Simon Pegg Breaks Down His Career, from ‘Shaun of the Dead’ to ‘Star Trek’ | Vanity Fair

published on July 2, 2020

– I kind of always thought
it would be all right

I thought I'd do okay

I have a lot of self-belief

By that, I don't mean arrogance,

but I feel like you
have to have the courage

of your convictions in terms
of what you want to do,

you have to believe it, and I sound

like a motivational speaker

Hi, I'm Simon Pegg, and this
is the timeline of my career

[lively jazz piano music]

– Tell us about everything

– Well, I believe that the films

"Close Encounters of the
Third Kind" and "RoboCop"

both borrow heavily from
my own life experiences

I never thought at any point in my career

I would be speaking to Vanity Fair

about "Six Pairs of Pants"

"Six Pairs of Pants" was a sketch show

It wasn't even on national
television in the UK,

it was on local television, and
it was a comedy sketch show

But it's where I met Jessica Hynes

and forged a relationship which would

carry me forward to "Spaced" and beyond,

so it was a very important
show in that respect

I think you can probably
find bits of it on YouTube

I hope not

I'd come out of university
and decided to do

stand-up as a way of having some autonomy

and not having to wait
for the phone to ring

And this comedy sketch
show, they put an alert out

for stand-ups to come and
audition for their show,

and my agent just sent
me along and I got it

It was just an audition, you know?

So I was a stand-up, but I
wanted to get back into acting,

'cause that was kinda my first love

I always wanted to be an
actor, from when I was a kid,

and my mom was sort of
into community theater

and I used to go along to it with her,

and I was in a load of
shows when I was a kid

And when I was about 15,
I realized that I could

quite possibly do it as a career,

even though I was from essentially,

Tatooine, in terms of the town I was in

But I didn't really set out necessarily

to be a comedy actor

I wasn't like, "I always
wanted to be a comedy actor"

I wanted to do everything, you know

– [Interviewer] Right

[someone wails in background]
– I think you're upset

about the house!

[Brian sighs]

– Why would I be upset about the house?

This house is the one thing I can rely on,

it's the one port in a storm

– Yeah, Jess and I just sort of really

hit it off on "Six Pairs of Pants"

We tried to do as many
sketches as we could together

She just made me laugh so much,

and that I always find that incredibly

sort of attractive in anyone

I love people that make me laugh,

and Jess was just an expert at that

And when we came to do a show

on the Paramount Comedy
Channel called "Asylum,"

which Edgar Wright was directing,

there was a dearth of
female actors in the show

It was mainly stand-up comics,

and stand-up, like, sadly,
many areas of everywhere,

was male-dominated

And I knew a girl, I knew a girl

from "Six Pairs of
Pants" who was brilliant,

and funnier than anybody else in the room,

and we should get her

So Jess came along to do "Asylum,"

which was directed by Edgar

And there was a producer
working on "Asylum"

who was moving over to a different network

who had the idea of Jess
and I having a vehicle

written for us to be in, because we worked

really well together in "Asylum,"

'cause we'd come off the
back of our chemistry

on "Six Pairs of Pants"

And Jess and I said,
"Yeah, we'd love that,

"but can we write it?"

And so we wrote "Spaced,"
and we asked if Edgar

could direct it because
we'd loved working with him

on "Asylum," and that was how
that little trio came about

I look back on that time and think,

"Man, we were so lucky"

We were that sort of naive
and sure of ourselves,

And the people around us
as well, the personnel

were all fairly young and
they were sort of making roads

into network TV, and Jess and I just went,

"Yeah, okay, but we want to write it"

That was our stipulation, like we had

any kind of wiggle room to negotiate

but they were like, "Sure, okay"

And along the whole way, for a long time,

it was just like, "Sure,
yeah, okay, yeah"

We were enabled

I'd stepped into this world thinking,

"Hey, everything just gets handed to you

"This is great"

It's not the case

And I don't think "Spaced"
would get made now

It would be experimented
on, on a deep network,

a digital satellite network somewhere,

before we even saw the
light of the mainstream

We just wanted to make something
that really spoke to us,

but none of the programs
leveled at 20-somethings

at the time really spoke to us in any way

on a personal level

They were all very aspirational

and they were full of beautiful people

As much as we loved "Friends,"

we wanted to make the anti-"Friends"

and have it be about what
unemployed loser dropouts do

And people seemed to respond
to it, which was lovely

Oh my God!

[zombie gasps]

She's so drunk!

[chuckles]

I wrote a scene in "Spaced"
where Tim is playing

Resident Evil under the
influence of amphetamines

and starts to live out the game,

which was just an excuse,
really, to shoot a sequence

where I was jumping
around killing zombies

I think it was one of the
first things that we shot

Edgar really wanted to
sort of lay out his stall

and show what kind of show we
were making to the producers

And we shot the sequence
and we edited it together

and showed it and said
this is the kind of thing

we were gonna do

And I never forget the degree of pride

that I felt when "Spaced" aired,

just after "Friends" finished
on Friday night at 9:30,

within minutes of "Friends" finishing,

of their being a sort
of lovefest on the couch

at Central Perk, I blew
off a zombie's head

on television and felt such
a joy, a swell of pride

And after shooting that
sequence, Edgar and I

were like, "Oh, it'd be
great if we could make

"a zombie film, wouldn't it?

"Our own zombie film

"It could be about just us, you know,

"like what would happen
if it happened to us?"

[laughs] And then that's how it was born

It's a wonderful thing when you step

onto a film set of
something you have written,

because you see your own
imagination writ large,

you see your own imagination
realized in places

and situations, and that's
really, really amazing

And so, to suddenly find ourselves

in the Winchester set, or
walking around Crouch End

when it's literally teeming with zombies,

was an amazing thing, and it still is

I didn't really think of
where it was gonna be shown

or if it would get shown
or whether it would

ever see the light of
day in any other country

other than the UK

It was just, we were in the moment,

we're making our movie and not hobbled

by [laughs] the burden of expectation

It was kind of, "Let's
just get this on DVD

and then we can give it to
our moms and that'll be fun"

And then it came out in the
UK, and it was well received,

and then it started to
get attention in the US,

and George Romero saw it and a lot

of our favorite directors saw it,

and there was a little campaign to get

it a theatrical release, which it did

And then we went out on
tour, on a six-week tour

of the US, me and Edgar and Nick

It was like being in a band

It was amazing

It was more like being in
a band when we went back

with "Hot Fuzz," 'cause people
had liked our first album,

so then we felt like
little indie rock stars

Yeah, it was extraordinary

I look back on it now and just think,

I'm glad I was that naive in a way

Oh, no, no, I'm serious

I've just come out of a relationship

[Shaun yelps]

– Benji, what do you got?

– Well, these hard drive
platters are just fried

They just made a mess of them

There's just holes in them and stuff,

and it's got scorched all the way through

And then there's, look, this one's got

a hole in it and stuff

I don't believe it, I
can't even look at it

Edgar and I were writing "Hot Fuzz,"

and the phone rang upstairs
and we put the call through,

"Oh, JJ Abrams is on the phone"

I said, "What, the 'Alias' man?"

We had a chat and he'd said
he'd liked "Shaun of the Dead,"

and he'd seen me and Edgar
at the Saturn Awards,

but he said he [laughs]
didn't have the guts

to come and say hello,
which is hilarious to me

because JJ's the most
gregarious, ebullient human being

you could ever meet

But he said, "Do you wanna come and do

a bit of 'Mission: Impossible III'?"

And I said, "Yeah, all right, why not?"

And that was that

It was a really odd

And he said, "I'm gonna send
you, I've got this new show"

[laughs] This is great

"So I've just done this new show for ABC

"I'll send it to you"

And he sent me the whole
of the first season

of "Lost" on individual DVDs,

I got this big box, and
I binged the whole show

before it had even shown in the US

And I just thought, "Oh, this is amazing"

Because I'd seen episodes of "Alias,"

but I wasn't a regular viewer of the show

But that was it I was,
"Oh, this guy's brilliant

"I'll do this"

So I went over and did my little cameo

playing Tom Cruise's GPS

And it was just that period of time

was a particularly rough patch,

And I found myself in LA
and I didn't really know LA

I was in some hotel in Beverly Hills,

and I couldn't quite understand

how I couldn't walk anywhere

I'd step out and I'd look
up these long boulevards

like, "Where the hell is the
shops [laughs] and stuff?

"What is this place?"

"This is bizarre"

So I wound up just
stuck in this hotel room

for eight days waiting to be called,

as these big movies, sometimes,

the way they move, it's unpredictable,

and [inhales sharply] I was
just sorta slowly going insane

And I eventually got to
set and I did my bit,

but I was totally wired
and very jet-lagged,

and it was all very surreal

It was very strange to
be occupying a space

that I had kind of always dreamed of,

making a movie in Hollywood with one

of the biggest stars in the world,

probably the biggest star in the world,

and not to be enjoying it particularly

But that all turned around
with the next one, thankfully

Well, however you spin
this, there's one thing

you haven't taken into account

And that's what the team
is gonna make of this

[air whooshes]
[streamer pops]

I think we had the idea for "Hot Fuzz"

probably on the "Shaun
of the Dead" press tour,

'cause that's when me and Edgar and Nick

would all be together
and just spending time,

and I think Edgar had
this, he really wanted

to go back to his hometown and blow it up

And the idea of setting an American-style

action movie in a very,
very sort of parochial,

bucolic British setting just
sounded really funny to us

We didn't intend to do
anything but take it

absolutely seriously
and play out all those

action sequences with
utter, terminal intention,

but the fact that the
context was so weird,

that would be where the comedy came from

And that was the idea, to shoot
"Lethal Weapon" in Somerset

"Shaun of the Dead" was basically

kind of from my life, sort of

I mean, it wasn't a huge stretch

I didn't have to research being

a sort of pub-going lazy bastard

But with Nicholas Angel,
I had to get out there

and really understand what it
means to be a police officer

in metropolitan London and
also out in the sticks,

and that required doing
a lot of ride-alongs

and research trips, and
it was really good fun

But I went into it with a
greater knowledge of policing

[flash clicks]
The notion of transport

beaming is like trying to hit a bullet

with a smaller bullet,
whilst wearing a blindfold,

riding a horse

What's that?

I got off an aeroplane,
a flight from New York

back to London and opened my phone,

and there was an email
from JJ, and it said,

"Do you want to play Scotty?"

And I was almost annoyed by that

The tenacity of it irked me,

[laughs]

because you can't just
throw the ball into my court

like that and expect me to smash it back

I need some time to think about it

But of course, three or four days later,

I was like, "Yes, of course!"

But it just felt like such
a, he was just handing me

this massive opportunity, and
I wanted dinner and a movie

Oddly, when he offered me
the role in "Star Wars,"

he did take me out to dinner
and offer me over dinner

So he's learning

We laugh a lot, JJ and
I, when we're together

We have horribly painful
hysterics together

I don't know what it is, we
just set it off in each other

And I just love his company

He's such a can-do person
and a sweet, sweet man

And I owe him a lot, you
know, in terms of my career,

and I'll never be able
to thank him enough,

but he's a sweetheart

It was my 50th birthday recently,

and my wife threw me a surprise party,

and he was there, and I was so chuffed,

'cause he flew over,
especially, and it was

such a sweet thing, and
yeah, I love him to pieces

Yeah, that that's such a great gang

I love those guys so much

And I joined the first
"Star Trek" fairly late

They'd already got to know each other,

and I was joining a party that had been

in the swing for quite a while

But they were so welcoming
and I was just brought in

with open arms and
became part of the gang,

and that only deepened
with the subsequent films

And they're a family, in a way

You know, that's corny,
but we sort of forged

that relationship over those films,

and I love them very much

It's just a weird thing
sometimes, making films

or working in this
business, because you forge

these incredibly intense,
sometimes incredibly brief

relationships with people where you're all

in this one boat for a
specific period of time,

all working on the same thing,

all working towards the same end,

and you see these people more than you see

your own family for however many,

whether it's 20 days or
six months or whatever,

and then suddenly it ends

You constantly suffer
abandonment in this business,

'cause you, you make these really close,

close acquaintances and then
suddenly they all disappear

It's no wonder all actors are messed up

But if you get the chance
to work with that group

again and again, that's a real bonus

And I always think a happy
set is a productive set

I don't like sets that feel overwrought

or difficult or actors that may,

I haven't come across many in my time,

but when I have, I've always thought,

"[beep] do it," you know?

We're just making a film

There's no need to just be such an ass

I haven't said that to them
to their face, obviously

Well, maybe I did

[bell dings]

– Have you got any
plans for dinner at all?

– Tonight we will be
partaking of a liquid repast

as we wend our way up
with the Golden Mile

– Yeah, "The World's End" was
probably the most personal

of all of the three Cornetto
movies, as we call them,

and it's my favorite, really

I think it's 'cause it's
the most sort of grown-up

It's probably the bleakest

That character, Gary King, is just

one of my favorite
characters I've ever played

I love him [laughs]

It's really fun to play complex characters

that are sort of not entirely
revealing themselves,

that their surface is only a fragment

of who they are

And with Gary, he's this really annoying,

[laughs] sort of relentlessly cheerful

kind of force of nature, but
he's also a suicidal alcoholic,

and that, for me, was such
a great gift of a role

because you can allow people, you see it

every now and again, before
all the truth is revealed

in him, you see the cracks,
and they're only small,

but it's really fun to play
that kind of character

And I have fondness for
every character I play,

but I think Gary was
just something special

Again, it was that family vibe

We felt like a sort of a rep company

And we'd had Martin, Martin Freeman,

he kind of appears briefly in "Shaun,"

and then he's one of the police officers

at the beginning of "Hot Fuzz,"

and then he's one of the main characters

in "The World's End," so
when we wrote the film,

it was always Martin, Paddy,
Eddie, Nick, and Simon

We didn't write the character
names, we wrote the actors,

'cause that's who we wanted it to be

It helped us write those characters

– We will, in truth, be blind,

drunk!

Let me see here

Mm, one half-portion

– Last week, they were
a half-portion each

– What about the droid?

I remember getting the call
that JJ was doing "Star Wars,"

and initially I felt like,
"Oh, you've abandoned

"us 'Star Trek' people

"He's gone off to the
cooler, younger kids"

But obviously that was just a moment

of irrational jealousy [laughs]

But then he took me out to dinner

and asked me if I wanted
to play a blobfish

And I said, "Yeah, okay, sure"

And then I started going down to the set

and I got all my makeup
design and met everybody,

and being around that set
was just amazing for me

as a fan of "Star Wars" growing up,

'cause it felt very much
like the "Star Wars"

I grew up with, and of
course Carrie Fisher

was there, and Mark
Hamill, and Harrison Ford,

and these are the people
that I idolized as a kid,

and so, to get to be hanging out with them

was a real dream come true

I had such a huge crush on
Carrie Fisher when I was a kid

She was my first sort of
stirrings of romantic love

was for Carrie Fisher

And I got to spend a little time with her

We had a lovely day when we wandered

around the set of the
Resistance base together,

arm in arm, and we were just
[laughs] sort of chatting,

and I turned around, we
were looking at each other,

and I was looking into her
eyes and it was the same eyes

Obviously, it sounds
really obvious to say it,

but it was like I was
looking into those eyes

that had so sort of
captivated me as a kid

And I said, I said, "You
know, I've always loved you"

And she grabbed my hand and looked

at my wedding ring and said, "[beep] you"

[laughs]

It was the best day of my life

We created something beautiful,
Jim, but it's changed

It's really not a game anymore

Are we finished?

– I liked how things were when they were

– I loved working for Steven

He's just one of my all-time
favorite filmmakers

I just adore him

And he's such great company as well,

because he's always happy
to talk about his work,

and he doesn't crow about it,

it's not like it's all about him,

but if you bring stuff up, he'll chat,

and it's a wonderful
thing to get to talk about

"Close Encounters" and
"Jaws" and "Raiders"

with him and have him just tell stories

from behind the scenes and, and also

to get to just be directed by him

He's a brilliant actors' director, Steven

That's why he's the whole deal

He knows the language of cinema,

he knows how to move the
camera to create tension,

or sadness, or whatever, but he also knows

how to get the performances
he needs from his actors

One day on the set, he was
shooting the "Shining" sequence

and he was in the set of Room 237,

and it was such a bizarre thing

because it's a little bit like
when I was on "Star Wars,"

but this was almost more precise

in that we were on the set of a film

that had come out 40 years ago,

not least one that had been directed

by a very dear friend and
mentor of his, Stanley Kubrick

And I said to him, "This
must be weird, right?"

"I mean, you're on the
set of 'The Shining,'

"directing the woman in the bath"

And he said, "Yeah, it's [beep] weird"

[laughs]

It was really, really cool

And we're back to where we started

[chains clank]
[grunts]

So tell me, what happened to your dad?

Vaughn's a great guy, and he approached me

about "Terminal," which was a film

we made in Budapest a few years back

And I really liked the fact that it

was a group of essentially ADs,

people that have worked
on film, a lot of them

have worked on the Harry
Potter movies at Leavesden,

and sort of got themselves together

and made themselves a production company,

one of whom happened to
be dating Margot Robbie,

and Margot was a big
champion of the script

And I just really liked the fact

that they were pulling
themselves up by their bootstraps

and making a movie and not waiting

for someone else to make it for them

They were just going for it

I read the script and I liked it

It was really chewy, it
had a lot of dialogue,

a lot of one-on-one stuff,

and that was a real fun shoot

And then Vaughn sent me the
script for "Inheritance,"

which, again, felt like
quite a theatrical piece

It was very dialogue-heavy,
a lot of two-handed stuff

with my character Morgan
and the character of Lauren,

which Lily Collins played

And it just felt like,
"Oh, let's do it again

"We had such a fun time in
Budapest making 'Terminal,'

"and this feels like a really chewy role,

"and one that I might not
get offered ordinarily"

I get offered roles depending
on the stuff that I've done

People know me generally for comedy

or being sort of a lighthearted character

in a big blockbuster, and that tends

to be what I get offered, which is why

I write a lot of my own stuff

But this was a really different role

This was the role of an
incredibly morally ambiguous,

sinister, mysterious character
who may or may not be

on the up-and-up, and I really relished

the opportunity to play Morgan

"Inheritance" was the chance to really

chew the scenery and
be a sort of ambiguous,

could be bad guy, could be
good guy, you don't know

[laughs]

The bizarre Domino Rally of coincidences

that have occurred in terms
of my love of "Star Trek"

and being in "Star Trek,"
and my love of "Star Wars"

and being in "Star Wars,"
and getting to work

with Steven Spielberg, whose
films I just ate up as a kid,

all those things, I just
couldn't have wished

for a more wish-fulfillment-style
career, really

I feel very, very lucky,
and I hope it continues

I just want to work with good people

That's the dream

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