A big star in his native England, actor-writer Simon Pegg has developed a devoted cult following in the States for his smart, pop-culture savvy work alongside friends and collaborators Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. Pegg rose to prominence as the star and co-creator (alongside fellow star/co-creator/writer Jessica Hynes) of Spaced, a clever, Wright-directed sitcom that gave a deliriously cinematic, larger-than-life spin to the misadventures of a pair of slacker roommates. The 2004 instant cult classic Shaun Of The Dead took Spaced's fanboy-friendly, pop-culture-warped sensibility to the big screen in the scary/funny story of a directionless young man whose humdrum existence is shaken up by a zombie attack. Pegg, Frost, and Wright reunited for 2007's equally awesome Hot Fuzz, a giddy deconstruction of/homage to the buddy-cop genre. In recent years, Pegg has embarked on a number of projects without Wright or Frost, including the 2006 dark comedy Big Nothing, last year's romantic comedy Run, Fatboy, Run, which he co-wrote, and the brooding comedy/drama The Good Night. Next year Pegg will play Scotty in J.J Abrams' feverishly anticipated update of the Star Trek franchise, and he'll appear in and co-write the road comedy Paul with Frost for Superbad director Greg Mottola. Pegg can currently be seen in How To Lose Friends & Alienate People, an adaptation of Toby Young's memoir about his oft-disastrous tenure writing for Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair. The A.V Club recently spoke with Pegg about Young's on-set faux pas, Star Trek, cutting the profanity from the American version of Run, Fatboy, Run and, of course, his Marxist overview of popular '70s cinema and hegemonic discourses.
The AV Club: Did you spend much time with Toby Young researching the role of Sidney Young before you started filming How to Lose Friends & Alienate People?
Simon Pegg: I read his book, which was the first thing I did. Then I realized that I didn't ever want to do an impression of him because the script is a fictionalization of his book. It's a very anecdotal account. It doesn't necessarily lend itself to a movie when you first read it. What [screenwriter] Peter Straughan did was to fashion a fiction out of the information that he had, and create this universe that was a filmic version of it. So I thought, "I'll play the character from the ground up, but I'll go meet Toby and see what he's like." And he's got this weird kind of [affects gravely voice] "bah bah" about him, which I thought would be distracting if I did that in the movie. But it was interesting to meet a guy who essentially didn't really care what anyone thought. He cares what one percent of people think about him and nothing about what the rest of them think. He's genuinely happy to be hated, it doesn't really bother him, and that's very opposite to me. I don't want to be hated. [Laughs.] And it was fascinating just to talk to someone who has no compunction about upsetting people.
AVC: Who is in that one percent that he cares about?
SP: It's the people that he admires. I guess the people he's trying to impress. In the movie he does want to do well for Jeff [Bridges'] character because he sees him as kind of a mentor, as perhaps a fallen version of himself as well.
AVC: So how important is it for you to capture the essence of Toby Young?
SP: Peter Straughan is a really good screenwriter. He's written loads of stuff. Have you heard of that screenplay Men Who Stare At Goats?
AVC: I have not, but I'm won over just by the title.
SP: Yeah, that's the little buzz about that. He wrote that as well. He kind of, as I say, created a fake world for the film to take place in and drew from Toby's experiences. So I thought, "I'm going to play Sidney like he is on the page and interpret it myself. Specifically not study Toby or be Toby." The character is adjusted because, in the book, he's just unapologetically obnoxious all the way through. As soon as he admits some kind of fallibility and emotional distress you start thinking he's okay, but generally speaking, it is a catalogue of gruesome fuck-ups. [Laughs.] And it certainly needs to be, because it is a romantic comedy essentially. It's a little more than that. It's a little spikier, I think. But it needs that structure, and it needs those beats, and those kind of pinches, and whatever the fuck Robert McKee calls them. He needs to go on that journey. At some point you need to see him become quite sweet. So when he sees the actress [Megan Fox] on the balcony, and he's so nice to her because she's been dissed by the other guy, you think, "Oh, he's not a complete asshole." And as his journey over the red rope occurs, he starts to become good. I think Peter did it very well. It wasn't appropriate, I didn't think, to completely channel Toby. Otherwise we'd be fucked. [Laughs.]
AVC: It'd be called A Catalogue Of Fuck-Ups, and be banned from every theater.
SP: People walking out—"Terrible!"
AVC: On your v-log on The Guardian you have an amusing anecdote about Toby Young's first encounter with Kirsten Dunst.
SP: Yeah. That thing in The Guardian's hilarious. They're so bad at proofreading anything. There are so many mistakes in it. Toby came on set early on, and he walked up to Kirsten, and he asked her, "Have you fallen in love with me yet?" So Kirsten had no idea who he was or why he was there on the film set—because he certainly hadn't been there for the first few weeks. And then suddenly there was this odd, bald, bespectacled guy hitting on her. And then he gave her a performance note, "Coming back, you'd probably have been a bit more sad, wouldn't you've?" To this actress who, even though she's 25, has 22 years of experience. And he was told to not do that. Kirsten didn't complain, and was perfectly polite to him, but you could tell she was thinking, "Who the fuck is this guy?" He wrote that e-mail to Bob [director Robert B. Weide] just saying, "It's going to be really hard not to get involved when I come on set." And Bob just said, "Well don't come on set." So he didn't. He came on once when we were in New York, but otherwise he stayed away. He's not even the writer. It's based on his book, but Peter's the writer. It's a terrible thing, and I don't think it's fair on writers actually, even screenwriters, that they are so low down the food chain when it comes to movie making. That's why me and Edgar do what we do. It's because we want to be there the whole time, we don't want to give our film to someone else. They'll fuck it up. [Laughs.]
AVC: It's a protective thing?
SP: Absolutely. I think you have to. A movie is a creative process from its conception, through its writing, to its execution, to the editing. I think with the best films there is some kind of contribution from one person all the way through that. The best films are made by people who write, direct, and edit, so there's continuity. You know, you can get films that are one thing, and then the studios get hold of it and they go, "Ah nah, we need to put more of this in" and then it becomes something else, and then it's destroyed. That happens a lot. Committee filmmaking is just deadly.
AVC: At the same time there is the studio system, where all these great films— Casablanca is kind of the ultimate—are made by a giant group of people, and yet something amazing happens.
SP: I think that's true. But I think in those days, even with that large group of people, they weren't making films to pinpoint certain demographics. Like, "We need to get the 16-to-25-year-old guys who like to jerk off to girls in bikinis." They were just making movies. They were making movies with grander intention, I think. Now it's become too polarized in terms of box-office splash, or this crap. The fact that you've got to nail this one audience and you test it. Now it's more scientific.
AVC: Your character in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People has a knack for saying the wrong things and rubbing people the wrong way. On what level do you think it's him being willfully provocative, and on what level do you think it's just him being oblivious?
SP: I think it's a combination. He doesn't mind being provocative because he thinks he's just being honest. So he is being kind of willfully provocative. His obliviousness is entirely intentional. He's happy to be oblivious because he doesn't want to pretend that he's an expert on everything, and knows that kind of ignorance will, at times, rub people the wrong way. He's very definite in how he behaves. He's not just an idiot. He's not Mr. Bean. He's got an agenda. He's got several agendas.
AVC: It seems like there's also this idea that he thinks people will appreciate that he's being so honest.
SP: Exactly. And he misjudges that as well. He thinks that is a virtue. He thinks his no nonsense honesty and brash realism is charming. When in actual fact it's sort of inappropriate at times.
AVC: Because he does so many obnoxious things it's hard to watch the movie and not think, "Why isn't this man fired?"
SP: I think because, for all of Clayton Harding's dressing downs and disapproval, essentially the reason he hires him in the first place is because he has something which appeals to Clayton. Clayton always has the little matchbook with him, and that's Sidney to him, that little matchbook. He kinda hopes. He doesn't even know why he keeps him around. There is something in him that he sees that he had once. A desire to shake things up, a more idealist- naïve, probably, but the idealistic impulse to try and tear things down a bit. And you see that in the end, when Sidney causes all that trouble and Clayton just bursts out laughing.
AVC: Obviously on some level too, he's playing a version of Graydon Carter.
SP: Absolutely. Of course he is. We couldn't do Vanity Fair. I think there's certainly no love lost between Toby and Graydon. It's a shame. I know that Graydon—he's happy about being played by Jeff Bridges. And I don't think it's a particularly scathing portrayal. He's a guy that succeeded and has the humanity to be at odds with that. He hasn't done it unquestionably, which I think is a good character trait. But definitely for him, that matchbook in his fingers is the guy that he's hired from England. 'Cause he's kind of hoping that Sidney's going to bring the whole thing down. He's almost disappointed when he doesn't do it. When he's not very good at it.
AVC: To a certain extent Carter has turned into everything that he was initially railing against.
SP: To a degree it's true. I think that's the kind of thing that disappointed Toby when he went to work for Vanity Fair. That here was the guy that pioneered Spy Magazine and was now clearly sort of editing a magazine that greased the wheels of that operation. It must have been strange. But at the same time it's almost understandable. Those magazines should be left for younger people because they have the more incisive, in-touch view.
AVC: Has Toby Young mellowed with age? Is he less of an angry young man?
SP: Absolutely. When I met him I was expecting some kind of thug, some sort of literary thug. What I met was a sweet guy. He's got kids. He's still a shameless self-publicist. And this film… If it does well, he'll be fine, if it doesn't do well, he'll write a big column about how it all went wrong. It's win-win for Toby. It was odd to see him at Cannes, being interviewed. He wrote a little piece about it in The Spectator, I think, about the fact that he suddenly got some insight into something he'd been complaining about and being cynical about for a long time. To be in that position where people are pulling you around and asking you stuff. He said, "I finally get it." Which is an interesting turn of events. [Laughs.]
AVC: Young has paradoxically made a success out of being a failure.
SP: You know, the most ironic thing, maybe not ironic, but humorous at least, is that the character in the film that I interview—the guy who I ask if he's Jewish and gay—was Nathan Lane. I think the production approached Nathan Lane and said, "Do you want to come and recreate this moment?" And Nathan Lane said no. A couple of people went, "Oh, why did he say no?" And I thought, "Well, if you'd been rudely insulted by a journalist, someone had come along and been a bit of a prick to you, and then you heard there was a film being made about that guy's life, you wouldn't want to make it better. You wouldn't want to give it any cred." I completely understand and respect his decision not to do it. Toby pissed him off that day.
AVC: In the film your character goes from being a spectacular failure to a huge success more or less over the course of a montage sequence.
SP: God bless the montage. [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you explain that reversal, or do you think it's just a matter of him being willing to play the game?
SP: I think that's it. It's the reduction of what would happen in reality. But I think that's why the montage is so prevalent in the film industry, beause it cuts corners. But he decided to stop fighting at that point when he realized that he's not going to get the girl. He has an epiphany, "I'm going to do what Clayton did." And so we see him over a period of time just toeing the line, listening to the publicists, he starts getting gifts, and then suddenly he realizes what it takes to make it in this fantasy world.
AVC: Why have the movie set in the present instead of when the book took place?
SP: I think because it's even more timely now. I think this period of cultural evolution, the cult of celebrities, is even more insane than it was in the 1990s. In 10 years, in fact, you're metastasized. [Laughs.] It's this obsession with something so facile and a byproduct of something else. It's at it's high. And it's a massive multimillion-dollar industry. Essentially it is a kind of blood sport. We're paying to see people suffer, and want to spy on people with impunity, to relish people's misfortune, and experience schadenfreude. It's a really negative, weird beast, now more than ever.
AVC: It feels like the Internet has sped up that whole process.
SP: As another side to that, I was iChatting with Bob Weide when the earthquake in L.A. happened. So I was chatting away and he went, just came up in capital letters, "EARTHQUAKE." And I thought, "What the fuck?!" [Laughs.] Because I was online I probably found out about it before BBC News 24 did. That immediacy of news now is terrifying in some respects. Bill Hader told me a really funny story when he was at the Tropic Thunder première. He'd been asked by a journalist about what it was like to work with Tom Cruise. And Bill, in a really positive, excited way—because he'd had a good time with him—said, "Oh man, you know when you're in a car crash and you don't remember it when it's happening because it's all so overwhelming, and you get out, and look back, and go 'Fuck, did that really happen?'" Then the gentlemen said, "So you're saying acting with Cruise is like getting in a car wreck?" And Bill went, "No. No. No. No. No. That's not what I meant. I meant that it's kind of amazing." He went in the theatre, sat down next to his publicist, who was staring at his Blackberry, "What the fuck did you say?" [Laughs.] The dissemination of that kind of meaningless bullshit is so prevalent that to set the film in the 1990's would have been a mistake.
AVC: You're famous enough to have people gossip about you online. What's the most ridiculous rumor that you've heard about yourself?
SP: I'm really lucky in that I don't really come in for that. I try and stay away from that kind of universe as much as I possibly can. I like being at my house. Occasionally one will come along that you think, "Oh, I wouldn't be invited to this ordinarily." I'd never been to a Star Wars première. As much as I dislike the prequels, I did go to the fifth one even though I say no to all premières, because I don't want to be somewhere just for being me. That damages you as an actor. I don't want to become a celebrity. But I did go to that because it's fun and my job lets me do things like that. When I couldn't do Quentin Tarantino's new movie I read somewhere, "Simon Pegg pulls out, what an idiot" or something like that. It's unfair to Quentin because it makes it look like people don't want to do his film. Which is an amazing script. I read it and I was like, "This is going to be the best thing I've ever done." Scheduling ended up—we couldn't get 'round it. We talked for ages, and tried to move things around, and we just couldn't do it. So eventually we just had to say, "Okay." And I said to Quentin, "Go find another actor, 'cause I'm wasting your time." And he said, "Thanks" and went off and got Michael Fassbender, who's amazing. So it's all cool. But sometimes you see things and it's not quite what you said. I'm never going to sit on my computer all the time correcting minor mistakes. Often you read something about yourself, and either you've been ironic, and that doesn't work in print, or it paraphrases something that you said, and has a different meaning. I remember once in The Sun newspaper it said that I'd been interviewed at the première of Volver, the Pedro Almodovar film. And I said I'd be doing another series of the sitcom Nick [Frost] and I had written a few years ago, which we'd never actually made. I wasn't there. I didn't go. But the person that made up the story knew enough about me to know that Nick and I had an abandoned sitcom idea. But then decided to propagate the idea that it was still in the cards. [Pauses.] If you're going to make a story up, say fucking Angelina Jolie was there or something. [Laughs.] Don't make up this weird, kind of, bizarre, pointless, news-less story. It seemed like a weird thing. That was quite odd. Just the sheer triviality of that was mind-blowing. But I'm fortunate enough to circumnavigate that. I'm simply not interesting enough. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your character expresses, perhaps a minority view, that Con Air is the greatest film ever made. This is not the first time one of your characters has gushed on screen about a Jerry Bruckheimer production. What is your own personal take on Con Air?
SP: I think Con Air is like if you were to explain Frankenstein's monster to somebody. It might sound like a really good idea, "I'm going to get the best bits of all these people, and put them together into one person. It's going to be amazing." Con Air is kind of like that. It has an amazing cast. I love that speech. Peter [Straughan] wrote that speech. It's brilliant. I can't remember if Toby [Young] actually said that. But it's the idea that you have John Cusack and Nicolas Cage, and you've got [Steve] Buscemi, there's John Malkovich. For such a kind of absurd heap of fluff that that film is, it's nonetheless very enjoyable. It is populated by a very good cast. So I think with Sidney, he thinks he has an argument for saying it's the best film ever because the argument is there. It's a clumsy, arrogant, slightly obnoxious argument, but it's an argument nonetheless.
AVC: With Run Fatboy Run, I've read that your job as co-screenwriter was to make it more English. Was that a matter of specific references, or making the humor more British in general?
SP: A little bit of both. I think Michael Ian Black's script was very much a first draft. It was interesting in a way because it did need to be culturally shifted. It did need to be made into a film that was set in the UK. There was a lot of dialogue and stuff that needed to be changed, and also little cultural details. But also it was a little more sentimental, weirdly enough, even though it's sentimental as it is. But I tried to undermine that as much as I could. And I did that a lot of the time by swearing. There were some really good, funny jokes in the film, the reveals of which were just swearing—cleverly, but nevertheless, just swearing. When I watched the U.S. version in L.A., it's a sweet film, but they cut all the swearing out. It lost its bite. That's the experience I've had where someone else's stepped in. That never would have happened with Shaun Of The Dead. Or we would have known that was going to happen and we would have fought against it. So there were key, big laughs lost from that film. I'm not saying it would have vastly improved the movie. But as a comedy you tend to remember the times when you woof in the audience. There were a couple of moments where I just thought, "They've just completely de-toothed it." I was really disappointed.
AVC: This is probably a question you're sick of, but according to your Wikipedia entry your undergraduate thesis was on Marxist overview of popular '70s cinema and hegemonic discourses?
AVC: Could you give a Cliffs Notes version of what you said in this thesis?
SP: It was mainly about Star Wars and related works. It was mainly saying if you watch a movie that has inherent political messages, even if they're unintentional, and without critically objectifying yourself, you by consent agree with it. So if you have a film which is incredibly misogynistic, and you just watch it and enjoy it, you are a misogynist because you haven't been able to say, "Hey, wait a minute, that's putting forward an idea that women are to be demeaned." So in films like Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark there are certain social metaphors at work. Bomb-fear. A lot of big-weapon fear. Saying stuff like, say, "Big weapons are fine if you're good, and they're not fine if you're bad." The line, "Don't look at the ark" is a fantastic way of saying, "Just don't worry about stuff and it'll be fine. We have nuclear weapons, but it's none of your business." Also some of the sexual things going on, the gender relationships, the racial stuff that goes on, if you don't pick it out and say, "Hang on a sec. Isn't that saying that black people are stupid?" Then you're being racist by watching that movie. You agree with it.
AVC: Could you talk about your first day filming Star Trek?
SP: It was phenomenal. I can only say I went in, I stepped onto the set, and became part of it, and had to address the characters, and it was incredible. Everyday it was another moment where I was like, "Wow. I'm about to go into this room for the first time" or "I'm having a conversation with Kirk." It was brilliant. Everybody felt like that. Every single person. J.J. [Abrams] had been on it for three months before I stepped onto the set and he was still like that. It was great. I think if someone had told me, as I sat watching the original series, eating my tea, if someone had come into the room and whispered in my ear that in 35 years you'd be talking to that character as that character, I would be like, [High pitched adolescent voice.] "What?!"