“I’m the funny British guy who creeps up and makes jokes in difficult situations.” This is Simon Pegg’s assessment of the way that Americans perceive him. It’s a surmise that is fairly accurate: the comedy relief in the Mission Impossible movies opposite Tom Cruise; the bumbling, smart-alec Scotty in the multi-million-dollar Star Trek franchise; he is often to be found doling out the funnies. But this is only part of the repertoire for Brit’s biggest film export who, as a writer, producer and former stand up, finds himself in the enviable position of straddling the twin worlds of small independent British movies and mega-bucks Hollywood output.
TNT catches up with Pegg in London ahead of the release of his latest movie A Fantastic Fear of Everything. The film
a dark quirk-filled ‘semi-comedy’ that Pegg co-produced about a writer struggling with a fear of the outside world, sees the Gloucestershire-born star back working in the indie world where he started out.
“It’s a crazy adventure about a writer trying to overcome a crisis in both his career and his personal life. Jack [Pegg] is a children’s author who becomes embarrassed by his work and wants to express the dark side of his life,” explains the film’s co-director Crispian Mills, former frontman for defunct Britpoppers Kula Shaker and long-time friend of Pegg’s.
“He turns to writing about serial killers and in the process of researching this completely freaks himself out. He becomes so familiar with the hackers, dossers, severers and poisoners of the 19th century that they start giving him nightmares.” Fear offers plenty of comedy for Pegg to get his teeth into, as Jack bumbles around his flat, shut off from the outside world where every creaky floorboard and noise in the street is someone out to kill him. But there’s also some meaty drama, as this stunted recluse confronts the childhood demons that have plagued him since he was abandoned by his mother.
For Pegg, who is on screen solo for most of the film’s running time (much of the time in his Y-fronts, “I was very happy to come to work in my pants, it was very comfortable and enjoyable situation”), it offered a new challenge. “I had to give so much of myself as a performer,” Pegg explains. “I couldn’t rely on my fellow actors – when I do Star Trek, I am part of an ensemble and it’s easy to sit back and relax. Here, I have to carry it a bit, it feels a little bit more incumbent on me.” The film began as an adaptation of Bruce Robinson’s novella Paranoia In The Launderette about a man struggling with inner demons that manifests in a fear of said high street service, which Crispian, his filmmaker ambitions hitherto unknown to Pegg, adapted into a short.
“It was very funny, but there isn’t a platform for short film anymore,” Pegg recalls. “I said: ‘If you can flesh it out and give it a third act, it’s something I would be interested in’.” Crispian went away, put pen to paper, and came back with Fear – a children’s author narrative and a serial killer bent his new additions to the already off kilter comedy.
The filming itself was a far cry from the US work Pegg has been involved in recently. Holing up in Shepperton Studios, filming lasted just 28 days. “The last shoot I did was seven months, and before that it was five,” Pegg says of Fear’s production schedule’s comparisons with his latest US projects.
“The soundstage we shot on was where [Crispian’s] mother Hayley and father met when they made [1966 Brit flick] The Family Way and we didn’t know that until Hayley came on set and said ‘I met your father here’ and we then
realised we were filming in the room responsible for Crispian’s existence!”
The film itself is a proudly British combination of quirks, comedy, horror and witty lyricism, with animated flights of fancy courtesy of co-director Chris Hopewell, and a sequence in which Jack prepares for a big business meeting by drying his pants in an oven and getting pumped up listening to some gangster rap.
“I got out all my old NWA and Ice Cube records and had great fun reacquainting myself with Straight Outta Compton. I had to do that moment as seriously as possible – a white guy in two towels [one at his waist, one on his head] rapping was going to be funny no matter what!” While Pegg balances both indies and studio work, he seems predisposed to neither. He relishes the freedom of working independently – “writers are so far down the food chain, if you write a film, you need to direct it otherwise it will be destroyed” – but is clearly enamoured with bigger-scale events, too.
He has a love for cinema, but is not especially fond of the current vogue for the “3D nonsense” tactics to get audiences from their couches, back into the theatre. When talking of the British film industry, or lack of (“in the US they have a film industry, here we have a lot of talented people, which is not an industry”), it becomes clear, though, he enjoys dipping his toe in both ends of the movie pool. He claims not to be interested in TV, where “all the serious actors are migrating”, because he doesn’t want to be tied down to one role for the next seven years, but has just completed a single-episode role in Frank Darabont’s (The Walking Dead) 1940s set crime drama pilot LA Noir for network TNT. “I went from playing a Scottish space engineer to a Jewish Californian comic and that was a challenge.”
His next project, The World’s End, the third and final instalment in his and Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto trilogy’ about a group of friends who embark on a pub crawl to reunite their friendships and fight off middle-aged ennuie and, perhaps, save the earth from a world-ending threat, marks a coming together of both aspects of Pegg’s career, in a way.
“It’s probably the highest-budget film we are going to make in the UK,” he teases of the sci-fi comedy, clearly relishing the ambition of this home-grown project. Before that though, there’s next summer’s Star Trek 2, and right now, his battles to overcome a fear of the whole world, save the day, get the girl, and write a bestseller. You get the feeling that were this on the real world Pegg’s ‘to-do’ list it wouldn’t be beyond him to do just that.
A Fantastic Fear Of Everything is out now through Universal