Simon Pegg: A geek made good

He created the rom-zom-com with 'Shaun of the Dead' and breathed new life into British comedy movies. Can he repeat that success with 'Hot Fuzz'?

Neil Norman
Sunday 04 February 2007 01:00

Jonathan Ross once remarked that Simon Pegg had a "head like a tennis ball". The description of his close-cropped yellow fuzz, complemented by fashionably unshaven cheeks on a perfectly spherical bonce was so accurate that it made me laugh out loud. Strange to relate, Pegg, whose stock-in-trade is making people laugh at him, was not amused.

Not that it matters. Pegg's career has been on an upward trajectory since the 1999 cult television sitcom Spaced. It was the moment when all the elements that had been floating around him came together. Pegg co-wrote the scripts and starred as a twenty-something slacker - an adult male trapped in adolescent irresponsibility, clutching his skateboard like a totem of immortality and designing increasingly deranged science- fantasy, comic-book characters.

Somewhere along the line Pegg struck a chord with an audience who subsequently turned out in droves to see his debut on the big screen in Shaun of the Dead, a comic tribute to George A Romero's zombie movies. Promoted with the full panoply of advertising and the kind of media carpet-bombing usually reserved for a multimillion dollar blockbuster, this modestly-budgeted Brit film struck box office gold and took Pegg into the big league.

He claimed he would be spurning any offers from Hollywood that came his way as a result. What seemed like minutes later, he was appearing in Mission: Impossible III opposite Tom Cruise in the role of Benji Dunn, a technician with a mythical American agency, a part which had first been offered to Ricky Gervais. He was also given a part in Band of Brothers, Spielberg's massive series on the Second World War.

Pegg played Sgt Evans in the first two programmes. He got to deliver a letter to Damian Lewis before being shot down while flying over Normandy. "I have really nice memories of it," he recalls. "I spent a lot of time lying in my trailer off-set wearing full-army parachute gear, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer between takes." He made a friend of David Schwimmer, with whom he starred in Big Nothing and with whom he will again team up in Run, Fat Boy, Run.

In London, Pegg hangs out with a cool crowd, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, who invited him to be godfather to their daughter, Apple. Now he has come up with another British comedy movie called Hot Fuzz. As the title implies, it riffs around the perennial notion of comedy cops.

Pegg's secret is that he likes the genres he is parodying, which allows him a little more dramatic licence than someone who holds them in contempt. Thus, Shaun of the Dead was not just a great comedy about suburban slackers; it was also a rather good zombie horror movie or, as the tagline put it, the first romantic zombie comedy or "rom-zom-com". Whether he can pull off the same trick with Hot Fuzz remains to be seen, but so far the entrails are reading well.

Pegg is the geek made good. "I'd like to write a book about geek culture," he has said. "I love geeks. I'm a geek myself. Being a geek is such an unselfconscious expression of interest." Consequently, much of his material arises from the wry observation of his own life and obsessions. The constant references to popular culture, especially comics and science fiction movies, puts him in the same category as The League of Gentlemen. The difference is that Pegg's nice-guy ordinariness shines through the otherwise unsympathetic geek. It allowed him to move from surreal, stand-up routines to guest spots in television series and comedies like Asylum, Big Train and Six Pairs of Pants.

It was while doing the last that he met his partner in comic crime, Jessica Stevenson. Together they wrote Spaced, in which they starred as unlikely flatmates, whose fantasy lives sometimes intrude on their peculiar domestic arrangements. Spaced was a cult hit that brought him to the attention of a wider public. With one foot grounded in reality and another foot waving around in fantasy, it was a breakthrough sitcom stuffed with counterculture in-jokes and fantasy inserts that only the initiated would appreciate. Sometimes it got obscure: at 16, Pegg had been a drummer in a band called God's Third Leg and in the first episode of Spaced the covers for the band's LPs are glimpsed in a record shop. Pegg gambled that there would be enough people like him who would identify with the character and the humour, geek to geek. It was a gamble that paid off.

Born on 14 February 1970 and raised in Gloucester, Pegg was encouraged in his early acting ambitions by his parents. He moved to Stratford-upon-Avon at 16 to study A-levels, graduating from Bristol University in 1991 with a BA in theatre, film and television. "I've always been interested in acting," he says. "I studied a course in drama, but that put me off the idea of being an actor because I couldn't stand the thought of jobbing and doing things I didn't really like."

In 1993 he moved to London and gigged on the stand-up comedy circuit before breaking into television comedy. From 1998 to 2004, he featured on Radio 4's The 99p Challenge. A friend of his from the early days recalls how they met at an audition for a low-budget movie which never got made. "We were the only two who said yes. After that we used to meet for breakfast at Tesco's, and he'd always try and get me to write something with him. He had long black hair tied in a ponytail and he always wore a hat."

Even then, Pegg was desperate to get to America, believing that this was where the work was. So he made himself over, cut his hair, went blond and looked around for a writing partner. By the time he was appearing in Six Pairs of Pants, he found her in Jessica Stevenson.

Pegg likes to work with his friends and people he trusts. Largely because of the shared sense of humour, he always has his sidekick, Nick Frost, somewhere near him. Former waiter Frost plays the army-obsessed Mike in Spaced and his computer-game-playing couch potato friend in Shaun of the Dead. When Pegg got married to Maureen McCann in 2005 in Glasgow, Frost was his best man.

Edgar Wright, who directed Spaced, is another of his usual collaborators, having a similar sense of humour and shared obsessions for zombie movies and all things geeky.

Having established himself as a niche actor who can play both comedy and drama, Pegg now gets offered parts he must have fantasised about, including playing "Phone Booth Zombie" in his hero George A Romero's Land of the Dead, and appearing in Doctor Who. Slated to play Rose Tyler's father in the first series of the new Doctor Who in 2005, in the end he played an editor in a different episodebecause of a diary clash. "Doctor Who was a big part of my childhood, so it was a great honour to be in it," he said at the time. Just one of the fringe benefits of being a successful geek.

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