When the surreal big train appeared on bbc2 back in 1998, it was easy to lose the twenty eight year-old Simon Pegg amongst the surge of new comedic talent fighting for recognition.
And although Catherine Tate, Julia Davis, Mark Heap and Kevin Eldon can now all confidently stamp “Household Name” across their business cards (ok, perhaps not Kevin but he’s doing his best), it’s the solitary Pegg who has ultimately capitalised on a relentless output of British film and television to conquer Hollywood. It’s a journey that has also resulted in a remarkable collaboration with director J.J. Abrams, first alongside Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible series, then as Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in Star Trek and now Star Trek Into Darkness, out this month. And would it be too much to ask for a role in the new Star Wars? More on that later…
Pegg’s talents don’t just reside within that rare combination of comedic timing and acting ability. The man can also write, and proved his big screen credentials alongside long-time writing partner Edgar Wright (whom he met on 1996 Paramount comedy, Asylum) with zombie comedy Shaun Of The Dead, then cop caper Hot Fuzz, and ultimately The World’s End, a tale of a long overdue pub crawl and the final film in their so-called Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, due for release in July.
Simon is in fine form when we sit down with him above a small photo studio in London’s not-so-plush North West suburb of Harlesden. On the last leg of interviews for Trek (“This is the end of it,” he smiles, leaning back in his chair. “This, then a phoner in the car on the way home and I’m done”) Pegg shows none of the weary fatigue your average A-List celebrity would display, having just spent an afternoon being cajoled by a photographer to leap about in a variety of near impossible poses. Yet he takes it in his stride with ease, as happy talking about his preference for Britain over Los Angeles (“I live in Hertfordshire. I could move to LA tomorrow and not work there for five years – all the ensuing films could be made at Pinewood”) to mischievously batting off standard opening questions such as, “When does this schedule end for you?” with a slightly awkward pause, steely-eyed stare and, “When am I going to die? I don’t know.”
There’s one thing however that the affable actor can’t resist talking about, and that’s social media. Because in that universe Mr Simon Pegg has three million followers and rising.
That’s more than every man, woman and child in Jamaica.
It is, yeah, but Twitter is not a meritocracy. There are people I consider to be far more talented than I am who have far less followers than me. Twitter is something you have to maintain. If someone talks shit, or they are argumentative, or relish being bit of a twat, they will probably have lots of followers.
You know you’ve just described yourself as ‘bit of a….
…Twat’, ha I know, and sometimes I will be. Sometimes I get into fights with people and you shouldn’t – angry tweets are dangerous. Ultimately though it’s an effective promotional tool and, so long as you don’t use it for that exclusively, you can tell people to check out the projects that are close to your heart, and the chances are they will.
Did you tweet spoilers from film sets?
I tweeted this from the Star Trek set (holds up middle finger): ‘Here’s a behind the scenes picture’. That whole desire for spoilers is one of my most personal bugbears. It annoys me so much I almost become humourless about it. What is the fucking point? Why not just wait for the film?
Well there go the next five questions…
You know what it is? People just don’t want to be tense. They want to know the ending so they don’t have to sit on the edge of their seat. But that’s the point. You need to be surprised, caught on the back foot, scared, and if you have all the answers then that’s not going to happen. You anesthetize yourself against the effect of the film. It’s cowardly.
Ok, and with all that in mind… Star Trek Into Darkness. Discuss.
I’m not going to tell you anything.
We don’t want to know the ending, but are interested in your second time round as Scotty. Did you manage to get out of the engine room this time?
Well, I’m in it from the beginning. In the first one there was a lovely drip feeding of the characters, so everyone got their moment – ‘Oh look, here’s Sulu, here’s Chekov’, and Scotty’s moment happened later as he was the last one to join. But in this one, yeah, I’m in it from the top, and it’s great.
It’s been four years since the last film. You’ve all grown up a bit. Has J.J. changed as a director?
His demeanour as a director hasn’t changed at all; he’s still super enthusiastic and positive on set. It was
very weird. Four years had elapsed and yet it didn’t feel like any time at all once we were back on the bridge. J.J. is a brilliant director with extraordinary confidence and command of his environment, but he’s constantly learning and will happily admit that he’s into trying new stuff. I’ve never worked for a director who seemingly cares so much for everybody around him.
In what way?
There was a guy called Jeremy, fantastic, plays a drum machine like you wouldn’t believe. He’s a concert pianist and J.J. saw him on YouTube and said, ‘Come down to the studio and show everybody’. So sure enough this guy came down and played. We were standing around in our uniforms clapping along and J.J. said, ‘Hey, you should be in the movie, this is awesome’. So when you see the film, there is a scene in a bar and the musician playing in that bar is Jeremy.
The random chap from YouTube?
Yeah. Also, Larry Fong, his DP on Super 8, bought a mate of his who was a magician so we all stopped filming at one point while this guy came and did loads of tricks for us.
This all sounds very distracting. The film could probably have been done in much less than five months…
Ha, yeah I know. J.J. leads from the top down and he leads with a smile on his face which keeps everyone very buoyant. It’s hard work making a film. It’s fun, but it’s hard work and long hours; we start shooting on a Monday morning, by Friday we are wrapping up at two in the morning and doing 16 hour days. It’s important that people are up and want to work for you.
How demanding are you when it comes to perks? Who gets the biggest trailer?
We all have chairs, but on this movie we shared a trailer building, because we are only in there to get ready, get your hair and makeup and get on set.
You’re slumming it!
Ha, well it’s about the work isn’t it? The minute you start insisting on that kind of shit it takes away from the film. This is a big budget movie, but at the same time, you know… if one of us had suddenly decided they wanted a big trailer…
All hell would break loose?
Well it’s not that everyone would suddenly say, ‘Hang on, I want a big trailer too’, but that person would look a dick, and nobody wants to look a dick.
Agreed. You must have some leeway though, stuff you can insist on while you are there?
They take care of you as an actor because you’ve got to be happy on set. You’re the face of the film and that’s why you get treated so well. It’s not because you’re important, it’s because if you’re not happy they are going to lose money and that’s what worries them. Remember that and you won’t turn into a dickhead. I think everyone on the Star Trek crew had that in mind, really, so we turn up on set, we stay there for the whole day and we just go back to our seats where we have our iPhones and iPads and books. There was one day when we were all there, the whole crew of The Enterprise, and we were playing Words With Friends with each other, but not talking, just sat there silently, playing Scrabble.
Do you still get excited reading scripts, or is it just business as usual?
Actually when I read this script I was in New York for Christmas and they got it for me to look at. I was with my mate, so I said I’d nip upstairs and read the first few couple of pages and then I’d come back down so we could go shopping. Five minutes later I phoned my mate and said, ‘I am not coming down’. I was just jumping around the room you know, not only as a fan of Star Trek because a lot of cool things happen, but because I was in the thing. So yeah, I get very excited.
You also have a reputation as a practical joker on set.
Yes, but I’m not at all. The practical jokes that I remember have all been played on me. Thandie Newton, (Run Fat Boy, Run) is a big practical joker. She played a lot on me.
What are we talking?
Oh, she did all those fucking… you know, the classics; sew up my jumper, cling film on the toilet seats, leave a fake poo in the trailer.
These are good…
She knew I was coming from comedy and thought, ‘I’ve got to a step up to the plate here’ so she just made it her life’s ambition to play tricks on me. But I did play one practical joke on Star Trek and that was to convince all of my Trek classmates that they had to wear a barrier cream.
We were working in a highly secretive government facility in Northern California where they do fusion reaction. One day I asked Chris (Pine, Captain Kirk), ‘Have you put on your Neutron Cream?’ And he
said, ‘What’s Neutron Cream?’ Because Americans are very trusting. They always say, ‘Just kidding’ if they make a joke, just so you know…
… And you didn’t say ‘Just kidding’?
I didn’t, I said, ‘Oh. It’s just some cream we need to put on. There’s an ambient radiation in the air that has a similar frequency to UV and if you don’t wear this cream you can get a skin irritation’. I eventually got the whole crew in on it: we were doing special exercises to shake out the ions from our fingertips, and stopped shooting every half an hour to jump up and down. It was the most meticulously worked out, rigorously supported practical joke, because makeup had provided pots of Neutron Cream, stickers that said ‘Neutron Cream must be worn at all time’, we even had Neutron Gum, because props can whip up anything. By the time we got to pranking Karl Urban we had him doing pieces to cameras saying, ‘Welcome. You might have heard there’s a need for Neutron cream’.
Any fear of reprisals?
I am dreading Karl. He will get me back and he will get me back bad. What is the Klingon proverb? Revenge is a dish best served cold. It’s going to come.
As well as Star Trek Into Darkness you also have The World’s End hitting the cinemas this summer. Is there a dramatic difference between big budget Hollywood films and small budget British ones?
The World’s End is a $30million film, it’s not a little British indie. And with the state of the film industry right now, it’s probably the last big budget British comedy that will ever be made.
We stand corrected. How does it differ from your previous two films, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz?
Well, Shaun was all about where we lived at the time, and Hot Fuzz was all about where we grew up. The World’s End, and central character Gary King, was born out of not changing. Gary was the king in 1990; the most popular, best looking, coolest guy in school. Twenty years down the line he is exactly the same and by that I mean he’s extremely uncool and sad. He comes out of nowhere and gathers his friends together to try and recreate this classic pub crawl called the Golden Mile.
Does it still have that sense of a small group of people against the world?
Yes, it’s about the individual against the collective, but it’s riddled with themes; getting older, turning 40, addiction. It’s underpinned by quite a tragic story, I think it’s the funniest one that we’ve done. It’s certainly the silliest and it’s not in any way a homage to anything. Shaun Of The Dead was a zombie film because we wanted to make a zombie film, Hot Fuzz was a tribute to action films. This, if it’s anything, is like social science fiction.
What’s your process for script writing?
Well me and Edgar (Wright, Pegg’s writing partner) have refined it over the years – this is our third time doing a script together.
Do you sit opposite each other with typewriters?
Yeah, well, not with typewriters. We go away for the weekend together, it’s very romantic. We went to Cowley Manor in Gloucestershire and we sat in a function room, all day, talking through the details of the story and the structure. We decided this one wouldn’t be as long as Hot Fuzz – two hours is too long for a comedy. We decided on 105 to 110 minutes, then we broke the structure down, drew a diagram of what would happen at what point, a page count of when things would happen, and then eventually layered that with dialogue. It just evolves and you rewrite and rewrite. It was probably the quickest and almost easiest one that we’ve done.
All this in just a weekend?
No! God no. From conception to shoot took about 18 months.
Where were you when you heard J.J. had got the Star Wars job?
I was at the cinema and I got an email from Edgar asking, ‘Are you going to be in the next Star Wars?’. I immediately emailed J.J. and asked, ‘Is this true?’ and he said yes. I’m very happy for him and he’ll do an incredible job. It’s exciting to see what he will come up with.
How many minutes after that first email before you asked for a part?
I would never do that, it would be embarrassing. J.J. is my friend.
You must be quietly confident though
No, it’s not one of my great wishes to be in Star Wars. I’d love to go to the cinema and just watch it. When I watched Star Trek for the first time I was so invested in it that when I came on screen I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m in this film’ – I was just loving the movie. If I was in it there would be a part of me that would be a little disappointed, because I wouldn’t be able to watch it and lose myself in the same way.
You’ve been very vocal about Lucas’ prequels…
I’ll always have a soft spot for George Lucas because he made the original films, but those prequels were dreadful and if he were making more Star Wars films I’d be worried. I think he lost sight of what made them great and it’s good that he’s handed them over to somebody else.
So what made them great?
The old characters; that’s what I wanted to see in the first place. I just want to see them older. I want to see what they got up to. It doesn’t have to be about them, but I’d love to see them again. The things that made Star Wars cool were things like the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo and none of that was in the prequels. Nobody wanted to be a Jedi. Who gives a shit about Jedis?