Interview: Simon Pegg, actor

ZOMBIES have nothing on the maths class when it comes to recurring nightmares, Simon Pegg tells Siobhan Synnot

SIMON Pegg is having a nightmare. “I’m back at school,” he recalls. “I’m me, now, and I’ve done everything that I’ve done but I’m in a classroom trying to tell my classmates that I shouldn’t be in maths, I should be making a film.”

Since Pegg is a man who has spent a lot of time thinking about zombies – their preferred speed, the places to hole up during a zombie apocalypse, their best movies – you might think that the undead would have taken up near-permanent residency in Pegg’s anxiety dreams.

Hide Ad

“I’d thought Shaun Of The Dead would put that to bed, but I still get those dreams and they are always terrifying,” he agrees. “But the classroom dream is about the fear of having to go back to the start with all my achievements cancelled out and meaning nothing. It’s the need to succeed that is part of my drive.”

The talk of stress dreams was sparked by Pegg’s new film, A Fantastic Fear Of Everything, in which he plays a children’s author whose research into Victorian serial killers sends him spiralling into a state of paranoia.

Pegg produced the movie, and for the first 35 minutes he’s the dominant character on screen, petrified by his grimy flat, and at one point stripped down to nothing but a pair of dirty underpants. “There’s nothing better than coming to work in your underwear and sitting in a little deckchair,” he says. “Especially underwear that had been meticulously distressed by Lou in the art department.”

Real life isn’t quite so shabby for Pegg. He’s just back from six months in California, and looks tanned and fresh-faced, despite a two-hour wade through Jubilee traffic this morning. For A Fantastic Fear Of Everything, he underwent a bit of meticulous distress-work himself, losing weight, growing his nails and stubble and adding a shock wig of unkempt hair: “It freaked out my daughter Matilda because she couldn’t work out how my hair had grown so quickly.”

The shoot was also quick and dirty, filmed in a 29-day gap between the fourth Mission Impossible and the next Star Trek. Crispian Mills, grandson of Sir John Mills, and frontman with Kula Shaker, had originally wanted to adapt a short story by Bruce Robinson (Withnail And I) as a one-hour TV drama, but Pegg coaxed him into extending it into a feature film.

“When he first came to me, I thought it was because he wanted advice, so when he told me that he wanted to direct, I went ‘but you’re a guitarist’. That changed on set though; he’s the son of Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting, the director, so it’s in his blood. We even shot in the room where they’d made The Family Way. Becoming a musician was probably some kind of rebellion for him.”

Hide Ad

Pegg’s career path is less about rebellion and more an extension of childhood passions. Growing up in Gloucester, he was swept away by the fantastical worlds of Star Wars, Doctor Who and Star Trek. Now he counts some of their stars as friends, or at least workmates. Since Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, he’s acted for Spielberg in Tintin, appeared alongside Tom Cruise in two Mission: Impossibles, guest-starred in Doctor Who, and taken to the deck of the USS Enterprise in JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek series as Scotty.

Star Trek is a tricky topic as he’s not allowed to discuss the plot, new arrivals like Benedict Cumberbatch, or even what the second film will be called. Besides, last time we had a Trek talk it sparked off Linlithgowgate, a Star Trek debate about Scotty’s home town. Back then Pegg told me he had wanted to avoid mimicking James Doohan and based his accent on his father-in-law instead, “a working-class Glasgow boy... and so in the end is Scotty”.

Hide Ad

“I never thought Doohan had a bad accent. It suited what he was doing and I have an inordinate amount of love and respect for that man.” He became friends with Doohan’s son Chris when they worked on the first Star Trek film and was recently gifted one of the penknives Doohan used to collect, which he regards as a charm and a connection.

“He’s a tough act to follow,” says Pegg. “When you think of Scotty, you think of him, but I had to make it my own in his honour. Besides, the only Scottish accent I felt comfortable doing was a west coast accent because that’s where my wife’s family are from. But there are a lot of Star Trek purists who go, ‘Well, Scotty is from Linlithgow and James Doohan was a Canadian doing a Scottish accent’. But it was easier this time and I’ve tried to get in as many Scotticisms as possible.”

Most of them seem to have been collected from his father-in-law, who also bought him a copy of The Patter as a sort of Scots reference book. “I also took my Still Game box set with me,” he says, and naturally he is familiar with Chewing The Fat’s Dundonian Star Trek, with its commanding imperative, “set phasers tae malky!”

“God, yeah,” he says, with a grin that could regenerate dilithium crystals. “I love that, and I’m friends with Greg Hemphill on Twitter so I’m very proud that in the new movie, I manage to say to Chekhov, ‘Haud on, wee man.’ It got to the point where JJ would say, ‘Simon, we need to understand what you’re saying.’ ”

Twitter is where Pegg posts pictures of Minnie his dog, briefs his two million followers that he’s just shot a role in a 1940s-set American TV pilot called LA Noir, in which he plays a Jewish comic, and answers fan queries. He can be friendly and funny online, but impertinence gets short shrift. One Tweet suggested Ricky Gervais indirectly propelled Pegg’s career by turning down Star Trek and Mission Impossible 3. “He wasn’t offered Benji in M:I:3 and he was never offered Star Trek,” snorts Pegg.

Why engage with any of this? Because Pegg understands the Brotherhood of Fan. He may go to baseball games with Tom Cruise, play Coldplay gigs with his pal Chris Martin, and enjoy a bit of banter with William Shatner on Twitter, but in many respects he remains a dedicated follower of passion. At San Diego’s Comic Con convention, he signed autographs then joined the queue for Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia from Star Wars. As a child, he used to kiss her picture every night. “It hacked off a whole bunch of people in the queue because they’d just paid 15 bucks for my autograph. They turned around going, ‘What the hell are you doing here? I just paid to meet you!’ ”

Hide Ad

He waited for more than an hour to meet Fisher and tell her of his childhood crush, but admits her response fell short of two suns worth of warmth: “Actually, she looked a bit worried, and said, ‘And do you feel better for telling me that?’ ”

Next for Pegg is a break in Britain, where he hopes to finalise the budget that will enable the third part of the Edgar Wright-Nick Frost-Pegg films to start shooting this autumn. Pegg and director Wright worked on the script during Pegg’s days off from Star Trek, and the series looks set to go out with the biggest bang possible, as five childhood friends set out on a pub crawl just as the world is about to end.

Hide Ad

The pub setting is a little ironic since, although many of Pegg’s characters do their best thinking when drinking, he’s been teetotal for almost two years “because basically I’ve been working in action movies with a lot of good-looking, well-built young people”.

Pegg is 42; does that mean he sees an end to films where all he needs is a pair of underpants and he’s good to go? “No, because pants are very comfortable. On set I’d often fall asleep between takes in my pants in a special chair. I can’t tell you how wonderful that is.”

• A Fantastic Fear Of Everything is in cinemas now