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The Saturday Interview

Simon Pegg on sequels, alcoholism and fame: ‘People always ask when I’m going on Strictly – never’

The ‘Mission: Impossible’ star is lending his voice to a Quentin Blake animation for BBC One this festive season. Annabel Nugent finds out how he mixes family life with fame, whether he’ll be a part of Tom Cruise’s ‘third act’, and how he felt about briefly becoming a ‘poster boy for mental health’

Saturday 02 December 2023 06:30 GMT
Simon Pegg: ‘It’s a great honour that any time anything bad happens, there’s a meme of me raising a pint’
Simon Pegg: ‘It’s a great honour that any time anything bad happens, there’s a meme of me raising a pint’ ( Dave Willis)

You ok little buddy?” Simon Pegg is cooing at something off camera. He bends down and scoops it up to reveal a big, brown bundle of fur. “This is Branwell,” announces Pegg, proud new dad to the puppy now chewing on the brim of his cap. The actor and writer is back from the school run and supervising the latest, boisterous member of the Pegg family.

This is how Pegg likes it: school runs, country air, dog s***. “I’m so hard to get out of the house,” says the 53-year-old, with that familiar irony and a wide grin. In fact, he’s wearing a souvenir from his last venture into the real world: a Death Cult T-shirt he picked up when the goth legends’ 40th-anniversary tour hit Brixton recently. None of this comes as a surprise. For as long as his career, which gained rocket boosters in 2004 with the seminal zombie-comedy Shaun of the Dead, Pegg has been cast as the British everyman: a pub-goer who stumbled into Hollywood and didn’t really care for it, ducking in only to film blockbusters like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible (the eighth entry of which he’s soon due to resume shooting with his good pal Tom Cruise), before retreating to the domestic contentment of Hertfordshire, where he lives with his wife, Maureen, and their teenage daughter, Tilly. Plus their three dogs.

Family is at the heart of Pegg’s new project, Quentin Blake’s Box of Treasures. The BBC has brought to life several stories by the nation’s favourite illustrator using animation and whimsical voice actors, which is where Pegg comes in. One such tale is “Zagazoo”, about a young couple raising a mutable monster (ie a child going through puberty). Pegg’s 14-year-old daughter, meanwhile, is no Zagazoo. “She’s a really good kid,” he says. “We’re trying to give her space to individuate while also giving her enough to kick back against us without resenting us in any way.” There’s no rulebook. “I know brilliant parents who have kids who are going through tough times,” he says. “They go through something close to dementia between 13 and 20. All you can do is be there for them.”

Marriage is less of a mystery. Pegg and Maureen will celebrate 20 years together next year – what’s the secret? “You work at it,” he says. “I think with our daughter being born, that just makes everything more important to hold together.” Pegg’s parents split up when he was very young precisely because, he says, they were also very young, “but I feel like the situation we have as a family now is worth maintaining and fighting for. And that’s not to say it’s a constant struggle because it’s not – we have a nice life but if you don’t regard a relationship as something you have to work at, you’re going to be severely disappointed.”

Tilly has expressed an interest in entering the family business. Pegg laughs telling me this: “She came up to me the other day and she said, ‘But Dad, I don’t wanna be a nepo-baby!’” Speaking to Pegg, you can tell he and Tilly are close. In conversation, he drops in cool dad lingo like “on point” and “what’s good” instead of “what’s up”. Pegg takes comfort in the fact that if she were to pursue film, he could help her navigate the industry. “At least I’m forearmed with some kind of… you know, wisdom or something.”

Certainly, wisdom is an upshot of a career like Pegg’s. Just take a look at the wall behind him. There is a framed poster of Spaced, his cult sitcom that started it all, next to a bloody shirt and name tag perfectly preserved behind glass, a souvenir from his Shaun of the Dead days. To the right of that is the head of an anaemic-looking green alien, from his movie Paul, which starred Seth Rogen, Jason Bateman, Sigourney Weaver, and Nick Frost. “This is my office,” he says, with a waver of embarrassment. “Everything’s related to me in a deeply narcissistic way. In actual fact, it’s just because it’s the only place I’m allowed to put any of this.”

Zombies, aliens, flatshares: it is a little surprising, then, that Pegg is so critical of what he sees as our “infantilised” culture. These days, there are fewer responsibilities in early adulthood, he says, meaning “we’ve carried on craving childish things – and as one of the biggest Star Wars fans, I’m extremely guilty of that. We had that as children and then as we got older we stayed interested in cinema as spectacle rather than a challenging artform – and that has almost reached its apotheosis now.” (Despite Pegg’s protests that he “can’t think like I used to at university”, he is very much still the same man whose undergraduate thesis was a Marxist analysis of Star Trek.)

Later he adds, “I do find it worrying that people get more upset about who’s been cast in Fantastic Four than they do about genuine things going on in Ukraine or Gaza. It’s almost easier to get upset about that because it’s not real.” And even when they do engage with serious topics, he suggests it’s often “the same level of debate that’s gone into who plays what superhero or what’s the best spaceship is being applied to serious subjects like geopolitics and sexual identity”.

Simon Pegg lends his voice to the whimsical animations of Quentin Blake’s much-loved children’s stories (Eagle Eye Drama / BBC / Charlie Clift)

Pegg has a knack for encapsulating British dysfunction. One scene from Shaun of the Dead, in which Pegg’s character, faced with a zombie apocalypse, suggests waiting it out at the pub, has become a cultural signifier for bad times. Which is to say, Pegg’s face has become a meme for when s*** hits the fan. “It’s a great honour that any time anything bad happens, there’s me raising a pint. These days, the pinnacle of relevance is to be a meme, so there we go. It’s what I always wanted,” sighs Pegg, a master of deadpan.

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While we’re on the subject, Pegg would like to make clear (once again) that there will never (ever) be a Shaun of the Dead 2 or 3 or 4. “It kind of frustrates me when people ask me for that,” he says, narrowing his eyes. “It’s finished! That story ended! Do you just want to see more of it? Just watch the film again if you want to see it again,” he says. “It disappoints me that people want a sequel to that film – and I shouldn’t be, I should be flattered, and I am flattered – but also part of me feels slightly, ‘Well, wasn’t it enough? Wasn’t that sufficient?’” He shoots me a genuinely pained look and then a resigned smile. “But it will never stop getting asked and it will never stop winding me up.”

Fans are greedy, I suggest, we just want more of what we love! “But that’s a tendency we have to resist,” he urges, “because all it is is that we like what’s familiar and we’re never going to be challenged if we’re watching the same f***ing thing again.” He catches himself and cracks a smile, “That’s not to say, don’t go watch Mission: Impossible 8, because you should.”

Pegg broke the internet on another occasion, too, when, in 2019, he shared a photo of himself topless after losing 19lb for Inheritance, a movie in which he played a man locked up for 30 years. In the photo, Pegg looks lean and muscular, sinewy even – the contours of a well-defined eight-pack on show. The internet went wild; half concerned, half congratulatory. “It was odd but it was fun. I thought it was hilarious,” says Pegg of the reaction, which occurred around the same time that Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani made headlines for his Marvel transformation. “The picture that went viral was quite… I mean, the lighting was on point and it was quite a shocking picture but I mean Kumail Nunjiani, he looked buff whereas I looked emaciated. The reaction was interesting but it’s all a storm in a teacup.”

Jessica Hynes and Simon Pegg in cult sitcom ‘Spaced’ (Channel Four Television)

It’s hard not to think that if he were a woman, the public focus on his body would be more widely criticised, albeit also amplified. “The whole thing is dubious,” says Pegg. “The way I looked for Inheritance was completely unsustainable; it wasn’t an end, it was a moment. As soon as I got to Alabama to shoot the movie, I started eating bowls of granola with cream because I knew I wasn’t going to gain the weight back before the film ended. It was great.” He grins, shovelling invisible spoons into his mouth.

Tom Cruise once called him “Eight-Pack Peggles” – and Peggles is full of similar adoration for his A-list pal. Ask anyone: these men love working together. Is there ever talk of moving their relationship beyond Mission: Impossible’s dynamic duo? “I don’t know,” muses Pegg. “I love working with Tom [see?] and he’s really good fun to work with but I get the feeling that when Tom goes off and does other things, it’ll be a completely different thing. He has a whole other age to come in his career. He’s a very good actor, a very, very good actor – as we’ve seen in Magnolia and Jerry Maguire… I think when he finally stops jumping off s***, he’ll have a third act.” Pegg smiles, “And yes it’d be nice to be a part of that.”

Hearts in their eyes: Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg (Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

The idea of Cruise landing his helicopter in Pegg’s garden one afternoon or flying Pegg out to a seaside location in South Africa to swim with sharks (two things that did, in fact, happen) jar somewhat with the low profile Pegg keeps. “That’s just a crazy part of the job,” he says. “And a part that I enjoy. It’s not like, ‘Urgh, I got to go to work and fly in a helicopter.’ It’s great but I do relish normality. I relish doing the school run and picking up dog s***.” Besides, fame is a fickle thing. “The minute you start to embrace your own hype is the minute people start saying you don’t deserve it,” he says. “And celebrity is a by-product of what I do, it’s not what I do. People always ask me when I’m going to be on Strictly? I don’t want to do anything like that because it’s not my job to be famous.”

Life under the radar is good. But things have not always been so peachy. It’s been five years since Pegg, by then recovered, revealed his alcohol addiction in an interview with The Guardian. Every interview since, including this one now, has brought it up. Does he ever wish he’d kept it to himself, presumably so he wouldn’t have to fend off questions about it from people like me? “I suppose that’s it,” he says, “and that’s not to throw it back at you – but it was painful in some respects to suddenly briefly become a poster boy for mental health.” But Pegg wouldn’t take it back. “Going public helped me in so many ways. It was good to be honest after I had spent such a long time being secretive.”

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004) (Rex Features)

Pegg has said he had to be “very sneaky” when hiding his addiction while working. “I was never drunk on set,” he clarifies now, before adding with a laugh, “I might have had a nip in my trailer or something.” But no, the reason he finds it difficult to watch himself in movies from that time has nothing to do with his performances in them (“my drinking was never to the detriment of my work”) but because he can see the physical toll his alcoholism took. “I can see the physical effects on myself. I can see where I’m a bit bloated and I don’t look very healthy,” he says. “Films where I can see the effects of it on me are hard to watch because I just think, ‘Oh God, what are you doing? What are you thinking?” He lets out a ticklish chuckle, which seems to be something of a physical response when things get too dark.

That was a period in my life when I wasn’t looking after myself and now that I am, it’s weird to get asked about it a lot

Alcoholism is an ongoing part of Pegg’s life; sobriety is a symptom, not a cure. “The things that dog you mentally,” he says, “you can understand them, you can name them, you can get therapy, you can learn how to deal with them, but they never go away. It’s a constant thing.” That said, if Pegg is not done with alcoholism itself, he is done speaking about it. “That was a period in my life when I wasn’t looking after myself and now that I am, it’s weird to get asked about it a lot and then have to go back in time,” he says. “I’ve said what I needed to say. I’ve told my story.”

For a long time now, Pegg has been trying to wriggle free of what has come before. Right now, he is in the process of adapting a book for screen; earlier this year, he directed Rick Astley’s music video. The biggest misconception people have about him, Pegg says, is that he’s a total, all-consumed nerd. Having starred in Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars (the trifecta, if you will), Pegg was anointed the de facto King of the Nerds – which he thinks “might be a slight mischaracterisation. It’s definitely part of my life and I do continue to enjoy that kind of thing, I suppose. But I think there’s a lot more to me than just that.”

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in ‘Hot Fuzz' (2007) (Universal)

Pegg admits it’s a tough sell given that he’s made his name in those kinds of films – but he isn’t the same kid who painted his bedroom Hulk green in the Seventies. And “nerd” means something different now. “I do think that the term has been somewhat appropriated,” he says. “The nerds were always the people that were on the outside and now they’re very much at the centre of the industrial entertainment complex. Being a nerd now means watching Iron Man.” He pauses for a moment, mulling it over. “But that’s also not true, because I went to a convention recently and there’s still a huge amount of people for whom this stuff is vitally important because it offers them a world where they feel included.” Pegg lifts the brim of his hat up and smiles, “Real nerds are different – and they’re lovely as well.”

‘Quentin Blake’s Box of Treasures’ is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer with new instalments to follow in early 2024

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