The thing about Simon Pegg is that people can't believe he's got to where he has. That the hapless man-boy from Shaun of the Dead and Spaced has somehow made it, not just to Hollywood, but into cinema's biggest franchises. Star Wars, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen have had their hits, but it's Pegg who's part of the fabric. It's an opinion of Simon Pegg that Simon Pegg is all too aware of.
"Much of what is written about me, usually during spurts of promotion, seems to dwell on the idea of an ordinary, guy-next-door, non-Hollywood, unattractive loser, somehow succeeding in this fabled land of facile opportunity, despite being handicapped by having red hair (I don't) and severe physical deformity (my wife thinks I'm handsome)," he writes in his autobiography, Nerd Do Well. "So many articles begin with a passage about why I should not have succeeded, due to my lack of 'Hollywood' good looks, as if that has anything to do with being an actor."
But Simon Pegg isn't just an actor. This summer's biggest blockbuster is Star Trek Beyond, in which Pegg reprises his role as Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, the USS Enterprise's jocular Scottish engineer, except this time he also co-wrote the film. When JJ Abrams got stuck making Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the third highest-grossing movie of all time, it was Pegg's advice he sought. The "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy", Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End, comedy genre films Pegg co-wrote with Edgar Wright, have grossed at least £175m. His autobiography made The New York Times Best Sellers list, presumably why his publisher gave him a seven-figure, three-book deal in the first place. Even films he's starred in that you may consider relative flops probably weren't. Run Fatboy Run, featuring another in Pegg's line of unassuming average Joes, this one trying to win back his ex-fiancé by completing the London Marathon, spent four weeks at the top of the UK box office and made over $33m worldwide. Pegg co-wrote that, too. Later this year, he will move into directing. In other words, it's possible that all those people who look at Pegg in Mission: Impossible acting opposite Tom Cruise — Tom Cruise! — and scratch their heads don't know the half of it.
"Look, he's just so talented," Tom Cruise tells Esquire. "He's a film-maker, producer and writer in his own right. An enormously talented actor. And also he's just wonderful to work with, just incredibly professional, always there, always making it fun. You know, we work really hard but I like to work with people I enjoy being around and having a laugh. You just tick all the boxes with Simon Pegg. Smart, talented, funny, fun to hang out with. What more do you want?"
"When we were shooting The Force Awakens in Abu Dhabi he was there as an actor [a small role as junk dealer Unkar Plutt]," says JJ Abrams. "But for me, he was there as a writer and film-maker, and as someone to go around the issues I was having at the time with the story and to get some great feedback. And he's so quick with his responses that he will often come back an hour later and say, 'I wrote up this scene 'cos we were just talking about it'. Which I really appreciate. I'd rather get something up on its feet quickly and then work it out rather than spend as much time, as friends of mine do, just getting a first draft out. Simon's much more instinctive."
"It is, and never was, a surprise to me that Simon is where he is," says Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson), who co-wrote and co-starred in Spaced with Pegg, the adored Channel 4 sitcom that ran from 1999 to 2001. "He's a diligent, passionate, hard-working perfectionist. We wouldn't stop until every joke and every scene sung. He's earned his success. I'm so proud of him."
Yet there is still disbelief over Pegg's success. This ongoing suspicion — that he somehow hasn't earned it, that hard work and talent and diligence can't solely account for his position, is perhaps a peculiarly British confection. As Hugh Grant, another massively successful Brit abroad, recently put it: "If you suddenly get successful internationally [it is] unacceptable to the British. In this country I'm very patronised and sneered at, outside of Britain people are nicer. And I understand that. Someone else's success makes me very miserable."
"It only happens here in the UK," Simon Pegg says when we meet for a pub lunch (no booze thanks, Pegg quit drinking, as well as "dressing like a teenager", when he turned 40). "Martin Freeman gets it as well. You play regular guys and people assume you haven't done anything to deserve to be there. I see it when people write about Chris Martin [his friend, they're godfathers to each other's daughters]. It's a kind of grudging respect because it's easy to go for the obvious kind of criticisms of him. But people need an angle."
Pegg had planned to take off the last six months of this year. "I came out of Star Trek with a slight crisis of confidence," he says. "Not because it put me off in any way, it was a really fun experience. But after having written a Star Trek film and done Star Wars, I felt I'd kind of done everything I wanted to do as a kid. I felt, 'What have I got to do now?' Really, it was about the fact I hadn't done anything small for a while, and I felt like I wanted to have a rethink about everything. About where my career was going."
So, Pegg told his agent to turn down any work offers. Unless Steven Spielberg called, he was done with 2016.
"And then he [Spielberg] called," Pegg says. "It was like, 'Oh, for fuck's sake…'"
The Spielberg film is Ready Player One, an adaptation of Ernest Cline's Matrix-y sci-fi novel, and it's due out in 2018. The strangest thing about this story isn't Pegg's unlikely premonition, it's that it echoes another equally unlikely premonition from earlier in his career. Asked during an interview if the success of Shaun of the Dead meant he was about to up sticks to Hollywood, Pegg laughed off the idea. "It's not like I'm going to run off and do Mission: Impossible III," he said, picking the name of a nonexistent blockbuster like it was Death Kill 7, a video game he'd made up. When Mission: Impossible III was subsequently made, Pegg appeared as Benji Dunn, the Oxbridge IT nerd assisting Tom Cruise's character Ethan Hunt. Unaware of Pegg's comments, the film's producer JJ Abrams had already seen Shaun of the Dead and decided Pegg would be perfect. In Nerd Do Well, Pegg returns to the theme of coincidence in his life, something he variously calls "causality" and "cosmic ordering". (For example: the literary agent who commissioned his book is called Benjamin Dunne.) Even so, the Mission: Impossible III story is weirdly specific.
"It is!" says JJ Abrams. "It's very specific! Simon's someone I consider a dear friend and, obviously, a frequent collaborator but it feels almost like there was some weird sort of psychic inevitability that we would work together. The fact that he said that before we even spoke is pretty funny."
Anyway, obviously he accepted the Spielberg offer.
One morning I watch Simon Pegg having his photo taken in a London hotel. These pictures will be used by Paramount to promote Star Trek Beyond. Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, is in the building, too. The photographer has 12 minutes to get the actor in various different set-ups. He tells Pegg he looks like he's in shape. "I am in shape, yes," he agrees. "I've had nothing to do but work out for the last few months."
He steers Pegg from one coloured backdrop to another. "A different grey!" Pegg says. Then, knowingly: "How many shades of grey are there?"
Out in the hotel driveway he poses astride a bronze statue of a hippo. "Just casually riding a hippo," he says.
Next it's the hotel bar. "Can we sit on the bar?" Pegg asks. He does so anyway, and has his photo taken up there. Afterwards Pegg has a photo of his own to take. He's spotted another animal statue in reception.
"Do you mind if I take a picture of that lion's testicles?" he asks.
"Is it anatomically correct?" wonders his assistant Claire.
"I don't know," says Pegg. "But it's fantastic."
Something for his Instagram.
"Surely the lion's bollocks is better than the dog's bollocks?" he reasons.
Simon Pegg says he is often struck by the irony of his adult life, in light of his childhood passions: a lot of the sci-fi he loved growing up is now reflected in his CV. Zombie movies, the comic 2000 AD, The Unexplained magazine, Doctor Who, Star Wars, The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies. On the one hand you think: well, his childhood passions weren't that unusual, there were thousands of boys in Seventies Britain into that sort of stuff — it's not surprising some ended up in showbiz. Then again, Pegg was really, really into that stuff. Particularly Star Wars.
"It affected my relationships, my education, my intellect, my decisions and made a significant contribution to making me the person I am today," he writes in Nerd Do Well. It sounds like hyperbole, it may in fact be underselling it. One nighttime ritual involving kissing a poster of Princess Leia pulled from the pages of Look-In magazine only stopped when the paper started to disintegrate — something he cheerfully told Carrie Fisher when he met her 20 years later at Comic Con. Pegg's university thesis was a Marxist overview of Star Wars and Seventies cinema titled "Base and Super Sucker", a riff on the Marxist proposition, base and superstructure. When his 2011 movie Paul, in which he and Nick Frost help an alien escape from the Secret Service (a homage to Steven Spielberg's Eighties sci-fi work), premiered at the Grauman's Chinese Theater in LA, Pegg was particularly chuffed. He remembered seeing it on John Craven's Newsround, in 1977, with crowds queuing to see Star Wars. When The Phantom Menace opened in 1999, Pegg flew to New York in pilgrimage, and saw it twice. He hated it both times (and he was scarcely alone), but he was probably the only one to channel his disappointment into a recurring gag in a sitcom, as he did with Spaced.
Seventies and Eighties TV and cinema informed his life in other ways, too. A trip to London for his seventh birthday took in childhood perennials the Natural History Museum and Madame Tussauds, but also BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane: the young Pegg pushing his face against the glass like a Victorian orphan outside a cake shop. His dorky obsessions even helped introduce his mum to his step-dad — the latter ran the local shoe shop and hand-delivered an order to the Pegg house: red-and-white trainers inspired by the Six Million Dollar Man. As a teenager, he chose to go to Warwickshire College mostly because Ben Elton went there. Moving to London he alighted in Cricklewood, TV home of surrealists The Goodies.
You get the picture. A lifetime of pop culture references were weaved into Spaced, featuring PlayStation-playing, pot-smoking layabout Tim Bisley, named for the 2000 AD artist Simon Bisley, with its nods to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Woody Allen's Manhattan, Robot Wars, The Shining and Fight Club. Similar references helped Shaun of the Dead find vocal fans in pop-culture aficionados Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez and Stephen King, which scarcely hindered Pegg's stock in America. JJ Abrams was another fan. When geek culture went mainstream at the turn of the century, as the revenge of the nerds happened, Pegg was perfectly positioned. In a recent appearance on Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, Pegg joked he would have done the Star Trek reboots if his pay had amounted to nothing more than being allowed to keep the uniform. Let's assume it was a joke.
The new Star Trek film was already underway when it was decided that what it really required was a completely new script. "For whatever reason, they decided not to go with the screenplay they had already started to develop," Pegg says. "And basically, me and a writer called Doug Jung got given the job." Jung had written the US cop show Dark Blue, and lives in LA. Pegg lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and daughter. The pair had never met.
"Justin Lin, the director, had just been recruited and we had our first creative meeting at the Soho Hotel, London," recalls Pegg. "We sat around for 16 hours and talked. It was like pulling teeth. We all had different ideas and Justin was in a position where he had to prep a film that hadn't been written. The initial stages of it were tumultuous: it was already in pre-production. Doug and I started to write, and [Paramount] were, like, 'Can we build this spaceship?' 'Can we build this set?' 'We don't know!' It's counter-intuitive to make a film before you finish writing it."
The movie had already been moved back from a December 2015 release date to avoid competition with The Force Awakens and Spectre. It was now imperative that it hit its July 2016 release or the Star Trek rights would lapse from Paramount to CBS, who made the original series. Jung moved in with Pegg. The latter, typically upbeat, describes the process as "an interesting thing to craft something with someone I didn't know" but it sounds horrendous.
"It was a challenge," Pegg says. "When they gave us the deadlines we were gobsmacked at the optimism. Literally, 'We need Act One by Friday, Act Two by Monday'. But we did it. We had to. If you don't then decisions will be taken out of your hands. You don't want to demonstrate lack of ability, so you just do it. I've never had so many rows — never with Doug, actually, Doug and I were always on the same page, but with producers in trying to get through our ideas. I think I quit three times and each time JJ Abrams [who directed Star Trek and Into Darkness and co-produced this one] would email me, 'Don't worry, calm down, it will be fine'. Because I was new to this way of working. You know, writing films with Edgar Wright we went at our own pace. This was having a massive corporation breathing down your neck… as nice as they were."
Pegg's too professional to say so, but part of the problem was that though Star Trek Into Darkness was the most successful of the 12-film franchise, it was also controversial. Fans declared it simultaneously too downbeat and too cheesy. At a fan convention, it was voted the worst movie in the canon behind Galaxy Quest — a Star Trek spoof.
Pegg announced his intention to make Beyond "less Star Trek-y". The studio apparently had an eye on Marvel's Avengers, another supposedly nerdy, niche property that made three times Star Trek's money. Perhaps the franchise's 50-year vintage meant it was getting dismissed as too anorak-y by the Friday night crowd? In fact, Pegg says he wanted to appeal to both camps. He and Jung would write during the day and watch episodes of the original Star Trek at night.
"We were at pains to create something that inhabited both incarnations," Pegg says. "The first Star Trek series was characterised by a lack of money so they became these philosophical little morality plays, necessity was totally the mother of invention. Doug and I wanted to enable it to be what it has to be on a commercial stage these days, but fill it with stuff from the beginning."
They also had to factor in director Justin Lin of the The Fast and the Furious franchise. "Justin came with ideas… you know, it's his film," Pegg says. "He had certain set pieces he wanted, so we had to build the narrative around those events. This often hobbles big blockbusters because you have these prevised sequences writers have to crowbar into a story, to try and join the dots between massive set pieces."
What does Simon Pegg, cineaste and blockbuster-maker, think of cinema now? "Film is becoming like TV and TV like film. So Marvel films are two-hour episodes of a bigger story. Whereas, the scope and imagination you now see on television… Game of Thrones, particularly, is a great example. At the end of the last series there was this amazing battle that was just extraordinary, unlike anything you've ever seen on television before. The two mediums are swapping over. And because we now have 'cinema screens' in our houses, the distinction is blurred. What people assume is the benefit of theatrical presentation is the size of the screen, and it's not. The true benefit is sitting and watching something with a lot of people you don't know. The community of cinema is what people forget. I saw Toy Story 2 on its opening weekend at the Odeon Leicester Square and I remember saying to my friend, 'I think that was the best film I've ever seen'. Because the experience of watching it being so fun."
"Every time the Oscars is on, it does show there's been a host of great films for grown-ups, but what they earned and how long they were on release is nothing compared to the big tentpole movies," he says. "It's funny to think of going to see Taxi Driver at the cinema, you know?"
Assuming Star Trek Beyond is a hit, does Pegg see himself in a new job? The go-to guy for action franchise resuscitation? "I don't know. Though it ended up being very positive I don't know if I want to do that again because it was... emotionally taxing. If you want me to write you a film, I'll write you a film. But I don't want to be a writer-for-hire and write something that then gets changed by a host of other writers who come in 'cos the studio keeps throwing writers at it. It's why Edgar walked away from Ant-Man. [Eight years after signing to direct and co-write the superhero movie with Joe Cornish, the pair left the project during filming.] Because he wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie and they wanted to make a Marvel movie. And never the twain shall meet."
Pegg confirms the widely-held notion Ant-Man's best bits, notably a terrific chase on a toy train set, are from Wright and Cornish's draft. He knows because they told him. "I've never watched it," he says. "Out of loyalty."
It is May when we meet and Pegg has just started to promote Star Trek Beyond. Some of it involves "round tables", gathering a number of journalists in a room to share a Q&A session. He lets me sit in on a couple.
"You get 'talking points' from the studio," Pegg explains beforehand. "They always read as a little patronising and obvious, but when you're dealing with a cast this size it's important there's a united front. They also tend to anticipate certain lines of questioning which might be trying to dig dirt."
Today's brief is to keep things "big picture". Talk about the writing, and the experience of working with Lin. "You can feel like you're being elusive and not really giving the interviewers what they want," Pegg says. "Which is cold hard information."
You're a politician, basically. "Totally," he says. But there aren't any tricky moments today. Before the media is ushered in, Pegg makes himself scarce via a side door. "I like to make a big entrance," he explains.
Someone asks about the title. "Star Trek Into Darkness kind of set a precedent with the titles because it's the no colon rule," Pegg says. "So it had to be a sentence. And the fact is with this film, we have gone beyond where we have gone before, and where no man has gone before, to coin a phrase, and it seemed very succinct. I told Rob Moore, vice-president of Paramount, at dinner at CinemaCon last year and he immediately got on his BlackBerry and said, 'Register this!' And then the crazy people, God bless them, who monitor registering titles, caught on to it and went online: 'It's called Star Trek Beyond!' and it became effectively complete. So I kind of accidentally named it. But I think it's a good title."
There is a question about his role as Scotty. "People keep asking me if I've made it bigger. But I haven't. I felt guilty whenever I kept writing Scotty. I'd always defer to Doug and say 'Is this right I'm doing this?' 'Should I be in bed with Uhura?'"
Someone asks about Leonard Nimoy, who died last year. Pegg's answer is unexpectedly poignant. (The alternate reality where the new Star Trek films take place allowed classic Spock to meet new Zachary Quinto Spock, uniting the old and new cast, and generations of fans. It was a trick JJ Abrams doubled down on for The Force Awakens.)
"He was such a lovely man, it was such a pleasure to have him on set," Pegg says. "I did a lot of my scenes with him on the first film, and had the most out of body experience, having Spock talk to me. It's a very strange thing to meet an actor you've liked since you were a kid, but to see the character you've liked talking to you. When he said [their first line together], 'You are Montgomery Scott', I was literally going, 'What is happening?' This complete weird meltdown. We love Leonard. Zach and Leonard were very, very close and we were all deeply saddened. He is very much the face of this story and we miss him very much."
Simon Pegg grew up in Gloucester, which is a long way from Hollywood. "If there's a bright centre to the universe then this is the planet it's furthest from, that's what Gloucester is like," he says. "It's just not the thing that you would go into 'the arts'. But it just happened. I think I never assumed it wouldn't. Whether that was confidence or naivety… probably a bit of both."
His says his family weren't really arty, but actually they were a bit. Mum had her drama group while dad's band Pendulum were on Opportunity Knocks, beaten to first place in 1975 by Pam Ayres. The family gathered around the TV at his grandma's house to watch it. (Years later his dad told him that during the goodbye shot, the drummer quietly placed his penis into his dad's hand, which was behind his back. Remarkably Pendulum are still together today.) At Bristol University, Pegg performed in a comedy troupe that included David Walliams, Dominik Diamond and Jason Bradbury. "I was studying to become an actor," he says. "But I realised that job meant very little autonomy, you were basically waiting for the phone to ring."
Stand-up comedy was a good way to have some control. You can watch some of his early routines on YouTube. He'd take to the stage with his pet goldfish and read poems about being in love with Diane Keaton, in the fish's voice. "People say being a stand-up is the hardest job in the world, but it isn't," Pegg says. "If you can do it it's one of the best jobs in the world. It's awesome."
Early TV work included Asylum (1996), a sitcom set in a mental asylum, co-starring Jessica Hynes and created by Edgar Wright, sketch shows Six Pairs of Pants and Big Train, the latter by Father Ted creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan. Pegg toured with Steve Coogan in his 1998 The Man Who Thinks He's It live show, something he euphamistically says was "like being in a band for a year". He met Nick Frost in a Mexican restaurant in north London where both Frost and Pegg's then-girlfriend were waiting tables, the pair bonding over (what else?) Star Wars droid noises. In 2011, they played Thomson and Thompson in Spielberg's Tintin film, The Secret of the Unicorn. Hot Fuzz remains their masterpiece, though: the 48 Hrs/Lethal Weapon send-up, featuring Pegg's "exceptional" London cop Nicholas Angel transferred to a quaint English village, with its Airplane! levels of silly gags and excellent swearing ("You want to be a big copper in a small town? Fuck off up the model village"). Also new heights of film nerdery: the Japanese peace lily Nicholas Angel carries with him? It's a reference to Léon's plant in Léon.
"I'll always be very proud of those three movies," Pegg says. "If I never do anything else at least I've got those."
"I met Simon 20 years ago backstage at a Matt Lucas and David Walliams gig," says Edgar Wright. "I thought, 'This is my leading man'. Some comedy actors like Peter Sellers or Steve Coogan excel at playing nastier characters or grand idiots, but Simon's got more in common with Jack Lemmon. Audiences like him. When we were writing Hot Fuzz and Shaun, he used to jokingly complain we'd given all the funny lines to other people. But not everybody can pull off what he does: being funny, warm and empathetic. It takes a lot of work. It's testament to his talent that in the three Mission: Impossible films [that Pegg's in] the part of Benji gets bigger each time. In [the recent] Rogue Nation he has the most screen time after Tom Cruise — it's become a buddy thing with him and Tom, which is hilarious to me. He's got himself in impeccable shape 'cos anyone standing next to zero-fat Tom Cruise, Hollywood's fittest man, looks like a blob."
"What he's done is pretty amazing," Wright adds. "If you count the Cornetto films as a franchise, Star Trek, Star Wars and there might be a second Tintin — that's five franchises [including Mission: Impossible]. That's pretty good."
"We've got to get him in Avatar," Tom Cruise says. "Somehow we've got to get him into Jurassic Park also. I'm going to work it out so he can be in all of them. Transformers. What other ones? Let's get him in some of the Marvel movies. Get him in all of them!"
You can guess which franchise Pegg-'s most delighted with: "Being in Star Wars was amazing. In the desert with all these robots and aliens. It felt like Star Wars. I hung out a lot, squatted on set. Harrison Ford in his Han Solo gear with Chewbacca next to him. It was an extraordinary victory lap. JJ told me the big twist at dinner in, like, 2013. 'You know we're going to kill Han?' I was like, 'What?'"
Simon Pegg is in a sound booth in a Soho basement studio, recording the voice of Buck, a one-eyed weasel, for Ice Age: Collision Course, the fifth instalment of the animated animal adventure. Pegg is reprising his role from the third film (note to Edgar Wright: it's another franchise). The film is virtually finished, most of the dialogue has already been taped. Today involves final re-records.
"Oooh, asteroid still a day off," Pegg says, in Buck's singsong, geezer-y voice. "And, like my grandfather used to say [doddery voice], 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Purple sky in the morning… who moved my foot cream?' Grampy was a confused and angry weasel."
"Great," says the director, via Skype from America. "The first part was good. Maybe you got a little big on the foot cream…" Pegg goes again. "'Red sky at night, shepherd's…' Oh no, it's not shepherd's, is it? Sorry, sorry…"
The director says how well his character has gone down with preview audiences: "Buck is playing great, actually. We're super-happy. His opening song — your opening song — is one of people's favourite scenes. Kids are really responding to it."
"Oh cool," beams Pegg. "I smell spin-off."
What does Simon Pegg think people get wrong about him? "People assume I'm Tim from Spaced. I don't play computer games. I don't read comics anymore. I'm not some nerd who watches back-to-back episodes of Battlestar Galactica," he laughs. "I enjoy a broad spectrum of cinematic works. I'm more grown up than people think. I've got a family and that's the focus of what I do, day to day."
He says he'd like to move away from comedy. "I don't know if anyone will let me. I think people think I'm some clown that drives around in a car that goes 'splat'. A lot of great comics are often very good serious actors, but they're not given the opportunity because people won't accept them in the role. They're always thinking 'When's he going to fall over?' Maybe that's a bed I've made that I won't be able to get out of."
After Ready Player One he's off to do a "little indie film" in Budapest and next year he'll direct his first feature. "It's about a woman who goes to Lapland to try and find Santa Claus. It's kind of a drama, really. We're trying to think of name for it, because it's not comedy, or comedy-drama. It's not desperate for your attention all the time. It's kind of a Christmas film for grown-ups, it's kind of about depression. Obviously, we won't say that in the marketing of the film," he laughs. "Yeah, that'll get the audiences in."
After that? There's definitely a sixth Mission: Impossible. And surely another franchise or two.
Star Trek Beyond is out on 22 July