It’s not an impossibly long time ago that Simon Pegg was co-writing low-budget British comedy. Now he’s tasked with preserving the legacy of not one, not two, but three of cinema’s most beloved sci-fi franchises.
RSNG caught up with the 52-year-old actor, screenwriter and producer to hear about his latest challenges.
An Unlikely Hero
It’s a sizeable distance from the suburbs of North London to the final frontier of space, but Simon Pegg has made the journey without breaking sweat – and has conquered Hollywood en route. The man once known for curating the crème de la crème of cult British comedy is now a regular face on the red carpet, and a few years ago even took on the challenge of writing for one the most iconic franchises in history – Star Trek.
Of course, this is the same Simon Pegg who once declared he’d never ditch the British film industry for the bright lights of Tinseltown – so what went right?
“Never say too much, too early, is the lesson I learned,” laughs Pegg. “It’s funny how a career evolves, and I will be honest enough to say I never cared much for the Hollywood machine.
“In many ways I still don’t – I’m not in that world, nor do I want to be. I want to be in the world where you’re down the pub with your mates plotting a route to the bar past a growling Alsatian.”
You look at the bank balance and think you may need to drag another few furlongs out of this flogged horse
In 1999, Pegg first made his way into the British public’s consciousness as slacker Tim Bisley in Spaced, the sitcom he both starred in and co-wrote. The show not only set a precedent for much of Pegg’s early career, not least in the various pop culture references, but also provided the world with its first real look at the collaborative comedy duo of Pegg and best friend Nick Frost together on screen.
While many assumed Pegg was simply one half of this successful silver screen partnership, behind the scenes Gloucestershire-born Pegg was beavering away, honing his skills as a writer, director and producer, quickly catching the eye of Hollywood’s elite decision-makers. In 2006, just five short years after wrapping up Spaced, and at a time when the writer feared he may have to pen a third series – “You look at the bank balance and think to yourself, ‘Jesus, I may need to drag another few furlongs out of this flogged horse!’” – Pegg was approached by one of Los Angeles’ leading directors, J.J. Abrams.
With Abrams in the director’s chair, Mission Impossible III saw Pegg appear alongside cinematic royalty in the form of Tom Cruise. The role he took of Benjamin ‘Benji’ Dunn saw the amicably goofy Brit tune in to the nerdy roles he’d taken on throughout his early acting career.
“When J.J. Abrams asks you to be in one of his movies, you don’t think, ‘Will this pigeonhole my range’ – you say, ‘When do you need me?’ Pegg laughs. “These are huge films leading to huge opportunities.”
That huge opportunity came in 2009, when Pegg and Abrams teamed up again as part of Star Trek, the cinematic reboot of the much-loved sci-fi story. Add in his cameo as Unkar Plutt in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and this largely unassuming creative comedian has strolled almost effortlessly into the A-list franchise elite.
You have to tread a fine line between the two different types of people who watch franchise movies – the superfan and the newbie
“Being handed the keys to these universes has been such a privilege and an honor,” continues Pegg who, having also appeared in Doctor Who in 2005, lays claim to what he calls the “ultimate nerd hat-trick”, alongside Star Trek and Star Wars.
“They are daunting prospects and I’ve always appreciated the importance of doing them justice. You have to tread a fine line between the two different types of people who watch franchise movies – on one hand you have the super fan, and on the other, the newbie who knows nothing about this world,” he explains. “You want to appeal to someone who says, ‘what’s this Mission: Impossible business?’, and then goes back and discovers 20 years’ worth.
“Yet at the same time you don’t want to alienate old fans and move too far away from the core model.”
With two new Mission: Impossible movies in motion – Dead Reckoning Pts 1&2, for release in 2023 and 2024 – the size of the task doesn’t get any smaller… and nor does the budget, not that the investment element fazes Pegg.
“A bigger budget doesn’t necessarily mean the process is overwhelming,” he says. “Often when you’re on these huge sets; you’re pampered because there are so many people there looking after every bolt and every screw.
“We have a busy period coming up and there’s nothing quite like feeling busy.”
What’s more, Pegg’s success doesn’t preclude him from smaller projects.
“I feel like I’ve had a really nice run of smaller films before all this – with Hector, Man Up, Absolutely Anything and others. I’ve had a run of blockbusters, then balanced back into movies such as Lost Translations, Inheritance and others. It’s a nice mix.
“And it’s keeping me away from having to write another series of Spaced!”
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