Simon Pegg: man on a mission

Simon Pegg’s career has hit the Hollywood heights, and he’s also set up a production company. But the affable star has recently disclosed a battle with alcohol and depression too

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“When you know Tom’s been running around on a broken ankle for 10 hours, you’d feel a bit like you were half arsing it if you didn’t submit yourself for everything,” admits Simon Pegg, pondering the downside of having an action hero like Tom Cruise as your work buddy. “You know that whatever you do Tom will be doing something 10 times worse.”

Pegg stars in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, playing gadget man Benji Dunn, alongside Cruise as agent Ethan Hunt.

“It wasn’t until he co-created slacker comedy Spaced with Jessica Hynes that things really kicked into gear.”

Production on Fallout – Pegg’s fourth Mission but the franchise’s sixth instalment – was forced on hiatus after Cruise broke his ankle building-hopping while shooting one of the film’s chase sequences. Pegg insists it’s this commitment to realism that brings audiences back to Mission Impossible – with Cruise keeping the bone-snapping scene in question in the finished film.

“With CGI, even though the spectacle has become more convincing than ever, we’re less inclined to believe it or be wowed by it,” suggests Pegg. “There’s a degree of detachment because you know it’s not happening but the minute it becomes genuine, when you know that’s Tom Cruise flying the helicopter, leaping across gaps or riding those motorbikes, suddenly it reclaims that degree of: ‘Holy fuck! This is actually happening!’” he says.

“I think people have forgotten that sensation a little bit and Tom’s insistence to do it this way has reminded audiences of the thrill. It’s thrilling because it’s actually happening.”

Growing up in Gloucestershire, Pegg seemed destined for the stage. A stint at Warwick University saw him perform alongside David Walliams and a string of roles in famcous Brit comedies quickly followed. Revisit sketch show Big Train, Graham Linehan’s Black Books or Steve Coogan’s I’m Alan Partridge and you’ll find Pegg’s memorable early work. But it wasn’t until he co-created Channel 4’s slacker comedy Spaced with Jessica Hynes that things really kicked into gear.

The show became a cult hit, helping Pegg parlay a fledgling career on the small screen into a full time gig on the big screen, spearheaded by a trio of features with his Spaced co-creators Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright. 2004’s Rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead started things off, followed by 2007’s cop comedy Hot Fuzz and culminating with 2013’s sci-fi booze cruise The World’s End. Fans affectionately labelled them the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy thanks to their fondness for ice cream-eating scenes but for Pegg they were just the beginning. Cut to 2018 and the 48-year-old star now considers Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams and the seemingly indestructible Cruise as his contemporaries.

As the Mission movies get bigger, it’s not just Ethan Hunt who’s in on the action. “Benji’s a technician,” says Pegg. “He gets into trouble but he generally doesn’t throw himself off things although for Fallout I had to learn to drive a speedboat, do underwater stuff and all the fight choreography which I love. I have this backstory that Benji plays Fortnight with Ethan and it’s the only place where he can beat him in a fight.”

It’s not just our world that Pegg’s helped to save lately. His turn as the USS Enterprise’s Chief Engineer Scotty in three (soon to be four) Star Trek films has seen him save galaxies too. He also had a role in Spielberg’s 2018 megahit Ready Player One and a cameo in Abrams’ 2015 sequel Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There are also constant rumours of reteaming with his Cornetto Trilogy colleagues. “Mission III was my first Hollywood film and it’s meant that things have escalated for me globally.”

But with such a sudden career boost come unwanted side-effects. Last month the actor revealed details of a hidden battle with alcoholism and depression that plagued most of his rise to fame and threatened to derail his career. Having come through this dark time, Pegg is now able to welcome his successes and value his time spent out of the spotlight.

“I generally relish my downtime and tend not to leave the house when I get home. I live out in the countryside and it’s just a nice place to retreat to. I watch films, play games with my kids, take the dogs for a walk and keep it all as real as possible.”

He even finds time for telly. “I’m enjoying Bob Mortimer And Paul Whitehouse Gone Fishing. I think it’s one of the most affecting television programmes ever made.”

Pegg’s also one of the few stars who opt to spend their spare time off social media. “I didn’t like how available it made me. There were a few reasons why I quit: partly because I felt like if I’m a private person, why am I giving the world a means to talk to me? Also, I didn’t really like who it encouraged me to be.

“Social media makes you incredibly narcissistic. I see people who I know on social media and I don’t like them on social media. It’s slightly false too because you’re essentially editing and redacting your own existence to make yourself look as good as possible. It engenders such ego-driven narcissism that it made me feel a bit icky, so I left.”

Back to work and Pegg’s future looks set to continue its rocket pace. He recently set up production company Stolen Picture with friend and collaborator Frost and, once work on Star Trek 4 has wrapped, Pegg plans to visit Finland to helm his first feature film. “I’m a big believer in writing from a point of view of the truth and obviously that means being very personal. I think that’s the key to good comedy: not trying to appeal.

“When Jess and I wrote Spaced, shows like Game On and even Friends didn’t speak to us, particularly the British shows. They were being written by people who weren’t that age, speculating on what people that age did and they thought they just went around drinking in wine bars and saying the word ‘shag’.

“Jess and I were living the life of Tim and Daisy so we thought: let’s write about our lives, about smoking weed and playing video games and what do you know? Lots of people seemed to feel the same way. The improvisational skills that I picked up on the likes of Big Train or writing two seasons of a sitcom with Jess – that helped me self-generate and write my own stuff and with the can-do attitude required to get these things made. You learn as you go.”

As for what’s next, Pegg’s keen to keep things fresh and redefine audience expectations by staying true to himself. “I’m interested in telling stories that mean something. The film I’m hoping to make, there’s lightness and whimsy in it but it’s certainly not a comedy. I try to take inspiration from everyone I’ve worked with. Watching Edgar and working with Fallout’s Chris McQuarrie and Steven Spielberg, you pick up so much just by shadowing and getting a feel for their technique but you also have your own instincts as well which are worth following.

“I’ve submitted myself for pigeonholing without really meaning to. I get called a comedian all the time but I haven’t been a comedian for 20 years. Sci-fi nerd is something I’ve been in the past too but it’s not the be all and end all of everything I want to be. I think I’m going to go through that Steve Martin period of people saying: ‘Why don’t you do anything funny anymore?’ I’d quite like to branch out.”

Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust in Mission Impossible: Fallout

On the Pegg

Born on Valentine’s Day to parents John Beckingham and Gillian Rosemary in Brockworth, Gloucestershire. The surname “Pegg” belongs to his stepfather.

He auditioned for the role of Rufus in the Richard Curtis rom-com Love Actually, but lost out to actor Rowan Atkinson.

Pegg is godfather to Apple, the daughter of Coldplay lead vocalist Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow.

During the 1990s he toured all over the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand as a stand-up comedian.

He lent his voice to Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs in 2009 and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010.

Pegg was best man at the wedding of his co-writer and co-star Nick Frost.

Total Film magazine positioned Shaun of the Dead as the 49th greatest British film of all time.

As a teenager, Pegg played the drums in a band called God’s Third Leg.

He married Maureen McCann, a music industry publicist from Glasgow, in 2005. They have a daughter together named Matilda.

Annabel Leydon

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