The word “nerd” has come a long way in the last 50 years. No longer used to exclusively signify social ineptitude or eternal outsider status, its associations with an utter devotion to or study of certain aspects of culture have completely transformed the erstwhile epithet. It’s now the type of word that, for example, a film and television star can insert into the title of his memoir.
Of course, it’s not like Simon Pegg has ever run from his inner nerd—and his new book, Nerd Do Well, reflects that. It has to, in order to tell the story of how a kid from South West England went from watching the voyages of the Starship Enterprise on TV to playing the chief engineer of that most-storied Star Trek vessel. And while there are plenty of factual events and relationships detailed within Nerd Do Well, the memoir also contains recurring references to a fictional time-travel device known as the electro-static time ball (or ESTB), as well as a book-within-a-book where Pegg reimagines himself as an international playboy/spy/superhero. Before Pegg’s recent visit to BookPeople, he spoke with The A.V. Club about some of the “nerdy” fixations that had the biggest effect on him and his book, and universes ranging from those contained on a BBC soundstage to an Earth overrun by zombies to a galaxy far, far away.
Simon Pegg: Mmm, Star Wars.
AVC: There’s a faith in chance and coincidence running throughout Nerd Do Well. How much of that is inspired by the “Imperial gunner theory” mentioned both in the book and the first series of Spaced—that theory that the events of the original Stars Wars films are kicked off by the decision not to destroy the escape pod containing C3PO and R2D2?
SP: Yeah, it’s always struck me as a wonderful moment, like a chaos “ground zero,” a single decision that sparks off an entire reality. I’m fascinated by stuff like that. Life is full of those amazing moments. It’s tempting to project fanciful notions of destiny and stuff on them, but it’s not—the more scary factor is just coincidence. I guess my thing in the book is that there is something similar to fate, a work which is not mystical or anything other than just, you know, having similar beliefs and thoughts in other people and things.
AVC: Would you liken it to the Force within the Star Wars universe?
SP: [Laughs.] No. I suppose in some respects it—I never for a second suggested it was some sort of sentient puppeteer. It’s much more within our physical universe, in that it’s the conflagration of likes and dislikes. I was into a certain thing, and Nick [Frost] was into a certain thing, and as such bonded over that certain thing. And that happens on a microscopic level every day. And it’s much more believable than fate. I’m a very pragmatic person, and I don’t really believe in anything other than physics. [Laughs.] But then, you could describe it as an energy field that binds us and surrounds us, and all that kind of stuff—if you were Alec Guinness.
AVC: Star Wars is almost the memoir’s most versatile character: It’s an ally early on, and it’s a fondly remembered acquaintance throughout the book. And then it’s a backstabbing traitor near the end. Was this a conscious choice, or an organic product of writing the book?
SP: It was quite organic. The process of writing the book was very organic because I started off with a plan to write a production journal, but found it to be a little boring. I was struggling to think of things to write. “So I went into work, and then made Spaced and it was fun, and there was a joke and it was funny.” It just felt really un-engaging. And the more I thought about it, the personal stuff, or the stuff back when life was much more relatable—it wasn’t so rarefied as it is when you’re working in the film business—it was just about being a kid and having certain likes and dislikes, and ambitions that felt much more like something people could actually relate to and read. So I then started to write a completely different book, and it just sort of fell out of me like a big stream of consciousness, which my editor helped me to chronologize. At first it was much more associative than it is now. It would skip backwards and forwards in time like nobody’s business. But inevitably, Star Wars was a big influence to me as a kid, and that eventually led to the sheer, awful disappointment of it turning shit all of a sudden.
AVC: In channeling your disappointment with The Phantom Menace through Tim in Spaced, how closely did that character’s disenchantment resemble your own?
SP: It was entirely mine. I still am very reticent about expressing negativity publicly. I’m not one of those people who like to slag things off. If I like something, I just want to talk about it, because someone out there will like it. Unless it’s an affront to humanity, I’ll probably keep my mouth shut.
But, for me, The Phantom Menace was exactly that. And Tim was a good way of filtering that, back in the day. It was a good way of saying what I wanted to say about it, without it having to be me. In the gap between the two series, I’d flown to America, essentially made a pilgrimage, to see this film, which was crushingly disappointing. And there was also something uniquely painful about being disappointed by someone you respect. If you’re pissed off by someone you don’t like already, there’s nothing to lose. If you’re embarrassed by someone you like, that’s so much more painful. And Star Wars was my ultimate thing, you know, and it just farted in public.
AVC: In the book, you describe going to see The Matrix film at the end of that trip. Did you find that a lot of other Star Wars fans used The Matrix to soothe the wounds of The Phantom Menace?
SP: I think so, because it ended up being a balm for a lot of people that went to see The Phantom Menace, and went to see this much, much, much more unassuming film. And it delivering the kind of thrills and spectacle and wonder that we’d kind of hoped that The Phantom Menace would and certainly did not. Having said that, The Matrix wilted far more quickly than Star Wars did. The Matrix became crap in three films, where Star Wars took six.
AVC: You eventually met George Lucas at the London première of Revenge Of The Sith, an encounter you relate near the end of Nerd Do Well. After the prequel trilogy came out, there was a rush to villainize Lucas. Did your meeting humanize him, instead?
SP: Absolutely. And it explained a lot of things to me as well. This was the last of the new Star Wars films; I was already disenchanted with it all, but it was still George Lucas. It was still the guy that made the first three, and I still wanted to meet him. And it struck me that, when he said to me, “Don’t make the same film 30 years from now”—he’s a prisoner of his own self-possession. He’s so distrusting of everybody around him; he only trusts himself. That’s a damaging thing for an artist, or for someone who works in a collaborative medium like film. You need to collaborate. Even if you’re an auteur, you still work with other people. In the first three, he clearly had to collaborate. And that’s why those films are better than the last three, when he did it on his own. No one would question him in the end—everyone was frightened of disagreeing with him. When really, he needed someone to say, “Hang on. No, this is a terrible idea.” And he needed to listen to those people. And he just didn’t. So I see it as a bit of a shame;I don’t see him as a villain.
AVC: Even so, did it feel like watching the mask coming off of Darth Vader at the end of Return Of The Jedi and seeing what was underneath?
SP: [Laughs.] Yeah, it was exactly like that. The bar didn’t explode or anything like that—not for a few weeks, anyway.
What was most fascinating was the expression when he was first introduced to me, because I could see that he saw I was in my 30s—clearly the demographic he constantly meets. He audibly sighed, like, “Ah, another fucker that says, ‘You changed my life.’” And it was Ron Howard that saved me, by singling out Shaun Of The Dead and having a little chat with me about that. And Lucas immediately picked up, like, “Oh, okay, he’s not going to talk to me about how much he fell in love with Princess Leia,”—although I could’ve done. And so we spoke to each other like filmmakers. And it was enlightening. And that thing he said—that felt like fate in a weird way. It explained so much to me; it was like he knew. And I think he does know. Because the excuses he’s used for the nature of those films is they’re “children’s films,” or whatever—they’re ridiculous, it’s repositioning. They’re not children’s films. I’ve never seen a children’s film where a man gets his arm and legs cut off and catches fire on the banks of a lava flow. You don’t see that in Yogi Bear.
AVC: You said that you don’t like publicly slagging things off, but have you ever had a moment where Star Trek let you down?
SP: I think that the theme music to Enterprise was probably the most hideous Star Trek moment in history. I couldn’t believe that they had this great idea of sort of pre-Kirk/Spock Star Trek, and they gave it a dreadful soft-rock music start. It just seemed so ill-advised. I mention Admiral Archer [in 2009’s Star Trek]—it isn’t struck off because of the terrible music. Scotty actually mentions him. But [the theme music] is terrible. I’ve never seen Enterprise, because I couldn’t get past that music. It would still be ringing in my ears when the show starts.
AVC: But you got the chance to correct the course with J.J. Abrams’ movie.
SP: Yes, exactly. That was a remarkable moment for me.
AVC: If not Scotty, what other pre-existing Trek character would you have liked to play?
SP: I don’t know—definitely a hard question. When I watched the movie, I was really enjoying it, and I forgot I was in it, honestly. I’d always seen the Star Trek universe as something I was outside of as a kid. I always put myself in Star Wars; I was like Luke’s younger brother, or something. But Star Trek, I like watching as an outsider. And that’s part of the reason Star Trek has the fanbase it has. It’s so enduring; it’s such an inclusive universe. You feel at home watching it, even if you’re not a part of it.
I always think Nick should play Harry Mudd. You know that amazing episode, “Mudd’s Women”? He brings all these women onboard that are all intoxicating to the crew members. It’s like brilliant, Vaseline-on-the-lens, soft-focus girls. But I don’t know [for me]—Khan?
AVC: Was J.J. Abrams already in talks to do Star Trek when you were working on Mission: Impossible III?
SP: J.J.’s incredibly secretive. He’s brilliant like that. I used to try to get him to tell me stuff from Lost when we were filming, and he never would. Even though he knew I wouldn’t tell anybody. He’s the absolute soul of discretion, J.J. I know for a fact that he was going to produce it initially. But the more the script evolved, the more he felt like he wanted to direct it. And then it was like, “This is mine,” and thank God for that. His dad [television producer Gerald W. Abrams] took him to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture on the Paramount lot when he was 13 or 14. That is one of those amazing ESTB moments: For J.J., he was watching that movie, little knowing that in 30 years he’d be directing an installment of the same story. That’s amazing.
AVC: You brought up the ESTB, which, as a literary device, at least, is the TARDIS to Nerd Do Well’s Doctor Who.
SP: Yes, absolutely.
AVC: Did you envision the memoir as a chance to play Time Lord, hopping back and forth between moments in your own life?
SP: It wasn’t until I read the chapter about meeting Tom Baker when I was 8, and then being in Star Trek when I was 35. It struck me that what I was doing was essentially being like Doctor Who, and flipping around in time. I hadn’t tied the two together until that moment. It is something I’ve always kind of fantasized about because, like I say in the book, it’s hard to fully appreciate evolution because it happens so slowly. You need to see great, mutated leaps in order to be really wowed by time passing. And so the only way you can do that is to go back to when you were tiny and say, “Guess what’s going to happen in 20 years time?” Then you’d be really fucking sharp.
AVC: In that incident with the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, you go back to him at the autograph table and tell him, “I’ve got an action man of you.” Now that you’ve been made into an action figure yourself, how often are you on the other side of that interaction?
SP: Many times. There’s five Shaun Of The Deads, and there’s a Scotty, and there’s a Buck from Ice Age, and there’s an Editor from Doctor Who, and there’s different-sized Scottys. I remember when I picked up the 12-inch, talking Shaun Of The Dead from a Forbidden Planet in Dublin—I didn’t even know it was there. I walked past the shop, and there’s me in the window. Because you have to approve it, obviously, but I didn’t know it was on sale. And I said, “If I sign like three of these, can I have one?” I took it back to my room, because I was staying at a hotel. And I was looking at it, and I immediately flashed back to buying and getting my Incredible Hulk action figure when the Bill Bixby series came out in the ’70s. There was a big resurgence in Hulk popularity. And Marvel relaunched him, and he was launched in Marvel UK. There was a lot of merchandise that went along with it. It was half tied in with the TV show, half tied in with the Marvel comics. And I had a big Hulk action figure—it was the Marvel comics one. But I remember just looking at it through the plastic glass in the front, just thinking, “Oh man, this is amazing.” And I got that feeling looking through the plastic glass at myself, like, “God, that’s me in there now. That’s bizarre.” That wasn’t lost on me at all.
AVC: In shooting “The Long Game,” the episode of the modern Doctor Who in which you appear, how did it feel to say the word “TARDIS” on camera?
SP: It was great because I go to say it like—because he’s getting fed by the Jagrafess—so I get to say, “T-A-R-.” I relish that moment. It was something else to be in that universe. And it’s always like that, when I’ve found myself in the situation a few times, you’re like, “Oh, I’m actually in that universe now.” It would have only been more amazing if it had been a doctor I’d grown up with. That’s the beauty of Doctor Who, is that he regenerates and that he’s the same character, it’s just somebody different. It’s a genius piece of narrative, really, because you can just go on and on and on.
George Romero’s ...Of The Dead series
AVC: When you were in Land Of The Dead, you did get to inhabit a character you grew up with—your zombie makeup is based on that of Bub in Day Of The Dead. In Nerd Do Well, you mention the “sensitive portrayal” of that character. What is it that strikes you as “sensitive” about Bub, and why has it continued to endear him to you?
SP: I just love the fact that Howard Sherman doesn’t play him as a monster. He plays him as an innocent; he plays him as entirely sympathetic. Even though Day Of The Dead’s probably the lesser of [Romero’s first three Dead films], it’s still got some fantastic stuff in it. And I think one of the brilliant things that Romero nailed, that so many other people haven’t done when they’ve done zombie films, is that they’re not really evil, they just do what they do. That’s why running makes them lesser for me—someone gives them an agenda, gives them momentum, when really they’re just like lava, going wherever gravity takes them.
Bub was the victim. And he had died, and it was really sad. And Sherman played him like a child. He was just discovering how to use his hands, and heard music for the first time. Meanwhile, the human characters are assholes. The soldiers are complete bastards, and it’s only Lori Cardille that’s sort of the sympathetic character in that film. And it just nails it, for me, what a zombie is, what it should be: this kind of tragic figure, someone that you actually, in the end, root for. That’s the genius of that film: By the end of the movie, the bogeyman, he’s the one you want to win, when he shoots Rhodes and then salutes him. It’s just like, “Yeah!” And you’re jumping up out of your chair.
And [special effects and makeup artist] Greg Nicotero knew that I loved that character, because we had spoken about it before. So he dug out the old molds for Bub’s makeup and made it for my face. So whenever I was between shots, I’d just be channeling Howard Sherman the whole time. He’d make a great Frankenstein’s monster, that sort of newborn thing he has.
AVC: And it’d be much better than Darth Vader’s Frankenstein moment at the end of Revenge Of The Sith.
SP: Well, that’s a little bit more Herman Munster. That’s what it reminded me of. When Fred Gwynne used to do that, get excited and walk across the room. [Laughs.] It’s exactly like what Darth Vader did.
AVC: Nerd Do Well does a good job of pointing out that comedy has its own nerdy subset of fans, though it’s not usually the first thing people associate with that type of devotion and obsession. Why do you think that is?
SP: People are nerdy about lots of things—music, comedy, cooking, sports. It’s just that the patient zero for nerdism tends to be a sci-fi-y sort of person who wants to escape their life to a space-kind of character. And I think that’s become the embodiment of what being a geek is. I think comedy nerds are particularly knowledgeable and sort of opinionated, and have the same level of devotion and interest as Star Trek fans. They’re less easy to categorize. It’s easy to lampoon Star Trek fans, because a lot of them are social misfits and have that classic “anorak and glasses” look, whereas comedy nerds aren’t very [much] like that. There are as many people who are as knowledgeable about the routines of Bill Hicks as they are about people who know every line of [Star Trek episode] “The Corbomite Maneuver.”
AVC: The book details a lineage of “alternative” British comedy—starting with The Goon Show and passing through other big players like Monty Python, The Young Ones, and The Day Today—that often involves one generation mingling with the one that succeeds it. Do you feel like you’ve had a chance to interact with the generation of that yet? Can you pinpoint a “passing of the torch” moment?
SP: The comedy world here in Britain is a lot smaller. But also, it’s different now. You can stay around a little bit longer. I think you just have to mutate to survive. I’ve met the younger comedic types here. In the U.K. that’s sort of quite funny, because they look at you like you’re their uncle or something, and I look at other comics like that. But I love the fact that, like with Paul, we were able to come over to the States and work with some of the people that we really love, looking at American comedy again. So it was Jason Bateman and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen. It was a real treat for us, for us to stay with people, that we’ve been watching in American comedy for a long time. I mean there are many people who we haven’t worked with in that capacity. Loads. But it was really nice to work with, like, Kristen, who I think is amazing.