Simon Pegg on Soho Farmhouse: ‘It’s like going into Wonderland’
The star of ‘Spaced’ and ‘Star Trek’ talks creativity, cyberhacking, and The Cornetto Trilogy
Thursday 30 June 2022 By Andy Morris Photography by Jem Mitchell First photography assistant: Akira Trees Second photography assistant: Milan Rodriguez Styling by Jordan Schneider Stylist’s assistant: Francesca Russo Grooming by Tara Hickman Produced by Charlie Helm
Most film nerds believe they have a great script inside of them. Simon Pegg has an entire cinematic multiverse. But because he got so good at both playing and writing a series of characters between 1999 and 2013 – simultaneously loveable, irreverent, sweary and geeky – he is consistently underestimated. For a generation of Brits, he’s still best known as both the creator and star of surreal flat-share sitcom Spaced (with Jessica Hynes) and The Cornetto Trilogy: Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End (all with Edgar Wright and Nick Frost).
Pegg and his collaborators combined comic-book ultraviolence, national treasures, abject horror, self-aware soundtracks, laugh-out-loud bromances, and the occasional escaped swan. These are unmistakably British movies that took all the ingredients of Hollywood moviemaking and transplanted them into a local setting. If you ever wanted to know what Lethal Weapon would look like filmed in Somerset rather than LA, Pegg was your guy.
The actor’s affectionate movie parodies were made with such adoration that bona-fide blockbuster directors – George A. Romero, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino – took them to heart. Pegg scored recurring roles as human sat-nav Benji Dunn in Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise and JJ Abrams cast the Gloucester-born star as Scotty in his version of Star Trek. Internet fanboys, back when they were largely a benevolent force, took Pegg as one of their own. They saw his career as a triumph: someone who went from mocking Star Wars Episode I as ‘a jumped up firework display of a toy advert’ to appearing in, and writing for, Star Wars Episode VII.
Sitting in the luxurious gloaming of Electric Cinema White City, Pegg looks healthier and happier than he has for some time. He cheerfully discusses his Woody Woodpecker tattoo, the incredible Margaret Howell suit he just tried on, and how both he and his wife Maureen celebrated their 50th birthdays at Soho Farmhouse (‘Once you get on the golf buggies, it’s like going into Wonderland’). At times, the traditionally circumspect Pegg seems dangerously close to being carefree.
The biggest change from the man who still props up ITV2’s repeats schedule is clear: giving up drinking was a great idea. ‘Sobriety gives me a lot of clarity and just a lot less hassle. I find that it’s very liberating. I can always drive home, I can get up really early in the morning every day, and don’t have hangovers. Sometimes I speak to people who are hanging and just feel like saying, “You’re wasting an entire day… because your body has gone into toxic shock.”’
Full Look; Dunhill
He even included a reaction to going teetotal into the script of his booziest film – the plot of The World’s End concerns petulant 40-year-old Gary King (Pegg) attempting to complete ‘The Golden Mile’ by drinking 12 pints in as many pubs. ‘The funny thing is that Gary King is such a buffoon in some ways, such a mangled mess of contradictions and trauma. That said, when people say to me, “Hey, we’re doing the Golden Mile!”, it’s not supposed to be something that you do. It’s not a celebratory act. It’s folly. It’s an idiotic thing to do. And the fact that Gary clings to it as the pinnacle of his existence is utterly tragic. So, I’m always slightly bummed out when I get those messages. I feel like saying, ‘Did you watch the movie? You remember the suicide allegory?’”
While over 15 years in the spotlight Pegg’s drinks order has changed considerably, his approach to creative work has not. He’s always found a collaborator helpful, particularly if it comes in the cuddly form of his former flatmate, Nick Frost. ‘I like to write with someone just because it gives you a degree of objectivity. It’s very difficult sometimes working by yourself, because you end up so close to it. Whereas when you’re writing with someone, they’re constantly forcing you to have that distance.’
‘I like to write with someone just because it gives you a degree of objectivity. It’s very difficult sometimes working by yourself, because you end up so close to it’
Above: Full Look; Margaret Howell
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, the two of them remain as close as ever. ‘He’s my best friend. We talk every day. We’ve been friends for 26 years – he makes me laugh so much.’ To illustrate this point, Pegg shows me a video on his phone sent to him by Frost earlier that day. The latter is doing a parody of Sir David Attenborough’s narration, describing the death of an insect. ‘For this fly… the eternal hunt… for food.. is over. Having mated… the fly… gives out a last… fart.’ When the cadaveric spasm noisily occurs, Pegg creases up.
As well as such unapologetic silliness, he finds inspiration in music – both writing to it and trying to persuade the rights holders to let him use specific songs in his films. ‘I’ve written so many letters. I wrote one to Brian May saying, “May we use ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. It’s so upbeat and positive, and there’s no better soundtrack to demolishing an old man with pool cues.” I think Queen were very sweet. They did give us mates’ rates.’ Not all of the responses were quite so positive. ‘I remember writing to Mark Knopfler saying, “Do you mind if we throw your record at a zombie?” I had to word it in such a way so that it sounded like it was a compliment. He said no. So, you just see a sort of sky-blue album cover, but it’s not Brothers In Arms.’
Pegg has found the secret to staying inspired is to constantly be trying new things – as George Lucas once told him: ‘Don’t be making the same movie you did 30 years ago.’ He loves making smaller, more idiosyncratic films, including recent psychological thrillers, Lost Transmissions and Inheritance. Those fans waiting for a return to The Winchester Tavern are going to have to wait a little longer.
‘It baffles me how there possibly could be a Shaun Of The Dead 2, because most of the main characters are dead. One of them is a zombie, in a shed… which would be boring.’ He warms to his theme. ‘People still ask me, “When is there going to be a third series of Spaced?” It was 23 years ago. I’m a 52-year-old man! Who wants to watch a sitcom about that?’ He also feels that fundamentally the industry has been changed by streaming – the economic realities of producing a $50m comedy featuring an entirely CGI-created alien called Paul are simply no longer possible. ‘Paul himself cost $20m alone. So, even if we wanted to make a sequel, we wouldn’t, we couldn’t. People think that you pick and choose what you do on some sort of whim… or what they want you to do.’
Suit; Richard James, Shirt; Mfpen, Trainers; Harrys of London, Glasses; Gentle Monster
Suit; Feng Chan wang, T-shirt; Sunspel, Necklace; Simons own
He’d rather devote his time to more intriguing premises, such as his next film Nandor Fodor And The Talking Mongoose. ‘The idea is based on a completely true story of this mongoose.’ The film, improbably based on true events from the 1930s, sees Pegg play a psychoanalyst who visits a family in the Isle of Man that claim they have discovered a chatty mammal called Gef. ‘It was a big deal. There were physical fights about it in Parliament,’ he says. ‘Obviously it was a hoax, but the amount of people that believed it just made it really intriguing. The script is all about the idea of “in terms of what people will do to stave off their own existential dread, and sometimes, is it OK to believe in something that isn’t real if it makes you feel a bit better?”’
While we’re on the topic of the improbable, Pegg is also looking to change the narrative around his friendship with Tom Cruise. Previously in interviews he would share something positive but appreciative: how he landed his helicopter in a field close to Pegg’s home in Hertfordshire, how he calls him ‘eight-pack Peggles’ when he started getting fit, or how he remembers fans physically rocking Cruise’s car in Morocco, much to the star’s delight. But after having his comments to The Times taken out of context – ‘The best thing he taught me is never to accept responsibility for a mistake… but in a funny way’ – Pegg has now decided enough is enough.
Jacket; Cavalli, Shirt; Maison Margiela, Trousers; Christopher Lemaire, Glasses; Mascot
‘I naively assumed that people were interested in my experience of him. But the truth is, what everybody really wants to know about is Tom. Everyone wants to have some little nugget of information, which they can dress up with a clickbait headline. What these people should really do is find things out for themselves. But they will not, because the closest they’ll ever get to him is shouting his name on a f**king red carpet. So, I am not going to be the harbinger of any kind of Tom Cruise information.’
The experience with The Times story still frustrates Pegg, not least when he tried to address the fallout by posting on his own Instagram. ‘As soon as you say something like, “Actually, that’s not what I meant”, people reply, “Did the Scientologists call you and tell you to make an apology?” So, I’m not answering anything.’
It’s initially tricky to work out whether he’s joking – one further innocuous question about Cruise shows it’s clear he’s not. As a concession, he answers a theory – that the Mission: Impossible series and Bond films have both engaged in friendly competition. ‘I think both films benefit from it immensely. Because I’m biased, I think Mission pips it a little bit, as everything you see, he does for real. There are no stunt doubles for him. There’s a frisson you get when there’s authenticity: the idea that this guy is actually jumping off a cliff on a motorbike and deploying the parachute 100 feet from the ground? It puts the willies up you.’
Full Suit; Paul Smith, Shirt; Budd
‘People still ask me, “When is there going to be a third series of Spaced?” It was 23 years ago. I’m a 52-year-old man! Who wants to watch a sitcom about that?’
The actor’s next project tackles a mission that even Cruise couldn’t accept: The Undeclared War, a tense drama for Channel 4 focusing on the threat of cyberhacking. Pegg was captivated by the script from BAFTA winner Peter Kosminsky, reading the entire series in a single sitting. ‘What was amazing is Peter spent five years researching it, but there are prophetic moments. The notion that Boris was ousted – it’s kind of already happened. I definitely don’t think he will be the Prime Minister before the general election, because no one is gonna vote for him because he’s lied to us… and several billion other reasons.’
Pegg bats away any concerns about being perceived as a comedian in a drama. ‘I’ve always played the straight guy in comedies anyway. The way that Edgar and I do comedy is to play it straight and have the situation be this absurd thing. I don’t really see the distinction between comedy acting and acting. I often get referred to as a comedian, but I was a comedian for, like, five years 25 years ago.’
What’s abundantly clear is Pegg wants to do things on his own terms. He wants to take roles that intrigue him, with dialogue that challenges him – and in an era where it is hard to do so, he wants to surprise people. He believes that in an ideal world, the best way to watch a movie is to go in there knowing absolutely nothing about it, bar perhaps the genre. He’s seen first-hand the effect it can have on people. ‘Dave Grohl, funnily enough, came to the premiere of The World’s End not knowing anything about it. The moment when I smashed the guy’s head off in the toilet, he turned round in his seat to face me.’ Pegg’s eyes widen, just for a moment, as he adopts Grohl’s standard shaggy rock aura: ‘Dude, what… the… f**k?’
The Undeclared War is on Channel 4 on Thursday 30 June at 9pm and on All 4.