “No, I think people just want to have a scoop. It annoys me – it’s beyond the point to just ferret around for spoilers all the time to try to be the first to break them,” says Pegg, a fanboy’s fanboy who wrote an autobiography called Nerd Do Well and who seems to have forgotten that part of the thrill of being a comic book/film/sci-fi fan is about getting as many details as possible in advance. “It just spoils the film,” he complains. “It masquerades as interest in the movie but really it’s just nosiness and impatience. You just want to say, ‘Oh f--- off! Wait for the film!’”
It’s perhaps no shock that, in some regards, Pegg has gone over to The Other Side. The quintessentially British Shaun Of The Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), co-written with Wright, were hits on both sides of the Atlantic. The American-set Paul (2011), co-written with old pal and co-star Nick Frost, was directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad) and starred US comedy stalwarts Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig and Jason Bateman. His roles in the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises have made him part of the furniture in Hollywood.
As his two million-plus Twitter followers will attest, Pegg is assiduous in keeping everyone abreast of his various projects, meetings and hookups with the great and the good of popular culture. It’s one reason why he’s loved being in LA these past five months, even though he, Maureen, their daughter and dog had moved from north London into their new Hertfordshire home only a month before shipping out to the US.
As we speak the women in his life will be arriving back home – they’ve returned to the UK a little earlier than Pegg. It’s been the family’s second sojourn in California: while Pegg was filming Paul in New Mexico two years ago, they all shipped over – even the dog. And, in fact, his daughter “came” – she was born in Los Angeles during filming.
Pegg has never been one to discuss his private life. Nonetheless, he wrote that autobiography – didn’t it open a Pandora’s box for “personal interviews”? “Yeah, that’s the thing, that apparent hypocrisy,” he admits. “But there’s plenty of stuff I don’t talk about. I mention the fact that my parents broke up but I don’t really go into what that was like. And I can always fall back on ‘mind your own f------ business.’”
Pegg is all about the work, which is why LA – a business town – suits him down to the ground. “I don’t have that LA snobbery that some people have. I really like it. Everyone’s doing stuff here. If you want to meet somebody – if you think, ‘oh s---, I’d like to work with that person’ – you can make a phone call and you’ll have dinner. And if you get on, you get a project going. It’s so proactive. Everything’s so in motion, whereas at home it’s a struggle to get anything on the go, because we have so few resources.
“Plus, everybody’s here. It’s where the business is centred. If you want to meet Christopher Guest, you go and have lunch.”
And if you want coffee with Tom Cruise, presumably you can just ring him up, too. Last autumn Pegg undertook a globe-spanning, 10-day, private-jet promotional jaunt in support of the latest, well-received M:I outing. What can he tell us about him? Quite a bit, as it happens.
“I can only go by my experience and he’s just a consummate professional, and very nice person. And kinda regular. I like it when the exterior drops a little and you just see normal Tom Cruise. I watched the Super Bowl with him and watched him get all het up. But he’s extraordinary – a guy who has entirely constructed himself for his business, and that’s why he’s so good at it, and so successful. He applies himself 100 per cent in every facet of his existence.”
With Cruise, of course, public perceptions are “informed” not only by his superstar status, but also by Scientology. But Pegg insists that the actor’s “faith”, in their seven months together, “never came up”. Nor did he see any sign of the “tents” Cruise is said to pitch on sets to practise Scientology.
“You hear all this stuff about shadowy figures on set. But (a) there was not a presence on set and (b) it never came up,” he repeats. “But yeah, it is an odd thing,” he concedes. “But I’m an atheist, so Christian dogma sounds crazy to me as well – just as crazy as Thetans. So it doesn’t really bother me.” What Pegg most admires about Cruise, he says, is his childlike enthusiasm, which means “he gets really stoked. And he loves his job.”
Pegg can understand that. Through talent, perseverance and his own enthusiasm for ideas and projects and networking and collaboration, he’s living the dream. He has both a British comedy career and a Hollywood profile in which he can bring to bear quirky Anglo light-relief on a blockbuster canvas. “Simon has the same sort of qualities of everyman actors like Jack Lemmon,” Edgar Wright notes.
He can do small-screen – this month, before returning home from California, he was spending two weeks playing a Forties-era Jewish comedian in the pilot of LA Noir, a new TV series from Shawshank Redemption director and Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont. And he can do big-screen – in its finished form, A Fantastic Fear Of Everything is ingeniously directed, if a little scattershot, but Pegg throws everything of himself into the role.
Pegg can also get things made – through lending his star-power (AFFOE), or developing them via British production banner Big Talk (in which he’s a partner). Or through creating them himself. This autumn, after spending a summer at home writing a novel (“a stupid comedy adventure, a silly pulp comic, about that heightened version of me”), he, Wright and Frost begin work on The World’s End.
The film is about five friends who reunite after 20 years to go on the mother of all pub crawls. How, if at all, does it relate to Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz and this much-ballyhooed idea of a trilogy? “I think it makes the three films a trilogy,” he replies, “in that it consolidates some themes and ideas that we started to explore in the first two. Hot Fuzz and Shaun Of The Dead are about the struggle of essentially a small group against a large group, and it’ll continue that forward.” And the layers go deeper still than zombie humour, vigilante parish councils and necking pints. “We’ve said in our most lofty moments that Shaun Of The Dead was about evolution – it was about Shaun becoming something more than he was. Hot Fuzz was about devolution – it was about [super-cop] Nick Angel dumbing himself down to become something else. And World’s End is about revolution, which will be apparent when you see it.” Not that Pegg will be giving away any spoilers, of course.‘A Fantastic Fear of Everything’ is released on June 8
Bolded the important bits about (in this order) A Fantastic Fear of Everything, Star Trek, Tom Cruise and the third film in the Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz trilogy The Worlds End. Not by fav inverview by Pegg since he comes off a bit... terse. But thats the way things go in interviews, he was in the middle of filming I guess.
Telegraph by Craig McLean