SIMON Pegg can be a hard man to keep up with. “On the last Star Trek, I arrived on set and the director JJ Abrams said to me: ‘Simon, do you think you could run the length of the set.’”
Pegg starts to smile at the memory. “We were in this massive hangar, but I said I’d give it a go. So they started filming and I gave it all I had. I hadn’t run that fast since I was a kid. The crew applauded when I finished, and I felt like I’d won the Olympics. And JJ said: ‘That was amazing, Simon, can you do it again?’” Pegg mimes helpless acquiescence.
“I said: ‘Yeah okay, give me a minute. So I got my breath back, and did it again. I was quite proud of myself, because I’m the oldest actor in the Starship crew, and I’d had quite a big lunch.
“And then he said: ‘Can you do it one more time?’ And I couldn’t say no, so I did one more time. And I was still going so fast the camera had to work to keep up, and as soon as I possibly could, I excused myself from the set, went to my trailer and threw up.”
Pegg is the kind of person who tries to pack as much into a moment as possible. When he wasn’t sprinting across Sony’s biggest film set, his days off were spent in a Los Angeles office writing The World’s End with Edgar Wright. When playing one of the Thompson Twins in Tintin, he badgered Steven Spielberg about Close Encounters and ET between takes. And when he found out he was going to play James Montgomery Scott in a reboot of Star Trek: “I went to live in Scotland for five years and studied as an engineer.”
He’s joking, but although Pegg paints himself as an everybloke who cannot quite believe his luck in landing roles in Mission: Impossibles and Star Treks, he has worked hard to get there. A mutual friend says he’s well-liked on film sets because “he’s very driven, very enthusiastic and very attentive. Directors love that”.
I was reminded of this when Pegg arrived at our London hotel towards the end of a long day promoting his new film The World’s End. He is schlumpy with fatigue when he enters the room, but the moment he spots me, he visibly pulls himself together by straightening his spine and shoulders, and producing a wide smile.
Audiences like Pegg. When he played slacker Tim in Channel 4’s sitcom Spaced, he opened up a conversation with a generation of closet geeks about the joy of simulated shootouts, and the betrayal felt by the second set of Star Wars. When he landed a villainous role in Doctor Who, he gave exultant interviews about joining the Who pantheon. More recently, when we first talked about his part in the rebooted Star Trek, he was at pains to assure Trekkers that James Doohan remained the one true Scotty – but he had been working with his Scottish wife and in-laws to ensure that this time the accent was a little closer to Linlithgow, and a little more distant from Ireland. He is justifiably proud of getting “Haud on there, wee man” into the second adventure.
He also startled the press earlier this year by announcing that Scotty supported Scottish independence. Given that even Andy Murray wouldn’t go near the subject post-Wimbledon, announcing that Scotty was in favour of boldly going alone could have been a reckless move. “Well, half of my family is Scottish and I have a deep affection and loyalty to Scotland,” he says now. “Personally, I think Scotland is deprived of a voice sometimes because of the way the voting system works. Scotland has to endure a government that was chosen for them, which I don’t think is intrinsically fair. You just have to look at the Andy Murray win to see how much the English were pleased for our Scottish boy to do well, despite the rivalry and fun taking the piss that goes on. So personally I would hate for that link to be severed, but I would like to see Scotland feel it’s being represented.”
Come to that, does he feel that the wishes of English voters have been fairly represented? After all, no-one voted for the Lib-Con coalition either. “That’s true,” he concedes, “but I have to go along with democracy, and we were outvoted down here. It just feels a little unfair when you see all the little red squares up there in Scotland. There has to be a fairer way to choose, that’s all I was saying. I’m not advocating separatism, just fairness.” He grins before throwing out the clincher: “Also my wife’s aunty Shirley is as red as they come. I just wanted to do it for her.”
The politics in Pegg’s film also tend to be personal rather than along party lines, and the reason we’re in sitting in hotel room plushness on a sweltering summer’s day is because Pegg, his director Wright and co-star Nick Frost have gathered for one last lick at their three-flavoured Cornetto trilogy, a series of movies penned by Pegg and Wright which combine commentaries on record collections, dysfunctional relationships, and irresponsibility, with the rise of zombie hordes, or sinister pagan cults. In the final part, The World’s End, the external threat is robot bodysnatchers and the chief observation that growing older may also involve growing apart.
Pegg plays a 40-something whose finest hour was when he led five friends on an end-of-term pub crawl. Twenty years on, he wants to re-enact that night but Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steve (Paddy Considine) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) are resistant. Unlike Pegg’s character, they have all grown up, and acquired jobs, marriages, divorces and children.
In real life, Pegg is one of the grown-ups. The son of a civil servant and a musician, he started acting at 15, had a hit series with Spaced by the age of 29, and at 35 married his Scots PR girlfriend Maureen in Partick Cross. On a slightly less everybloke note, guests included Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. The Peggs now live in the countryside of Herefordshire with their four-year-old daughter Matilda. On his Twitter account, Pegg paints a bucolic life of visits to Legoland and Mr Tumble; they don’t go out on the razzle much now, partly because of the recognition factor, and partly because when Tilly was born, he took the decision to give up alcohol. “I thought: ‘What if I had a drink after she went to bed, and then she woke up with a temperature of 104?’” he says, but later admits he had been toying with the idea of going teetotal for while.
“When I was working away from home, or if I had jet lag, I would have a drink ‘to take the edge off’. That gets dangerous, and you end up asking yourself, what are you trying to get away from? Am I depressed, am I unhappy? And also, ‘Do I want to wake up in the morning feeling shit?’
“Now I feel that I’ve relaxed a bit. I can drive around at night after a party, I don’t have to worry how I’m going to get home if I can’t find a taxi. There’s no scrabbling around for a designated driver. I do sometimes miss a glass of good wine, because it tastes nice, but the bottom line is that we drink alcohol to get drunk. The comedian Ed Byrne has a great line: ‘I love tea, but I don’t feel the need to drink 12 pints of it.’” Pegg’s father-in-law was unconvinced by the decision to take the pledge. “When I told him, he said: ‘But you’ll drink beer, right?’ and I said, ‘No, no.’ And he said: ‘But you’ll have a glass of wine with a meal? Or do shots?’”
Pegg laughs because there’s an irony to this conversation. Most of The World’s End is a pub crawl; in fact all three of the Wright-Pegg films circle around pub culture. A decade ago, Pegg led his friends to sit out the zombie apocalypse in the Winchester pub in Shaun Of The Dead. In Hot Fuzz, the hub for after-hours police work was The Crown. But in The World’s End, there’s a growing ambivalence about the benefits of booze. When Pegg and his friends revisit their old watering holes, the pubs have been corporatised, their pints homogenised. Frost’s character even tries to do the pub crawl on tap water – at first – because he hasn’t had a drink since what the others in the group call “The Accident”.
“Pubs are such an important part of our make-up in Britain. A pub is about strength in numbers, it’s a drug, but because there’s enough of us doing it, it’s socially acceptable. Really it’s just a mass poisoning.” So should we follow north European countries like Sweden, and make drinking more expensive? Pegg thinks the culture is too different.
Another theme of The World’s End is the difficulty of outgrowing old friends. “Nick Frost and I have been friends for 20 years,” says Pegg. “But it helps that we work in the same business. The same goes for Edgar – and even then, we don’t see each other all the time. We have wives and lives and other work.” But is it risky writing and making movies with friends? “Not at all. We argue, but I think it’s better to collaborate. When I met George Lucas, he told me not to end up making the same film you did 30 years ago, and to me part of the problem with the prequels was that when he made the original films, he was forced to collaborate. By the time of Phantom Menace, he was a super-rich walking studio who didn’t have to defer to anyone. And that’s where it went wrong. You need your friends to say: ‘Wait a minute, that’s bad!’”
Pegg says there will be other projects that will reunite him with Wright and Frost, but they won’t be similar to their “ice-cream” series. “It might not be in the UK for a start,” says Pegg. Another problem is finding gaps in each other’s schedules. Frost and Wright both have other projects under way, Pegg has another Mission: Impossible under discussion, with star Tom Cruise keen to make it happen. There’s also a second Tintin from Peter Jackson in preproduction. Pegg would love to be involved in JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Wars too, but says that is unlikely – although he deliberately misled a journalist about Benedict Cumberbatch’s appearance in Star Trek Into Darkness.
Pegg has no regrets about that, and rails against film news sites which try to peddle plot spoilers to up their hit rate. It’s getting harder and harder for film fans to come into a movie without knowing half the story, he says. “People were going to find out eventually, so I thought if I flatly deny, it would throw people off the scent. If I’d said, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t say anything,’ that would just have been interpreted as a yes.” Indeed.
Right now actress Felicity Jones’ uncomfortable wriggle on a blogger’s video is being taken as a clue to a plot detail in the new Spider-Man. “Exactly!” he cries. “And I lied because I was sick of people thinking that this was a guessing game. People are so keen to sell advertising on their websites, and people are fond of spoilers because they like to be anaesthetised sometimes. If you know what’s coming, you can go into a film and relax. Well, they shouldn’t be able to relax. You should be upset, challenged and scared. That’s what art is for, it helps you rehearse those feelings you might not rehearse in real life. The trouble is that these days it’s hard to keep secrets. But to have those feelings taken away before you see the film defeats the object. No matter how frivolous the film is, the joy of discovery has to be protected.”
Pegg says he had his resolve tested when he worked with Cumberbatch, fresh off his Sherlock Holmes cliffhanger, where Holmes appears to have jumped off a building with no hope of survival. “I had Benedict sitting next to me most days, so I could have asked him and he would have told me, but I just didn’t want to figure it out.” He pauses, then confesses: “Well, I did have my own theories about how he manages to live. So there were times where I was like, ‘OK, don’t react in any way, but here is what I think happened…’” n
• The World’s End (15) is on general release from Friday. See Page 21 for review